Parecon: Life After Capitalism? – Barbara Ehrenreich Interviews Michael Albert


This
is the second essay in our series on political vision. Those wanting
to know more about the economic vision discussed here, should go
to our website www.zmag.org, which lists articles and books on participatory
economics—Eds. 

EHRENREICH:
I have heard that there’s been a lot of interest around the
world in your book,
Parecon: Life After Capitalism,
about a new economic system to replace capitalism. Can you tell
me a little about what languages it’s been translated into
and what kind of reactions you’ve gotten? 

ALBERT:
Having published about 15 other books from 1978-1995, which received
little attention, the experi- ence with Parecon says a lot
about changing times. I can’t keep track of what’s happening.
It’s been or is being translated into Arabic, Bengali and Telagu,
Croatian, Czechoslavakian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian,
Korean, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, and probably soon into Japanese,
Portuguese, Hebrew, Chinese, Farsi, and Hungarian. There have been
articles, interviews, and reviews. There is great interest in the
topic, clearly. 

At
a time when most on the U.S. left are fighting constant erosions
of rights and services—all of which were limited enough in
the first place—what do you think the role of a book like
Parecon
can be? 

Bush
has pursued a U.S. world empire while dissolving social programs
domestically. It is the worst of times, in those respects. But it
is also the best of times considering international activism’s
growing scale, awareness, and aspirations. I think Parecon can
help that positive trend by compellingly addressing the question,
“What do we want? 

If
we have no worthy alternative to capitalism, then asking people
to oppose capitalist exploitation is an invitation to a hopeless
cause. People reasonably suspect that short run gains will only
lead to the same old conditions. Busy people don’t want to
go on fool’s errands, which includes fighting the good fight
only to lose. For motivation, hope, and a positive tone, people
need vision. 

I
don’t want to seek change just to be on the side of the angels
or to be able to look at myself in the mirror. I want the pressure
of having to try to win, not just to show up. We need economic vision
to take us where we wish to go. Strategy requires understanding
not only our present situation, but also what we aim toward. And,
of course, I think participatory economics is a worthy vision to
adopt. 

Parecon,
or Participatory Economics, claims to get the economic job done
consistent with enlarging solidarity, maintaining equity, expanding
diversity and providing and protecting self management, which is
to say, consistent with classlessness. It is built on a few key
institutions. Workers and consumers councils use self managed decision
making procedures to give each person a say in decisions proportionate
to the degree they are affected by them. Balanced job complexes
ensure that work is comparably empowering for everyone. Remuneration
for the duration, intensity, and harshness of labor, and not for
property, power, or output, establishes equity and provides desirable
incentives. And finally, allocation by what is called participatory
planning and not by markets or central planning makes all the rest
viable and ensures sensible apportionment of energies and resources
to meeting needs and developing potentials. 

I
fully agree on the importance of keeping our vision in sight even
while battling in the trenches. But there are alternatives to the
present global power arrangements other than—you might say
“short of”—the participatory economics you map out.
Bill Greider, for example, has a book on how to make major change
within capitalism, using levers like union pension funds. Though
I call myself a socialist, I am not persuaded of the wisdom of abolishing
the market in all areas. Health care, housing, and other basic things
should be freed from the market for some kind of public control.
But cosmetics, stylish clothing, and other things that could be
construed as non-necessities—why not leave all that to the
market? Call me a vain, petty, capitalist running dog, but I certainly
don’t want a bunch of committees deciding how long skirts will
be or what lipstick colors will be available.

Of
course, capitalism can be better or worse. The bargaining power
of contending classes determines just how draconian income distribution,
concentrations of power, and conflicts among economic classes are.
With more bargaining power, we can raise wages, improve work conditions,
increase social investments, and win many other innovations. We
can certainly win and defend improvements against capitalism’s
socially reinforced greed and power, and we must—but why not
simultaneously seek a new system that has desirable outcomes as
its norm? 

The
big choice is not markets versus a bunch of committees. That’s
a false polarity. The big choice is between competitive markets—which
depend on each actor fleecing the rest, which misaccount the relative
value of all items and distort preferences, which lead workplaces
to seek maximum surpluses and deliver unjust remuneration, which
apportion decision making influence hierarchically, and which produce
class division and class rule—and cooperative participatory
planning, which produces equity, solidarity, diversity, and self-management. 

Having
markets for some items and not for others might have relative benefits
if markets had significant virtues that no alternative allocation
system could match and exceed and if markets had no huge debits
for the proposed items and if a market in some items, but not in
others was viable, for that matter. 

