Saturday, 20 December 2014 / TRUTH-OUT.ORG

Parecon: Envisioning a Life Beyond Capitalism

Tuesday, 08 July 2014 10:31 By Joris Leverink, ROAR Magazine | Interview

Michael Albert of ZNet. (Photo:<a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-118491940/stock-photo-magnetic-resonance-image-mri-of-the-brain.html?src=eMoT2fXDCUSQG4Dk-rO_xA-1-27" target="_blank"> Hanna Nikkanen / Flickr</a>)Michael Albert of ZNet. (Photo: Hanna Nikkanen / Flickr)Recently, the UK-based publisher Zed Books launched its Critique Influence Change series, which “brings together pivotal texts by notable academics and activists from Zed Books’ publishing of the last thirty-five years”. Over the coming weeks, ROAR will publish a series of interviews with some of the authors from this varied and inspiring collection of critical analyses. We will look not only at what inspired the authors at the time of writing their influential works, but also at what they believe is the relevance of their ideas in bringing about change in the context of the current wave of global uprisings. For this first part of the series, ROAR editor Joris Leverink interviews Michael Albert about Realizing Hope.

Michael Albert is an American activist, writer and economist. During the 1960s, he was a member of Students for a Democratic Society, and was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement. He is co-editor of ZNet, and co-editor and co-founder of Z Magazine. He also co-founded South End Press and has written numerous books and articles. Albert identifies himself as a market abolitionist and favors participatory planning as an alternative. He developed, with Robin Hahnel, the economic vision called participatory economics. Albert has also been a moving force in the creation of the International Organization for a Participatory Society, founded in 2012.

ROAR: In spite of having been around for eight years, I’m sure that there are still a number of our readers who are unfamiliar with your idea of ‘participatory economics’, or ‘parecon’, in short. Could you provide us with a brief introduction to this concept?

Michael Albert: It is hard to be too brief trying to explain to someone totally unfamiliar with it, but I will try. Also, I wouldn’t call parecon my idea because it can convey a wrong impression. And this is not just because the initial presentations were by myself and also Robin Hahnel, and it is not just because since then, many others have taken up the effort. Even more relevant, parecon’s features owe to a long history of intellectual and activist efforts trying to advance human well-being in economic settings, including critiquing some past efforts for example, in the Soviet Union, and working hard on new ones.

That said, parecon is a proposal or vision for how to accomplish economic functions consistent with classlessness, self-management, solidarity, equity, diversity, and ecological good sense.

Parecon is not, however, a blueprint, but is rather a formulation of some critical attributes a few key aspects of economics need to have if we are to accomplish desirable aims. Beyond those critical attributes of key aspects, there is, of course, room for great diversity. Parecon is therefore maximalist in trying to determine attributes of a future economy that are essential for it to be viable and also worthy – for example, without class division. But it is minimalist in refusing to go beyond those basics, for example, to even just most details of most institutions much less of daily life.

And what are parecon’s key aspects? First, workers and consumers self-managing councils, where self-management means people have a say in decisions proportionate to the extent they are affected by them.

In general, if some workplace uses some labor, oil, water, or whatever else, to produce some output, then even if you don’t care about that output, and you don’t work there, and you don’t know anyone who does, still, the fact that some oil, water, labor or whatever else was used to produce that output means that oil, water, or labor can’t be used to produce some other output that you may have wanted, and in this way, the choice affects you. But it is also true that the people who desire the product, or who produce it, or who would have to breathe its pollution, say, are more affected. So they should have greater say, than you.

Likewise, inside a workplace, naturally I am more affected by the exact parameters of how I do my work, than I am by how others do their work, yet all are affected at least somewhat by all such choices. For example, we are affected partly by the outputs of our own and other people’s work, and by the time it takes us or others, by the space we or others occupy in doing our work, and so on.

It follows that self-managing worker’s or consumer’s councils should sometimes use one person, one vote majority rules, and sometimes consensus, and sometimes other algorithms of choice, including allotting appropriate influence to folks outside, as well as inside, since other consumers and producers, or people in the vicinity, are affected as well. The idea is to socially, and within reason, best approximate for everyone that they have a say proportionate to the effects that a decision will have on them.

The next key feature of parecon is called balanced job complexes. This names a new way of dividing tasks among jobs. In a participatory economy, you do a job, so do I, and so do all others who are of age and able to do work that contributes to society. More, we each choose a job that we wish to do, though perhaps we have to fulfil certain standards, or be hired by certain units. So far, it is familiar, but now comes a wrinkle. The jobs we choose among in a parecon are all combinations of tasks such that the overall empowerment effect of doing any available job on each worker is equal to the overall effect of their doing other jobs on other workers.

In other words, in a parecon we define jobs so that each one includes a mix of tasks that convey, overall, roughly the same degree of empowerment as other balanced jobs convey to other workers. But what does this even mean — empowerment conveyed by one’s work?

In a corporate division of labor, such as we now have, about 20% of the workforce has jobs that convey information, confidence, access to daily levers of influence, social skills, and so on. We call their jobs, for those reasons, empowering. The other 80% of the workforce has jobs that fragment workers from one another, require rote and obedient behavior, diminish overall knowledge of the workplace and its processes, reduce peoples’ confidence, and reduce their social ties and social skills. We call their jobs, for those reasons, disempowering.

The advocate of parecon sees that this familiar division of labor, often thought to be inevitable, imposes by its implications for people’s daily life activities, a class division. On one side, there is the coordinator class, which is empowered. On the other side there is the working class, which is disempowered. In capitalism, then, the coordinators exist between the workers and owners, between labor and capital. In contrast, in what has been called market socialism or centrally planned socialism or twentieth century socialism, the owners are gone, but the coordinators still decide outcomes and the workers still obey. The 20% coordinators, in this type of economy, because of the characteristics of their daily work situation, rule. The 80% workers, in this type of economy, because of the different characteristics of their daily work situation, are ruled.

So since it seeks classlessness, parecon has to opt for a new division of labor to remove this class hierarchy and to prevent it from destroying self-management, solidarity, etc. And that is balanced job complexes.

The third defining feature of a participatory economy is a new norm for determining how much of the social output each member of society receives. Some norms for income distribution are that a person gets what he or she can take. Markets are based on this kind of bargaining power. Or a person gets what his or her property enables. Private ownership generates this. Or a person gets what by his or her own efforts he or she produces. This is a norm some socialists favor, often until they realize its full implications. But parecon rejects all that and says, instead, that what is equitable and what makes sense from the point of view of incentives to accomplish what needs doing, and makes sense as well from the point of view of ascertaining true costs and benefits, is that people should get a share of the total social output in accord with the duration, intensity, and onerousness or socially valued labor that they do.

