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Exploring Parecon


In a world riddled with suicide bombings, inconclusive conflicts, and terribly selfish politics, it is a relief to see there are people like Michael Albert creatively searching for salves for the ills in our economic system.  With his books “Moving Forward: Program for a Participatory Economy,” “Parecon: Life After Capitalism,” and his contributions to the website ZNet.com, Albert has helped craft some of the most intriguing and visionary ideas on economic reform to date.

 

While his theories aren’t without flaw, or perhaps the better term is implementation, reading his thoughts on an economy that values “equity, solidarity, diversity, and participatory self-management” makes us long for a world based not on hierarchy or pushing people to the periphery, but rather one that willingly accepts all people under the umbrella of “humanity” and treats us according to that axiom. 

           

For critics of Albert, there is an urgency to label him Communist, Socialist, or any other word made dirty by decades of denigrating these terms and the people who may fall under their banner.  But to do so is shortsighted and seems like a hectic attempt to discredit an honest challenge.  What would happen if we remade the world, and with it, refashioned our humanity into a finely hardened creature set less on profits and more on equity?  Regardless of your take on the world and its people, and at the behest of those citizens of our world who are supernumerary and forgotten, it is imperative more challenges to the system present themselves, lest we fall into the rut of complacency.

 

The following interview transpired over several weeks through correspondence, and brings to light the inspirations and philosophies of Michael Albert and his economic model, Participatory Economics (Parecon).

 

 

The Means:  What about the current Capitalist system inspired you to pursue a new economic model? 

 

Michael Albert:  Long ago an anarchist wrote capitalism is theft.  I think that’s apt and that capitalism is also degradation, impoverishment, homogenization, commercialization, and pollution.  Capitalism leaves many people following orders, doing only rote tasks, and having little or no control of their economic lives.  It pits people against one another so that nice people finish last and garbage rises.

 

Capitalism means production for profit, not for human fulfillment and development.  It creates hierarchy and class rule.  It gets much production, consumption and allocation accomplished – often too much – but with roles, conditions, aims, and agendas that sunder human solidarity, decimate economic, social, and ecological diversity, eviscerate equity, and mangle self-management.  Capitalism is more a thug’s economy than a humane economy.  When it is working less harmfully it is alienation and indignity.  When it is working most harmfully it is starvation and war.  I reject capitalism because it is so damn horrible.

 

But I would say that what inspired me to pursue a new economic model wasn’t, in fact, capitalism’s flaws.  It was, instead, my growing knowledge of people’s possibilities and the inspiration and hope this brought me.  I learned what people can do partly by becoming familiar with a long history of struggles against injustice, and partly by participating in such struggles during the Sixties and after, leading to trying to answer the question that was put to me so often then and ever since: what do you want?

 

TM:  But aren’t human beings inherently greedy, selfish, and cutthroat as a species?  Isn’t it “utopian” to assume people are good?

 

MA:  Human nature is such that it is possible for people to display greedy, selfish, and cutthroat behavior, or even to be Hannibal Lector-ish.  That is undeniable.  We can just look around and see that it happens.  But human nature is also such that it is possible for people to display caring, empathetic, and social behavior, or even to be whoever strikes you as the most wonderful person you have ever encountered or even who has ever lived.   That too is undeniable.  We can just look around and see it.

 

If we take into account that the institutions around us very aggressively produce anti-sociality, the prevalence of social behavior is a rather good argument that this tendency is far stronger, more natural, if you like, persisting even against institutional pressures toward anti-social results.

 

More, it seems to me that regardless of how one feels about this balance, it follows that we should construct societies in which social rather than anti-social behavior is admired, rewarded, etc.  We do the reverse, constructing capitalism, which is built on and rewards anti-sociality, and we get some pretty horrible outcomes, quite predictably.

