Reviewing Parecon

The anti-capitalist movement is not what it was. From Seattle to Hyde Park, debate has ranged from the neoliberal agenda and all its implications to imperialist wars. In a global day of anti-war protest we have had an inkling of its potential strength. Now many people are arguing that all this energy and organization must press on for alternatives to privatization, for social justice and peace. We are not satisfied that ‘the only alternative to the market was something worse–Stalinism’. This book reflects a profound shift in the expectations of millions of people. In a sustained assault on the neoliberal agenda Albert describes an alternative in which you and I will decide how work is organized, what is produced and how we are paid. This he calls ‘Participatory Economics’–Parecon.

He begins in ‘Values and Institutions’ by defining and contrasting capitalism, market socialism, centrally planned socialism, bioregionalism and participatory economics. Albert sets out the values to be discussed: equity–how much people should get and why; self management–what kind of say over their conditions people should have; diversity–’should paths to fulfillment be diversified or narrowed?’; and solidarity–should people cooperate or compete?

He argues that the institutions that exist to enable unfettered profit-seeking–the IMF, World Bank and WTO–can be replaced by an International Asset Agency, Global Investment Assistance Agency and a World Trade Agency. These will attain the above values and ecological balance in international financial trade and cultural exchange by being transparent and participatory, with local popular democratic accountability. Albert then details his participatory economic vision which involves social ownership of productive assets, worker and consumer councils, ‘balanced job complexes’, payment according to effort and sacrifice and finally participatory planning.

His approach reflects his background in anarchism and the experience of the New Left in the 1960s. Quite rightly he lays emphasis on minority rights, though I cannot agree with his example of a workers’ council’s hiring decision ‘that anyone who is strongly opposed can block any proposed hire no matter how many others favour it… She doesn’t have to explain why, she gets a veto because being strongly opposed to hiring trumps favouring hiring.’ What if the objection is based on racism or homophobia? This detail seems at odds with the concept of participation where everyone at a workplace collectively makes decisions and takes responsibility for them. Even under capitalism many jobs assume feedback will be given to an applicant about why they haven’t been hired.

It is partly in the nature of a book like this that readers will respond differently to the concrete examples about how life might look under Parecon. So not everyone will agree with the exact formulation of his ‘balanced job complexes’ in which every person, including specialists and experts, will do some tasks of the less enjoyable and empowering kind so that ‘over a reasonable period the overall average empowerment impact for each job will be the same as that for the other jobs’.

Socialists argue that people change their ideas through the experience of struggle, but even the raised expectations of the participants of a successful revolution will surely pale against the ideas of children raised beyond capitalism. But Albert keeps his feet on the ground and tackles criticisms of Parecon concerning productivity, creativity, meritocracy, privacy, flexibility and human nature.

Albert is clearly aware that many people in the anti-capitalist movement argue that ‘vision must replace sectarianism’. He argues that an overarching vision and coherent theory is ‘absolutely necessary for activists to guide their choice of social experiment’. There is no discussion here of how to smash capitalism. Indeed Albert describes Parecon communities existing beside non-Parecon communities or countries. However, this book is an important contribution to the imaginative tools for everyone who wants to dismantle capitalism.



Albert’s Brief Reply…

I thank Sarah Ensor for her review of Parecon, Life After Capitalism. It is hard enough writing about a whole alternative economy in 300 pages. I can’t imagine trying to evaluate such an effort in 300 words. Yet I have only two brief comments.
The example of individuals vetoing a hire was meant for a very small firm where each person works in close proximity to all other people so if you don’t like me and I am hired to work with you, your days are ruined. Hiring for a large firm would be quite different, as we could simply be separated. Of course grounds of not hiring someone shouldn’t be racist, sexist, etc. A desirable polity (parecon is only an economy) would presumably ensure such norms, as other descriptions in the book make evident.

But mostly these kinds of hiring details and other descriptions are presented only as possibilities. A given parecon might choose from an immense range of viable and worthy options those we describe in the book, or might choose others quite different from examples in the book. All that is characteristic of parecons per se, are the defining institutions and norms within which countless diverse choices are undertaken. The defining features of parecon are workers and consumers councils rather than corporate board rooms as sites of self managed rather than grossly hierarchical decision making, balanced job complexes rather than corporate divisions of labor, remuneration for effort and sacrifice rather than for property, power, or even output, and allocation by participatory planning rather than by markets (or central planning). 

Finally, Ensor is right that the book Parecon doesn’t address attaining a participatory economy beyond a relative few words, despite that that is the paramount concern for those who advocate the vision, including myself. Other work does address matters of strategy, however. In this book, the question addressed is simply what kind of economy do we want. Settling on what we want, we can then move on to refining our opposition to capitalism so that it leads to the future we desire.


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