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Parecon and Anarcho-Syndicalism: An Interview with Michael Albert


Participatory economics, or parecon for short, is a classless economic system that serves as an alternative to capitalism, market socialism, and centrally planned economies. Parecon is based upon equity, solidarity, diversity, and participatory self-management, as well as takes into account kinship/gender, community/race, and polity in addition to economic considerations. Under parecon, workers and consumers councils are responsible for self-managed decision making; workers have balanced job complexes; effort and sacrifice are rewarded, not hours worked or how much capital was invested; and planning is participatory.

 

When I first read about Parecon, what struck me was that it sounded like an anarchist economic vision. Do you think this is a fair assessment? Why or why not?

 

Yes, I do think it is fair. Anarchism is a very broad and rich approach to understanding social relations and affecting them. Most broadly anarchism says we don’t want hierarchies of wealth and power which enable and even compel some people to dominate while other people, generally far more numerous, are subordinate. Parecon takes that agenda into the economy and proposes a way to accomplish production, allocation, and consumption, that is consistent with not having any one constituency, by virtue of its economic position, dominating any other. Parecon is in this regard a classless economy, an economy without class hierarchy, and is in that sense, I think, very much in the anarchist tradition.

 

More, I think anarchism has another broad commitment, which is that people should have a say over decisions that affect them. People should be able to participate and to self-manage their conditions and options, of course in concert with one another. Again, parecon is an economy that celebrates self-management—meaning that all people should have a say over decisions in proportion as they are affected by them—as a central aim. Parecon is a solidaritous economy that delivers to all participants the same self managing say as others have, and in this regard too, I think it is anarchist.

 

In your writings, you describe a third class, which you describe as a coordinator class. What is the coordinator class, and how does the conception of a coordinator class distinguish Parecon from other radical theories such as Marxism and anarchism?

 

Marxists very rightly notice and highlight that ownership relations can and do cause economic actors to have not only different but opposed interests, thereby yielding class division and class rule. Owners of factories, resources, and productive property more generally, who are called capitalists, operate with different interests than people who must sell their ability to do work to earn wages – the wage slaves, in old style language. This capital versus labor distinction is pivotal to how a capitalist economy functions and to its implications for people, Marxists rightly tell us, and it can’t be abided if we want many of the worst ills of capitalism. Thus, the Marxist agenda includes getting rid of having a few people own the places where we all work, the tools we all work with, the resources we all use while working, and so on. So far so good.

 

But beyond this division, what about another? Bakunin, among other early anarchists, talked a lot about people who were workers but who had way more power and income than other workers not least due to having rather different conditions in their economic lives. Much more recently, Barbara and John Ehrenreich, about thirty years ago, reinvigorated that perspective, calling the group that they saw "between labor and capital," the professional managerial class. Robin Hahnel and I opted for a different name, the coordinator class, and also refined how we understand who it is and why it matters. We proposed it is the people who monopolize empowering labor in their jobs – while others, who we called the working class, do overwhelmingly only rote, obedient, tedious labor.

 

Okay, so why not say there are owners or capitalists, and there are workers, only the two classes. And then why not settle for noting, also, that among all the workers, some have a whole lot of empowering tasks in their jobs, while others have instead overwhelming disempowering tasks, but they are all workers. After all, they all have the same ownership relations, owning only their ability to do work, which they all must sell.

 

The reason Robin and I said no, we think this should be seen as two classes not as one class with two layers, is because these two constituencies do, in fact, have very different economic situations, power, income/wealth, ways of viewing those above (capitalists), and views of one another. Why it matters enough for us to want to highlight the difference by calling the two groups two classes is because (a) under current capitalist economic relations the existence of this distinction means what goes on is more complex than just highlighting capital and labor implies, regarding both motives and outcomes in workplaces and in class relations more widely. And, even more important, (b) highlighting this distinction reveals and highlights and focuses us in on the fact that it is possible to overcome and replace capitalism with two different new systems. In one of these two post capitalist options, the coordinator class becomes the new ruling class. Out with the old boss, in with the new. This has been called centrally planned and market socialism, but it would be more usefully named centrally planned and market coordinatorism, in our view. In the other of these two possible post capitalist systems, there is classlessness. Just as the basis for the capital/labor division is removed by removing private ownership of productive property—so too is the coordinator/labor division removed—but in this case by removing the former class’s monopoly on empowering labor.

 

I don’t think being attentive to the existence of the coordinator class distinguishes parecon from the heritage of anarchism, which, I think, is actually the source of the earliest ideas of this same sort. I do think, however, it distinguishes parecon from the heritage of Marxism-Leninism, because in my view, historically Marxism-Leninism is not being the ideology of the working class, as it claims, but, is instead, in practice, and even against the aspirations of most of its advocates, the ideology of the coordinator class.