In a parecon, you can’t just do anything and receive income for the effort you expend. What you do must be desired by people in the economy. You can’t work slovenly and half-assed, and get a full income allotment. You have to exert sensibly, given your capacities, tools, etc. so your labor is, in fact, socially valuable. You get income for how long you work, and for how hard, but not for power, property, or even output. Also, if your work conditions are poor, if your work is onerous, that is another just and sound reason to get income. But the fact that you are born with special talents, or are strong, or have better tools, or own property, are not morally sound reasons for getting income, nor needed to generate good results, and they actually distort information away from conveying full and true social costs and benefits.

Finally, the last key aspect of parecon and the hardest to be brief about, is called participatory planning. This approach to allocation replaces markets and central planning, each of which directly violates central aims and values of parecon and each of which also generates class division and class rule.

In contrast to markets and central planning, then, participatory planning accounts for the full ecological, personal, and social implications of economic choices, and conveys appropriate say to all those affected.

Very briefly, workers’ and consumers’ councils, which were mentioned earlier, cooperatively negotiate economic outcomes, without incurring undue costs in time allotted and in a manner conducive not only to self-management, but to the most informed choices possible. The procedures involve making proposals, assessing them, and refining them, all in light of steadily improving indications of true and full social and ecological costs and benefits, until arriving at a plan.

ROAR: In your book you take a critical stance towards Marxism: among other things you criticize its economic determinism and negligence of cultural, political, sexual and gender relations in shaping social life. However, your most severe critique is reserved for Marxism’s failure to recognize the central (oppressive) role played by a third class – next to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat – namely that which you call the ‘coordinator class’. Can you please explain this concept?

Albert: The reason I emphasize the class problem more than the economism problem nowadays is because nowadays most Marxists get beyond the first difficulty. This argument about the importance of non-economic matters has long since been won. Decades back, for example, I gave it much more time than I do now. But by now, Marxists and indeed nearly all activists have learned from feminists, nationalists, anarchists, and others the central importance of non-economic domains of life.

Regarding class, however, I think even now few Marxists get beyond the idea that capitalists and workers are alone at the core of economic prospects and there is no other centrally important class, and certainly not one that can become a new ruling class in an economy that eliminates private ownership but still falls horribly short of being classless. Parecon’s advocates claim not only that such a third class exists, but that Marxist and Leninist movements have by their structure and even by their underlying concepts, consistently elevated that third coordinator class and not workers, yielding systems in which the coordinator class controls economic outcomes.

So, it turns out that the idea of the coordinator class and its role is not very complicated. The pareconist argues that just as ownership relations can divide people into opposed classes, so too can workplace relations that give some people who work domineering power, which is the coordinator class, and the rest who work, which is the working class, subordination. And the process by which this occurs is that one class, the coordinators, does all or nearly all the empowering tasks which gives them both the means and the inclination, and in some sense, even a responsibility, to rule. The coordinator class monopolizes empowering tasks and rules from above. The working class does disempowering tasks and obeys, while residing below.

ROAR: When discussing anarchism, you make a distinction between ‘counterproductive’ and ‘desirable’ anarchism. Why did you decide to make this distinction, and in what way has anarchist thought inspired the vision of parecon?

Albert: Anarchism is a name for a large spectrum of views. Some are wonderful. Others are not. So the distinction is right there in the reality, and it makes sense to pay attention to it, which is what the choice of words does.

Consider Marxism. There is a considerable difference between, say, a Stalinist and a council communist of the Pannekoek variety. One is counterproductive, to say the least, while the other is desirable, at least in my view. I just happen to think that there are also broad trends in anarchism that are seriously counterproductive, and other trends that are highly desirable. For example, I think that individualist anarchism, anything goes anarchism, and lifestyle anarchism, much less primitivist anarchism, are counterproductive. In contrast, I think the anarchism presented by people ranging from Kropotkin and Bakunin, through Goldman and Rocker, for example, is very desirable.

For me, I learned Marxism very early on, sure. But I not only learned but was highly moved and inspired by anarchism. It was the anarchist desire for people to control their own situations and actions, in concert with others, and the way that people like Kropotkin and Bakunin expressed that desire and its logic, that I think pushed me toward parecon. I even think that parecon is an anarchist economic vision. Some anarchists disagree, to be sure. Some don’t like that parecon has structure at all. Others don’t like that parecon has income and budgets and valuations. But I would say an anarchist who sees issues of handling income, valuations, and structure more generally through the prism of reducing authority that resides outside and above people to an absolute minimum, or even to zero, and through the prism of seeking self-management and classlessness, will find that the structure and budgets and valuations of parecon really are anarchist, precisely in creating an economic context that is really able to deliver anarchist values and aims.

Back when I was in college, about 45 years ago, I ran for president of the whole student body as a very, very far left candidate. It was a tumultuous time, and I would give talks to very large audiences on the campus. I would go to a dorm and most people in it would turn out. After all, their conditions and even whether there would be classes were at stake. And I remember at one such gathering I spoke and then there were questions and reactions and some student gets up and attacks my candidacy on grounds it was part and parcel of authoritarianism, was not anarchist, etc. etc. Okay, it was utterly absurd, honestly — but mostly, I was incensed that he took the label anarchism and applied it to what was obviously, for him, a kind of frivolous and unthought-through anti-organizational stance. And I lashed into him about it, verbaly. Well, I suppose that was the first time I publicly distinguished between anarchism that was worthy and exemplary, and that was not.

If you look at my writing and actions, or Robin’s say, over the years, you will find infinitely more attention to making anarchist critiques and formulations, than being critical of anarchism. But, there came a time, not too far back, when at least the term anarchism started to spread, and, sadly, many tried to and have to a degree taken up things, in its name, that people like Kropotkin, Bakunin, and so many others, would be horrified by. So, I thought that too needed to be addressed.

ROAR: In the preface to the Critique, Influence, Change edition of Realizing Hope you seem a bit disillusioned due to the lack of impact parecon has had. You state that “people want a participatory movement but, seemingly, without people participating in a wide and deep discussion of its vision and methods.” To what do you attribute this apparent lack of popular enthusiasm in participating in discussions about alternative models for society?

Albert: I wish I had a really convincing answer to that, but I only have, at best, some careful guesses. Here is one way I think about it. Suppose a group trying to cross a country — a long time ago — comes upon a river. Some of them immediately see that they have to get to the other side. Some balk at the thought. They could all sit there and apply all their talents to explaining why they have to get across, doing this over and over, in countless ways, for years and years. They could spend all their time, or lots of it, also, swimming out a ways and then coming back and reporting on the experience, using it to make a case for getting all the way across, say. They could explain over and over why their side of the river is unsatisfactory, and could intimate why the other side would be better.

Alternatively, they might think about, discuss, and arrive at shared views concerning (a) going around the river, or (b) putting up a bridge, to cross it. And then they might develop plans, suitably updated as they get new information, for those options. What should the bridge or the journey involve? Maybe they even embark on both approaches, with some doing the end run, and others working on a bridge, each as a kind of insurance against the other failing. But the point is, since they really do want to get to the other side, after a little time given to describing how bad staying on their current side would be, they will very likely turn their attention away from analyzing or even just complaining about or railing at existing conditions, to tackling issues of what we might call vision and strategy. What do we need — a bridge, a path around, or something else? And how will we accomplish it?

