A shortened version of this paper was presented at the 30th Anniversary Commemorative International Biko Conference, which was held in Cape Town from 10 – 12 September 2007.
It seems to me that it should be obvious to everyone who has a capacity to morally reason that economic policies that endorse the privatisation of everything we hold dear do not create economic opportunities for the majority of people in South Africa. In fact such policies exacerbate inequality and social injustice.
An economic system that is inherently designed to create inequality by favouring the wealthy over the poor cannot be expected to create fair economic opportunities for all. To expect such a system to operate differently is simply wishful thinking. The poor know this, and that is why they are up in revolt in places such as Joe Slovo, Mandela Park and Soweto. Social movements in this country exist to oppose a despicable sysem, an appalling and ugly system, to paraphrase Keynes.
This is the same system that Walter Rodney was writing about in his book ‘How Europe under-developed Africa’. A lot of other writers and economists such as Joseph Stiglitz have written in detail and in-depth about how the current system favours the wealthy over the poor, how neo-liberal policies favour strong traders over weak traders. In fact, as progressives, it seems as though that’s all we ever do – talking and writing about how bad the system is, to echo Michael Albert. We rarely ever discuss the possibilities of an alternative system that we can use to replace the current system with.
Many decolonisation projects in Africa did not produce the results we fought, dreamt and hoped for simply because, among other things, we did not have a clearly articulated and liberatory alternative system to replace the old colonial order. I use the word ‘liberatory’ in a ‘Bakuninian’ sense. According to Bakunin (1998), liberty is the only context in which people’s intellect, dignity and happiness can increase and grow, as opposed to the formal liberty doled out, measured and regulated by the State. Further, Bakunin reminds us, it is important to keep in mind that the State, as we know it, represents and is there to serve the interests of the privileged few in reality.
Post-colonial thinkers have yet to conceptualise a liberatory State structure that does not facilitate a mere replacement of the old colonial ruling class with the new post-colonial ruling elite. We have yet to come up with a political and economic vision of life after colonialism. In many post-colonial countries, economic life became slightly different in the sense that the ownership of workplaces and resource was transferred from the hands of colonial masters to the hands of a new black elite. Old bosses were chased away, but new bosses emerged. The same pattern can be seen taking shape in post-apartheid South Africa.
Similarly, in many post-colonial countries, political life became different in the sense that Africans had rights, but the State continued to serve its function. Meaning the State doled out, measured and regulated these rights. Also, the State was there to represent and serve the interests of the privileged black elite. We see the same thing happening in South Africa today.
So, it seems to me that we need to come up with a theory that can help us overcome these limitations and guide us to how to bring about a truly decolonised society. We need a theory that can help us relate sensibly to the possibilities of moving forward to a liberated and decolonised society (Albert, 2004). And, that theory should not compel its users to be narrow-minded, dogmatic and sectarian. Albert suggests that to come up with such a post-colonial theory, it means we are going to have to be vigorous, self-critical and steadfast. It means we are going to have to work together with assertive force.
Our point of departure is that we seek a decolonised society, a just and fair society. We seek a society where everyone is allowed to participate in decision-making. We seek a society where inequality and poverty are issues of the past. What we want is a fundamental societal change in both the economy and the broader societal values regarding social relations such as race and class relations (Albert, 2007). What I am proposing is a revolutionary programme that is based on sound economic assumptions and humane values.
Contrary to what Frantz Fanon said, revolution does not necessarily have to be characterised by violence. One can have violence without revolution; in fact this is what happened in many post-colonial countries. In South Africa things were different, no civil war took place and no revolutionary changes are being implemented.
A revolutionary programme would mean that everybody, irrespective of their race or class background, has access to basic services. It would mean that there are no more wage slaves working under the dictates of others in dehumanising conditions (Albert, 2007). The reason we have not achieved such a society in South Africa is because, among other things, we have an economic system that uses existing racist expectations of community members, such as whites are superior and more competent to blacks, to enforce its own economic hierarchies of exploitation (Albert, 2006).
