Realizing Visions For A Free And Just Society


In his latest project, Realizing Hope: Life beyond Capitalism, Michael Albert argues that there is more to creating a decent society than just having a good economic system. Other spheres of humanity are also present and must be taken into account: Polity, Kinship, Community, Internationalism, Ecology, Science/Technology, Education, Art, Journalism, Crime and even Athletics. Albert explores the potential interface between Parecon, an alternative economic vision, and the rest of these institutions. In other words, what implications may Parecon have on these other facets of our existence? And, conversely, what implications may all these other domains have on Parecon? More to the point, Albert argues that each of these other aspects of human society requires a vision of its own, and each is as important as an alternative vision for an economy in realizing a free and just society. Integral to all of this is a set of values and institutions that are the identifying features of a vision for any particular aspect of our existence. Albert explores how Parecon values can extend to other visions, along with institutions that are unique to each social sphere.

The foundation of Michael Albert’s pursuit for a decent society lies in Parecon, so it is apt that he summarises the conceptual framework of this vision, developed by he and Robin Hahnel. Parecon is shorthand for Participatory Economics: an alternative economic system to that of Capitalism. The aim of Parecon, he explains, is to fulfil a quartet of values: solidarity, diversity, equity and self-management. These values are in direct contrast to Capitalism, for which Albert has this to say: "…capitalism is a thug’s economy, a heartless economy, a base and vile and largely boring economy. It is the antithesis of human fulfilment and development. It mocks equity and justice. It enshrines greed. It does not serve humanity." It is difficult to see how any rational and moral human being could disagree?

The first value, solidarity, implies that in our functions as workers and consumers we have a social responsibility to one another, and that we must avoid the "capitalist logic" of  ‘me first and everyone else be damned.’ Institutions for production, consumption and allocation, Albert stresses, "should propel even antisocial people into addressing other people’s well being to advance their own." This is logical and must be taken for granted in any decent society.

Parecon’s second value is diversity. Here, "responsible institutions for production, consumption, and allocation not only wouldn’t reduce variety but would emphasize finding and respecting diverse solutions to problems." All of this is, of course, in contrast to a Capitalist system that places conformity and profit above human satisfaction. For example, Capitalism’s market based system ensures that the most profitable way of performing a given task will eliminate a variety of "parallel methods suiting a range of priorities…crowding out more diverse choices that could engender greater and more widespread fulfilment."

Thirdly, a good economy would drive forward equity, in which everyone receives an equal share of the social product. People will be rewarded for effort and sacrifice, and not for ownership of property or bargaining power, which, in a Capitalist or Coordinator system, is "based on anything from monopolizing knowledge or skills, to using better tools or organization, being born with special talents, or being able to command brute force…"

The final value in a Parecon is self-management, where each person affects decisions in proportion to the degree that he/she is affected by them. In addition, Albert says that "[d]ifferent decisions require different approaches" with respect to decision-making…setting agendas, and sharing information." For example, a decision to place a picture of one’s loved one on one’s own desk should obviously be decided alone, since it affects no one else. However, turning on a radio at one’s desk affects others, who should have a say in whether the radio bothers or benefits them.

All of the above values may be irrelevant if the appropriate institutions that bring them to life are missing. So, Albert and Hahnel have advocated the following institutions: Worker and Consumer Councils, Remuneration for Effort and Sacrifice, Balanced Job Complexes  and Participatory Planning. Parecon will not function properly if any one of these important values and institutions are removed.

In Realizing Hope, Albert has taken a wide and penetrating look at the potential implications and benefits that Parecon may bring to all the other social spheres of human society, and how the values of solidarity, diversity, equity and self-management, which are promoted by Parecon’s institutions, may contribute to equally desirable visions in Polity, Kinship, Community, Internationalism, Ecology, Science/Technology, Education, Art, Journalism, Crime and even Athletics. A decent society requires that freedom and justice be sought in all aspects of our society and not be limited to creating a good economy. In turn, all these other facets of society, if improved, could beneficially impact Parecon as well. The sphere of Polity is one such example for discussing vision and the strategy required in realising that vision.