But
markets have numerous disastrous faults that apply not only to markets
in labor or to markets in huge investment projects, but to markets
in any item at all, including dresses. Finally, if you don’t
have labor markets, the entire argument that marketeers put forth
for having any kind of markets collapses. 

Applying
all this to skirts, we should want the tastes and preferences of
all workers and consumers and particularly of people who wear and
those who produce skirts to interactively proportionately influence
their length and colors, as well as their number and composition,
their method of production, and so on—instead of profit seeking
determining all these results. But to have a market in skirts not
only violates these desires, it means skirt prices will diverge
from the true social costs and benefits of their production and
consumption, that skirt factories will seek surpluses as their guiding
motive, will remunerate their workers unjustly, will utilize ill
conceived methods of production, and will incorporate class division,
among many other faults. 

All
the items involved in economic life are connected. Producing more
of any one item leaves less assets for producing all other items.
Items that seem relatively simple on the consumption side can utilize
all kinds of inputs with wide ranging ramifications. Mispricing
any item induces a ripple effect that misprices the rest. Having
antisocial motives at play in any one item’s production and
consumption skews the context for other items’ production and
consumption. Excessive or inferior remuneration levels generate
harmful incentives. 

In
other words, markets aren’t a little bad in some contexts.
Instead, in all contexts, markets instill anti-social motivations
in buyers and sellers, misprice items that are exchanged, misdirect
aims regarding what to produce in what quantities and by what means,
mis-remunerate producers, introduce class division and class rule,
and embody an imperial logic that spreads itself throughout economic
life. 

If
eating, having shelter, and having desirable additional items to
express and fulfill our potentials and enjoy life’s options—including
skirts—couldn’t be had by some system better in its material
and human implications than markets, then, yes, we would have to
settle for markets and try to ameliorate their ills as our highest
aspiration. But luckily, there is a system that is much better than
markets so that we can strive for participatory planning even as
we also ameliorate current market ills. 

I
don’t want to prolong the skirt discussion (I hardly ever wear
them myself), but I am confused about the way you conflate markets
with capitalist exploitation. There were markets of one kind or
another for thousands of years before capitalism, so they can’t
be the same thing. Do you totally reject all attempts to create
non-exploitative enterprises within capitalism, for example—like
“No Sweat” in LA, various micro-enterprises throughout
the world, etc?

I
certainly don’t mean to conflate markets with capitalism. They
differ. Capitalism has markets in labor power and in most though
not all goods. But you can certainly have markets without having
private ownership of the means of production, as, for example, existed
in Yugoslavia not long ago. I think I was careful in my list to
pinpoint faults of markets per se, not of capitalist markets. Markets
compel pursuit of surplus for example, but that surplus won’t
go to owners if they are not capitalist markets. 

Having
helped create a non-exploitative publishing company, South End Press,
I certainly advocate creating better institutions now. But it is
also important to note that when we create desirable institutions,
if we do it short of winning a whole new economy, they will exist
in a sea of counter pressures pushing to return our activities to
an oppressive logic. There is counter pressure to cut corners, to
advertise, to cut costs, and to have managers impose the cost cutting
policies as well as to lengthen the work day regardless of people’s
desires for leisure, and so on. We should seek not only reforms,
but a whole new economy. 

Before
proceeding to other matters, my big reason for wanting some things
to remain marketized is that it would reduce the burden of planning.
As you know, some have complained that Parecon condemns us to endless
meetings, so why not leave “non-essentials” to the market? 

Opting
for some markets in order to reduce the burden on participatory
planning doesn’t, in fact, reduce that burden. What is planned
would have to use items from the marketized industries and also
deliver items to them. Managing those interfaces would add a whole
new and disruptive dimension to participatory planning. Moreover,
supposing this interface could occur, it would condemn the participatory
planning process to arrive at false plans by undermining its capacity
to determine true exchange values. 

Markets
compel competition for market share and revenues. What would it
mean to say that some workplaces should compete to sell as much
as possible in order to accrue surpluses, but that they then shouldn’t
disperse those surpluses to their employees? But if they do disperse
surpluses to their employees, then the entire remuneration scheme
of participatory planning—to remunerate not for output or for
bargaining power or for property, but for effort and sacrifice—is
laid waste. If they don’t disperse their surpluses to employees,
however, then the firms aren’t really operating in a market
fashion and in fact have no basis for deciding their level of production,
length of workday, etc. 

