Parecon: German Interview

Q: “What is the relation between the social or political and the economical? Is there any difference?”


I think there is a difference. That is, they’re entwined. And it’s not just [politics and economics]. There’s politics and there’s economics; and we can think of kinship — nurturing the next generation and raising kids and dealing with living units and so on. There’s culture: religion and community culture and so on. All these things exist. They’re all entwined.


They all have elements of each in all of them. So there’s an economic element in politics and in culture. But there’s a cultural element in politics and economics and so on. There’s a gender element in everything. But still we can think of them. And so we can think of trying to redesign one. I think they all need redesigns. And the redesigns of each of them have to be compatible with one another.


So for the political, which is what you asked about, that has to do with adjudicating disputes. It has to do with arriving at shared norms for society — laws: norms that people are going to relate to. It has to do with collective projects — the Center for Disease Control or something like that, which might have certain powers that society agrees it should have. So the relationship between these things is that an economy produces not just goods but also people. It affects who we are. It affects our confidence, etc. Same thing for a polity. Same thing — obviously — for a household, and schooling.


So the people that are produced by each of these [spheres] has to be compatible with the requirements of [each of the others]. It doesn’t do to have an economy which produces passive people in a polity that requires participation — or vice versa.


What is Participatory Economics?


Participatory economics — or Parecon for short — is the name of an economic model. In other words, a set of key institutions for a different way of doing economics.  So economics is production and consumption and what’s called allocation — moving the stuff around and where it winds up. And in thinking about a different kind of economy what one has to do is to conceive of different institutions to accomplish those functions with different results.


Well what different results? Well when we thought about it we sort of thought: ‘What do we want an economy to achieve other than to produce stuff that benefits people?’ And what we decided is an economy affects relations among people and we’d like the economy to cause there to be more solidarity instead of more anti-sociality; more empathy instead of hostility. We’d like more diversity instead of homogenization. We’d like people to have more say instead of less but more accurately I think we’d like self-management. We’d like people to have an influence on decisions in proportion to the degree they’re affected by them — all people. So we should all be self-managing. We’d like equity. We’d like the distribution of the product to be equitable. To us that meant that it should be dispersed for how long people work, for how hard people work and for how onerous the conditions are under which we work. These are very different values than what persists in current economies. And then we thought about what kinds of institutions could fulfill these values.


[It's] not a blueprint of every feature. If somebody describes capitalism to you they’re not describing every feature of the US or of Germany, or Sweden. They’re describing the key institutional features — corporations corporate division of labour, markets, private ownership of the wealth, remuneration for bargaining power and output — these are the key defining features of capitalism.


So what we needed to do was to come up with alternatives to those that still get the economic job done. And that’s what Parecon is. So it’s remuneration for effort and sacrifice; it’s workers’ and consumers’ councils with self-managed decision making; it’s something we call balanced job complexes instead of a corporate division of labour; and it’s participatory planning instead of markets or central planning. And the claim is that this combination of new institutional features gives you an economy — not a whole society, just an economy– in which, in the act of doing the production, consumption and allocation, you simultaneously enhance solidarity, increase diversity, generate equity, and generate self-management, instead of obliterating all of those. It’s a classless economy. It’s what I think anarchists and socialists — at the base, at the grassroots level — have always wanted and have always aspired to. While movements have been formed which have structurally denied those desires and created instead structures that violate those desires. I like to think, I hope it’s the case that this new economic system is consistent with those desires.


Q: “How would it position itself against this traditional idea of a planned economy? Is there a similarity? Is it an alternative concept? What’s the relation?”


It’s not clear what the word ‘planned’ means in that formulation. So, take a market economy. If you look at a market economy, let’s say on January first, and then at the end of the year — December 31st, one year later. And you look at everything that happened. That’s in a sense — after the fact — the plan for the year. How did that plan — what actually happened — arise? It arose from competitive bargaining, in context of some other structures like private ownership.


