Michael Albert on Participatory Economics
An Interview with Justin Podur
Michael Albert’s book, Parecon: Life After Capitalism, has recently been published by Verso Press. He was interviewed by Justin Podur, a writer and activist based in Toronto.
Justin Podur: Before we get into concerns about participatory economics in your new book, can you give a brief summary of the model’s logic and features?
Michael Albert: Participatory economics, or parecon for short, is a new economic vision proposed to replace capitalism. Its guiding values are solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management.
Solidarity means the economy should cause people to be mutually concerned about one another’s well being rather than trampling one another. Diversity means the economy should engender varied options rather than producing homogeneity. Equity means the economy should accord people income in proportion to the effort they expend and sacrifices they endure in socially useful labor rather than according to property owned, bargaining power, or output. And self management means that workers and consumers should impact production, allocation, and consumption decisions with a degree of influence proportional to the decision’s relative impact on them rather than some people having a huge say and others being entirely obedient.
Parecon’s key institutions for attaining these ends are participatory workers and consumers councils, decision making methods that apportion influence in proportion to the degree one is affected, a division of labor that ensure comparably empowering circumstances to all workers, remuneration in proportion to the intensity and length of socially valued work, and allocation by cooperative negotiation rather than by authoritarian central instruction or cut throat competition.
Networks of nested workers and consumers councils are familiar throughout history and are simply the vehicle/place for developing and manifesting preferences whether in a work team, division, whole workplace, or industry, or in a household, neighborhood, region, or country. The decision making methods are also generally known — one person one vote majority rule, or three quarters rule, etc., consensus, and diverse voting variants also including varied mechanisms of decision-related information sharing and dispersal, debate, delay and closure, etc, but all this chosen on a case by case basis to apportion influence proportionately to the degree people are impacted.
The division of labor of a participatory economy is a bit more original. Tasks are apportioned so that each actor has a “job complex” comparable to that of all other actors regarding quality of life implications and, even more so, empowerment implications. No one does only work that is overwhelmingly rote and boring, nor does anyone do only work that is overwhelmingly confidence building, skill inducing, and accessing levers of power. Rather, we each have a mix of things we do, of course suited to our capacities and inclinations, some of which are empowering and some of which are not, but the total of which are comparable in their empowerment implications to everyone else’s total. A parecon still has managerial tasks, conducting tasks, design tasks, and so on. But it doesn’t have people who only manage, conduct, design, and so on. And similarly a parecon has assembly tasks, clean up tasks, service tasks, digging and carrying tasks, and so on, but it doesn’t have people who are only assemblers, cleaners, servers, or carriers.
Most people on the left understand why remuneration should not include returns to capital, but parecon also rejects remuneration according to output. Instead, people are paid according to their effort and sacrifice, which is different from output, given that people differ in their abilities, use different tools, etc. Since jobs are balanced, in a parecon if you work longer than I do, other things equal, you will get proportionately more pay. If you work harder or less hard, other things equal, you will get proportionately more or less pay. If you had a more debilitating or more pleasant job, again you would earn proportionately more or less pay.
And finally, as the last defining institutional feature, participatory economic allocation is no longer by competitive markets which distort behavior, establish horribly biased prices, cause unjust remuneration and income distribution, distort investment to serve the accumulation of profit (or surplus) rather than the meeting of human needs, and violate ecology, among other failings, nor by central planning which is authoritarian and contrary to self management, among other failings. Instead, allocation in parecon is accomplished by participatory planning. Workers and consumers councils propose their involvements, and engage in a negotiated process of settling on final inputs and outputs exercising appropriate decision making influence to meet freely developed and expressed preferences.
My new book, Parecon: Life After Capitalism, first argues for the values noted above. Then it critically evaluates current capitalist and also market socialist and centrally planned socialist institutions in light of those values. Then it presents in a far more complete and, I hope, compelling manner the new, participatory economic institutions and also explores their individual and collective properties. And finally, it addresses diverse concerns readers may have about parecon.
JP: At their best, today’s movements do not see class oppression and capitalism as the only form or even the primary form of oppression. Instead they oppose sexism, heterosexism, racism, and all forms of hierarchy. Meanwhile, Parecon minimally discusses any of these. Why is that?
MA: Certainly politics, kinship, culture, and other dimensions of life are critical, not just economics. But suppose you were describing desirable new political institutions (a new kind of legislature or court system, say), or desirable new socialization and living unit institutions (perhaps new ways of parenting, say), or desirable new cultural forms (ways of communities relating, say). You would focus on the intrinsic logic of your focused realm, but not on all other realms at the same time. You would talk a lot about families and up-bringing, etc., but not much about prices or exchange of resources. But your talking primarily about parenting, or religious ritual and community identity, or adjudication wouldn’t mean that you thought that prices or workplaces were unimportant, of course, and in the same sense my focusing on economics when I am trying to present an economic vision doesn’t imply that I think race or gender or other factors are unimportant, especially when the contrary is continually indicated in this book and in all my writing.