Now consider us, the left. For me, when I look at the past fifty years, it seems like we are overwhelmingly constantly analyzing conditions, railing at them, or just bemoaning them, but rarely, in fact arguably barely at all, getting on to trying to share vision and something more than a strategy for swimming out a few feet and returning. Okay, the analogy is far from perfect, of course. But we can see one possible reason why this might have been true for us. What if most leftists don’t really believe that our own river can be crossed, or bypassed by going around? Then while some will just hunker down, others will feel compelled to keep reporting on the horrors of our side, and the potentials of the distant shore, in hopes, I guess, that maybe someday, somehow, the possibility of travel will arise.

Analogously, I suspect that hopelessness, often implicit but sometimes explicit, may be the biggest single factor in why progressive people shy away from seriously addressing what we want, in the long haul. Sure, it is also easier and you are less likely to encounter doubt and criticism and/or be shown to be dumb, if you analyze a war or a policy or you propose a modest gain — and there is nothing wrong with doing so — than if you propose a systemic alternative to current social relations and also ideas about a path to reach that alternative. And so maybe some people opt for ranting and railing at current injustices because it is, well, safer and easier than proposing what we want in their place. But I suspect the bigger factor is a kind of despair. I suspect people feel short-run involvements may yield some benefit, but that vision and longer-term strategy won’t, because, well, people doubt the possibility (often implicitly, sometimes explicitly) of a new world even being possible, much less of our really attaining one.

If a person really truly believes a new world is possible, and finds the current world grotesque in many respects, then wouldn’t you expect that person to apply at least a reasonable amount of energy to seriously discussing key aspects of a serious proposal for a new world, and, in light of thoughts about that, also to how to proceed toward that new world?

This kind of hopelessness, if I am right about its importance, would limit attention to vision and strategy per se, in all variants, especially for the long term.

As to parecon in particular, I think there is an added obstacle, and it has to do with what you already asked about — which is parecon’s opposition to coordinator class rule. I think a lot of people find that stance very threatening, or irrational, or both — and so ignore parecon for that reason.

ROAR: The last time you spoke to ROAR you mentioned the launch of a new project: the International Organization for a Participatory Society. How has this project developed in the past two years?

Albert: Any evaluation question, the above one about, say, attention to parecon, or this one about IOPS, always involves an evaluative standard. Some people would say, I suspect, that parecon has made incredible headway. After all, despite being shut out of all mainstream media and visibility — of course — it is also almost entirely shut out of left or alternative or progressive media visibility. So if the standard is that by this time there should have been a widespread discussion across leftist and progressive venues and movements about parecon’s merits, or lacks, then the experience has been lacking. And that is my mood. But if the standard is that by this time we would anticipate complete invisibility for parecon, then there has been great progress. The two formulations don’t really contradict one another as to the facts, rather only regarding the response to the facts.

For the organization you mention, the situation is similar. To try to build something like IOPS, despite media giving it almost no visibility, is very difficult. That it has made any headway at all, many involved in the effort might say, is more or less miraculous, and very positive. And by that standard the answer would be, IOPS has developed fantastically well, given all the obstacles, over the past two years.

On the other hand, if, like me, you have much higher hopes, then things look less positive. If you think, for example, that IOPS embodies values and aims that are very nearly ubiquitous in the minds of people on the left, or certainly congenial to them, and you notice that no one, anywhere, has offered any critique of its defining commitments, but you also see that the number of people willing to relate to it at all, much less with real energy, is quite low, then you say the development/response has been depressing. And again, it seems to have more to do with widespread cynicism and despair, including on the left, than anything else.

ROAR: In a recent interview with TruthOut, Noam Chomsky called parecon a “well worked-out, detailed proposal for one form of democratic control of popular institutions,” but at the same time he expresses his scepticism “about the possibility of sketching it in detail in advance” and instead he suggests that before we can tell whether this is the right form or not, a fair amount of experimentation will have to be done. What is your reply?

Albert: I think regarding basic defining features, key aspects, we have not only our intelligence to bring to bear, but a couple of hundred years of evidence, honestly. So, on the one hand, what he seems to be saying here is obviously true. How could it not be? Suppose you want to build a new skyscraper. An architect generates a plan, even a detailed blueprint. There are tons of other skyscrapers in place, so there is tons of experience, though perhaps the skyscraper you want has various new aspects. Still, unless the architect and builders are morons, they will realize that in the course of building they will uncover new realities and develop new insights and make some changes as well as filling out details. On the other hand, they believe they know enough to proceed, and to have their vision for the skyscraper inform their daily practical choices and convey hope and unity of purpose (albeit flexibly), and they do not expect the basics of it to change.

Now take parecon and consider it as something we want to build. First off, there is no “sketching it in detail in advance” — or actually, sketching it in detail, ever. Because parecon is a proposal for a few key features of a new economy, and moreover it cannot be more than that not just because we don’t know enough, which is true, and not just because it is not our place to decide details in advance, which is true, but because details will vary from case to case. There are no single right answers to hold regarding details.

Workplaces inside a single participatory economy will have many attributes different from one to another. Details will vary. Likewise for neighborhoods. And of course this will occur from any particular whole country and its economy, to some other whole country and its economy, as well.

Additionally, parecon is not “a detailed proposal for one form of democratic control over popular institutions.” First, parecon is about just a few economic structures, and only about elements of them, not about all features of all economic structures, much less all “popular institutions.”

Second, there is nothing detailed about parecon, in the sense of prescribing or even broadly describing solutions for the countless layers of economic possibility. It very explicitly avoids that.

And third, parecon is not about one of many possible ways to have an economy that is classless. Rather, parecon is about a few features of economy which it claims are essential for having classlessness. If you want classlessness and self-management, you cannot have markets, central planning, private ownership, a corporate division of labor, or remuneration for property or power. In their place, unless someone proposes something else that would also work and be better, you will need to have the features of parecon described earlier. Of course, you will fill them out with countless details, and even big aspects, as conditions and experience guide, but the basics will be needed.

I think Chomsky is making mistakes in this kind of comment, misperceiving what parecon in fact offers, but even more important I think his comments of this sort here, and elsewhere, unintentionally tend to legitimate people saying, oh, vision, that is nonsense, let’s get down to activity, now. We don’t need vision. We can’t and shouldn’t have it. Chomsky takes a virtual truism relevant to any pursuit, that we should be open to learning and refining our views in light of experiences, and poses it in a way that people run with to results that are harmful, which is deciding that we can ignore parecon and vision more generally, because the last few hundred years don’t provide enough experience for people to have grounds upon which to have even such broad, flexible, and careful aims.

