[Fifteen years ago Barbara Ehrenreich interviewed Michael Albert about participatory economics. The exchange largely addressed matters of allocation, participatory planning versus markets, so we rerun it to accompany the series of essays on socialism now appearing on ZNet.]
Ehrenreich: I have heard that there’s been a lot of interest around the world in your new book, Parecon: Life After Capitalism, about a new economic system to replace capitalism. Can you tell me a little about what languages it’s been translated into and what kind of reactions you’ve gotten?
Albert: Having published about fifteen books and for the other fourteen having had maybe four translations, the experience with Parecon says a lot about changing times. I can’t even keep track of what’s happening. Arabic, Bengali and Telagu in India, Croatia, Czechoslavakia, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish. Agencies pursuing Portuguese, and Hebrew. Verso is distributing the book in English in Pakistan, South Africa, Australia, the U.S, Britain, and Canada. And apparently there is strong interest in Chinese, Farsi, Hungarian, Norwegian, Polish, and Russian. There have been articles, interviews, and reviews in some of these locales well before the book is released. In some cases the decision has been virtually immediate — we sent the book to Finland in reply to a request for a review copy and just days later they offered a contract. There is great interest in the topic, clearly.
In English too, there are encouraging signs, at least of possibilities. So, in the Harvard bookstore in Cambridge Massachusetts I did an author’s talk and signing. For that week the book had a little display up front in the store and was as a result quite visible. And for that week the book outsold all but two texts in the store, outselling every novel in the place and all other non fiction too. This wasn’t because people knew me as a writer or had read reviews of the book, or seen ads. There were none at that time, and in English have been nearly none, since.
People just saw the display, saw the title and the jacket comments, read on the flap that the book was about an alternative economy, and bought it. I think this shows that interest in transcending capitalism is high and growing. But of course at the same time around the corner in other stores, and even in that same store in subsequent weeks, sales dropped back down…for want of visibility. Oprah hasn’t called. Nor has the NYT Book Review had a cover essay on it. Verso has no money to advertise. And in the U.S., media coverage and ads are how store owners and the broad public find out what books are out there that they ought to consider buying. Hopefully, with the paperback coming out, there will be reviews in English language media.
Ehrenreich: The book is incredibly optimistic, some would say utopian. At a time when most on the US left are fighting constant erosions of rights and services — all of which were limited enough in the first place — what do you think the role of a book like Parecon can be?
Albert: Of course we won’t attain a participatory economy soon. Bush is seeking international empire and to dissolve social programs domestically. It is the worst of times, in those respects. But it is also the best of times considering international activism’s growing scale, awareness, and aspirations. I think Parecon can help that positive trend, even in the very short run, by compellingly addressing the question “What do we want?
When the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher proclaimed “There is no alternative” she echoed a widespread belief. If we have no worthy alternative to capitalism then asking people to oppose capitalist exploitation feels like an invitation to a hopeless cause. People reasonably fear that short run gains will ultimately only lead back to the same old conditions. Busy people don’t do fool’s errands, which includes fighting the good fight only to lose. For motivation, hope, and to have positive aspirations, people need vision.
I don’t want to seek change just to be on the side of the angels, or to be able to look at myself in the mirror. I want to struggle to win. I want the pressure of having to try to win, not just to show up. We need economic vision so that we can sensibly orient our efforts to take us where we wish to go. Strategy requires understanding not only our present situation, but also what we aim toward, our vision. And, of course, I think participatory economics is a worthy vision to adopt.
Ehrenreich: An eloquent answer, and I fully agree on the importance of keeping our vision in sight even while battling in the trenches. But there are alternatives to the present global power arrangements other than — you might say “short of” — the participatory economics you map out. Bill Greider, for example, has a book on how to make major change within capitalism, using levers like union pension funds. And I, though I call myself a socialist, am unpersuaded of the wisdom of abolishing the market in all areas. Health care, housing, and other basic things should be freed from the market for some kind of public control. But cosmetics, stylish clothing, and other things that could be construed as non-necessities — why not leave all that to the market? Call me a vain, petty, capitalist running dog, but I certainly don’t want a bunch of committees deciding how long skirts will be or what lipstick colors will be available.
Albert: Of course capitalism can be better or worse. The relative bargaining power of contending classes determines just how draconian income distribution, concentrations of power, investment patterns, and conflicts among economic classes are. With more bargaining power, we can raise wages, improve work conditions, increase social investments, and win many other innovations. So yes, we can certainly win and defend improvements against capitalism’s socially reinforced greed and power, and we must — but why not simultaneously seek a new system that has desirable outcomes as its norm?