An economic vision should respect norms arising from liberatory gender, sex, race, and other relations. And I think parecon is capable of that, and the book addresses that. So while I agree that it is very important to battle the tendency to exaggerate the importance of economics and to pay attention to other factors including both conceptual and organizational approaches to multi-issue activism, I think that even with that multi-focus priority, sometimes it makes sense to centrally address one part of society and give less attention to other parts. Talking explicitly about economic vision seems to me to be one such time, just as talking explicitly about political, cultural, or kinship vision would also entail highlighting a part of the whole society.
JP: But what does participatory economics say about household labor, for example, or about women doing gender-defined work on the job? Or what does it say about abortion?
MA: Parecon says nearly nothing about abortion. Or about child rearing, or about making love, or about a million other things. And the little that it does say about extra-economic phenomena is very general.
Thus, if there is a parecon in a society, then whatever else there is in that society beyond its economy will need to be at least compatible with what the participatory economy asks from people. This is what a good polity would also say about other dynamics in society apart from political ones, or what a good cultural sphere would say about other dynamics beyond cultural ones. That is, if one proposes a vision for some part of society — such as I do for the economy — then it says that the rest of society should be compatible. The book is explicit about this.
If we call bringing up kids or washing dishes from dinner work, and we live in a parecon, then bringing up kids or washing dishes become part of the process of balancing job complexes, and is remunerated and decided in the parecon way, like everything else in the economy. In that case, parecon would say about bringing up kids just exactly the same kind of things that it says about producing bicycles or doing surgery or digging coal. It must occur in balanced job complexes. It must get its inputs from the social planning process, as inputs to production. It must be remunerated according to effort and sacrifice. Some people — , such as the wages for housework movements that have existed at various times — favor that way of looking at household activity, including child-rearing. And if a society wished to treat these activities that way, a parecon would have no trouble accommodating that choice.
But suppose we say, instead, as some people including myself would prefer, that child rearing and house-keeping isn’t work in the same sense as bicycle manufacture, surgery, and coal mining are. Suppose we decide that there is something far more subtle and profound involved — first because the primary beneficiary of the activity is the practitioner of the activity rather than distant consumers, and second because there is something profoundly different about bicycles as a product than about children or even a clean or well designed living room as a product? In that case, participatory economics wouldn’t say so much about these activities — other than that the people emerging from families and from social life more generally will also work and consume in the economy, and will therefore need to be suited to doing that. Does that imply that there is nothing to be said about the activities, about the need for equity in them, etc.? Of course not. It just implies, instead, that what needs to be said about raising children and caring for a home is far more the purview of a kinship vision than it is of an economic vision. For the economy to be deciding attributes of child rearing and household life based on how the economy thinks bicycles ought to be made, seems out of place, to me.
On the other hand, the statement that the family and socialization must be compatible with a parecon, is appropriate, I think, and is quite analogous to what a parecon says for the school system and other features, as well. A society that has a parecon can’t sensibly have a school system that produces graduates who are unable or disinclined to participate in decision making in balanced job complexes, nor can it sensibly produce graduates who expect to dominate others or to be dominated by others in a class hierarchy, because a parecon has no place for these relations.
Similarly, a society can’t sensibly have family life that produces people who expect there to be relations of hierarchy between men and women regarding influence over economic outcomes or regarding income from economic activity in a society that has a parecon, because a parecon doesn’t permit that kind of inequality and hierarchy. In a parecon neither workplaces nor consumption can reduce the influence of women vÃs-a-vÃs men, or reduce the relative income of women vÃs-a-vÃs men, or relegate women to worse conditions vÃs-a-vÃs men, because no such systematic hierarchies of power, income, or conditions can exist in a parecon, period.
But couldn’t women get a raw deal if they are equal in the economy but have to do everything, or nearly everything, in family and social life? Yes, they of course could, so presumably a kinship transformation would rule out such a backward residue.
So I think the answer is that parecon is very much in accord with eliminating sexual or gender hierarchies and also accords well with feminist innovations more generally, but it also doesn’t overstep its bounds to say more than it ought to about other parts of life as if economics was the place to define and decide such relations in their positive and full character.
JP: What about culture? What happens if there is racism in the work place? Parecon doesn’t seem to talk about that. Does it deny the importance? And what does participatory economics say about religion, or about developing cultural communities around national citizenship, or ethnic factors?
MA: If we had a parecon in a society that had racist cultural structures, the racist structures would cause one community — let’s say whites in the U.S. — to expect to have dominating conditions and income, and another community or communities — let’s say blacks and Latinos in the U.S. — to have subordinate conditions and income. But the parecon economy would not gratify these expectations born in the racist culture. It would violate them.