 

As to what we all, in our assumptions, take to be normal, you tell me.  Do we really think people are evil?  If we see some guy take an ice cream cone from a child on a hot day where the adult and child are alone on the street – thus seeing the natural choice for a greedy, selfish, cutthroat fellow – do we say to ourselves, “There goes a typical representative of humanity?”  Or do we say to ourselves, instead, “There goes an antisocial beast,” indicating that we think that taking the ice cream cone is a horrible distortion of what is most normal and natural for people?  I think we say the latter.  But even for those so cynical and jaded as to think taking the ice cream cone is the act of a person being his or her best self, the result regarding our approach to describing desirable economic relations is no different.  In either case, we need institutions that produce sociality rather than institutions in which nice people finish last and ice cream stealers thrive, as we have now.

 

Finally, in devising and describing Participatory Economics I don’t assume people are perfect specimens of sociality.  I just assume people as we all know them.  And then I try to describe an economy in which to get ahead, to thrive, to be successful, you have to be concerned about others, enjoy diversity and equity, participate in self management, and so on.  Parecon seeks to preclude, as much as possible, avenues of avarice and greed and to offer avenues of sociality and concern.

 

TM:  It seems because of avarice and greed the current system has an agenda of self-preservation that might incline it to immediately dismiss alternatives without acknowledging the fact that these other economic models may “fill in the gaps” so to speak in a flawed system.

 

MA:  True enough, but I am not proposing something that fills in the gaps.  We didn’t fill in gaps when replacing slavery, nor is that my driving goal now.

 

I seek to win changes in the short run that ameliorate suffering now, for sure.  And there is a sense in which that is objectively filling in or covering over current gaps and problems.  But the alternative I pose for capitalism is about replacing it entirely.  I am an abolitionist regarding capitalism, regarding corporate organization, regarding authoritarian decision making, regarding markets, and regarding class division.

 

Of course a model that means to utterly transcend and replace existing relations will be foreign at first to many, and, even more, it will be anathema to those who most benefit from or have most incorporated the logic of the current system into their belief systems.   Oddly, though, so far no advocate of capitalism, or even of other anti-capitalist models, has honestly had very much to say about Parecon, certainly not any serious criticism that might enrich the new vision, for example. 

 

TM:  Which, to you, are the top flaws in our current system?  What about capitalism still seems advantageous for humanity, if anything?

 

MA:  Top flaws include simply that its defining institutional features – private ownership of means of production, corporate divisions of labor, remuneration for property, power, and output, authoritarian decision making, and market allocation – obstructing human fulfillment and development consistent with expanding diversity, solidarity, equity, self-management, and sustainability.  Capitalism obliterates these aims, rather than advancing them.

 

Capitalism is a way of organizing institutions to accomplish production, consumption, and allocation necessary for human existence, and, indeed, it does accomplish those functions.  In that sense, it is delivering things we need and can and do benefit from in some respects.  Capitalism is better than chaos.  It is better than even more harsh and degrading options, not least feudalism, that it replaced.  Capitalism is wage slavery – buying and selling people’s ability to do work, which is treated like a commodity.  That’s better than buying and selling people, as slaves.  But that’s about the extent of the sense in which I find capitalism to have merit.

 

TM:  What do you think would be the steps necessary in bringing forth a Parecon, and do you think it would follow the Marxist ideal that the poor would begin the movement?

 

MA:  Even if I had a strong reason for believing some single answer, and I don’t, the question would be too large to address more than in passing.  So, in passing, I think creating a Parecon will entail aligning ever more people strongly on the side of the new system.  It will entail, as well, creating the infrastructure of movements that not only challenge existing centers of power, but also merge into the new institutions of a new economy – in particular workers and consumers councils federated into a network able to conduct participatory planning.  It will involve winning sequences of gains that steadily convey greater power, confidence, and organization to ever-wider movements.  It will challenge norms and structures of remuneration, division of labor, decision-making, and allocation.

 

Beyond that, the issue isn’t will those who are denied dignity and well being compose the vast majority of the movement.  Of course that will be true.  Even ignoring that this is the group that has reason to reject existing institutions and favor new ones, it is also 80% of the population.  The issue is will movements for Parecon be participatory and self-managing?  If they are, then not only will the overwhelming majority of members be working class with disproportionate women and minorities, but these constituencies will define the culture and manners of the movement and will govern its choices.  They will not just begin the process; they will define and lead it.

 

TM:  What would happen once a Parecon was implemented?