To avoid miscommunicating my desires I don’t call myself a socialist, and I certainly would never call you petty, vain, or a capitalist running dog — but about markets, the big choice is not markets versus a bunch of committees. That’s a false polarity.
The big choice is do we want competitive markets that depend on each actor fleecing the rest, that misaccount the relative value of all items and distort preferences, that lead workplaces to seek maximum surpluses and deliver unjust remuneration, that apportion decision making influence hierarchically, and that produce class division and class rule — or do we want cooperative participatory planning that produces equity, enhances solidarity, enlarges diversity, and facilitates self-management, even as it also helps us meet needs and develop potentials?
Having markets for some items and not for others as you suggest might have relative benefits if markets had significant virtues that no alternative allocation system could match and exceed, and if markets had no huge debits for the proposed items, and if a market in some items but not in others was viable, for that matter.
But markets have no virtues that participatory planning won’t match and dramatically exceed. Markets lack all kinds of virtues that participatory planning incorporates. Markets have numerous disastrous faults that apply not only to markets in labor, or to markets in huge investment projects, but to markets in any item at all, including dresses, all of which faults are absent in participatory planning. And finally, if you don’t have labor markets the entire argument that marketeers put forth for having any kind of markets collapses.
Applying all this to skirts, we should want the tastes and preferences of all workers and consumers and particularly of people who wear and of those who produce skirts to interactively proportionately influence their length and colors, as well as their number and composition, their method or production, and so on — instead of profit seeking determining these results. But to have a market in skirts not only violates these desires, it means skirt prices will diverge from the true social costs and benefits of their production and consumption, that skirt factories will seek surpluses as their guiding motive and will remunerate their workers unjustly, and that these factories will utilize ill conceived methods of production and also incorporate class division, among many other faults.
All the items involved in economic life are connected. Producing more of any one item leaves less assets for producing all the other items. Items that seem relatively simple on the consumption side can utilize all kinds of inputs with wide ranging ramifications. Mispricing any item induces a ripple effect that misprices the rest. Having antisocial motives at play in any one item’s production and consumption skews the context for other items production and consumption. Excessive or inferior remuneration levels generate harmful incentives.
In other words, markets aren’t a little bad, or even just very bad in some contexts. Instead, in all contexts, markets instill anti-social motivations in buyers and sellers, misprice items that are exchanged, misdirect aims regarding what to produce in what quantities and by what means, mis-remunerate producers, introduce class division and class rule, and embody an imperial logic that spreads itself throughout economic life.
If eating, having shelter, and having desirable additional items to express and fulfill our potentials and enjoy life’s options — including skirts — couldn’t be had by some system better in its material and human implications than markets, then, yes, we would have to settle for markets and try to ameliorate their ills as our highest aim. But luckily for humanity, there is a system that is much better than markets, so that we can strive to attain participatory planning even as we also ameliorate current market ills.
Ehrenreich: I don’t want to prolong the skirt discussion (I hardly ever wear them myself), but I am confused about the way you conflate markets with capitalist exploitation. There were markets of one kind or another for thousands of years before capitalism, so they can’t be the same thing. Do you totally reject all attempts to create non-exploitative enterprises within capitalism, for example — like “No Sweat” in L.A., various micro-enterprises throughout the world, etc?
Albert: I certainly don’t mean to conflate markets with capitalism. They differ. Capitalism has markets in labor power, and in most though not all goods. But you can certainly have markets without having private ownership of the means of production, as, for example, in Yugoslavia not long ago. I think I was actually quite careful in my list above to pinpoint faults of markets per se, not of capitalist markets. Markets always compel pursuit of surplus for example, but it won’t go to owners as profits if they are not capitalist markets.
Having helped create non-exploitative South End Press among other institutions, I certainly advocate creating better institutions now. Pushing existing institutions in desirable directions as well as creating new and more desirable institutions can make life better for people working in and consuming products from those institutions now, and can make life better later for everyone if we can make the efforts part of a process leading to a whole new economy.
But it is also important to note that when we create desirable institutions like South End Press, if we do it short of winning a whole new economy, they will exist in a sea of counter pressures pushing hard on us to return our activities to an oppressive logic. There is counter pressure on our new institutions – if they are in a market environment — to advertise, to cut and slough off costs and have managers impose the cost cutting and dodging policies, to lengthen the work day regardless of people’s desires for leisure, and so on. Thus we should seek not only reforms, but a whole new economy.