White workers in a parecon could have racist attitudes toward black workers, say. But they couldn’t have systematically higher income, or better jobs, or more power. No one can have such advantages in parecon for any reason, because everyone in a parecon has a balanced job complex, everyone is justly remunerated for effort, and everyone has proportionate say in production, consumption, and allocation decisions.
In other words, by virtue of its balanced job complexes and self management and its equitable remuneration, parecon eliminates racial and all other hierarchies of power and income in economic life. There just aren’t any such hierarchies because the institutions literally preclude their being any such hierarchies. There could still be racist attitudes, yes, and there could even be some people who desired to violate parecon’s built-in features — and so of course the model should have means for repressed or minority communities to especially express and represent their interests, and parecon has that, as described in the model and the book.
What does parecon say about religion? It says almost nothing. Religion is not at its core an economic phenomenon, just as sexuality isn’t.
Parecon does say, however, that in a society where there is a parecon, a religion that causes its adherents to expect to enjoy greater economic conditions relative to people of other religions is going to be at odds with the economy, and something will have to give. This is like the example above of the school system having to be in accord, or the example of home life having to be in accord. And of course the reverse holds true as well.
That is, suppose we — as I think we ought to — develop a powerful and compelling and worthy vision for cultural relations in a good society, and for gender relations, and others. Then these will have features and attributes that we celebrate and desire to enjoy, and these attributes will have wider implications. The economy in a society where these visions are in place would have to comply with various requirements the visions impose. Will a parecon be able to do that? I think so, and the book discusses such issues – though of course one can’t be sure until these other visions are developed.
I believe, in other words, that when feminist movements put forth a vision for kinship relations and when anti-racist and other cultural and community related movements put forth a vision for culture, and when anarchists and others attending to matters of political activity in society put forth a political vision, it will turn out that parecon is consistent with and even supportive of each of these visions. And I think that is the right standard by which to judge an economic vision vÃs-a-vÃs other spheres of social life.
So just to be absolutely clear on this, if I said, or the parecon book said, here is participatory economics, this is a vision for society, that would be implicitly claiming that the only thing that matters is economics — so that an economic vision addresses everything important about all sides of life. But I don’t say that, nor does the book. Instead I and the book claim exactly the opposite — that we need vision for other parts of life, just as we need it for the economy, and no less importantly, and that an economic vision has to be compatible with those other visions, just as the reverse will also have to hold. That doesn’t elevate economics nor denigrate anything else.
Finally, regarding culture vision, there are some efforts to try to elaborate cultural vision that would be compatible with parecon and would be comparably liberated, such as for example your own essay, Life After Racism, on ZNet.
JP: But what about the state? What happens if there is stealing or violence or other violations? And how does society decide that some things the economy might otherwise do shouldn’t be done – such as violating the rights of animals?
MA: Parecon no more ignores the state than it ignores the family, or socialization, or schooling, or cultural celebration, or religion, among other dynamics. The participatory economic vision and the parecon book say about the state that we need new institutions that can accomplish legislation, adjudication, and implementation in ways that support the values we hold dear. It says that such a state will have to be compatible with parecon, and that parecon will have to be compatible with such a state.
There is no such thing as an economy alone. A real-world parecon will never exist without an accompanying polity, to be sure, or without an accompanying culture and kinship system, and so on. But that doesn’t mean that thinking about the economy itself requires or even calls for us to overreach economic limits by indicating what the character of the polity (or kinship, or culture) must be. To do that is not the place of an economic vision.
How would external constraints be placed on the economy? Your example is a good one. A good polity might decide that there are rules that must be abided vÃs-a-vÃs a particular species, or perhaps even all animals — and then the economy would have to comply, just like the economy would have to comply if the polity says no one can own a hand gun, as another example.
Finally, interestingly, there are efforts now under way to try to conceive a way of doing political functions compatibly with parecon. See, for example, Stephen Shalom’s essay on parpolity in the Life After Capitalism section of ZNet.
JP: Regarding the economy itself, aren’t your workers and consumers councils and remuneration for effort and sacrifice and balanced job complexes and self management and participatory planning just “socialism from below”? What is the point of inventing a fancy name for something that every Marxist understands? Why are you taking credit for something that you didn’t invent? Haven’t you just taken old-style Marxism and repackaged it, and changed the name to try to fool people who are unfamiliar with it?
MA: If by the word socialism you mean workers and consumers controlling economic life without class divisions diminishing people’s options, then, yes, you could reasonably say that parecon is that kind of socialism, whereas what has gone under the name socialism in the past isn’t. I used to do that, years back, but I have come to think it is like blowing into the wind, and perhaps not only futile but even counter productive, because I think it can impede developing really new vision, much less communicating it, as if saying one is a socialist conveys some positive vision already.