 

MA:  Putting a Parecon in place, instead of capitalism, means replacing the defining economic institutions.  So that’s what will happen.  We get councils, balanced job complexes, participatory planning, etc.

 

If you mean what will people choose to do, economically, when they have appropriate say over their own and over broader social economic life, that will be up to people in the future.  I think we can reasonably guess, however, that beyond the just incomes, wealth, conditions, and influence that will accompany a change to Parecon, people will likely choose more diverse lives, shorter work time, a larger allocation of resources and energies to collective goods, sustainable production, and so on.

 

If you mean what else in society will happen if we are winning a Parecon, my guess is that in most places there will be parallel and entwined revolutionary changes, for example in cultural, political, and kinship structures as well.

 

TM:  If brought forth through elections, what steps would be taken to dismantle the system we have today if elected?  If done through revolution, how would resistance best be dealt with?  In both situations, how viable is it to essentially strip the wealthy of their wealth for reapportionment?

           

MA:  I think we use the word revolution differently.  For me it is a change in basic defining institutions in some part of society’s critically important spheres of life.  Change will not come via elections or via massive popular movements.  It will certainly have the latter.  It may include elements of the former, as well.  The broad answer is the same as the answer as to what constitutes Parecon.  Both broad movements and perhaps electoral efforts will replace existing structures with those of Parecon, likely not all in a big bang, but via an extended process of struggle that wins part, then more, then more, and so on.   Likely, yes, toward the latter days of that process there will be a large leap as councils take over institutions throughout the economy, and new political forms begin determining outcomes in that realm, as well.

 

Dealing with resistance – I take you mean the armed might of the state – can only be done by essentially disarming the resistance, I believe.  Movements create a context in which repression backfires by in fact strengthening the popular commitment to change.   Eventually, forces of resistance themselves become doubtful about repression, and then advocates of change, dissolving as barriers.  This is how armies fall apart, as we are beginning to see in Iraq, even now, and saw in Vietnam earlier.  The same thing happens to police and other forces of repression, over time, against successful movements.

 

And yes, I certainly think stripping the owners of General Motors, Boeing, and Microsoft, and so on, of their claim on the outputs of those firms and their control over their operations is viable.  It is not only viable, it is essential.  And it is not only essential to attaining a Parecon, a truly liberating economy, it is essential to escaping an uncivilized centralization of power and wealth that threatens to doom society in the not too distant future.

 

TM:  Is a Parecon less viable in a place like the U.S. and better suited for the Global South?

 

MA:  I see no reason to think that, or the reverse, for that matter.  If we are talking about a Parecon’s viability once established, the only difference is relative current levels of industrialization and wealth, which bear little on the viability of a Parecon.  If we are talking about the difficulty of winning, that does vary from zone to zone and from country to country, no doubt, due to past history, etc., but not in such a predictable fashion.

 

TM:  Let’s assume it’s 2005 and a country has switched to Participatory Economics.  How would that country interact with the today’s world economy?

 

MA:  If the U.S. had a Parecon, and presumably different institutions in other spheres of life to match, it would still trade in the world economy.  And it would do it as its population chose.  But I would imagine this would mean it would (a) provide great aid and benefit to other countries to try to reduce vast international disparities in wealth and influence, and (b) also trade at either international market exchange rates or Parecon determined exchange rates, whichever would better assist the weaker party to the trade.

 

TM:  Dr. Alan Epstein, a Professor of Political Science at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, has used your book “Moving Forward” in his classes on alternative economic visions.  He asks the following question:

 

“It seems that the philosophy of laissez faire is deeply rooted in the United States.  It contributes to the belief that the economy functions according to certain natural, invariant laws.  And, as such, government and any other sort of collective authority outside the economy can only muck up its proper functioning if any sort of intervention is attempted.   Now, the fact that the state intervenes constantly, directly and indirectly to further the processes of accumulation and ensure social order, does not seem to damage the currency of belief that the economy is a realm of private decision-making and best kept separate from public authority of any sort.  To affect a genuine participatory economy, like the one Albert and [Robin] Hahnel have envisioned or one outlined by others, seems entirely dependent in the first instance upon denting and eventually discrediting the myth of laissez faire and its putative association with natural law. How can this project be started and brought to fruition; and do you agree that it is one of the basic prerequisites for a transition to a participatory economy worthy of the name?”