It is not an accident that one finds token blacks leading big institutions in such a system; the system needs those blacks to ward off criticism. Blacks in this country do not control more than 5% of the Johannesburg Securities Exchange. Research shows that white males continue to dominate management and empowering positions in business, social and cultural institutions. Furthermore, it is easier for whites to get credit, start a business, find employment and make more money in thier lifetime than it is for the average black person. White farmers still control about 80% of the arable land in South Africa.
My argument is based on the assumption that to overcome this gross inequality in South Africa, we need more than just Affirmative Action programmes, what we need instead is a revolutionary programme that is based on sound economic policies and revolutionary values. I propose Parecon or Participatory Economics for such a project. Parecon (Albert, 2003) is characterised by the following: social ownership, participatory planning allocation, council structure, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice and participatory self-management with no class differentiation.
Albert argues that private ownership of the means of production exists when private individuals own the buildings, equipment, tools, technologies, land, and resources with which we produce goods and services. Further, having a few members of the society own these means of production and decide on their use, and, in addition, to dispose over the output and profits they generate has meant that this privileged group has always had more wealth and more economic power than other people in society. Looked at from this point of view, we can boldly state that private ownership of the means of productions lead to inequality, the haves and the have-nots, the owners and non-owners. And it is on that basis that we should argue for social ownership.
In an economy workers create the social product, while consumers enjoy the benefits of the social product. In a Pareconish society, Albert (2003) argues that for workers to do their jobs responsibly and in an empowering way, workers ought to consider what they would like to contribute to the social product, both by their own efforts and in association with those they work with. In addition, workers ought to address how to combine their efforts and the resources and tools they have access to, to generate worthy outputs that other people will benefit from. Most importantly, workers ought to be directly in touch with the dynamics of production and with its implications for themselves and others.
The same logic applies to consumers. Consumers ought to consider what they would like to have from the social product, either as individuals or in collective association with neighbours for example. They ought to address what to ask for to advance their lives as best they can in line with the impact their choices will have on the people producing their outputs (Albert, 2003).
To achieve the above, workers could form "workers’ councils" and consumers could establish "consumers’ councils". Albert argues that this would lead to a situation whereby a workplace is governed by a workers’ council, in which each worker has the same overall decision making rights and responsibilities as every other worker.
The same applies to consumers’ councils. It is important to highlight that each neighbourhood consumer council would belong in turn to a federation of neighbourhood councils. The rational behind these consumer councils is to accommodate the fact that different kinds of consumption affect different groups of people in different ways, explains Albert.
To reach decisions, councils either use a one-person-one-vote majority rule or use a consensus decision-making procedure. The councils have an oversight as to when to use which decision-making mechanism to achieve maximum participation by members.
Balanced Job Complexes
In a Pareconish society, corporate divisions of labour would be a thing of the past; workplaces will be run on the basis of balanced job complexes instead. This means that every single person in society will have a chance to do an unpleasant and disempowering task for some time each day or week, and then for some other time everyone in society will have a chance to work at pleasant and empowering tasks. The point that Albert wants to get across here is that overall, people should not do either rote and unpleasant work or conceptual and empowering work all the time. This is what creates class divisions in society after all.
Decolonised Africa did not usher in a different and better way of organising a workplace. Instead workplaces are still characterised by the same hierarchical and authoritarian structure of the old colonial order. In post-apartheid South Africa, the workplace consists of managers who transform job roles according to the dictates of market competition (Albert, 2003).
Such an approach can only facilitate an environment where technical and critical decisions are made by ‘experts’ who belong to the coordinator class. And that, as Albert points out, can lead to an increase of the fragmentation of work, and in turn bloat managerial prerogatives, and in the end substitute expert’s goals for those of people. Once such a process is in motion, Albert argues that it is not long before a burgeoning managerial class of ‘coordinators’ begins to increase their influence on society as a whole and to search for ways to preserve their own power.
So, the rational behind self-management is to subvert authoritarianism and the creation of a new oppressive class ( i.e. coordinator class); the goal being to encourage workers to take initiative in workplace decisions. In a participatory society, the economy will be designed in such a manner that "each actor in the economy should influence economics outcomes in proportion to how those outcomes affect him or her (Albert, 2003: p. 40)." In a workplace, for example, self-management will be achieved by means of workers’ councils, and in society at large, self-management could be achieved through consumers’ councils and neighbourhood councils.
