What Are We For?

Michael Albert

activists understand that sympathetic and mutually beneficial global ties are
good. But we want social and global ties to advance universal equity,
solidarity, diversity, and self-management, not to subjugate ever-wider
populations to an elite minority. We want to globalize equity not poverty,
solidarity not anti-sociality, diversity not conformity, democracy not
subordination, and ecological balance not suicidal rapaciousness.

Two questions
arise. Why do these aspirations leave us critical of corporate globalization?
And what new institutions do we propose for meeting these aspirations?


Rejecting Capitalist Globalization

Current international
market trading benefits overwhelmingly those who enter today’s exchanges
already possessing the most assets. When trade occurs between a U.S.
multinational and a local entity in Mexico, Guatemala, or Thailand, the
benefits do not go more to the weaker party with fewer assets, nor are they
divided equally, but they go disproportionately to the stronger traders who
thereby increase their relative dominance. Opportunist rhetoric aside,
capitalist globalizers try to disempower the poor and already weak and to
further empower the rich and already strong. The result: of the 100 largest
economies in the world, 52 aren’t countries; they are corporations.

market competition for resources, revenues, and audience is most often a zero
sum game. To advance, each actor preys off the defeat of others so that
capitalist globalization promotes a self-interested me-first attitude that
generates hostility and destroys solidarity between individuals, industries,
and states. Public and social goods are downplayed, private ones elevated.
Businesses and nations augment their own profits while imposing losses on
others. Human well being and development for everyone is not a guiding
precept. Solidarity fights a rearguard battle against capitalist

Moreover, in
current global exchange structures, whether they are McDonaldsesque or
Disneyesque or instead derive from worthy indigenous roots, cultural
communities and values disperse only as widely as their megaphone permits them
too, and worse, are drowned out by other communities with larger megaphones
who impinge on them. Capitalist globalization swamps quality with quantity and
creates cultural homogenization not diversity. Not only does Starbucks
proliferate, so do Hollywood images and Madison Avenue styles. What is
indigenous and non-commercial struggles to even survive. Diversity declines.

In the halls of
the capitalist globalizers, only political and corporate elites are welcome.
The idea that the broad public of working people, consumers, farmers, the poor
and the disenfranchised should have proportionate say is actively opposed.
Indeed, the point of capitalist globalization is precisely to reduce the
influence of whole populations and even of state leaderships save for the most
powerful elements of Western corporate and political rule. Capitalist
globalization imposes corporatist hierarchy not only in economics, but also in
politics. Authoritarian and even fascistic state structures proliferate. The
numbers of voices with even marginal say declines.

As the
financiers in corporate headquarters extend stockholders’ influence, the earth
beneath is dug, drowned, and paved without attention to species, by-products,
ecology, or humanity. Only profit and power drive the calculations.

Anti-globalization activists oppose capitalist globalization because
capitalist globalization violates the equity, diversity, solidarity, self-
management, and ecological balance that activists pursue.


Supporting Global Justice

What do
anti-globalization activists propose to replace the institutions of capitalist
globalization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World
Trade Organization?

The International Monetary Fund
or IMF and World Bank were established after World War II. The IMF was meant
to provide means to combat financial disruptions adversely impacting countries
and people around the world. It employed negotiations and pressures to
stabilize currencies and to help countries avoid economy disrupting financial
machinations and confusions. The World Bank was meant to facilitate long-term
investment in underdeveloped countries, to expand and strengthen their
economies. It was to lend major project investment money at low interest to
correct for the lack of local capacity. Within existing market relations,
these limited goals were positive. Over time, however, and accelerating
dramatically in the 1980s, the agenda of these institutions changed. Instead
of facilitating stable exchange rates and helping countries protect themselves
against financial fluctuations, the IMF began bashing any and all obstacles to
capital flow and unfettered profit seeking, virtually the opposite of its
mandate. Instead of facilitating investment on behalf of the local poor
economics, the World Bank became a tool of the IMF, providing and withholding
loans as carrot or stick to compel open corporate access, and financing
projects not with an eye to benefits for the recipient
country, but
with far more attention to benefits going to major multinationals.