Millions upon millions of people have called public or state ownership taken together with markets or central planning and corporate divisions of labor and remuneration for power or output, socialism. Every Marxist text that presents a serious economic model labelled socialism has those institutions at its core. Every Marxist party that has gotten into a position to establish an economic system has incorporated those features in its aims. Every such party while in opposition has utilized structures and put forth analysis that is anti-capitalist, but that is also consistent with arriving at those structures rather than at the ones proposed in parecon.
So which communicates more accurately and clearly: To call the new economic vision participatory economics and accept that what has gone under the label socialism is socialism and reject it? Or to call this new economic vision socialism and to deny that anything that has in the past called itself socialism was, in fact, socialism, contrary to the beliefs of all its adherents?
But the real point, in order to address the rest of your question, is that parecon is not a Marxist goal. It rejects the institutions that Marxism has consistently supported and offers quite different institutions in their place. What’s more, parecon rejects class rule by people who monopolize empowering conditions in their work, and this parecon priority is completely absent from Marxism as it has overwhelmingly existed in real history.
So, parecon has different guiding values, different institutions, and different features and implications than what has gone under the label socialism and than what has been overwhelmingly propounded by Marxists. If it doesn’t walk like a duck, doesn’t talk like a duck, and doesn’t swim like a duck, what is the point of calling it a duck?
Regarding originality, it is quite true that workers and consumers councils have been a part of every major upsurge in modern history. Parecon is consistent with that heritage, and is not original in that respect but part of a historical process. But Marxist Bolshevism actually destroyed such institutions, and at other times such institutions have internally dissolved for want of consistent and effective structures due to being stuck, instead, with Marxist options.
Similarly, public and or state ownership is part of socialist and Marxist practice and history and certainly bears considerable resemblance to parecon’s elimination or private ownership of productive property. That much is correct.
On the other hand, socialist and Marxist practice has consistently been about remuneration for power or output, whereas parecon is about remuneration for effort and sacrifice. And socialist and Marxist practice has consistently embodied a corporate-style division of labor elevating about twenty percent of the workforce to decision making dominance over the rest, whereas parecon incorporates balanced job complexes and removes this form of class domination. And socialist and Marxist practice has utilized markets and or central planning, whereas parecon rejects both these modes of allocation and incorporates in their place participatory planning.
So the council emphasis is old but renovated a bit. The remuneration scheme has certainly surfaced at various times in the past, but has never been so fully explored, and likewise for the actual meaning of self management. The balanced job complexes and participatory planning are largely original, though very much an outgrowth of aspirations and practices that have recurred through history. Putting it all together into a whole economic model and showing its properties is certainly new, at least as far as I am aware.
JP: All over the world, there are real movements trying, in very difficult conditions, to develop alternatives to capitalism. Think of the assemblies and recovered factories in Argentina; the “planes de vida” in Cauca, Colombia; the advances made by socially progressive governments in places like Cuba, Venezuela, Kerala, and West Bengal. There are the Mondragon enterprises in the Basque country in Spain. There is a whole network of “economia solidaria” enterprises all over the world. And yet, Parecon is hopelessly abstract. There is very little reference to any specific experiences. It is as though no effort was made to learn from developments in the same field. Does the theory of Parecon come from anywhere? Does it come from any experience? Does it come from the study of anything specific? Or is it just an economist’s invention?
MA: Actually there is some reference to pretty much all of what you mention in the new book, but you are correct that there is not very much. The book doesn’t do case studies of all those experiences, or even of any of them. But that doesn’t mean it floats in space. Parecon emerges from an examination of the history of various revolutions and struggles as well as from more recent practical experiences, and from the study of economic thought, as well. In fact, a decade of personal experience with a pareconish institution in the midst of market capitalism informed the vision, as well.
But despite the fact that I could therefore dismiss the question by agreeing with its agenda and simply saying the agenda has been followed for parecon, I want to answer somewhat differently. Suppose it was the case that someone who was shipwrecked off on an island somewhere — rather than folks with diverse activist experiences who were also well read in other people’s views and in movement histories and had explored and worked on them for decades, and so on — had sat and contemplated, day after day, all alone, and had through simple imagination even though utterly divorced from any real world reports, produced an economic vision. They knew nothing about and took no lessons from working class movements, from consumer campaigns, from the entire legacy of economic theory, from the history of capitalism and of post capitalist economics, from the writings and studies of others, and so on (all quite unlike the authors of the parecon vision, myself and Robin Hahnel). They just thought. Now I don’t think this is remotely likely, perhaps it is not even possible, but let’s suppose, nonetheless, that it did happen.
What would our reaction be?