Now look instead at what’s been called socialism or centrally planned socialism. What happens there? Well again you could look at January 1st and December 31st. Something happened. That’s the plan. How did it arise? Well it arose differently. There wasn’t the competitive bargaining as the allocation system, there was central planning. So there was an apparatus of people who would poll the public and learn things about public desires and so on and would then propose — and really decide — the outcomes.


So what participatory economics does with participatory planning is it does plan the economy. But who plans the economy is not an elite above the population, but the population. The workers and consumers, in a cooperative negotiating process, plan their activities. And it’s continually refined. It isn’t that what you say on January 1st happens for the whole year. None of those models are like that. But rather, it’s refined and it varies and it’s massaged, but when you get to December 31st you’ve had a year’s worth of activity. That was your plan for the year. And that arose from this workers’ and consumers’ councils’ cooperative negotiation, or participatory planning. So it is a planning system, but it’s not central planning.


Q: “Can you briefly sketch why society needs something like participatory economics?”


Well , I suppose there are those who would disagree. There are those who would say that a society that has great plenty but many people living under staircases and in alleys and hungry is okay. I don’t think that’s okay. I don’t think it’s okay that people work and have no say in what they’re doing, have no power; that they’re dominated by managers and by owners. I don’t think it’s okay that a society’s economy should be oriented toward the well-bing of a relatively few at the expense of the many. I don’t think it’s okay that it should produce a kind of a hostile individualism that it should be a rat race in which people are turned into rats or else they suffer.


There was a baseball manager in the US who used to say “Nice guys finish last” and everybody would chuckle and laugh. But it’s a horrendous condemnation of a society to say nice guys would finish last.


I’m not as gentle as that baseball manager. What I say is garbage rises. We live in a society with an economy which rewards and elevates people who are callous to others; who don’t care about the hunger and the degradation that their activities impose upon others. Those are the people who rise. So I don’t like any of that. That’s even before we get to international relations and wars and the like.


The number of people who die daily on the planet from preventable diseases, it’s astronomical. When I first began to realize this kind of thing, it was when somebody told me that — I forget the exact statistics — in the United States we feed grain to beef to make it more tender. If the grain was given to the starving they’d stop starving. The amount of grain that goes to that is astronomical. It used to be that quinine was critical to curing malaria. It went into soda pop instead. These kinds of misallocations of society’s productive potential at the expense of people’s lives are what makes me feel that we need a different kind of society and economy.


Q: “What would be your reference points in terms of how such a movement towards Parecon evolves? What kind of institutions are included? What is between the movement and the vision? And what are reference points when we look around in this world?”


We’re moving back to talking about the economy, but you could be talking about other parts of society. You can imagine the emergence of movements: labour movements, movements around consumer concerns, movements around the ecological impact of economic choices, movements around corporate globalization, movements around income distribution, movements around wages. You can imagine all those things because they all exist.


What would be different [in a participatory movement] is having an overarching movement that combines them in terms of a vision, not just anger. That’s one thing that would be different. Another thing that would be different is an emphasis on councils — workers and consumers’ councils. In other words if workers’ and consumers’ councils are going to be key to the new society that we’re going to construct, well then we’d better start building them. So that would be different. If balanced job complexes — a different way of organizing the work we do and the sharing of tasks — is going to be part of a new world that we construct, then surely the seeds of the future should be done in the present. So our own institutions should embody these values, and our own movements should embody these values. If self-management is what we’re striving towards, why not self-management in the movement? If these kinds of values and these kinds of structures are our goal, it immediately says, I think, that you can’t have all the old party structures: You can’t have democratic centralism; you can’t have these kinds of things. You also can’t have anything goes. You can’t have a kind of attitude, which exists among some, that people should be free to do whatever they want. That’s not a society.


So I think that a Pareconish movement would look different in many respects. If you look in the United States and look at movement institutions, movement media institutions, movement think tanks. These things, if you look at them, they often have a division of labor that’s the same as Time magazine, or ABC or General Motors. [They're] smaller, but there’s the person who is in charge of the money and either is the fund raiser or the big donor, and there’s the person who’s got the corner office, and there’s other people like that. Then there’s people who clean up and so on and so forth. Okay, the content’s a little better, but the structure is constantly putting the lie to the content. It’s constantly pressuring to devolve the content — which often happens. And it’s not inspiring to anybody.