In addition, the World Trade
Organization or WTO that was desired in the early post war period actually
came into being only decades later, in the mid 1990s. Its agenda became to
regulate trade on behalf of the already rich and powerful. Instead of only
imposing on third world countries low wages and high pollution due to being
able to easily coerce their weak or bought-off governments, as IMF and World
Bank policies accomplish, why not also weaken all governments and agencies
that might defend workers, consumers, or the environment, not only in the
third world, but everywhere? Why not remove any efforts to limit trade due to
its labor implications, its ecology implications, its social or cultural
implications, or its development implications, leaving as the only legal
criteria whether there are immediate, short-term profits to be made? If
national or local laws impede trade—say an environmental, a health, or a labor
law—the WTO adjudicates, and its entirely predictable pro-corporate verdict is

The WTO trumps governments and
populations on behalf of corporate profits. The full story about these three
centrally important global institutions is longer, of course, but improvements
are not hard to conceive. First, why not have, instead of the International
Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, an
International Asset Agency, a Global Investment Assistance Agency, and a World
Trade Agency. These three new (not merely reformed) institutions would work to
attain equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, and ecological balance
in international financial exchange, investment and development, trade, and
cultural exchange.

  • They would try to ensure
    that the benefits of trade and investment accrue disproportionately to the
    weaker and poorer parties involved, not to the already richer and more
  • They would not prioritize
    commercial considerations over all other values, but would prioritize
    national aims, cultural identity, and equitable development.
  • They would not require
    domestic laws, rules, and regulations designed to further worker, consumer,
    environmental, health, safety, human rights, animal protection, or other
    non-profit centered interests to be reduced or eliminated, but they would
    work to enhance all these, rewarding those who attain such aims most
  • They would not undermine
    democracy by shrinking the choices available to democratically controlled
    governments, but they would work to subordinate the desires of
    multinationals and large economies to the survival, growth, and
    diversification of smaller units.
  • They would not promote
    global trade at the expense of local economic development and policies, but
    vice versa.
  • They would not force
    Third World countries to open their markets to rich multinationals and to
    abandon efforts to protect infant domestic industries, but would facilitate
    the reverse.

  • They would not block
    countries from acting in response to potential risk to human health or the
    environment, but would help identify health, environmental, and other risks,
    and assist countries in guarding against their ill effects.
  • Instead of downgrading
    international health, environmental, and other standards to a low level
    through a process called “downward harmonization,” they would work to
    upgrade standards via a new “upward equalization.”

The new
institutions would not limit governments’ ability to use their purchasing
dollars for human rights, environmental, worker rights, and other
non-commercial purposes, but would advise and facilitate doing just that. They
would not disallow countries to treat products differently based on how they
were produced—irrespective of whether they were made with brutalized child
labor, with workers exposed to toxins, or with no regard for species
protection—but would facilitate just such differentiations. Instead of bankers
and bureaucrats carrying out policies of presidents to affect the life
situations of the very many without even a pretense at participation by those
impacted, these new institutions would be open and democratic, transparent,
participatory, and bottom up, with local, popular, and democratic

These new
institutions would promote and organize international cooperation to restrain
out-of-control global corporations, capital, and markets by regulating them to
make it possible for people in local communities to control their own economic

  • They would promote trade
    that reduces the threat of financial volatility and meltdown, enlarges
    democracy at every level from the local to the global, defends and enriches
    human rights for all people, respects and fosters environmental
    sustainability worldwide, and facilitates economic advancement of the most
    oppressed and exploited groups, and at the request of smaller trade partners
    would intervene to prevent violations of these guiding norms.
  • They would encourage
    domestic economic growth and development, not domestic austerity in the
    interest of export-led growth.
  • They would encourage the
    major industrial countries to coordinate their economic policies, currency
    exchange rates, and short-term capital flows in the public interest and not
    for private profit.
  • They would establish
    standards for and oversee the regulation of financial institutions by
    national and international regulatory authorities, encouraging the shift of
    financial resources from speculation to useful and sustainable development.
  • They would establish
    taxes on foreign currency transactions to reduce destabilizing short-term
    cross-border financial flows and to provide pools of funds for investment in
    long-term environmentally and socially sustainable development in poor
    communities and countries.
  • They would create public
    international investment funds to meet human and environmental needs and
    ensure adequate global demand by channeling funds into sustainable long-term
  • And they would develop
    international institutions to perform functions of monetary regulation
    currently inadequately performed by national central banks, such as a system
    of internationally coordinated minimum reserve requirements on the
    consolidated global balance sheets of all financial firms.