Mine would be that if I heard about this I would doubt its likely value, but I would read the vision, and if I liked it, great. I would be amazed that it was good, but so what? If it’s a good vision, I like it, regardless of where it came from.
On the other hand, suppose someone has been utterly immersed in endless case studies of all kinds of projects and systems and historical experiences, and they then produced an economic vision — a set of proposed institutions. I may well anticipate that it will be very interesting and good. But if I read it, and it’s a bad vision, I don’t like it.
My point is that when judging a vision it doesn’t matter what research, study, and activity it emerged from, who in particular authored it, and what language it is written in (though if it is meant to be shared widely it better be accessible). What matters is the institutions that are proposed and in particular their properties, feasibility, and worthiness. We may doubt the likelihood that a vision proposed without much contact with real economic systems and history and without much training in economics and without much related personal experience would be very good — but still, the proof would be in the pudding.
In fact parecon does emerge from the history of libertarian radical thought, from the history of radical political economy, from the experiences of anti capitalist movements and revolutions, from the new left, and from various contemporary related economic experiments as well — but, if in fact parecon had emerged from a couple of people chatting and stumbling on it, or if it had emerged whole cloth in a dream — it wouldn’t matter. The vision is what it is…and it ought to be judged on the basis of the properties of the institutions it proposes.
I make this point because while I imagine that political, cultural, and kinship/social visions for movements will most likely derive from study of past experiences and experiments, familiarity with the relevant history of thought, and experience with experiments, like this economic vision did, if they happen to arrive instead whole cloth from somewhere, I sure wouldn’t want to miss out on the benefits due to ruling them out a priori.
JP: What difference does parecon make? What does any of this have to do with all of the urgent things we have to do now? Describing some detailed futuristic paradise seems far less valuable than having plans of action for right now. What kinds of programs have a chance of succeeding now? Health care, housing, living wages, reparations — working out the economics of these campaigns, figuring out whom to pressure and how and what it would take to bring these kinds of things about, is far more important than describing a utopian society.
MA: I think there are two main reasons why developing an economic vision (and other vision as well) has tremendous bearing on what we do in the present.
The first reason has to do with motivation, or hope. It is my impression that a major obstacle to many people becoming involved in movements is the belief that “there is no alternative” to what we now endure. This doesn’t mean that such people think there is no alternative to bombing Iraq, or no alternative to passing the Patriot Act, or even no alternative to having the IMF. It is more subtle. They feel, often just intuitively but sometimes very explicitly, that there is no alternative to the underlying defining institutions of society. And they also feel, not least due to the movement’s saying so for decades, that those underlying institutions produce injustice of all kinds, from poverty to war and from indignity to powerlessness. So they feel that while maybe some reforms can be won, in time the gain will be lost as the weight of underlying pressures undoes the positive steps. They feel that organizing against poverty and war, much less against inequality and alienation, is like organizing against gravity or against old age — they are the pursuits of the naÃ¯ve. Fighting poverty can at best accomplish little, and in any event what is accomplished will be rolled back. So why participate? Why allot any of what little spare time one has to movement activism? Why risk one’s so-difficult-to-attain equanimity, in order to demonstrate, to protest, to organize?
So the first way that vision relates to current organizing is to help refute the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism and in doing so to help counter hopelessness.
The second way that vision relates to what we do in the present is by informing our practice. Yes, we need to fight for health care, living wages, a shorter work day and work week, more control on the job, income redistribution, budgetary changes, new investment patterns, and many other economic changes — not to mention changes in other domains of life. But how do we struggle for them? What rhetoric and analyses do we use? What organizational structures do we use? The answer, I think, depends very much not only on what our options are in the present (we certainly do have to choose from among what is possible now), and not only on what we oppose, of course — but also on where we want to wind up in the future. That is, while we have to choose among options that are possible now, and which oppose the ills we reject, we also have to choose options that accord with our ultimate aims and values and will help us reach them rather than becoming obstacles to doing so. And to know what fulfills these criteria, we need to know what our future ultimate aims and values are.
I think parecon contributes much that is relevant to today. It contributes hope. But it also contributes, for example, an innovative understanding of class relations and of the implications of organizational structures for people’s consciousness and motivations inside our movements. Parecon is profoundly anti-Leninist, for example, and that bears directly on what we do in the present. The understanding that comes from having a participatory economic vision can and should instruct how we build our institutions, what kinds of job structures we incorporate in our own projects and organizations, what kinds of decision making we utilize, as well as what demands we make and how we talk about them so as to develop truly positive consciousness about making lasting change. Parecon leads toward constructing and employing balanced job complexes, toward emphasizing self management, toward attaining just remuneration, toward relating to the differences between coordinator and working classes, both in our movements and concerning our demands on existing institutions.