Many times a big problem with movements in the 60′s — women taught us: You can’t build a movement to change the world that’s as patriarchal, or even more patriarchal, than the world outside. It will not only not have women’s leadership, it won’t have women, period. They won’t be able to stomach it — and neither will sensitive men. So it’s strategically disastrous as well as immoral.


Blacks in the US said the same thing about race: You can’t have Jim Crow structures in the movement and tell us that you’re about ending racism. And you can’t expect us to participate. It’s more alienating than society: You’re all spouting about this and yet you embody these structures that make us nauseous and that hurt us.


Okay, think about class. Think about working class. What is it that a working class person perceives when they encounter our movements? Do they perceive a movement that is classless? That is consistent with working people controlling their own lives? That’s consistent with an end to the oppressions that they feel? (Not just the oppression of the owner, but managers, engineers, doctors, lawyers, being above them, having more power than them, having more income than them.) This stuff doesn’t come up. But it’s what is at the heart of their alienation and their own justice.


It’s the same as the race/gender thing. Because the movement doesn’t have a good economic vision, it doesn’t internally present and inspire the good economic values. Instead it feels more like a law school, or a typical corporation in many respects, sadly, than like a movement that’s about getting rid of class and elevating working people.


One of the starkest examples of this that I ever encountered was the no nukes movement. There was some great people in the no nukes movement, but there was one gigantic, graphic problem when you looked at it. It was against nuclear power on grounds that nukes could explode, that they could mess up the planet, etc. It hurts everybody. Well that was true, and it was a good reason for being very very worried about nuclear power. But most of the people in the no nukes movement never said to themselves: What’s the implication of no nukes for people who do energy work? It means more coal. It means more black lung disease. In other words, there’s two sides: there’s the production side and the consumption side. People had their eyes on the consumption side – it affected them. But they didn’t have their eyes on the production side. [They were] blind to it. That’s a movement that is not a working class movement, but is more what I would call a coordinator class movement – a movement that arises from and is consistent with the values and the way of looking at the world of doctors and lawyers and engineers and managers. Not working people.


I think that working people feel that in the movement. Just as blacks once felt racism and women felt sexism. Working people feel classism.  Nobody puts their finger right on it, but it’s why the movements don’t become massive working class movements. It’s because they’re not congenial to working class people having integrity and power and a new life. It’s their worst nightmare in some ways: My owner isn’t going to be my boss, but my manager is going to be my boss, with all the power — yikes! That’s even worse in some sense in the eyes of working people, because they know the manager and the manager treats them horribly, etc. [That's part of] a long discussion. But, I think that parecon can overcome a lot of that.


On the need for economic vision


Why do we need economic vision? I think we need it partly to overcome TINA — the idea that “There is no alternative”. Which to me is, if not the largest certainly one of the largest, obstacles to popular participation and dissidence and trying to create something better. Just the feeling that it’s hopeless. I mean, you’re crazy what are you asking me to do? You’re asking e to blow into the wind. You’re asking me to fight gravity. War, poverty, disease — these things are just part of life. Grow up. Get a life. Stop trying to oppose what’s inevitable. That’s the way most people see it, like I might say to somebody who said to me: ‘Let’s form a movement against aging’. I would just laugh and say, ‘Get a life’. And he would say back ‘Yeah but aging hurts’. And I’d say: ‘Yeah so?’ It isn’t sufficient to say it hurts; you’d have to say there’s some alternative to it for it to make sense to have a movement against it. If there’s no alternative to some poverty and some plenty, there’s no point in having a movement against it no matter how much it hurts. That’s what people believe. It isn’t that poverty is pleasant. Nobody believes that anymore. But everybody thinks that’s just the way it is.