These new institutions
would also work to get wealthy countries to write off the debts of
impoverished countries and to create a permanent insolvency mechanism for
adjusting debts of highly indebted nations. They would use regulatory
institutions to help establish public control and citizen sovereignty over
global corporations and to curtail corporate evasion of local, state, and
national law, such as establishing a binding Code of Conduct for Transnational
Corporations that includes regulation of labor, environmental, investment, and
social behavior.

And second, in
addition to getting rid of the IMF, World Bank, and WTO and replacing them
with the three dramatically new and different structures outlined above,
anti-globalization activists also advocate a recognition that international
relations should not derive from centralized but rather from bottom-up
institutions. The new overarching structures mentioned above should therefore
gain their credibility and power from an array of arrangements, structures,
and ties enacted at the level of citizens, neighborhoods, states, nations and
groups of nations, on which they rest. And these more grass-roots structures,
alliances, and bodies defining debate and setting agendas should, like the
three earlier described one, also be transparent, participatory and
democratic, and guided by a mandate that prioritizes equity, solidarity,
diversity, self-management, and ecological sustainability and balance. The
overall idea is simple. The problem isn’t international relations per se. Anti
globalization activists are, in fact, internationalist. The problem is that
capitalist globalization alters international relations to further benefit the
rich and powerful. In contrast, activists want to alter relations to weaken
the rich and powerful and empower and improve the conditions of the poor and
weak. Anti-globalization activists know what we want internationallyglob—al
justice in place of capitalist globalization. But what about domestically?
What do we want inside our own countries?


Participatory Economics Not
Capitalist Greed

There is still a vision
problem even after we describe alternative global economic institutions.
Everyone knows that international norms and structures don’t drop from the
sky. It is certainly true that once in existence they impose severe
constraints on domestic arrangements and choices, but it is also true that
global relations sit on top of and are propelled and enforced by the dictates
of domestic economies and institutions. The IMF, World Bank, and WTO impose
capitalist institutions such as markets and corporations on countries around
the world. But the existence of markets and corporations in countries around
the world likewise propels capitalist globalization.

So when
anti-globalization activists offer a vision for a people-serving and
democracy-enhancing internationalism in place of capitalist globalization, we
are proposing to place a very good International Asset Agency, Global
Investment Assistance Agency, and Global Trade Agency, plus a foundation of
more grass-roots democratic and transparent institutions on top of the very
bad domestic economies we currently endure. The persisting domestic structures
inside our countries would continually militate against the new international
structures. Persisting corporations and multinationals would not positively
augment and enforce these new international structures, but at best
temporarily succumb to pressures to install them, perpetually emanating
pressures to return to more rapacious ways.

So when people
ask activists “what are you for?” they actually aren’t asking only what are
you for internationally. They also mean what are you for in place of
capitalism? If we have capitalism, they reason, there will inevitably be
tremendous pressures for capitalist globalization and against anti-capitalist
innovations. IAA, GIAA, and GTA sound nice, but even if you got them put in
place, the domestic economies of countries around the world would push to undo
them. Capitalist globalization is, after all, markets, corporations, and class
structure writ large. To really replace capitalist globalization and not just
mitigate its effects, you would have to begin to replace capitalism too.
Efforts to improve global relations couldn’t be an end in itself, but would
have to be part of a larger project to transform the underlying root
capitalist structures. If you have no alternative to markets and corporations,
many feel, your gains would be at best temporary. This assessment is widely
held and fuels and is fueled by the reactionary slogan that “there is no
alternative.” To combat this we need an alternative regarding international
agencies and global economics, but also an alternative regarding markets,
corporations, and domestic economies.

economics revolves around private ownership of the means of production, market
allocation, and corporate divisions of labor. Remuneration is for property,
power, and to a limited extent contribution to output causing huge differences
in wealth and income. Class divisions arise due to property and due to
differential access to empowered versus obedient work. Huge differences in
decision-making influence and quality of circumstances exist. Buyers and
sellers one-up each other and the broader public reaps what self-interested
competition sows. Anti-social trajectories of investment and personality
development result. Decision-making ignores or exploits ecological decay.
Reduced ecological diversity results.

To transcend
capitalism, suppose we advocate the same values as used above for global
assessments: equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, and ecological
balance. What institutions can propel these values in domestic economics, as
well as admirably accomplish economic functions?