ROAR: When reading about the four core values of parecon – solidarity, diversity, equity and self-management – one issue struck me as particularly problematic. One of the ideas you introduce to arrive at a more egalitarian society is to “reward effort and sacrifice expended at socially valued labor; it does not reward property, power, or output.” Although essentially I agree with the premise of rewarding input rather than output, the key problem I see here is how we would go about and place a price tag (i.e. wage) on such arbitrary notions of ‘effort’ and ‘sacrifice’?

Albert: Well, I don’t much like the words “effort and sacrifice” myself, because they can be misinterpreted. I prefer the more precise terms duration, intensity, and onerousness.

Suppose you work in some operation, maybe producing bicycles. Suppose your workplace, in the participatory plan, is scheduled to produce so many, of such type, and so on. You have balanced job complexes, of course. Let’s say the average income for each person in society is x. The total income afforded your workplace is a function of the number of workers and whether they are doing socially valued labor with the tools at their disposal and in accord with participatory planning’s revelations of people’s desires.

So now let’s say there a hundred of you in this bicycle plant, and you produce appropriately for the workplace allotment of income, for all the 100 workers, to be 100x. Now suppose everyone works the same duration and no one has unduly worse conditions, and everyone exerts comparably, given their abilities. In that case, you all agree that you all get x. But suppose instead, in your workplace planning of its agendas, you indicated that you wanted to work half as long as the average, and some others made up that difference, working extra. They would get more, you would get less and indeed that would be agreed even before the fact, in most instances. So that is remuneration for duration.

Suppose your workmates and objective results for that matter, reveal that you spent about half your supposed work time lazing about instead of being productive, and therefore producing nothing useful for half your work time. You were warned about this, based on past instances, say, but you just like to operate that way. If you aren’t removed for being unable to work sufficiently in the eyes of your mates, it will mean others are willing to make up for your lack of intensity — and they will get more, you will get less.

None of this is very difficult unless you think of it as being a kind of engineering problem. In that case, you might be thinking that you have to have a result that is perfect to two or three or five decimal places. But that is impossible and would be of no interest to the workers’ councils, no doubt, in any case. Why waste endless time for such precise measuring. Indeed different workplaces might have different attitudes about how precise they want to be, and thus what kinds of meetings or data they want to use to decide — just one of many ways the details of different workplaces may differ.

But, mainly, establishing claims on social product — which is what income is — is not an engineering issue, but, instead, a social process. And it is ancillary but perhaps important to note, that giving income based on output would be much harder to do at all sensibly. How do we decide the part of output one has generated, as part of a group, compared to others in the group. So that remunerating output is not only not a good idea for incentives, and not ethically sound, it is also virtually impossible. The reason no one ever says that about rewarding output, is because, I suspect, everyone realizes no economy literally remunerates output, but typically power… and that power is measured simply after the fact, by what you actually managed to take, or not, in struggle.

ROAR: Also, in this context, does the intention to preserve such an essentially capitalist invention as wages not prevent the development of a truly egalitarian society? In this regard, I would like to take the liberty of quoting Peter Kropotkin who writes in his book The Conquest of Bread, ”The wage system arises out of the individual ownership of the land and the instruments of labour. It was the necessary condition for the development of capitalist production and will perish with it, in spite of the attempt to disguise it as “profit sharing”.”

Albert: What are wages? More to the point, what is the “wage system”? In capitalism wages are payments to workers to buy for the owner control over their ability to do work. Their level is determined by power. There are no wages, however, in remotely that sense, in parecon. What there is, instead, is something that exists in every conceivable economy. That is, people in every economy will get some share of the social product. Now how that is determined will vary depending on the type of economy — property ownership, power, output, duration, etc. Wages, in Kropotkin’s sense, as he says they will, disappear from parecon, as do classes. But of course all actors still get some part of the social product, and the anarchist or just plain humane task is to have means for determining what that part ought to be that are ethically fair, that provide needed and worthy incentives, and that allow economic decisions to properly account for people’s desires in determining what to produce, in what quantities, what investments to make, etc. This is what parecon, as a whole system, accomplishes.

ROAR: Finally, on the back cover of Realizing Hope one can read that your book “provides vision to help us all together conceive a world that might just be over the horizon, a world we can begin building today.” I would invite you to reflect for a minute on the wave of popular uprisings that have rocked the world in the past few years, and on how you see a parecon, or participatory society, arising from this upheaval.

Albert: First, Realizing Hope is not about economics alone. While participatory economics is the most carefully conceived and argued aspect of what we might call a vision for a participatory society, there are issues of gender, sexuality, political coordination and adjudication, cultural identification, etc., and then, one might also talk about other more narrow aspects of social life such as science in society, technology, education, or journalism, and so on. The book addresses such matters, always trying to identify key features and issues that need to be kept forefront in trying to achieve a new world, while also avoiding extending further into areas we can’t reasonably know or, even more important, areas that it is not our place to decide but which will be the province of future people with future insights and experiences.

At all times, in all places, there are aspirations for justice, equity, a say over life, and more — and sometimes these manifest visibly, in great struggles, other times they have smaller scale manifestations or are temporarily entirely invisible. Popular uprisings in part reflect such aspirations, but can also be far more proximate, and about some very particular concern. Popular uprisings can also have clear shared aims, or very muddy ones, or even none at all. And the shared aims may be consistent with the aspirations of the popular participants, or at times, might even conflict with popular aspirations instead manifesting agendas of narrow elites.

I think nowadays there are growing concerns, worldwide, with many issues that can lead toward desires for equity, justice, self-management, etc., and that can cause people to become advocates of social relations and structures, and methods for seeking them, which would lead toward a participatory society. But that is not at all inevitable. History shows exemplary desires can lead to less than exemplary and even horrific outcomes, at times. Or can be crushed. Or can become dormant.

Part of what determines which result we will see in coming years is certainly written in what are called historical conditions — a kind of pressure arising from existing phenomena in the world or particular societies, owing to their structure, new discoveries, conflicts, etc. But I think part of what will determine what we see in coming years will depend on whether emergent movements begin to unite and share relatively clear goals and means to reach them that are well suited to their participants’ aims. This is the province not of historical conditions so much as of human will and choice — and part of that is taking up the task of arriving at shared vision and strategy.

If you look at the various uprisings of recent years, the associated displays of courage and desire are unquestionable. But the clarity about where it all ought to be pointed, and how it ought to get where it seeks to go, has been at best vague, at worst absent or confused, and in all cases often manipulated by centers of power and organization that do not, in fact, share the aspirations of the people at the base.

In a very real sense, trying to create the organization you asked about earlier, International Organization for a Participatory Society, was an attempt to create a venue or tool or practice that could further the human will and choice part of the agenda, which is why the fact that it is much less of a success than I had hoped it would be by now, is to me quite depressing. But, as the famous German revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg wrote, “you lose, you lose, you lose, you win.” It is a long road, and the inevitable losses along the way will inform the ultimate victory.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Joris Leverink

Joris Leverink is an Istanbul-based freelance writer and an editor for ROAR Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter via @Jorislever.


