An ongoing discussion/debate between
Michael Albert and Yanis Varoufakis
composed of separately written
roughly 500 word contributions
- Participatory Postcapitalist Vision – Michael Albert, 30th October 2021
For me, the defining institutions of capitalism are private ownership of productive assets; authoritarian control of workplaces; production for profit; a corporate division of labor wherein empowered employees dominate disempowered employees; remuneration for property, power, and/or output; and allocation by markets and/or central planning.
To my eyes, these capitalist institutions produce obscene inequity, vile anti-sociality, and soul crushing indignity. They impose stupefying, empathy destroying, democracy defiling, and world-ravaging economic conditions.
To my mind, this poses a paramount question. What new post capitalist economic features are essential to ensure that our future selves will freely determine the details of their future lives with dignity, equity, and social solidarity? Here are the defining features participatory economics proposes:
- A new conception of the natural and built workplaces, tools, and resources that we use to produce society’s goods and services. We call this a “Productive Commons,” and we propose it to replace private ownership of productive assets.
- Workers and consumers workplace and neighborhood councils (and industry and regional federations of councils) that we use to convey to all a say over economic decisions proportional to the extent those decisions affect them. We call this “council self management,” and we propose it to replace authoritarian control of production and consumption.
- Jobs composed of tasks that together provide each worker a manageable mix of responsibilities which convey by their daily accomplishment average “empowerment effects.” We call this mix “balanced job complexes,” and we propose it to replace a corporate division of labor that elevates an empowered coordinator class above a disempowered working class.
- Equitable remuneration for how long, how hard, and the onerousness of the conditions under which we do socially valued work. We call this “equitable remuneration,” and we propose it to replace remuneration for property, power, and/or output.
- And decentralized cooperative self-managed negotiation of production and consumption in light of personal, social, and environmental costs and benefits. We call this “participatory planning,” and we propose it to replace markets and/or central planning.
Advocates, myself included, claim that these five institutional aims, which we of course expect to see refined by future experience and augmented by diverse contextual policies and features that emerge from future practice, can together establish a classless, self managing, sustainable, and even aesthetic post capitalist economy that serves the fulfillment and development of all people.
Some advocates call this “participatory economics.” Some call it “participatory socialism.” But all its advocates, myself included, claim that these five proposed defining institutions can together serve as a flexible visionary scaffold we can refine and build on to help us traverse the road to winning a post capitalist economic vision. More, we claim that such participatory vision can inspire hope and sustain commitment. It can provide orientation to help us plant the seeds of the future in the present, win immediate gains in non-reformist ways, and traverse a trajectory of changes that avoids winding up other than where we wish to arrive.
2. Do we really want negotiations to replace markets and hierarchies? – Yanis Varoufakis, 4th December 2021
At the very heart of a heartless (and distinctly irrational) capitalist world lies the curious idea that the crushing majority who work in the corporations do not own them while the minuscule minority who own them can very easily not even know where they are located, let alone work in them. This gross asymmetry is the source of exorbitant power in the hands of the few to wreck the lives of the many, as well as of the planet. And it is not just a matter of unfairness. It is more a matter of wholesale alienation, as even the capitalists are condemned to live like sad bastards resembling guinea pigs running faster and faster on a treadmill, going nowhere.
So, it is a great relief that, here, I do not to have to argue about the need to terminate capitalism. That Michael and I are embarking from a common belief that capitalism must end in order to debate the type of feasible postcapitalism we want.
Michael traces the source of illiberty, inequality and inefficiency in the private ownership of productive means, which lies behind the elevation of profit to the only motive and begets the soul-crushing division of labour within a company as well as within society at large. Spot on! He is also right to propose a ‘productive commons’ and to point to the importance of a decentralised system of decision-making (extending beyond the workplace to the community, the neighbourhood etc.). Lastly, I agree wholeheartedly with the principle of participatory planning as a replacement of the power of bosses (capitalists or any type of ‘coordinator class’) to decide “who does what to whom”, to quote Lenin’s famous words.
But here begin our differences. Michael employs two words that ring alarm bells in my head: “equitable”, which he links to the remuneration of work (especially of ugly or dirty tasks); and “negotiation”, which he proposes as the basis for consumers and producers to decide, together, what must be produced and in what quality/quantity. My alarm is due to a deep conviction that both words are wolves in sheep’s clothing, hiding the prospect of new forms of domination and oppression.
Take “equitable”. Who decides what it is fair to pay you to go down the sewers, to maintain them? I suppose the answer is: the collective. Does the collective have the right to specify that you must go down the sewers for that wage without your consent? I hope not. But, if your consent is required, then the wage setting is not much different to a market mechanism, where the collective is your employer.
Take “negotiation”. This implies consensus. Which implies huge social pressure on a dissident to acquiesce to the majority’s view; e.g., to their rejection of a weird but potentially wonderful idea that the majority cannot wrap its mind around.
Personally speaking, I find suffocating the prospect of having to reach via negotiation a common understanding of what I must do and of what an equitable reward is for me to do it.
Before I suggest an alternative to negotiations, I felt the need to express, early on, this feeling of suffocation. And to ask our readers: Am I alone in feeling that authentic freedom requires not just the end of capitalism but also a degree of autonomy from the collective?