Remuneration for Effort and Sacrifice
In a participatory society, Albert argues that those people who are able to work would be remunerated for the effort or sacrifice they expend in contributing to the social product, and those people who are not able to work would be remunerated at some appropriate level based on social averages and special needs. This means that no one should have claims on output on the basis of owning some means of production, nor should anyone have claims on output on the basis of bargaining power. Albert adds that, no one in a participatory society will have claims on output on the basis that they put a larger sum into the social product than others by using some special genetic endowment or talent, or due to having some highly productive learned skill, better tools, or more productive workmates, or because they happen to produce things that are more highly valued.
Albert explains that although differences in contribution to output will derive from differences in talent, training, education, tools and luck, if we; however, define effort as personal sacrifice for the sake of the social endeavour, only effort merits compensation. Effort can take many forms; it may be longer work hours, unpleasant and disempowering work, or dangerous and unhealthy work (Albert, 2003).
Based on this logic, this means that in a participatory society for a person to receive higher or lower remuneration, that particular person would have worked more or less hours or at a higher or lower intensity of effort. Workers would receive an ‘evaluation report’ to indicate hours worked at a balanced job complex and the intensity of work performed, and this will yield an "effort rating in the form of a percentage multiplier" (Albert, 2003). In addition, the evaluation report will be utilised as a tool to determine workers income to be used for consumption expenditure. So, based on the Parecon logic, Albert explains that those doing the most onerous, harmful work would be the highest paid; and those doing the most pleasant and intrinsically uplifting work would be the lowest paid.
Participatory Planning Allocation
Allocation (Albert, 2003) is the process whereby an economy determines the amounts to be produced and the relative exchange rates of all inputs and outputs. Albert explains that the economy chooses from a nearly infinite list of every conceivable product that might be produced in a year with every conceivable combination of patterns of labour and resource use, "plus every conceivable apportionment of the product, the single final list of what all the various economic actors actually produce and consume. (p. 122)."
Unlike market-based economies, allocation in a participatory economy will be guided and informed by people’s wishes and choices. For example, workplace councils will influence decision-making regarding production; and the consumers and neighbourhood councils will influence decision-making relating to consumption. Albert points out that for these councils to make intelligent and informed decisions that are in tune with Parecon values, they need to have access to reliable information regarding production and consumption patterns of the society they inhabit.
"Suppose we keep records of the production and consumption that took place in the just completed year. Then with each year we will have information about last year’s plan. Suppose the prices used to calculate social costs, benefits, and income last year are also recorded. Then each year we will have a set of final prices from last year to use to begin this year’s estimates. By storing last year’s full plan in a central computer, access to relevant information, including indicative prices, could be made available to all actors in the planning process. Additionally, by accessing such information, each unit can easily see what its own proposals were in each round of the prior year’s planning process. (Albert, 2003: p. 129)."
With this kind of information available, Albert explains that the councils will then receive information from facilitation boards estimating this year’s probable changes in prices and income in light of existing knowledge of past investment decisions and changes in the labour force. Albert adds that the councils will also receive information regarding long-term investment projects already agreed to in previous plans. Further, councils will have to take into consideration any increases in average income and improvements in the quality of average work complexes that are projected for the coming year.
Access to this kind of information will make the councils function more effectively. This is because the availability of such information will compel councils to develop a proposal, for example, for the coming year, not only enumerating what they want to consume or produce, but also providing qualitative information about their reasons (Albert, 2003). "This proposal enters the mix with all others, feedback arrives, and revisions are made, round by round, until a final version is reached (p. 130)."
The advantages of a participatory economy are that Parecon values diversity, and instead of the State or the elite making decisions regarding production and consumption, workers’ councils and neighbourhood councils will decide what is good for society. I seriously think we should consider Parecon as one theory that we can use or refine to meet our needs and goals as we search for a better life after colonialism.
Mandisi Majavu is a postgraduate student at the University of Cape Town. He is with the Africa Project for Participatory Society (www.apps.org) and has contributed a book chapter to the forthcoming "Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century," edited by Chris Spannos (AK, April 2008). He can be reached at [email protected]
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