 

What do we lose in ignoring the coordinator class? How can we avoid or resist creating a coordinator class as we develop anti-capitalist work environments?

 

By ignoring that doctors, lawyers, engineers, managers and others who have a monopoly on empowering labor are a class above workers who do overwhelmingly disempowering labor, we obscure and indeed we literally hide from perception, the existence of this class and its relations. We obscure and literally hide the reality that one can be anti-capitalist sincerely and militantly, yet at least in the implications of one’s actions and allegiances, not pro-classlessness, but instead pro the coordinator class. We ignore that we can have, and typically have had, anti-capitalist movements that embody values, assumptions, language, styles, and habits that stem from coordinator class experiences, interests, and aspirations, not from those of working class people – and that, for that reason, are uncongenial, disempowering, and alienating to working people. We ignore, in other words, these and other centrally critical insights about what we are doing, why, and with what prospects for success, and what implications.

 

For the second part of your question, when people seeking a better world set up experiments in new economy, if we aren’t going to fall prey to reproducing old class divisions, we of course have to eliminate having someone own the new project and others merely be employees. That much is obvious, though often not dealt with fully. But even more than that, and rarely dealt with at all, we also have to avoid the other relationships that produce class division, the ones that produce the coordinator/worker hierarchy. This has many implications but mostly it means we shouldn’t incorporate in our projects the typical way of defining and apportioning work tasks that we see all around us, which we can usefully call the corporate division of labor. Instead of having about 20% of the folks in a workplace doing all the empowering tasks while 80% do only rote and obedient tasks, with the former folks thereby made, by their position in the economy, dominant over the latter folks, we should incorporate what parecon calls balanced job complexes. The idea is that each actor should do a mix of tasks in their job, such that the overall tasks and responsibilities of each is comparably empowering to the overall tasks and responsibilities of others.

 

Imagine that someone pointed to a workplace in a distant society and said, "Hey, look, 20% have all the chocolate, 80% have none. The former folks get more income and dominate decisions. They rule. The latter folks are exhausted, alienated, subordinate. They get less income and obey. Look, here is how disparity in their possession of the chocolate causes that result. The possession of all the chocolate gives the former folks confidence, knowledge of the overall conditions of work, social skills, energy, and so on. The absence of chocolate in their workdays relegates the latter folks to exhaustion, depression, a condition of less confidence, diminishing social skills, ignorance of the overall conditions of work, and so on." What can we do to remove this hierarchy in our new experimental workplace, in this odd distant society, or, for that matter, in the existing class divided workplaces it harbors? Well, in this fanciful case, the answer would be obvious. We would have to redistribute the chocolate in our new project so everyone has a fair share. The point is, parecon says this is roughly the condition for the coordinator/worker class hierarchy, but it isn’t chocolate the coordinators hoard, it is empowering work. Thus, the task for eliminating the hierarchy is redefining the division of labor into jobs so that the monopoly over empowering work is broken, the chocolate (whoops, the empowering tasks) are dispersed equitably. This goal parecon calls balanced job complexes.

 

Economism (economic reductionism) reduces radical theory and social facts to economic considerations. Marxism is a prime example of this. Can you talk about economism?

 

Most Marxists do much better than just looking at the economy and class alone, especially given the lessons taught by women’s movements, gay movements, antiracist movements, and others. But there is a tendency, nonetheless, particularly as conflict grows, for Marxists to look at all other dynamics and relations in terms of their effects on economics, in terms of their effects on class, seeing economics and class a kind of more centrally influential and critical foundation or base for everything else. And the critique of this stance shouldn’t be that one can’t usefully look at this relationship of economy on the rest of society and the rest of society back on economy. One can usefully look at it. But one can also usefully, indeed just as usefully, look at the effects of kinship/gender, or community/race, or polity in and of themselves, or on each other, and also on the economy. And more, one can also look at the dynamics of the economy, for example, or of class with an eye to how gender, community, or political hierarchies are affected being concerned mainly with the latter. In other words, it is true that how we do economics (including production, allocation, and consumption) emanates a kind of field of force that impacts the rest of society. And it is true that the rest of society in turn has implications that play back upon the economy which is itself centrally important. But the fact that one thing is centrally important doesn’t say it is alone centrally important. And in fact it is also true that kinship (including procreation, nurturance, socialization, and sexuality) and community (including celebration, self definition, etc.) and polity (including legislation, adjudication, and collective implementation), each also emanate a kind of field of force that impacts the rest of society and is in turn affected by the rest of society. In other words, there isn’t one primarily important focus, one primarily central dimension of social life for activists to highlight, but four. And it follows that we need a conceptual approach that highlights them all, that sees each in light of the others, not a framework that makes primary only one dimension, whether economy or one of the others.