3. Negotiated, Classless Self Management = Michael Albert, 8th December 2021
Yanis, you say our differences begin beyond our both rejecting capitalism, advocating a productive commons, favoring participation in planning, and seeking to replace the “coordinator class.” But do we agree that to end coordinator class rule we need to replace the corporate division of labor with jobs balanced for empowerment? Do we agree that we should all decide our lives up to where our choices impinge on others, but from there on, others should have their self managing say, as well?
You express alarm that I use the words “equitable” and “negotiation.” You worry that these words may hide new forms of domination. But “equitable” means we receive income for how long, how hard, and the onerousness of the conditions under which we do socially useful work. Why would that alarm you? The only thing equitable remuneration has in common with market remuneration is that in each you get an income. But with markets you get what you have the bargaining power to take. With equitable remuneration, you get what you and your fellow workers decide accords with your duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work.
And regarding “negotiation,” I assume you agree that any economy will and should involve people acting jointly with other people. Doesn’t it follow that in worthy post capitalism, a worker won’t just do or get whatever they alone choose? Call what they do together exploration, conversation, or negotiation, what’s the alternative? One person or a small class decides? Competition decides?
You don’t want people telling you what to do. Okay, but people telling you what to do seems a strange way to characterize decisions that you participate in. In any event, do you think there could or should be a society where each person would decide their own remuneration, their own consumption, and their own work, with no concern for others?
You say you find suffocating ”the prospect of having to reach via negotiation a common understanding of what [you] must do and of what an equitable reward is for [you] to do it.” In participatory economics no one tells you what you must do and you are part of who decides what is an equitable reward. You are a participant in society not atomistically aloof from it.
You have a job. Suppose your workers council, of which you a full member, decides when the work day starts. It sets council agendas, it determines the composition of balanced jobs, and it decides how to apportion income among its workers. Assume mutually agreed sensible deliberation plus self managed decision making procedures. Would that be suffocating? To achieve “a degree of autonomy from the collective,” participatory economics makes diversity a prime value and emphasizes the need to respect and even preserve minority positions. But shouldn’t post capitalist division of labor, decision making, remuneration, and allocation deliver goods and services but also solidarity, diversity, equity, self management, and sustainability? We haven’t yet explored how all that can happen, but can we agree it needs to happen?
4. Flat management, democratic planning and a basic income
Yanis Varoufakis, 23rd December 2021
Michael: Glad that we are proceeding slowly, refusing to take for granted vague terms like ‘equitable’ and ‘just’ – terms within which all manners of oppressions and irrationalities can take refuge. Before proceeding, and in the interests of full disclosure, let me state it for the record that, from a young age and to this day, I have signed up to Karl Marx’s dismissal of equity (as a bourgeois notion) as well as to his antipathy to defining freedom as the right to make free choices as long as they do not impinge on others.
So, when you ask me whether we agree “…that we should all decide our lives up to where our choices impinge on others, but from there on, others should have their self managing say, as well”, my response is: No, we certainly don’t. Interdependence is a given in any social network. Thus, according to your definition of freedom, every Tom and Dick has the right to scream that Harriet’s choices somehow impinge on theirs. Who will adjudicate then? Tom and Dick, merely because they are in the majority (or any majority for that matter)? That is unacceptable.
You ask me why I am alarmed by your definition of equitable: “…Equitable means we receive income for how long, how hard, and the onerousness of the conditions under which we do socially useful work.” The answer is because I shudder to imagine who will decide what constitutes ‘socially useful work’. What happens if Harriet wants desperately to work on some new project that Tom and Dick consider ‘socially useless’? Or who gets to quantify how hard or onerous a particular job is? The majority again? Just writing these words makes my throat choke with angst.
You ask: “Do we agree that to end coordinator class rule we need to replace the corporate division of labor with jobs balanced for empowerment?” Sure, we agree. But, who gets to decide the job balance necessary for Harriet’s empowerment? My answer is: Harriet. No one else. Not Tom and Dick. No worker council should tell Harriet what is good for her to do, let alone decide on her behalf. Sure, they can chat about it in the assembly, on the company’s intranet, via all sorts of teleconferences etc. But, unless Harriet gets to decide what Harriet does, it ain’t self-management.
>Naturally, the question then becomes: How do things that need to get done get done? I have concrete ideas on how to answer this all-important question. But, in the spirit of taking this conversation slowly, I shall begin by setting down five basic principles that enterprises should adhere to:
Authentic self-management: Participants (i.e., worker-co-owners) must be free to join at will, or to quit, work teams within the enterprise – and to pursue projects without anyone’s permission
Democratic hiring & firing: A democratic process must determine who is brought into the enterprise, but also who is fired (Nb. The right of the collective to dismiss a participant as a necessary counter-balance of authentic self-determination)
A basic income for all: Without an adequate basic income, to fire a participant is to jeopardise her capacity to live. This would vest too much power in the hands of the majority (within the enterprise) while, at once, making it harder to fire someone that deserves to be fired.
Democratic resource allocation: The collective decides how much the basic salary is, how much to spend on infrastructure (including R&D), the enterprise’s multi-year plan and, lastly, how much to set aside for annual bonuses (to be distributed according to a democratically agreed process)