But none of this is an argument for presenting what I suspect you are referring to when you say “detailed futuristic paradises” or otherwise “utopian” formulations. This is an argument, instead, for sober and comprehensible descriptions of what we broadly seek in new defining institutions, plus elaboration of the implications of having those goals for our future prospects as well as for the choices we make in the present.
JP: Parecon offers answers to the problems created by markets, private property, and hierarchical work organization. But there are other problems with capitalism. What about the global division of power and wealth? What about the division between the rich and poor countries, in which the rich countries plunder the poor ones? The on-going colonization of indigenous lands in the Americas? The on-going exploitation of immigrant labor and control of immigrants by borders? The capitalist economic relations that Parecon rejects were founded on these divisions. And yet Parecon has no analysis or answers for these problems: no talk of nation states, no talk of borders, no talk of the global distribution of wealth, the distribution of wealth between communities or nations. These go to the heart of capitalism, and “life after capitalism.” Why is there no discussion of them?
MA: Well, actually I don’t think these matters do go to the heart of capitalism per se, so much as they reflect the impact of capitalism on international relations. Capitalism is a particular set of economic institutions for handling economic functions in a society. Parecon is an alternative set of institutions for handling economic functions.
If you have one parecon in the world, and lots of capitalisms, you will of course have many problems of the sort you indicate. The book talks about what to do then, and it isn’t very different conceptually than now. People of good will[?] living in the country with a participatory economy, or in any other country, will presumably work hard to reduce and impede the horrible ills that you note. The society with a parecon of course does not partake of exploiting those ills but instead interacts according to pareconish valuations and in ways aimed at reducing disparities between rich and poor.
If instead, you have only parecons in the world, the ills you mention are overwhelmingly gone, though you still need various international agencies and organizations, no doubt…a matter that goes beyond an economic model.
Mainly, there is nothing in parecon, I believe, which drives a society to try to exploit others. And of course the minute the world economy incorporates pareconish norms, even the possibility of such disparities would disappear. What parecon thus says about the ills that you describe is what you would anticipate — the ultimate economic goal is solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management domestically and internationally. Short of that, one fights to get closer to these goals.
The book is about economic systems for countries, however, not about relations among countries, so it addresses the latter only briefly. It is not because such matters are unimportant. It is also true that the book doesn’t address eliminating nation states. I myself doubt such an end is very important, or even desirable, and I am not sure it has any realistic meaning, in any event. I think eliminating nation states would be homogenist and reduce diversity — are we doing to have one language, one culture — unless all that one means by it is that just like there are counties inside a country, there should also be nations in the world, but the world should be more of a whole than it is now. That is in no way incompatible with parecon, of course, and indeed quite consistent with it.
JP: It is clear that if an “economic vision” fails to consider that natural resources are finite, that the use of fossil fuels leads to climate change, that organizing society around automobiles is disastrous, then it is avoiding one of the most urgent problems the economy faces. Parecon deals with ecological issues in a cursory way, saying: “in parecon prices represent full social and ecological costs.” Is it really so automatic? Isn’t it possible that a parecon could still use many ecologically inappropriate technologies, or be saddled with an infrastructure that led to those kinds of choices? You dismiss “bioregionalist,” “deep ecology,” and “small-is-beautiful” type ideas as anti-ecological, but you seem to think that a parecon automatically takes care of nature. Is that really the case?
MA: Humans live in context of and influencing and being influenced by their natural environment. We and rivers and the atmosphere and all the rest are all entwined together, one entity at an ecological level — and the same holds for other species, who are also part of that whole, of course.
An economy is about production, consumption, and allocation undertaken in response to human desires.
For capitalism this means the economy is about profits for owners and elite status for coordinators. Those two classes dominate capitalist decision making and additionally capitalist economic institutions make those the economy’s driving motives.
For a parecon this means the economy is about meeting human needs and developing human potentials in accord with advancing solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management. All actors have proportionate say and economic institutions make those aspirations the economy’s driving motives.
Any economy, capitalist, participatory economic, or otherwise, impacts the ecology by affecting the context that all species, resources, the built world, and ourselves “inhabit,” including using resources up or preserving them, etc.
The job of an economy, vÃs-a-vÃs ecology, is to provide the populace with as accurate information about the implications of possible economic choices for ecological conditions as knowledge and means allow. The populace then must make decisions with proportionate say for all.
Capitalism does not arrive at or deliver the needed information, and it skews motives so that, in any event, ecological outcomes are obscured, ignored, and dismissed whenever attending to them would interfere with profit.
Parecon, in contrast, does arrive at and deliver the best possible estimates of true social (including ecological) costs and benefits — at least it does so insofar as we are talking about impact on humans, and it also facilitates determinations in light of this information. Do we want more fulfillment and development for humans enough to warrant using up some part of the remaining available non renewable resources or enough to eliminate some natural growth? People must decide, with appropriate input, and with the best possible information — but the economy should not judge such matters a priori. Parecon follows this instruction.