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Parecon: Envisioning a Life Beyond Capitalism

Tuesday, 08 July 2014 10:31 By Joris Leverink, ROAR Magazine | Interview

Michael Albert of ZNet. (Photo:<a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-118491940/stock-photo-magnetic-resonance-image-mri-of-the-brain.html?src=eMoT2fXDCUSQG4Dk-rO_xA-1-27" target="_blank"> Hanna Nikkanen / Flickr</a>)Michael Albert of ZNet. (Photo: Hanna Nikkanen / Flickr)Recently, the UK-based publisher Zed Books launched its Critique Influence Change series, which “brings together pivotal texts by notable academics and activists from Zed Books’ publishing of the last thirty-five years”. Over the coming weeks, ROAR will publish a series of interviews with some of the authors from this varied and inspiring collection of critical analyses. We will look not only at what inspired the authors at the time of writing their influential works, but also at what they believe is the relevance of their ideas in bringing about change in the context of the current wave of global uprisings. For this first part of the series, ROAR editor Joris Leverink interviews Michael Albert about Realizing Hope.

Michael Albert is an American activist, writer and economist. During the 1960s, he was a member of Students for a Democratic Society, and was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement. He is co-editor of ZNet, and co-editor and co-founder of Z Magazine. He also co-founded South End Press and has written numerous books and articles. Albert identifies himself as a market abolitionist and favors participatory planning as an alternative. He developed, with Robin Hahnel, the economic vision called participatory economics. Albert has also been a moving force in the creation of the International Organization for a Participatory Society, founded in 2012.

ROAR: In spite of having been around for eight years, I’m sure that there are still a number of our readers who are unfamiliar with your idea of ‘participatory economics’, or ‘parecon’, in short. Could you provide us with a brief introduction to this concept?

Michael Albert: It is hard to be too brief trying to explain to someone totally unfamiliar with it, but I will try. Also, I wouldn’t call parecon my idea because it can convey a wrong impression. And this is not just because the initial presentations were by myself and also Robin Hahnel, and it is not just because since then, many others have taken up the effort. Even more relevant, parecon’s features owe to a long history of intellectual and activist efforts trying to advance human well-being in economic settings, including critiquing some past efforts for example, in the Soviet Union, and working hard on new ones.

That said, parecon is a proposal or vision for how to accomplish economic functions consistent with classlessness, self-management, solidarity, equity, diversity, and ecological good sense.

Parecon is not, however, a blueprint, but is rather a formulation of some critical attributes a few key aspects of economics need to have if we are to accomplish desirable aims. Beyond those critical attributes of key aspects, there is, of course, room for great diversity. Parecon is therefore maximalist in trying to determine attributes of a future economy that are essential for it to be viable and also worthy – for example, without class division. But it is minimalist in refusing to go beyond those basics, for example, to even just most details of most institutions much less of daily life.

And what are parecon’s key aspects? First, workers and consumers self-managing councils, where self-management means people have a say in decisions proportionate to the extent they are affected by them.

In general, if some workplace uses some labor, oil, water, or whatever else, to produce some output, then even if you don’t care about that output, and you don’t work there, and you don’t know anyone who does, still, the fact that some oil, water, labor or whatever else was used to produce that output means that oil, water, or labor can’t be used to produce some other output that you may have wanted, and in this way, the choice affects you. But it is also true that the people who desire the product, or who produce it, or who would have to breathe its pollution, say, are more affected. So they should have greater say, than you.

Likewise, inside a workplace, naturally I am more affected by the exact parameters of how I do my work, than I am by how others do their work, yet all are affected at least somewhat by all such choices. For example, we are affected partly by the outputs of our own and other people’s work, and by the time it takes us or others, by the space we or others occupy in doing our work, and so on.

It follows that self-managing worker’s or consumer’s councils should sometimes use one person, one vote majority rules, and sometimes consensus, and sometimes other algorithms of choice, including allotting appropriate influence to folks outside, as well as inside, since other consumers and producers, or people in the vicinity, are affected as well. The idea is to socially, and within reason, best approximate for everyone that they have a say proportionate to the effects that a decision will have on them.

The next key feature of parecon is called balanced job complexes. This names a new way of dividing tasks among jobs. In a participatory economy, you do a job, so do I, and so do all others who are of age and able to do work that contributes to society. More, we each choose a job that we wish to do, though perhaps we have to fulfil certain standards, or be hired by certain units. So far, it is familiar, but now comes a wrinkle. The jobs we choose among in a parecon are all combinations of tasks such that the overall empowerment effect of doing any available job on each worker is equal to the overall effect of their doing other jobs on other workers.

In other words, in a parecon we define jobs so that each one includes a mix of tasks that convey, overall, roughly the same degree of empowerment as other balanced jobs convey to other workers. But what does this even mean — empowerment conveyed by one’s work?

In a corporate division of labor, such as we now have, about 20% of the workforce has jobs that convey information, confidence, access to daily levers of influence, social skills, and so on. We call their jobs, for those reasons, empowering. The other 80% of the workforce has jobs that fragment workers from one another, require rote and obedient behavior, diminish overall knowledge of the workplace and its processes, reduce peoples’ confidence, and reduce their social ties and social skills. We call their jobs, for those reasons, disempowering.

The advocate of parecon sees that this familiar division of labor, often thought to be inevitable, imposes by its implications for people’s daily life activities, a class division. On one side, there is the coordinator class, which is empowered. On the other side there is the working class, which is disempowered. In capitalism, then, the coordinators exist between the workers and owners, between labor and capital. In contrast, in what has been called market socialism or centrally planned socialism or twentieth century socialism, the owners are gone, but the coordinators still decide outcomes and the workers still obey. The 20% coordinators, in this type of economy, because of the characteristics of their daily work situation, rule. The 80% workers, in this type of economy, because of the different characteristics of their daily work situation, are ruled.

So since it seeks classlessness, parecon has to opt for a new division of labor to remove this class hierarchy and to prevent it from destroying self-management, solidarity, etc. And that is balanced job complexes.

The third defining feature of a participatory economy is a new norm for determining how much of the social output each member of society receives. Some norms for income distribution are that a person gets what he or she can take. Markets are based on this kind of bargaining power. Or a person gets what his or her property enables. Private ownership generates this. Or a person gets what by his or her own efforts he or she produces. This is a norm some socialists favor, often until they realize its full implications. But parecon rejects all that and says, instead, that what is equitable and what makes sense from the point of view of incentives to accomplish what needs doing, and makes sense as well from the point of view of ascertaining true costs and benefits, is that people should get a share of the total social output in accord with the duration, intensity, and onerousness or socially valued labor that they do.