Ehrenreich: Before proceeding to other matters, my big reason for wanting some things to remain marketized is that it would reduce the burden of planning. As you know, some have complained that parecon condemns us to endless meetings, so why not leave “non-essentials” to the market?
Albert: Opting for some markets in order to reduce the burden on participatory planning doesn’t, in fact, reduce that burden. What is planned would have to use items from the marketized industries, and also deliver items to them. Managing those interfaces would add a whole new and disruptive dimension to participatory planning. Moreover, supposing this interfacing could even exist, it would condemn the participatory planning process to arrive at false plans by undermining its capacity to determine true exchange values.
Markets compel competition for market share and revenues. What would it mean to say that some workplaces should compete to sell as much as possible in order to accrue surpluses, but that they then shouldn’t disperse those surpluses to their employees? On the one hand, if they do disperse surpluses to their employees, then the entire remuneration scheme of participatory planning — to remunerate not for output, or for bargaining power, or for property, but only for effort and sacrifice — is laid waste. On the other hand, if they don’t disperse their surpluses to employees, then the firms aren’t really operating in a market fashion and, what’s more, have no basis for deciding their level of production, length of workday, etc.
I therefore wonder what you have in mind when you say you want non-essential production decisions to be decided by markets. It wouldn’t mean that people wouldn’t make choices for those items. It would mean people would make their choices under the institutional pressures of market competition. Why would you want to have allocation decisions made with institutionally imposed surplus-seeking motivations, using wrong prices as guides, engendering unjust remuneration, imposing antisocial behavioral incentives, and with actors exercising inappropriate levels of influence – instead of having participatory planning in which people make the decisions based on true prices exercising proportionate say in pursuit of social well being and development rather than surplus accumulation?
If markets are accompanied by capitalist ownership relations, then the pursuit of revenues that markets induce, after meeting costs and investing in equipment, is largely allotted to profits for the owners. If markets exist with public or state owned property, then the pursuit of revenues they induce, after meeting costs and investing in equipment, is largely allotted to a surplus for what I call a coordinator class. There are elements of progress in this alteration, but much less than I seek as my aims.
When you say we should marketize inessential goods – what qualifies something as being inessential? Inessential goods would include a huge array of items if it includes dresses, but aren’t all products essential if we consider that they are all created by people, headed for consumption by people, utilizing assets which could be put to other (“more essential”) ends, and so on?
Are sneakers inessential – if so, does that mean it is okay for firms pursuing market share and surpluses via cutting the cost of production of sneakers to run sweat shops and spew pollution? Is soda pop inessential? If it is, and we have it operate via market exchange, is it okay for the soda pop firms to gobble up all the available quinine so that millions die of malaria? Is it okay for all the workers in the soda pop firms to be overseen by bosses and reduced to only rote labor just because they aren’t producing milk?
Economies are general equilibrium systems. What happens in one place is inextricably bound to influence and be influenced by what happens elsewhere. If you feel that housing is essential and clothes aren’t, how do planned housing decisions get made unless clothes decisions are being taken interactively at the same time and how can the housing decision be good decisions unless the valuations of clothes are correct? If clothes decisions are being taken by market dynamics, then the planning of housing is undermined by the inaccuracy of clothing choices. Too much or too little productive time, energy, and resources, may be going to clothes instead of housing.
Markets lead to corporate divisions of labor and to remuneration that diverges from measures of effort and sacrifice — which is the type of remuneration participatory planning advocates — even without private ownership of productive assets.
Likewise, markets missprice goods and services due to failing to account for external and public effects, again, even without private ownership. The fact that dresses are “inessential” doesn’t tell us that their production involves no external environmental effects. What if producing dresses uses important resources, or generates damaging pollution? And producing dresses most certainly impacts workers. Markets induce individualist behavior of the narrowest sort, again, even without private ownership. Markets give an incentive to dump pollution and to otherwise ignore the effects of one’s actions on those who aren’t buying and selling. Why do we want people who produce dresses to be motivated by greed, not the fulfillment of themselves and consumers? Why would we want to accept market ills for any item in the economy?