 

MA:  I don’t entirely agree with the premise.  I think that what Epstein describes is the propaganda that is offered, yes, and has become the rationalization of many who are wealthy.  But there is no real belief in limiting government intervention per se – only when the proposed intervention isn’t on their behalf (for the politicos and wealthy), or when it seems like it will cost people a lot and deliver very little (for average folk).  In other words, the rich and powerful are more than happy for government subsidies to business, or government intervention against strikes, or government intervention to build infrastructure needed by industry, etc.  Likewise, the poor and weak aren’t against beneficial social spending, they just doubt that social spending that is guided and perverted by the powerful will benefit the poor and weak.  This is quite like half the country’s view of elections.

 

I think the real belief-based obstacle to change – looking at the population that ought to desire change and asking why it doesn’t desire it or at least isn’t working for it – is resignation that no better economy is possible, or attainable.

 

Yes, there is popular skepticism that the government won’t do much to improve poor people’s lives – quite warranted.  But just imagine that some president lost track of his job and instead of serving the rich and powerful enacted massive and highly successful campaigns to better poor people’s lives via government intervention and at the cost of the rich, of the war machine, etc.  I doubt working people would be in the streets protesting against it due to some laissez faire commitment.  Quite the contrary, I think people would celebrate, of course.  But there is deep and powerful popular skepticism about anything better being possible or attainable, whether the proposed path is via government intervention or by any other route.  Elites, of course, well know that income redistribution is possible; expenditures that help poor people are possible – even now – much less in a transformed economy.  They just don’t want it.

 

TM:  There is a Parecon collective in Vancouver, as well as other projects functioning globally that employ to greater or lesser extent ideas coming from Participatory Economics.  What advice, direction, or measures would you give them to assist in their expression of their economic goals?

 

MA:  I am not sure there is any universal advice, beyond that if you want to set up a Parecon-ish project that certainly entails, by definition, trying to incorporate Parecon-ish norms and structure.

 

Perhaps the key operational thing to realize, however, is that you can’t create a new world, or even a new institution, much less new people, overnight.  Folks have to have a sense of proportion and pace.  Training may be necessary.  Becoming accustomed to new ways of doing things may be necessary.  Patience and respect and forbearance for the complexity of situations and tenacity of habits may be necessary.  Comprises due to context will almost without a doubt be necessary.

 

Certainly it is very critical to understand counter pressures that impede progress.  In short, setting up a Parecon-ish institution or project in a sea of capitalist structures and personal habits is a continually uphill struggle, in many respects.  You do not have all of society propelling and rewarding desirable behavior.  On the contrary, most of society, so long as it is capitalist, will view your efforts as at least naïve, and as at worst either idiotic or pathological, and will continually pressure you to revert to old ways.  More, sometimes seemingly non-Parecon-ish or only partially Parecon-ish choices will actually make more sense and be more suitable than fully Parecon-ish ones – because we aren’t in a fully Parecon-ish situation.

 

Beyond such general comments, I guess the other key thing to realize is that different projects and institutions will be different, and their choices will need to be contextual rather than bent always to some abstract unyielding norm.  The nearly universal things that we can say about an effort to incorporate Parecon-ish values and structure in a project are that such an effort will very likely or very often include as a key component moving toward balanced job complexes, moving toward self-managed decision making methods, moving toward remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work, and to the extent possible moving toward deciding outputs by non-market criteria or even in consultation with audiences for one’s efforts.

 

I think it is also worth noting that the logic to employ in our own Parecon-ish projects is, it turns out, not that much different than the logic one might employ in choosing campaigns, demands, and organizing methods in a large capitalist firm, say, when seeking to push it in desirable directions.  The key difference is that in the project of our own conception and design, or perhaps in one that is progressive but in which not everyone is as yet Parecon-ish, we make the demands of ourselves and our allies, not of owners, say, or bosses.

 

 

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