Therefore
I wonder what you have in mind when you say you want non-essential
production decisions to be decided by markets. It wouldn’t
mean that people wouldn’t make choices for those items. It
would mean people would make their choices under the institutional
pressures of market competition. Why would you want to have allocation
decisions made with institutionally imposed surplus-seeking motivations,
using wrong prices as guides, engendering unjust remuneration, imposing
antisocial behavioral incentives, and with actors exercising inappropriate
levels of influence—instead of having participatory planning
in which people make the decisions, of course, but do so based on
true prices exercising proportionate say in pursuit of social well
being and development rather than surplus accumulation? 

If
markets are accompanied by capitalist ownership relations, then
the pursuit of revenues that markets induce, after meeting bills
and investing in equipment, is largely allotted to profits for the
owners. If markets exist with public or state owned property, then
the pursuit of revenues, after meeting bills and investing in equipment,
is largely allotted to surplus for what I call a coordinator class. 

When
you say we should marketize inessential goods— what qualifies
something as being inessential? Aren’t all products essential
if we consider that they are all created by people, headed for consumption
by people, utilizing assets which could be put to other (“more
essential”) ends, and so on? Are sneakers inessential—if
so, does that mean it is okay for firms pursuing market share and
surplus in sneakers to run sweat shops? 

Economies
are general equilibrium systems. What happens in one place is inextricably
bound to influence and be influenced by what happens elsewhere.
If you feel that housing is essential and clothes aren’t, how
do planned housing decisions get made unless clothes decisions are
being taken at the same time and how can they be good decisions
unless the valuations of clothes are correct? If clothes decisions
are being taken by market dynamics, then the planning of housing
is undermined by the inaccuracy of clothing choices. Too much or
too little productive time, energy, and resources may be going to
clothes instead of housing.

Markets
lead to corporate divisions of labor and to remuneration that diverges
from measures of effort and sacrifice—which is the type of
remuneration participatory planning advocates—even without
private ownership of productive assets. 

Likewise,
markets misprice items due to failing to account for external and
public effects, again, even without private ownership. The fact
that stylish dresses are “inessential” doesn’t tell
us that their production involves no external environmental effects.
What if producing dresses uses important resources, or generates
damaging pollution? What about the ways it impacts workers? Markets
induce individualist behavior of the narrowest sort, again, even
without private ownership. Markets give an incentive to dump pollution
and to otherwise ignore the effects of one’s actions on those
who aren’t buying and selling. So why would we want to accept
these ills for any item in the economy? 

If
a particular industry operates on a market, say the dress industry,
it means that that industry seeks to sell as many of its products
as possible, at as high a price as it can extract, regardless of
the implications of those sales on buyers or more broadly. Dress
producers will advertise. They will want to buy cheap and sell dear.
They will prefer production techniques that cost them less even
if they pollute more. The dress industry will produce in light of
incorrect valuations of the product. It will cut costs of production
regardless of whether doing so hurts workers more than it benefits
consumers. The dress industry will do all these things, and much
more, to get market share, to stay in operation. 

When
you say leave non essentials to a market—I also think perhaps
you have in mind central planning as compared to markets, and are
thinking why not augment the former with some of the other, since
neither has stupendous virtues compared to the other. But my claim
for participatory planning, which I can’t make in full in an
interview without abusing length even more than I already am, is
that participatory planning does have stupendous virtues compared
to either markets or central planning. 

Participatory
planning produces solidarity by establishing a context in which
to get ahead actors must take into account the well being of those
who produce what they consume or consume what they produce. It facilitates
actors having appropriate decision-making power by its modes of
decision making and proper pricing. It is consistent with and facilitates
remunerating effort and sacrifice. It respects and expands diversity.
It establishes a dynamic consistent with classlessness by not requiring
a layer of coordinators controlling outcomes. 

Have
you ever tried to calculate the human labor costs of all the planning
involved in Parecon? Or maybe I should say “time” not
dollar “costs.” 

Yes,
in the various books that issue is certainly addressed. The discussions
not only look at the time it takes to plan, which is only one side
of the coin, but also at the time gained due to eliminating diverse
kinds of no longer needed activity when we change to a Parecon. 

Some
people, especially when hearing a brief summary of Parecon, worry
that self consciously deciding on what to produce and consume by
a negotiated cooperative process will take too long. I have two
answers. First, no, it won’t. The planning process in Parecon
is confined to a couple of weeks and only takes part-time attention
over that span. But, second, even prior to that answer, we have
to decide what would count as being too long. That is, when someone
asks me about the cost of planning in time expended, I want to try
to communicate that this is at worst a trade off. 