In a parecon, you can’t just do anything and receive income for the effort you expend. What you do must be desired by people in the economy. You can’t work slovenly and half-assed, and get a full income allotment. You have to exert sensibly, given your capacities, tools, etc. so your labor is, in fact, socially valuable. You get income for how long you work, and for how hard, but not for power, property, or even output. Also, if your work conditions are poor, if your work is onerous, that is another just and sound reason to get income. But the fact that you are born with special talents, or are strong, or have better tools, or own property, are not morally sound reasons for getting income, nor needed to generate good results, and they actually distort information away from conveying full and true social costs and benefits.

Finally, the last key aspect of parecon and the hardest to be brief about, is called participatory planning. This approach to allocation replaces markets and central planning, each of which directly violates central aims and values of parecon and each of which also generates class division and class rule.

In contrast to markets and central planning, then, participatory planning accounts for the full ecological, personal, and social implications of economic choices, and conveys appropriate say to all those affected.

Very briefly, workers’ and consumers’ councils, which were mentioned earlier, cooperatively negotiate economic outcomes, without incurring undue costs in time allotted and in a manner conducive not only to self-management, but to the most informed choices possible. The procedures involve making proposals, assessing them, and refining them, all in light of steadily improving indications of true and full social and ecological costs and benefits, until arriving at a plan.

ROAR: In your book you take a critical stance towards Marxism: among other things you criticize its economic determinism and negligence of cultural, political, sexual and gender relations in shaping social life. However, your most severe critique is reserved for Marxism’s failure to recognize the central (oppressive) role played by a third class – next to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat – namely that which you call the ‘coordinator class’. Can you please explain this concept?

Albert: The reason I emphasize the class problem more than the economism problem nowadays is because nowadays most Marxists get beyond the first difficulty. This argument about the importance of non-economic matters has long since been won. Decades back, for example, I gave it much more time than I do now. But by now, Marxists and indeed nearly all activists have learned from feminists, nationalists, anarchists, and others the central importance of non-economic domains of life.

Regarding class, however, I think even now few Marxists get beyond the idea that capitalists and workers are alone at the core of economic prospects and there is no other centrally important class, and certainly not one that can become a new ruling class in an economy that eliminates private ownership but still falls horribly short of being classless. Parecon’s advocates claim not only that such a third class exists, but that Marxist and Leninist movements have by their structure and even by their underlying concepts, consistently elevated that third coordinator class and not workers, yielding systems in which the coordinator class controls economic outcomes.

So, it turns out that the idea of the coordinator class and its role is not very complicated. The pareconist argues that just as ownership relations can divide people into opposed classes, so too can workplace relations that give some people who work domineering power, which is the coordinator class, and the rest who work, which is the working class, subordination. And the process by which this occurs is that one class, the coordinators, does all or nearly all the empowering tasks which gives them both the means and the inclination, and in some sense, even a responsibility, to rule. The coordinator class monopolizes empowering tasks and rules from above. The working class does disempowering tasks and obeys, while residing below.

ROAR: When discussing anarchism, you make a distinction between ‘counterproductive’ and ‘desirable’ anarchism. Why did you decide to make this distinction, and in what way has anarchist thought inspired the vision of parecon?

Albert: Anarchism is a name for a large spectrum of views. Some are wonderful. Others are not. So the distinction is right there in the reality, and it makes sense to pay attention to it, which is what the choice of words does.

Consider Marxism. There is a considerable difference between, say, a Stalinist and a council communist of the Pannekoek variety. One is counterproductive, to say the least, while the other is desirable, at least in my view. I just happen to think that there are also broad trends in anarchism that are seriously counterproductive, and other trends that are highly desirable. For example, I think that individualist anarchism, anything goes anarchism, and lifestyle anarchism, much less primitivist anarchism, are counterproductive. In contrast, I think the anarchism presented by people ranging from Kropotkin and Bakunin, through Goldman and Rocker, for example, is very desirable.

For me, I learned Marxism very early on, sure. But I not only learned but was highly moved and inspired by anarchism. It was the anarchist desire for people to control their own situations and actions, in concert with others, and the way that people like Kropotkin and Bakunin expressed that desire and its logic, that I think pushed me toward parecon. I even think that parecon is an anarchist economic vision. Some anarchists disagree, to be sure. Some don’t like that parecon has structure at all. Others don’t like that parecon has income and budgets and valuations. But I would say an anarchist who sees issues of handling income, valuations, and structure more generally through the prism of reducing authority that resides outside and above people to an absolute minimum, or even to zero, and through the prism of seeking self-management and classlessness, will find that the structure and budgets and valuations of parecon really are anarchist, precisely in creating an economic context that is really able to deliver anarchist values and aims.

Back when I was in college, about 45 years ago, I ran for president of the whole student body as a very, very far left candidate. It was a tumultuous time, and I would give talks to very large audiences on the campus. I would go to a dorm and most people in it would turn out. After all, their conditions and even whether there would be classes were at stake. And I remember at one such gathering I spoke and then there were questions and reactions and some student gets up and attacks my candidacy on grounds it was part and parcel of authoritarianism, was not anarchist, etc. etc. Okay, it was utterly absurd, honestly — but mostly, I was incensed that he took the label anarchism and applied it to what was obviously, for him, a kind of frivolous and unthought-through anti-organizational stance. And I lashed into him about it, verbaly. Well, I suppose that was the first time I publicly distinguished between anarchism that was worthy and exemplary, and that was not.

If you look at my writing and actions, or Robin’s say, over the years, you will find infinitely more attention to making anarchist critiques and formulations, than being critical of anarchism. But, there came a time, not too far back, when at least the term anarchism started to spread, and, sadly, many tried to and have to a degree taken up things, in its name, that people like Kropotkin, Bakunin, and so many others, would be horrified by. So, I thought that too needed to be addressed.

ROAR: In the preface to the Critique, Influence, Change edition of Realizing Hope you seem a bit disillusioned due to the lack of impact parecon has had. You state that “people want a participatory movement but, seemingly, without people participating in a wide and deep discussion of its vision and methods.” To what do you attribute this apparent lack of popular enthusiasm in participating in discussions about alternative models for society?

Albert: I wish I had a really convincing answer to that, but I only have, at best, some careful guesses. Here is one way I think about it. Suppose a group trying to cross a country — a long time ago — comes upon a river. Some of them immediately see that they have to get to the other side. Some balk at the thought. They could all sit there and apply all their talents to explaining why they have to get across, doing this over and over, in countless ways, for years and years. They could spend all their time, or lots of it, also, swimming out a ways and then coming back and reporting on the experience, using it to make a case for getting all the way across, say. They could explain over and over why their side of the river is unsatisfactory, and could intimate why the other side would be better.

Alternatively, they might think about, discuss, and arrive at shared views concerning (a) going around the river, or (b) putting up a bridge, to cross it. And then they might develop plans, suitably updated as they get new information, for those options. What should the bridge or the journey involve? Maybe they even embark on both approaches, with some doing the end run, and others working on a bridge, each as a kind of insurance against the other failing. But the point is, since they really do want to get to the other side, after a little time given to describing how bad staying on their current side would be, they will very likely turn their attention away from analyzing or even just complaining about or railing at existing conditions, to tackling issues of what we might call vision and strategy. What do we need — a bridge, a path around, or something else? And how will we accomplish it?