But what about other animals? That is an extra-economic matter. In the polity, people may decide, for example, that a particular breed of butterfly is sacrosanct and simply can’t be inconvenienced much less hurt by human choices. Then that instruction would be imposed on the economy’s functions. The participatory economy could not arrive at such an instruction internally but the parecon could easily accommodate any such constraints arrived at in the political sphere due to the efforts, for example, of advocates of animal rights.
What about the insights that small is beautiful or those that fuel bioregionalism? These insights come in two forms. The first says small production methods often have important advantages and we should be aware of this fact and choose such methods when it makes sense to do so. Likewise, it says that local self-reliance often has important advantages and we should be aware of this too and choose self-reliance when it makes sense. This is not only correct, and not only congenial to parecon, but parecon provides the means to carry these instructions out — unlike market economic systems, which would make such assessments impossible and would be biased against both small and local for diverse reasons, as well.
In other words, this version of these insights says that in determining the scale of operations, or the range of provision (local or wider) we should be attuned to the full social costs and benefits including by way of impacting the ecology. Parecon does all this.
Another version of these insights says that we know, a priori, that small is always better and that local is always better. This version of the insights is, I think, horribly wrong. In fact we don’t know that small and local are always better.
This version moves from the very sensible admonition to be aware of a probability of benefits from small and local, to saying it is always a fact that small and local will be optimal. Acting on this version of the insights, a person would presumably say that instead of a relatively few workplaces producing airplanes for a whole country, we should instead have an airplane production plant in every bioregion – or let’s say, since what the definition of a bioregion is never really clear, in every county. This would be ecologically horrendous, and would be horrible regarding the utilization of human energies as well. And — before anyone says, okay, but airplanes are an exception — the same is probably true for bicycle shops. Should we only have two or three person bicycle building shops putting together relatively few products, or do economies of scale actually make it more advisable to have larger ones?
And the same goes for self-reliance. The advocate of the strong version of the insights would presumably say that people in a desert bioregion should only eat what they can grow locally, people in a bioregion that has no coal, oil, iron, and so on, should just do without, and people who happen to live in a bioregion that enjoys vast ranges of natural assets, should prosper greatly compared to all others. But, put this way, obviously this makes no sense. And the minute we permit what is produced over there to be consumed over here, we are saying that issues of local sufficiency are a matter of case by case judgment.
A good economy needs to decide the scale of operations and the range of provision and the desirability or not of receiving inputs from a distance, case by case, not a priori. To say that regions should be self-sufficient says that most of the world should have no oil at all, no steel, no coal, no tin, no tungsten, no oranges, etc. It says each place cannot enjoy the diversity of the whole, or any product that requires inputs from beyond their region. Why say this in cases where to enjoy additional diversity increases fulfillment more than it costs in transport?
Honestly, I don’t think these are very complex matters. We cannot say that large is beautiful nor that small is beautiful. We cannot say that self-sufficiency is beautiful nor that sharing everything for all is beautiful. What we can say is that choosing a scale and choosing levels of mutual availability so as to meet people’s needs and develop people’s potentials while propelling values people hold dear all while taking into account full and true social and ecological costs and benefits as well as abiding by socially agreed constraints is beautiful. And that’s what a parecon facilitates.
JP: When it comes to questions like ecology or other specifics, you sometimes argue that it is pointless to get overly specific. Social change is a process of trial and error, and the true test of ideas is in their application. So it is only possible and desirable to sketch the broad outlines of the vision — councils, participatory planning, balanced job complexes, etc. But Parecon is a 300 page book, and it gets into some very specific answers to criticisms. How does one decide that this level of specificity is right — that 300 pages is just right, 10 pages is too little, 600 pages is too much. What you have described is already far too specific for many readers, but not specific enough for many others. It seems arbitrary.
MA: I don’t think it is arbitrary, though of course reasonable people can disagree about just how much description makes sense. Suppose someone were describing capitalism. Of course they could pick a country — say the U.S., or say Thailand, or whatever — and they could describe at any length…up to tens of thousands of pages. But suppose the idea isn’t to convey the full characteristics of each specific instance of capitalism, but rather the broad characteristics of capitalism itself. The aim is to describe the key and defining features that all instances of capitalism have in common, not the unique characteristics or optional characteristics of any of them. The aim is to describe the part that makes them capitalist, not the specific additional details that may be unique from one case to the next. If there are 50,000 pages on the U.S. in detail, and the same on Thailand in detail, and on South Africa in detail, and on Japan in detail, and so on — the part that is relevant to the query about capitalism per se is the part that overlaps, which is much less than 50,000 pages.