Let’s
say, against what I think is the case, that the total time you as
a consumer have to spend thinking about and implementing your consumption
choices would go up in a Parecon by a factor of two, depending on
how much time you spend now. Okay, that would be a cost, to be sure.
But would it be a deal breaker? To know that, you have to look at
both sides of the equation. You have to weigh the new time costs
(which I deny). But you also have to weigh countervailing gains—such
as having no ruling class, having equitable work conditions and
income distribution, having accurate pricing, having no drive toward
selfish individualism, no poverty, and so on through many more. 

Okay,
let’s say someone really values time a whole lot. For this
person, spending extra time on consumption outweighs attaining classlessness
and all the rest. He or she would still need to consider the countervailing
implications of having participatory planning for time savings and
not just its implications for new time expenditures. 

For
example, Parecon affects the length of the workday. Where markets
increase workday length by their competitive logic regardless of
the wills of workers to have more leisure, participatory planning
leaves the choice entirely in the hands of workers and consumers
in light of their valuation of leisure versus income. Likewise,
there are time savings due to the absence of class struggle, the
elimination of the IRS, the end of redundant and wasteful production,
the end of having to clean up the messes in the ecology produced
by market competition, etc. Even regarding consumption itself, there
are very substantial time savings due to people having accurate
information, and, in particular, due to sensible collective consumption
obviating the need for quite a lot of individual consumption as
we now know it, not to mention production of durable goods rather
than ones designed to become obsolete.

So,
okay, in light of all this would planning in a Parecon take inordinately
longer than consuming does now, plus the time for other activities
that Parecon replaces? In a Parecon, you have to spend some time,
over the course of a week or two, entering your budget and interacting
with the overall process. I suspect this won’t take longer
than people now spend doing tax returns, say, and worrying about
how to pay bills, or recuperating from purchases made due to false
advertising, or having to do personal consumption that would be
rendered irrational in a Parecon, or in time spent producing or
cleaning up wasteful and useless outputs, and so on. After the plan
exists, time spent making adaptations as the year proceeds really
isn’t significantly different than time spent nowadays on consumption
or production decisions, though it is carried out differently, with
different implications. 

The
point about time expenditures is therefore twofold. Markets are
harmful. Even if they are utilized for one good, which isn’t
what would occur, the price of that good will be wrong and that
wrong price will enter into every other industry incorrectly. The
workers in the market driven industry will be motivated to seek
surplus and will be unfairly remunerated as compared to all other
workers who are motivated by fulfilling needs and are remunerated
for effort and sacrifice. The marketized workplace structure will
push toward class division. More, it makes no sense to have an infrastructure
for “market exchange” and have only a few goods marketed.
In fact, it only has sense to both consume via the participatory
plan and then also via markets if there are lots and lots of things
to buy on the market. But then all the associated ills of markets
would be spreading—and we may as well have markets for everything
and say goodbye to classlessness. And second, the purported time
gain is false, in any event. 

You
say your notion of Parecon was influenced by your experiences with
real “alternative” organizations like South End Press.
Can you tell us something about these experiences and how they shaped
your thinking?
 

Parecon
emerged conceptually from examining the experiences of many post-capitalist
economies and efforts, of course, and very central to that were
some of our own experiences. When we formed South End Press, for
example, we wanted it to implement our values, not only in the books
we chose to publish, but also in how we structured the workplace.
We knew we wanted real democracy, but when we sat around to talk
about how to achieve that, some very serious issues arose. First,
what did it mean? Was everything to be decided by a vote of everyone
with 50 percent plus one winning? And second, however the decisions
were to be arrived at, we realized it wouldn’t matter all that
much if we came to the meetings to discuss them with very unequal
preparedness, motivation, and insights to offer. 

So,
regarding the first point, we realized that we wanted to discuss
and make decisions in a way that gave appropriate say to each person
involved, but we also realized that how much say that was would
vary from case to case since impact and importance would vary from
case to case. We were allergic—like you—to spending long
amounts of time on low importance choices. No one wanted others
telling them what to do when it was largely a personal choice. As
we worked out rules, hiring and firing became a consensus decision
because of the powerful effect a new employee might have on each
person who might not like that new employee. Many broad issues were
50 percent plus one, though of course we would seek overall agreement
first—salaries, hours, definitions of jobs, and so on. Accepting
a book was two-thirds needed in favor with recourse for opponents
to delay decisions. Choices about how specific members or teams
would organize their own time were made by those folks, not by everyone.
In short, we worked out in practice the processes and norms of self
management including learning the efficacy of using different modes
of decision making for different issues and of allotting different
numbers of people to making different choices depending on who the
choices affected and to what extent. The norms and vision regarding
Parecon decision making emerged very naturally from all that. Similarly,
while the council commitment of Parecon has a long pedigree on the
left, it was reinforced by the South End Press experience. 