Now consider us, the left. For me, when I look at the past fifty years, it seems like we are overwhelmingly constantly analyzing conditions, railing at them, or just bemoaning them, but rarely, in fact arguably barely at all, getting on to trying to share vision and something more than a strategy for swimming out a few feet and returning. Okay, the analogy is far from perfect, of course. But we can see one possible reason why this might have been true for us. What if most leftists don’t really believe that our own river can be crossed, or bypassed by going around? Then while some will just hunker down, others will feel compelled to keep reporting on the horrors of our side, and the potentials of the distant shore, in hopes, I guess, that maybe someday, somehow, the possibility of travel will arise.

Analogously, I suspect that hopelessness, often implicit but sometimes explicit, may be the biggest single factor in why progressive people shy away from seriously addressing what we want, in the long haul. Sure, it is also easier and you are less likely to encounter doubt and criticism and/or be shown to be dumb, if you analyze a war or a policy or you propose a modest gain — and there is nothing wrong with doing so — than if you propose a systemic alternative to current social relations and also ideas about a path to reach that alternative. And so maybe some people opt for ranting and railing at current injustices because it is, well, safer and easier than proposing what we want in their place. But I suspect the bigger factor is a kind of despair. I suspect people feel short-run involvements may yield some benefit, but that vision and longer-term strategy won’t, because, well, people doubt the possibility (often implicitly, sometimes explicitly) of a new world even being possible, much less of our really attaining one.

If a person really truly believes a new world is possible, and finds the current world grotesque in many respects, then wouldn’t you expect that person to apply at least a reasonable amount of energy to seriously discussing key aspects of a serious proposal for a new world, and, in light of thoughts about that, also to how to proceed toward that new world?

This kind of hopelessness, if I am right about its importance, would limit attention to vision and strategy per se, in all variants, especially for the long term.

As to parecon in particular, I think there is an added obstacle, and it has to do with what you already asked about — which is parecon’s opposition to coordinator class rule. I think a lot of people find that stance very threatening, or irrational, or both — and so ignore parecon for that reason.

ROAR: The last time you spoke to ROAR you mentioned the launch of a new project: the International Organization for a Participatory Society. How has this project developed in the past two years?

Albert: Any evaluation question, the above one about, say, attention to parecon, or this one about IOPS, always involves an evaluative standard. Some people would say, I suspect, that parecon has made incredible headway. After all, despite being shut out of all mainstream media and visibility — of course — it is also almost entirely shut out of left or alternative or progressive media visibility. So if the standard is that by this time there should have been a widespread discussion across leftist and progressive venues and movements about parecon’s merits, or lacks, then the experience has been lacking. And that is my mood. But if the standard is that by this time we would anticipate complete invisibility for parecon, then there has been great progress. The two formulations don’t really contradict one another as to the facts, rather only regarding the response to the facts.

For the organization you mention, the situation is similar. To try to build something like IOPS, despite media giving it almost no visibility, is very difficult. That it has made any headway at all, many involved in the effort might say, is more or less miraculous, and very positive. And by that standard the answer would be, IOPS has developed fantastically well, given all the obstacles, over the past two years.

On the other hand, if, like me, you have much higher hopes, then things look less positive. If you think, for example, that IOPS embodies values and aims that are very nearly ubiquitous in the minds of people on the left, or certainly congenial to them, and you notice that no one, anywhere, has offered any critique of its defining commitments, but you also see that the number of people willing to relate to it at all, much less with real energy, is quite low, then you say the development/response has been depressing. And again, it seems to have more to do with widespread cynicism and despair, including on the left, than anything else.

ROAR: In a recent interview with TruthOut, Noam Chomsky called parecon a “well worked-out, detailed proposal for one form of democratic control of popular institutions,” but at the same time he expresses his scepticism “about the possibility of sketching it in detail in advance” and instead he suggests that before we can tell whether this is the right form or not, a fair amount of experimentation will have to be done. What is your reply?

Albert: I think regarding basic defining features, key aspects, we have not only our intelligence to bring to bear, but a couple of hundred years of evidence, honestly. So, on the one hand, what he seems to be saying here is obviously true. How could it not be? Suppose you want to build a new skyscraper. An architect generates a plan, even a detailed blueprint. There are tons of other skyscrapers in place, so there is tons of experience, though perhaps the skyscraper you want has various new aspects. Still, unless the architect and builders are morons, they will realize that in the course of building they will uncover new realities and develop new insights and make some changes as well as filling out details. On the other hand, they believe they know enough to proceed, and to have their vision for the skyscraper inform their daily practical choices and convey hope and unity of purpose (albeit flexibly), and they do not expect the basics of it to change.

Now take parecon and consider it as something we want to build. First off, there is no “sketching it in detail in advance” — or actually, sketching it in detail, ever. Because parecon is a proposal for a few key features of a new economy, and moreover it cannot be more than that not just because we don’t know enough, which is true, and not just because it is not our place to decide details in advance, which is true, but because details will vary from case to case. There are no single right answers to hold regarding details.

Workplaces inside a single participatory economy will have many attributes different from one to another. Details will vary. Likewise for neighborhoods. And of course this will occur from any particular whole country and its economy, to some other whole country and its economy, as well.

Additionally, parecon is not “a detailed proposal for one form of democratic control over popular institutions.” First, parecon is about just a few economic structures, and only about elements of them, not about all features of all economic structures, much less all “popular institutions.”

Second, there is nothing detailed about parecon, in the sense of prescribing or even broadly describing solutions for the countless layers of economic possibility. It very explicitly avoids that.

And third, parecon is not about one of many possible ways to have an economy that is classless. Rather, parecon is about a few features of economy which it claims are essential for having classlessness. If you want classlessness and self-management, you cannot have markets, central planning, private ownership, a corporate division of labor, or remuneration for property or power. In their place, unless someone proposes something else that would also work and be better, you will need to have the features of parecon described earlier. Of course, you will fill them out with countless details, and even big aspects, as conditions and experience guide, but the basics will be needed.

I think Chomsky is making mistakes in this kind of comment, misperceiving what parecon in fact offers, but even more important I think his comments of this sort here, and elsewhere, unintentionally tend to legitimate people saying, oh, vision, that is nonsense, let’s get down to activity, now. We don’t need vision. We can’t and shouldn’t have it. Chomsky takes a virtual truism relevant to any pursuit, that we should be open to learning and refining our views in light of experiences, and poses it in a way that people run with to results that are harmful, which is deciding that we can ignore parecon and vision more generally, because the last few hundred years don’t provide enough experience for people to have grounds upon which to have even such broad, flexible, and careful aims.