 

Anarcho-syndicalism is sometimes thought of as the idea that the economy should be used as the vehicle for libertarian social transformation, or that workers transforming work environments into solidaric, non-coercive ones is the best strategy for libertarian social transformation. Is Parecon compatible with this idea of anarcho-syndicalism, or is this conception too narrowly concerned with the economy?

 

Well, I suppose someone who had that view, whether an anarcho-syndicalist or someone else, could adopt parecon as the economic goal and answer yes, it is compatible with an economistic prioritization of tasks. But I wouldn’t answer that way at all. Instead, I think parecon offers a viable and worthy goal for transcending capitalism with a new classless economy, yes. But I don’t think life is all about economics, or that economics governs all life, or any other simple economistic claim like that. Instead, I think we need movements that seek not only a classless economic vision, but a feminist kinship vision, and an intercommunalist community vision, and an anarchist political vision – which is to say a political aim which accomplishes political functions consistent with our values, not which makes believe there are no political functions to accomplish. I think we need a vision, that is, of the central features—not every last nook and cranny—of a participatory society, not just a participatory economy. And I think we need this both to inspire and motivate us, and to guide our choices so that they lead us where we wish to wind up, and not in circles or to goals that will newly oppress us. Those featured on economy are right to claim that if we don’t revolutionize the economy, if we leave it with its underlying features unchanged, then efforts to overcome other ills, or even victories regarding other ills, will always be under assault due to the continuation of past economic structures and their pervasive corrupting influences. But, the same holds, in my view, for not revolutionizing the kinship dimension of life, or culture and community, or polity. Leaving the critical underlying features of any of these in tact, even if we make other useful changes, leaves a heavy ballast pulling all of society back into oppressive logics and outcomes. Even prior to all that, having movements which address only race, or gender, or sexuality, or power, or class as primary and central consigns the movement with one such focus to internal decay and externally alienating huge constituencies.

 

It is, in short, a suicidal strategy, not a wise one. We need, instead, movements that elevate all these dimensions without prioritization of any one over the rest. I actually think this is pretty well understood and even in many instances practiced, if not perfectly, then at least trying to get there. What I don’t think is so well understood, or practiced, even as an attempt much less with success, is what we talked about earlier, which is within paying attention to the economy, paying attention not just to capital/worker relations, but also the role and importance of the third coordinator class to movement policy, structure, culture, and logic, with devastating and indeed strategically suicidal results for working class movement participation and empowerment.

 

Some syndicalists (Sam Dolgoff, for instance) have argued that an anarchistic economic arrangement is actually an ideal one for an advanced industrialized society. How does Parecon bear on this notion?

 

It depends on your view of parecon. I think parecon is an ideal economy for an "advanced industrialized society." I also think parecon is an "anarchistic economic arrangement." Thus, I guess it follows that I think parecon bears out Dolgoff’s prediction that "an anarchistic economic arrangement is actually an ideal one for an advanced industrialized society." On the other hand, if Dolgoff’s comment is read as suggesting that anarchistic economy would not work in a less industrialized economy, I don’t think that is the case.

 

A couple years ago, I asked Noam Chomsky about the fact that anarchists have been divided into various camps, chief among which appear to be anarcho-communism and anarcho-syndicalism. I noted that Murray Bookchin has urged that anarcho-syndicalism is basically inapplicable to the United States, which boasts a post-scarcity, post-industrial economy, and asked Chomsky whether he thought that an emphasis on anarcho-syndicalism is still needed in order to fully wrest the military-industrial complex away from powerful people. He felt the debate was confused, and that in any case the "task is basically the same: try to develop institutional arrangements that maximize worker and community control and other aspects of freedom and justice."

 

I don’t know what post-scarcity or post-industrial mean but I doubt, depending on meaning, that I would agree these are apt terms to use describing the U.S. or any country. Scarcity means we have to choose among alternative options – we can’t have everything, so to speak. Post-scarcity, to me, would mean the economy can deliver anything anyone wants at no cost. You want it, you get it. There are no limits imposing trade-offs among possibilities. This is nonsense, obviously. There are costs – resources, effort, byproducts, and others, to producing things the populace desires to have, and the supply of these assets, so to speak, is far from unlimited. So there is no such thing, so to speak, as a free lunch, or free dinner, or free violin, or free means of transport, or free clothes, etc. Everything has what economists call an opportunity cost. Producing any one particular thing means that the resources, effort, etc., that went into its production are not available for producing something else. There are therefore decisions about allocation aims and priorities that must be made, some things foregone so other things are had. And likewise there are decisions about how to organize production, about how much of the social product people receive for their labors, and so on. Parecon provides means to accomplish production, consumption, and allocation, with scarcity of any level, in accord with values we favor rather than obliterating values we favor.

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