The
payment approach in SEP wasn’t so directly related to Parecon’s
exact commitments, but indirectly it was. We had almost no resources
for the first few years so people worked for room and board and
no more. Everyone worked very hard, well over the usual full time
job, but even given that, some people worked longer than others.
There was no difference in pay, however—we all got room and
board, period. When there was sufficient income to have salaries,
we put upper limits on them—in accord with our operating inside
the U.S. and respecting, I think, U.S. social averages. It was still
true, however, that we all got the same pay. Everyone put out intensely,
and everyone worked a long week, and for those who worked extra
there simply was no more pay to be had. So the extra was just considered
volunteering. But for me, being part of SEP and trying to learn
from what we were doing while also thinking through other experiences,
what Robin Hahnel and I,  in developing the Parecon vision,
teased out was the remuneration for effort and sacrifice idea.

The
main impact on Parecon of the SEP experience, though, was about
the division of labor. We realized that if some people were editors,
or handled the finances, and other people just typeset the books,
or cleaned the office, no matter what initial pay structure we set
up, and no matter what initial voting and discussion procedures
we chose, in time the former folks would dominate all outcomes and
the latter folks would become typical employees. The former would
raise their own incomes and lower that of the subordinates. The
hierarchies of power and income and circumstance that we dreaded
would worm their way back into our project. So we incorporated what
we later called balanced job complexes to insure that our work facilitated
all of us being able to participate and have an informed say in
the decisions affecting us. It wasn’t easy to do because it
was a small operation with not all that many tasks so that apportioning
tasks in a balanced way was difficult. Ignoring details, everyone
did editorial, everyone did typesetting (which was backbreaking
and hugely time consuming) and then some people did some functions
like promotion, others did other functions like organizing production
and meeting orders, but with everyone doing a balanced mix in their
overall job. 

This
set of choices about how to organize SEP was, I think, a huge impetus
to the Parecon idea of balanced job complexes, though it became
refined when thinking about applicability to a whole economy rather
than just a single small workplace. 

Why
don’t you call yourself a socialist? It seems to me Parecon
is well within the socialist tradition. Are you uncomfortable with
being associated with that tradition? 

Is
the socialist tradition fighting against domination and hierarchy
in pursuit of classlessness and self management? Or is it the crushing
of grassroots direct involvement in economic and social life and
the imposition of domination from above? 

I
think the fact that I certainly identify with the former tradition
doesn’t overrule that the latter tradition has been a ubiquitous
outcome for projects that have called themselves socialist. And
I think we have to pay attention to that. We have to pay attention
to common usage among the constituencies we wish to talk with, and
also to the impact that using labels can have on narrowing our own
thinking. 

The
word socialism when applied to economics means state or public ownership,
market or centrally planned allocation, remuneration for output
(or arguably for power), and corporate divisions of labor. These
features have been present in every economy that has labeled itself
socialist. They have characterized the design and logic of almost
all movements that have called themselves socialist. They are present
in nearly all written accounts of a socialist economic model that
goes beyond espousing values to actually offering institutional
aims. These are features I reject, the same as I reject private
ownership of productive assets. 

In
the past, I have spent considerable time calling myself an unorthodox
marxist, or a libertarian socialist. I wrote books, like Socialism
Today and Tomorrow,
rejecting aspects of the current models
but advocating other models for tomorrow, and so on. But I think
there comes a time when we have to admit that we have lost the war
of words, or at the very least we have to recognize that it is a
battle with diminishing returns, and move on to the real substantive
issues without conceptual baggage. 

I
am anti-private ownership of means of production, anti-profit, anti-market,
anti-central planning, and anti- remuneration for output. I am anti-corporate
divisions of labor and anti-coordinator class rule. I favor specific
institutions contrary to all those allegiances. That means I reject
much of what has gone under the name socialism and instead advocate
balanced job complexes and participatory planning that have not
gone under that name. I guess I think that worrying about whether
other leftists will think we are rejecting what is good in the heritage
when it is utterly obvious that we aren’t, should not be our
concern. I think our concern should be whether people who seek classlessness
and who advocate institutions to attain it, can communicate effectively
with the rest of the world.


Barbara Ehrenreich
has written for numerous publications. Her most recent book is
Nickel
and Dimed.