ROAR: When reading about the four core values of parecon – solidarity, diversity, equity and self-management – one issue struck me as particularly problematic. One of the ideas you introduce to arrive at a more egalitarian society is to “reward effort and sacrifice expended at socially valued labor; it does not reward property, power, or output.” Although essentially I agree with the premise of rewarding input rather than output, the key problem I see here is how we would go about and place a price tag (i.e. wage) on such arbitrary notions of ‘effort’ and ‘sacrifice’?

Albert: Well, I don’t much like the words “effort and sacrifice” myself, because they can be misinterpreted. I prefer the more precise terms duration, intensity, and onerousness.

Suppose you work in some operation, maybe producing bicycles. Suppose your workplace, in the participatory plan, is scheduled to produce so many, of such type, and so on. You have balanced job complexes, of course. Let’s say the average income for each person in society is x. The total income afforded your workplace is a function of the number of workers and whether they are doing socially valued labor with the tools at their disposal and in accord with participatory planning’s revelations of people’s desires.

So now let’s say there a hundred of you in this bicycle plant, and you produce appropriately for the workplace allotment of income, for all the 100 workers, to be 100x. Now suppose everyone works the same duration and no one has unduly worse conditions, and everyone exerts comparably, given their abilities. In that case, you all agree that you all get x. But suppose instead, in your workplace planning of its agendas, you indicated that you wanted to work half as long as the average, and some others made up that difference, working extra. They would get more, you would get less and indeed that would be agreed even before the fact, in most instances. So that is remuneration for duration.

Suppose your workmates and objective results for that matter, reveal that you spent about half your supposed work time lazing about instead of being productive, and therefore producing nothing useful for half your work time. You were warned about this, based on past instances, say, but you just like to operate that way. If you aren’t removed for being unable to work sufficiently in the eyes of your mates, it will mean others are willing to make up for your lack of intensity — and they will get more, you will get less.

None of this is very difficult unless you think of it as being a kind of engineering problem. In that case, you might be thinking that you have to have a result that is perfect to two or three or five decimal places. But that is impossible and would be of no interest to the workers’ councils, no doubt, in any case. Why waste endless time for such precise measuring. Indeed different workplaces might have different attitudes about how precise they want to be, and thus what kinds of meetings or data they want to use to decide — just one of many ways the details of different workplaces may differ.

But, mainly, establishing claims on social product — which is what income is — is not an engineering issue, but, instead, a social process. And it is ancillary but perhaps important to note, that giving income based on output would be much harder to do at all sensibly. How do we decide the part of output one has generated, as part of a group, compared to others in the group. So that remunerating output is not only not a good idea for incentives, and not ethically sound, it is also virtually impossible. The reason no one ever says that about rewarding output, is because, I suspect, everyone realizes no economy literally remunerates output, but typically power… and that power is measured simply after the fact, by what you actually managed to take, or not, in struggle.

ROAR: Also, in this context, does the intention to preserve such an essentially capitalist invention as wages not prevent the development of a truly egalitarian society? In this regard, I would like to take the liberty of quoting Peter Kropotkin who writes in his book The Conquest of Bread, ”The wage system arises out of the individual ownership of the land and the instruments of labour. It was the necessary condition for the development of capitalist production and will perish with it, in spite of the attempt to disguise it as “profit sharing”.”

Albert: What are wages? More to the point, what is the “wage system”? In capitalism wages are payments to workers to buy for the owner control over their ability to do work. Their level is determined by power. There are no wages, however, in remotely that sense, in parecon. What there is, instead, is something that exists in every conceivable economy. That is, people in every economy will get some share of the social product. Now how that is determined will vary depending on the type of economy — property ownership, power, output, duration, etc. Wages, in Kropotkin’s sense, as he says they will, disappear from parecon, as do classes. But of course all actors still get some part of the social product, and the anarchist or just plain humane task is to have means for determining what that part ought to be that are ethically fair, that provide needed and worthy incentives, and that allow economic decisions to properly account for people’s desires in determining what to produce, in what quantities, what investments to make, etc. This is what parecon, as a whole system, accomplishes.

ROAR: Finally, on the back cover of Realizing Hope one can read that your book “provides vision to help us all together conceive a world that might just be over the horizon, a world we can begin building today.” I would invite you to reflect for a minute on the wave of popular uprisings that have rocked the world in the past few years, and on how you see a parecon, or participatory society, arising from this upheaval.

Albert: First, Realizing Hope is not about economics alone. While participatory economics is the most carefully conceived and argued aspect of what we might call a vision for a participatory society, there are issues of gender, sexuality, political coordination and adjudication, cultural identification, etc., and then, one might also talk about other more narrow aspects of social life such as science in society, technology, education, or journalism, and so on. The book addresses such matters, always trying to identify key features and issues that need to be kept forefront in trying to achieve a new world, while also avoiding extending further into areas we can’t reasonably know or, even more important, areas that it is not our place to decide but which will be the province of future people with future insights and experiences.

At all times, in all places, there are aspirations for justice, equity, a say over life, and more — and sometimes these manifest visibly, in great struggles, other times they have smaller scale manifestations or are temporarily entirely invisible. Popular uprisings in part reflect such aspirations, but can also be far more proximate, and about some very particular concern. Popular uprisings can also have clear shared aims, or very muddy ones, or even none at all. And the shared aims may be consistent with the aspirations of the popular participants, or at times, might even conflict with popular aspirations instead manifesting agendas of narrow elites.

I think nowadays there are growing concerns, worldwide, with many issues that can lead toward desires for equity, justice, self-management, etc., and that can cause people to become advocates of social relations and structures, and methods for seeking them, which would lead toward a participatory society. But that is not at all inevitable. History shows exemplary desires can lead to less than exemplary and even horrific outcomes, at times. Or can be crushed. Or can become dormant.

Part of what determines which result we will see in coming years is certainly written in what are called historical conditions — a kind of pressure arising from existing phenomena in the world or particular societies, owing to their structure, new discoveries, conflicts, etc. But I think part of what will determine what we see in coming years will depend on whether emergent movements begin to unite and share relatively clear goals and means to reach them that are well suited to their participants’ aims. This is the province not of historical conditions so much as of human will and choice — and part of that is taking up the task of arriving at shared vision and strategy.

If you look at the various uprisings of recent years, the associated displays of courage and desire are unquestionable. But the clarity about where it all ought to be pointed, and how it ought to get where it seeks to go, has been at best vague, at worst absent or confused, and in all cases often manipulated by centers of power and organization that do not, in fact, share the aspirations of the people at the base.

In a very real sense, trying to create the organization you asked about earlier, International Organization for a Participatory Society, was an attempt to create a venue or tool or practice that could further the human will and choice part of the agenda, which is why the fact that it is much less of a success than I had hoped it would be by now, is to me quite depressing. But, as the famous German revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg wrote, “you lose, you lose, you lose, you win.” It is a long road, and the inevitable losses along the way will inform the ultimate victory.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Joris Leverink

Joris Leverink is an Istanbul-based freelance writer and an editor for ROAR Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter via @Jorislever.


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