We don’t have lots of parecons to examine, but we certainly know that if we did there would be a tremendous amount of detail in each, and much that would be unique in each. Similarly, even inside a parecon — just like inside a capitalist economy — there would be great variation from institution to institution, and even for institutions of a single type, such as assembly plants, much would be optional, so to speak, varying from case to case.
So the task is to describe the key defining features. It is to describe the institutions which emanate influences that determine the broad and central attributes of the economy.
Another reason for this particular limiting of what we do, beyond that it is what describing a type entails, is that when talking about a future vision, to go further most likely takes us beyond the realms where we can be reasonably confident, and does so to no useful gain. What we need in the way of an economic vision is the broad strokes, the defining features, the attributes that can give hope, inspire us, and provide context and direction regarding how we organize and what we demand in the present, and how we develop structures from which we learn about and which become part of the future. I think that discussing workplace organization and division of labor, remuneration, decision making, and allocation at the broadest level, with sufficient attention to individuals and their interrelations to make a case for desirability and for viability, does what is needed. Sometimes it may make sense to go a bit further into hypothetical details to provide texture so as to facilitate understanding. But when we do that, we ought to be clear that it is possibilities we are offering, rather than specifications, so to speak.
Parecon is a particular economic vision. An economy that doesn’t have workers and consumers councils using self-management methods for decision making, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and participatory planning, is not a parecon. If one of these defining features is flawed, we will have to reconceive. But beyond these broad features there is tremendous room for diversity and for variation. We can talk about some of what that might look like, to provide texture and descriptive clarification, but we ought not confuse it with key attributes.
So, when I try to present the key features, including some preparatory material and some clarification of objections, it comes to about 300 pages. Others might wind up longer or shorter — either due to including more or less, or having a more succinct or effusive style. But this is all talking about a candidate vision, so to speak. An economic vision becomes a real vision, not just proposed, in my view, when it is widely shared and utilized. That certainly doesn’t hold for participatory economics, as yet. And if and when it does hold, then we will know what the shared vision constitutes.
JP: Participatory economics has been around for over a decade now — if you are right in your claims that vision is critically important to activist advance and that parecon provides a viable and worthy vision, why hasn’t the reception been better so far? And what do you expect to come of parecon now? Do you believe that if enough people read a book about balanced jobs, participatory planning, and worker and neighborhood councils, that something will change? Do you think that social change works that way? Has it ever worked this way?
MA: This is a hard question, particularly for me. Why isn’t parecon, or something like it, by now widely adopted by anti-capitalists throughout the world? Well, the answer for parecon itself is certainly in part that virtually no activists around the world have heard of it, much less know enough about its properties to have an opinion of it. It isn’t rejected or ignored by anti-capitalists worldwide for the decade you mention; it is just unknown to them.
But that raises a prior question. Why for a decade has it been so difficult to get knowledge of this model out and about to people who might reasonably advocate it, or, if not, refine or revamp it and then advocate whatever emerges from that process?
It could be that it just plain takes time to get new ideas visible. It could be that new ideas need to have more appeal with initial audiences, however small, to reach larger audiences later, and that parecon didn’t have that needed appeal, at least so far. It could be that there are difficult obstacles to hurdle to reach wider audiences, such as the antipathy of many people who are publishers or even movement leaders to certain aspects of parecon, leading them to like it less than would a broader audience, and leading them to not make it visible to that broader audience.
As to what will come of this vision now, we will have to see. There are some very promising signs, however. The new book has been available since May. There are about a dozen foreign rights deals closed or nearly closed, and quite a few more in early stages of exploration. This is the first wide international visibility the model will have. Reviews seem to be happening at a faster rate than for past books on parecon. Interest in the form of early buying is hugely greater than for any past book on the topic, with the first and second hardback print runs selling out before they even reached stores. So I think there is evidence that there is interest in anti-capitalist economic vision. If people become aware that there is a book which tries to provide it, many will read it. What will happen then, we will have to see.
As to the latter half of your question, reading, talking, thinking, acting — all of these are part of what affects peoples viewpoints and allegiances. Does anyone think otherwise?
Do I think a book can have a very significant impact? Of course I think that can happen. Many books have had important impact, so this question seems resolved by evidence. But it also true that any book that does have a significant political impact will do so in accompaniment to discussions, debates, and in the case of a vision, also organizing and organization. So the question is open whether participatory economics will be judged widely, and whether it will, if it is judged widely, pass the test as a worthy vision, and whether, if it passes the test as a worthy vision, movements will find it worth advocating and utilizing in their outreach and struggle.
Since I think vision is very important, I hope all the answers to these questions will be yes. If they aren’t, then I hope something else will fill the void that now exists regarding shared economic vision. I am pretty sure that that void needs filling.