To start, we
might choose to advocate public/social property relations in place of
privatized capitalist property relations. In the new system, all citizens own
each workplace in equal part. This ownership conveys no special right or
income. Bill Gates doesn’t own a massive proportion of the means by which
software is produced. We all own it—or symmetrically, if you prefer, no one
owns it. At any rate, ownership becomes moot regarding distribution of income,
wealth, or power. In this way the ills of private ownership such as personal
accrual of profits yielding huge wealth, disappear.

Next, workers
and consumers could be organized into democratic councils with the norm for
decisions being that methods of dispersing information to decision-makers and
at arriving at preferences and tallying them into decisions should convey to
each actor about each decision, to the extent possible, influence over the
decision in proportion to the degree they will be affected by it. Councils
would be the seat of decision-making power and would exist at many levels,
including subunits such as work groups and teams and individuals, and supra
units such as workplaces and whole industries. People in councils would be the
economy’s decision-makers. Votes could be majority rule, three quarters,
two-thirds, consensus, etc. They would be taken at different levels, with
fewer or more participants, depending on the particular implications of the
decisions in question. Sometimes a team or individual would make a decision
pretty much on its own. Sometimes a whole workplace or even industry would be
the decision body. Different voting and tallying methods would be employed as
needed for different decisions. There is no a priori single correct choice.
There is, however, a right norm to try to efficiently and sensibly implement:
decision-making input should be in proportion as one is affected by decisions.

Next, we alter
the organization of work changing who does what tasks in what combinations.
Each actor does a job, of course. Each job is composed of a variety of tasks,
of course. What changes from current corporate divisions of labor to a
preferred future division of labor is that the variety of tasks each actor
does is balanced for its empowerment and quality of life implications. Every
person participating in creating new products is a worker. The combination of
tasks and responsibilities you have at work accords you the same empowerment
and quality of life as the combination I have accords me, and likewise for
each other worker and their balanced job complex. We do not have some people
overwhelmingly monopolizing empowering, fulfilling, and engaging tasks and

We do not have
other people overwhelmingly saddled with only rote, obedient, and dangerous
things to do. For reasons of equity and especially to create the conditions of
democratic participation and self-management, when we each participate in our
workplace and industry (and consumer) decision-making, we each have been
comparably prepared by our work with confidence, skills, and knowledge to do
so. The typical situation now is that some people who produce have great
confidence, social skills, decision-making skills, and relevant knowledge
imbued by their daily work, and other people are only tired, de-skilled, and
lacking relevant decision making knowledge due to their daily work. Balanced
job complexes do away with this division of circumstances. They complete the
task of removing the root basis for class divisions that is begun by
eliminating private ownership of capital. They eliminate not only the role of
owner/capitalist and its disproportionate power and wealth, but also the role
of intellectual/decision making producer who exists over and above all others.
They apportion conceptual and empowering and also rote and unempowering
responsibilities more equitably and in tune with true democracy and

Next comes
remuneration. We work. This entitles us to a share of the product of work. But
this new vision says that we ought to receive for our labors an amount in tune
with how hard we have worked, how long we have worked, and with what
sacrifices we have worked. We shouldn’t get more by virtue of being more
productive due to having better tools, more skills, or greater inborn talent,
much less by virtue of having more power or owning more property. We should be
entitled to more consumption only by virtue of expending more of our effort or
otherwise enduring more sacrifice. This is morally appropriate and also
provides proper incentives due to rewarding only what we can affect, not what
we can’t. With balanced job complexes, for eight hours of normally paced work
Sally and Sam receive the same income. This is so if they have the same job,
or any job at all. No matter what their particular job may be, no matter what
workplaces they are in and how different their mix of tasks is, and no matter
how talented they are, if they work at a balanced job complex, their total
work load will be similar in its quality of life implications and empowerment
effects so the only difference specifically relevant to reward for their
labors is going to be length and intensity of work done, and with these equal
the share of output earned will be equal. If length of time working or
intensity of working differ somewhat, so will share of output earned. Who
mediates decisions about the definition of job complexes and about what rates
and intensities people are working? Workers do, of course, in their councils
and with appropriate decision-making say using information culled by methods
consistent with employing balanced job complexes and just remuneration.

