Parecon, Life After Capitalism (Verso, London 2003), Michael Albert’s latest book, presents the vision of an alternative, post-capitalist economic system called participatory economics, which aspires to combine production, consumption and distribution to effectively meet basic needs and fundamental values such as equity, solidarity and self-management.
The project envisions the direct participation of workers in production decisions, and the participation of consumers in the decisions concerning the distribution of goods and services on the market; the collective, self- managed ownership of the means of productions; a remuneration proportional to effort/time spent at work; a system of institutions from below to replace the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank – such as the World Social Forum and its program; in any case, it is very different both from capitalism and real socialism. Caught up in the task of outlining what could be a future participatory economy, the author fails to address the issue of political representation and its crisis; indeed, he goes as far as maintaining that Parecon could work in an authoritarian political system. But couldn’t this be then precisely it’s worst shortcoming?
These are, in summary, some of the issues that the parecon project, and Michael Albert’s work in particular, identify, which tries to address through some fascinating "alternatives", resembling more a political manifesto than theoretical work; in order to stimulate the creation of a global agenda of the "movement of movements", identifying a trajectory of local practices, autonomous from one another, with a view to producing a set of experiences, whose limits and benefits, collectively re-evaluated, would allow a radical and permanent transition from capitalism to a new and unprecedented self-managed system. But this approach, disconnected from the social and political reality as well as the international public debate, seems to suffer from the limits that affect the work of some "niches" of the American intellectual left, and the feeling that one gets is that of a political isolation that allows perfectly utopian constructions, lacking however a healthy feedback from reality, and that actually lag behind its rapid transformations.
A typical example is the classical model of wage labor, which this project of participatory economics takes as its foundation to guarantee the equity needs of contemporary society. According to the author, every worker should undertake part of the creative work and part of the necessary work, in a sort of transversal allocation of tasks. For example a surgeon could even clean the theatre room after a surgical operation, since knowledge and specialization, in the new system, would finally be distributed in an equitable manner, assigning to each person her fair tasks in the large social factory. With the risk of taking for a utopia an old-style socialist and work-based world, that leaves little room to the exercise of individual free will and, why not, to the decision of working less.
In reality, the traditional labor-means of production idea, although still widely present in society, is now being superseded by the large debate on immaterial work, in which equity would be guaranteed by a citizen’s income [reddito di cittadinanza]; the time devoted to work would thus be reduced, leaving more time for life, while the equation more work/greater remuneration runs exactly in the opposite direction.
Albert’s work originates from the movement’s question: "What would a different world look like? What can we do about it?". And the value of the book lies in its recognition that such questions are still waiting for an answer. It’s methodological limit, however, lies in the fact that these questions are seen as an emergency, needing immediate and well-packaged answers, the risk of not doing so being a paralysis of the movements. But is it really the case? For a movement that has established itself <I>against</I> – against the WTO in
Capitalism has its dark side: the loss of public goods in favor of private goods, the decline of diversity in favor of the homogenization of goods that privileges quantity over quality, antisocial investments, individualism, ecological degradation and absurd economic inequalities. And there are some successful examples of participatory economics, both within firms and local authorities (the participatory budget); it’s more useful to reason around those, than on noble historical examples such as the Paris Commune or the self-management of factories in the Spanish Civil War, which won’t help us to find the answers that we still don’t have.
Why not create the conditions that would allow us to influence in a positive manner the damaging processes? And how can we achieve this aim? The answer could be through cultural growth, the exchange of experiences, the spread of consciousness. But we already know this, because we are already part of an important process of growth.