Vision for Polity

Michael Albert claims that the current western electoral system and parliamentary democracy are the furthest things from "a system that provokes desirable participation, elicits informed opinion, and resolves disputes justly." Parpolity, a political vision put forth by Stephen Shalom, advocates the same values as Parecon and contains the characteristics that a decent political system should have, according to Albert. He argues that there is a need for a political vision, since thugs will not likely disappear in a decent society, nor will disputes of various sorts. There is a need for agreed social responsibilities, norms and practices, and, therefore, the need for political structures. While parliamentary democracy is not the answer, it is arguably better than Marxism-Leninism and its one party state and dictatorship, says Albert. Neither of these two, however, compares to a truly participatory democracy, where political life will "intensify" rather than diminish. As Shalom puts it, ‘In short, even in a society that had solved the problem of economic exploitation and eliminated hierarchies of race, class, and gender, many controversies – many deep controversies – would still remain,’ requiring ‘some sort of political system, a polity.’

A true democratic polity means that everyone "has the opportunity for meaningful and constructive participation in the formation of social policy." There must be institutions that can address political controversies by "tallying people’s preferences." Groups that differ on issues should be able to "effectively communicate their views." The "flow of information and commentary via a new media" must be democratised. Political parties must also be given democratic access, or we will be practising "repression and authoritarianism."

Albert describes how Parecon’s values easily correspond with the vision for a new polity.  A polity should "produce solidarity" and "generate diversity." Self-management is a natural fit in this domain: "Politics should facilitate actors having influence on decisions in proportion as those decisions impact on their lives." Equity is replaced by justice, which "addresses the distribution of rights and responsibilities." Other values, including liberty, participation, and tolerance, are also necessary.

Where institutions are considered, Albert describes the important matters of legislation, adjudication and collective implementation in Shalom’s conception of a desirable polity. Political councils, vertically layered, will be the method by which the aforementioned functions of a polity will be determined. Albert states that parecon takes care of most of the "executive functions," leaving a very narrow list of "polity mandates." For instance, even Centres for Disease Control and Environmental Protection Agencies have a "production and allocation aspect handled by the structures of participatory economics." Thus, the only role left for a polity is to provide "politically mandated functions and responsibilities…with a political aspect defining their agendas and perhaps conveying special powers."

Parpolity also advocates that we not do away with the police. Albert concurs. He recognises the need for "special skills and knowledge" when it comes to criminal matters. Besides, they too will be subject to "pareconish workplace structure and decision making." In addition to this, it may be possible to limit the duration that police work, and to create oversight committees that monitor their behaviour.

Parpolity’s greatest weakness lies in the area of the Judiciary, where Albert believes the vision is in need of more work. There is no radical alternative for how criminal matters and civil adjudications should be handled in a better society. While it seems appropriate to provide legal representation for those who cannot defend themselves, it is less obvious what should be done when attorneys have knowledge of innocence or guilt and continue to "win favorable verdicts." Over all, Albert believes the "shared political vision on the left…is still in a modest state." However, he believes that parpolity and parecon are natural partners, each with a social system that "requires and produces what the other provides and needs." Furthermore, parpolity and parecon "could mutually combine to become a classless ‘political economy’ that delivers solidarity, diversity, equity/justice, and self-management."

Strategy

Albert’s strategy for the movement in realizing a decent society is founded on the following: "seek reforms that will improve people’s lives in the present as part of the process of replacing those defining features fully in the future." In addition to this, he urges that a movement try to incorporate in its present organization and structure the very features and properties that it advocates in its visions. Albert also wonderfully describes what a movement should truly resemble: "very broad and diverse agglomerations of people who mutually respect divergent viewpoints and operate effectively together despite and even in celebration of their differences." In essence it would be a "movement of movements."

Haroon Bajwa (Member of the Vancouver Parecon Collective)

Leave a comment