There is one very large
step remaining, even to offering a broad outline of economic vision. How are
the actions of workers and consumers connected? How do decisions made in
workplaces, and by collective consumer councils, as well as by individual
consumers, all come into accord? What causes the total produced by workplaces
to match the total consumed collectively by neighborhoods and other groups and
privately by individuals? For that matter, what determines the relative social
valuation of different products and choices? What decides how many workers
will be in which industry producing how much? What determines whether some
product should be made or not, and how much? What determines what investments
in new productive means and methods should be undertaken and which others
delayed or rejected? These are all matters of allocation.

options for dealing with allocation are central planning (as was used in the
old Soviet Union) and markets (as is used in all capitalist economies with
minor or greater variations). In central planning a bureaucracy culls
information, formulates instructions, sends these instructions to workers and
consumers, gets some feedback, refines the instructions a bit, sends them
again, and gets back obedience. In a market each actor in isolation from
concern for other actor’s well being competitively pursues its own agenda by
buying and selling labor (or the ability to do it) and buying and selling
products and resources at prices determined by competitive bidding. Each
person seeks to gain more than other parties in their exchanges.

The problem is,
each of these two modes of connecting actors and units imposes on the rest of
the economy pressures that subvert the values and structures we favor.
Markets, even without private capitalization of property, distort valuations
to favor private over public benefits and to channel personalities in
anti-social directions thereby diminishing and even destroying solidarity.
They reward primarily output and power and not only effort and sacrifice. They
divide economic actors into a class that is saddled with rote and obedient
labor and another that enjoys empowering circumstances and determines economic
outcomes, also accruing most income. They isolate buyers and sellers as
decision-makers who have no choice but to competitively ignore the wider
implications of their choices, including effects on the ecology. Central
planning, in contrast, is authoritarian. It denies self-management and
produces the same class division and hierarchy as markets built first around
the distinction between planners and those who implement their plans, and then
extending outward to incorporate empowered and dis-empowered workers more
generally. Both these allocation systems subvert rather than propel the values
we hold dear. What is the alternative to markets and central planning?

Suppose in
place of top-down imposition of centrally planned choices and in place of
competitive market exchange by atomized buyers and sellers, we opt for
cooperative, informed choosing by organizationally and socially entwined
actors each having a say in proportion as choices impact them and each able to
access needed accurate information and valuations and each having appropriate
training and confidence to develop and communicate their preferences. That
would be consistent with council centered participatory self-management, with
remuneration for effort and sacrifice, with balanced job complexes, with
proper valuations of collective and ecological impacts, and with
classlessness. To these ends, activists might favor participatory planning, a
system in which worker and consumer councils propose their work activities and
consumer preferences in light of accurate knowledge of local and global
implications and true valuations of the full social benefits and costs their
choices will impose and garner.

The system
utilizes a back and forth cooperative communication of mutually informed
preferences via a variety of simple communicative and organizing principles
and vehicles including indicative prices, facilitation boards, rounds of
accommodation to new information, and so on—all permitting actors to express
their desires and to mediate and refine them in light of feedback about
other’s desires, arriving at compatible choices consistent with remuneration
for effort and sacrifice, balanced job complexes, and participatory self
managing influence.

Is the above a
full picture of an economic alternative to capitalism? Of course not, it is
too brief. But it is hopefully provocative and inspiring.

  • Democratic workplace and
    consumer councils for equitable participation
  • Diverse decision-making
    procedures seeking proportionate say for those affected by decisions
  • Balanced job complexes
    creating just distribution of empowering and dis-empowering circumstances
  • Remuneration for effort
    and sacrifice in accord with admirable moral and efficient incentive logic
  • Participatory planning in
    tune with economics serving human well being and development

 Together these
constitute the core institutional scaffolding of participatory economics, a
systemic alternative to capitalism and also to what has been called centrally
planned or market socialism. Are there fuller formulations of this particular
economic vision? Most certainly there are. If interested, consult www.parecon.
org for articles, interviews, whole books, and further references.

The main point
of all this, however, is that while in the long term the ultimate answer to
the cynical, reactionary slogan that “there is no alternative” is to actually
enact an alternative, in the near-term the answer is to offer a coherent,
consistent, and viable model of preferable institutions and their dynamics. We
need domestic and international economic vision that everyone can understand
and refine and make their own. We need it to generate hope, to provide
inspiration, to reveal what is possible and valuable, and to orient and also
democratize our strategies so that they might take us where we desire rather
than in circles or even toward something worse than what we now endure.     Z