So I think we need an economic vision to overcome TINA. And I think we need it to go where we want to go, so that we can try to get there instead of winding up someplace else. I think the same thing is true for politics and for kinship and for culture. We need it because we need to know that there is an alternative and to overcome cynicism and doubt and TINA. And we need it so we can organize ourselves in ways that actually attain it, rather than, as in the past, spouting good values, having good banners, but opting for choices and for structures that deny the banners. So I think that we need vision in all these realms.


On Argentina


Argentina is a good example. Not the only one but a good example. I don’t think the problem in Argentina was state power. I don’t think the problem was getting crushed. I think the problem was the movement, internally, ran out of steam. And it ran out of steam partly because it ran into problems and felt those problems were debilitating and partly because it didn’t know where it was going.


What kind of problems am I talking about? In South America and Latin America I’ve spoken to groups of people who take over workplaces or are part of movements that do that. And they talk about doing it and having these ideals that there should be equity and there should be participation and there should be democracy and so on. And in time having it unravel, having it dissipate, having the momentum diminish and having the old structures and the old values resurface. And you pursue it further and you discover that when they took over, they did change wages. They did make wages more equitable. And they did make a democratic meeting place where people could vote – one person one vote. But they kept the old division of labor. So when people came into that meeting place to vote, some people were highly empowered and confident and other people were just exhausted from doing debilitating work all day; whereas, some people were doing empowering tasks. And the set of people with the empowering tasks would continually dominate the discussion, continually dominate the results. And the exhausted people didn’t even want to be there, because it was just alienating. And the empowered people didn’t want them there. And so slowly you get the same division arising. Not necessarily with the owner — the owner might be gone. But with this set of people who monopolize empowering work.


And then there’s the market. They also were functioning in context of the market. And they just take it as a given. And they don’t realize the extent to which the market undercuts all the other things they were doing. It sort of puts pressure on them to cut costs in a manner that is contrary to their own needs and to hire people to do that for them — managers and so on. Its’ a long discussion, but my point is that I think in the same way as you could imagine a political movement desiring freedom, liberty, participation, forming a tight hierarchical structure on grounds that that’s the only way you can win, or whatever other reason, and creating an abomination even against its best interests and certainly against the desires of the mass of people relating to the movement, you also can imagine a movement that’s trying to work in the economy, that has great values, great aspirations, that hangs on to structures that are contrary to those aspirations and that wear down the commitment to the values. And that’s what you see, over and over again.


What I’m suggesting is that having a vision, whether it’s Parecon or something else, which is sound, which is worthy, gives you strength. And it orients you. It tells you that you have to do certain things or you’re going to be suffering constant pressures. And if you can’t do those things at least you can know where the pressure comes from. [Without vision] what happens is that people begin to think that the pressure comes from human nature. That’s what happened in Argentina… People begin to feel: ‘Well it’s devolving because we’re schmucks’. In other words, it’s devolving because that’s the way people are. Some people dominate; some people are passive. And these rationalizations for injustice begin to infect the movement, because it doesn’t have the alternative explanation for what’s going on, which is: ‘Of course that pattern is emerging. [That's] because we never got rid of that pattern in the first place. We kept the old division of labor. We kept the markets. We kept the basic causes of those patterns.’


If you look back to the sixties, the sixties were fantastic at values; they were fantastic at fighting, in many respects; they were fantastic at changing people’s minds. But they didn’t affect the underlying institutions. So from then to now, there has been a gigantic struggle to reimpose the old compatible mindsets with the institutions that were still there. And there’s this constant rollback of people’s mindsets. And they still haven’t done it, in fifty years. But of course if we had changed the institutions it would have been a little different thing and that’s what needs to happen next time around.


Michael Albert is a longtime radical activist, organizer and author. The author of numerous books, including Trajectory of Change, and Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism, he is co-founder of South End Press and Z Magazine and founder and editor or ZNet. Dave Markland lives in Vancouver and is a member of the Vancouver Participatory Economics Collective, and frequent contributor to the Vanparecon blog (www.vanparecon.blogspot.com).


** Video clips of this interview can be found on Youtube.[http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=537AAD20722F8C3C]

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