Editor’s note: discussion topics include whether consumer councils in Participatory Economics (parecon) are incentivized to oversell, whether worker councils in parecon can oversell, conspicuous consumption, whether parecon would reproduce a ‘throwaway society’, whether consumer federations in parecon would compete, plan adjustments during the year, and the scope for rising living standards within ecological limits.
[After the Oligarchy] Hello everybody, this is After the Oligarchy. Today I’m speaking with Professor Robin Hahnel.
Robin Hahnel is a professor of economics in the United States, co-founder with Michael Albert of the post-capitalist model known as Participatory Economics (Parecon), and author of many books.
Today’s conversation is in association with meta: the Centre for Post-capitalist Civilization. This is Part B of the first in a series of interviews with Professor Robin Hahnel about participatory economics, and in particular his latest book Democratic Economic Planning published in 2021. It’s an advanced discussion of the model proposed in that book, so I recommend you familiarize yourself with participatory economics to understand what we’re talking about.
The discussion will also continue on the forum of participatoryeconomy.org.
Okay so the next question, staying on consumption, is about excessive consumption and the possibilities of this in participatory economy. So, firstly on the side of consumer councils, since consumer federations organize consumption – for example through shopping centres and online shops – consumer federations will decide how to present and, in general, ‘market’ goods and services. Will there be any incentive to oversell? For example, to convince people to buy things they don’t need or want.
[Robin Hahnel] Okay so I warned you before that you had picked the two things that I am the least … well, are my least favourite subjects.
[AO] Well your intellectual honesty is always appreciated – that’s how we like to do things here. But just whatever comes to mind is good enough.
I’ll give you my best answer, but I’ll preface it by saying that I don’t shop right. I don’t go shopping, I hate shopping. I have always found somebody else who will do the shopping for me. The only thing I enjoy shopping for is … I cook and I go into stores and I shop for food. [But not] clothes, [nor] anything else. There was a time when I would go into bookstores but now we don’t read books anymore, they’re all online. So I am not a shopper.
And at one point, there were three female students in one of my classes and we had done a little section on participatory economics. And they came in during office hours, three of them together it was like a delegation, and they came in and they said ‘well, Professor Hahnel, there are a lot of things we really do like about what you’re proposing here. But there’s one thing we just don’t like: you don’t seem to understand the pleasures of malling it.’ And at first I didn’t even understand what the word [was], I didn’t know what they were what they meant when they said ‘mall’. And they meant going to a mall and seeing and being seen, and spending four hours, you know, after school or after work at the mall. And that they were basically telling me some of us really like that, and we just want to know whether we’re going to be able to do that in a participatory economy.
And I had to say ‘well your dream is my nightmare’. I mean the fact that I would be trapped in a mall for five hours is sort of the worst thing that could ever happen to me. And so I’m going to admit to you that anybody who enjoys the pleasure of shopping, at least this person who designed this economy did not have you in mind. Because it’s the farthest thing from my mind.
But I do just think that structurally, almost by accident, I was concerned with the perverse incentive for sellers to lie to people about how good their products are. And that’s a huge feature of capitalism. I thought well, why don’t we reverse who is in charge of explaining to people what the properties of different options are? Why don’t we put the consumer federations, why don’t we assign them that role? Rather than put producers in the situation where they’re constantly trying to convince somebody to buy something, [where] they’re over-selling the value to the consumer. Let’s get the incentives right.
So the proposal was … I mean, people do need to find out about products. Now, at this point I don’t know how they do it because now everybody’s buying online. Nobody goes to the malls anymore. But at the time we were originally writing this, we said well we can still have malls. I mean, I was trying to get my poor students, I was trying to convince them to support participatory economics, it was shameless. That’s what I was trying to tell them. You can still go to the mall, but the mall is going to be run by your consumer federation. And they’re going to have all sorts of things that are new things on display there. And maybe you can impulse buy, if you want to impulse buy. Or you can just go and see it.
I know that in Cuba they did set up … they weren’t shopping malls, but they would periodically put on sort of a big show where they would display items that were going to be new items that were going to become available. And they would put them on show, and people would visit, and that’s how they would become aware of what was going to soon become available, if they wanted to find out what was coming.
So our suggestion has been that that should be the approach. And then the question is well if it’s the consumer federations that are in charge of … first of all, the consumer federations are going to have their own research and development units that are responsible to them for doing research into new consumer products. Why don’t we want the consumers to be in charge of looking into new consumer products instead of having the producers be the ones that are doing all that research? So we essentially said let’s reverse who’s in charge of that research. Let’s reverse the whole question of who is in charge of presenting and showing people what is available, A.K.A. advertising.
My father was a miserable employee in the advertising industry, so I grew up very aware that there are two supposed purposes of advertising: one is a legitimate public service, which is making accurate information about product availabilities and capabilities available to the public; and the other is tricking them into buying things they really don’t want. So the goal here is … we do have a legitimate service that needs to be provided, and that is information. But we want to do it in a way that we don’t have a terribly perverse incentive about who’s in charge of it and what their motivations will inevitably be.