If a particular industry operates on a market, say the dress industry, it means that that industry seeks to sell as many of its products as possible, at as high a price as it can extract as possible, regardless of the implications of those sales on buyers or more broadly. Dress producers will advertise. They will want to buy cheap and sell dear. They will prefer production techniques that cost them less even if they pollute more. The dress industry will produce in light of incorrect valuations of the product. It will cut costs of production regardless of whether doing so hurts workers more than it benefits consumers. The dress industry will do all these things, and much more, to get market share and stay in operation.
When you say leave non essentials to a market — I also think perhaps you have in mind central planning and markets, and you are thinking why not augment one with some of the other, since neither has stupendous virtues compared to the other. But my claim for participatory planning, which I can’t make in full in an interview without abusing length even more than I already am, is that participatory planning does have stupendous virtues compared to either markets or central planning. Participatory planning produces solidarity by creating conditions in which to get ahead actors must take into account the well being of those who produce what they consume or consume what they produce. It facilitates actors having appropriate decision making power by its modes of decision making and proper pricing. It is consistent with and facilitates remunerating effort and sacrifice. It respects and expands diversity. It establishes a dynamic consistent with classlessness by not requiring a layer of coordinators controlling outcomes.
Ehrenreich: Have you ever tried to calculate the human labor costs of all the planning involved in parecon? Or maybe I should say “time” not dollar “costs.”
Albert: Yes, in the various books the issue of time allotment is certainly addressed. And the discussions not only look at the time it takes to plan, which is only one side of the coin, but also at the time gained due to eliminating diverse kinds of no longer needed activity when we change to a parecon.
Some people, especially when hearing a brief summary of parecon, worry that self consciously deciding on what to produce and consume by a negotiated cooperative process will take too long. I have two answers. First, no, it won’t. The planning process in a parecon is confined to a couple of weeks and only takes part time attention over that span. But, second, even prior to that answer, we have to decide what would count as being too long. That is, when someone asks me about the cost of planning in time expended, I want to try to communicate that this is at worst a trade off.
Let’s say the total time that you as a consumer have to spend thinking about and implementing your consumption choices would go up in a parecon by a factor of two, or even three or four, depending on how much time you spend now – which, I think is quite exaggerated, unless you spend very little time now. Okay, that would be a cost, to be sure.
But would it be a deal breaker? To know that, you have to look at both sides of the equation. You have to weigh the new time costs (which I deny). But you also have to weigh countervailing gains – such as having no ruling class, having equitable work conditions and income distribution, having accurate pricing, having no drive toward individualism, no poverty, no products designed to wear out, and so on, through many more gains.
Okay, let’s say someone really values time a whole lot. For this person spending extra time on consumption outweighs attaining classlessness and all the rest. Even in that case, he or she would still need to consider the countervailing implications of having participatory planning for time savings and not just its implications for new time expenditures.
For example, parecon affects the length of the workday. Where markets increase workday length by their competitive logic regardless of the wills of actors to have more leisure, participatory planning leaves the choice entirely in the hands of actors in light of their preferences for leisure versus income. Likewise, there are time savings due to the absence of class struggle, the elimination of the IRS, the end of redundant and wasteful production, the end of having to clean up the messes produced by market competition in the ecology, etc. And even regarding consumption itself, there are very substantial time savings due to actors having accurate information, and, in particular, due to sensible collective consumption obviating the need for quite a lot of individual consumption as we now know it, as well as by producing for durability rather than market-induced built-in obsolescence. All this is dealt with in the book, by the way.
So, okay, in light of all this would planning in a parecon take inordinately longer than consuming does now plus the time for other activities that parecon replaces? In a parecon, you have to spend some time over the course of a week or two entering your budget and interacting with the overall process. I suspect this won’t take longer than people now spend doing tax returns, say, and worrying about how to pay bills, or recuperating from purchases made due to false advertising, or having to do personal consumption that would be rendered irrational in a parecon, or producing or cleaning up wasteful and useless outputs, and so on. After the plan exists, time spent making adaptations as the year proceeds really isn’t significantly different than time spent nowadays on consumption or production decisions, though it is carried out very differently, with different implications.
My reaction to averting time expenditures by utilizing is therefore twofold. Markets are harmful. Even if they are utilized for one product, which isn’t what would occur, the price of that product will be wrong and that wrong price will enter in every other industry incorrectly. The workers in the market driven industry will be motivated to seek surplus and will be unfairly remunerated as compared to all other workers who are motivated by fulfilling needs and remunerated for effort and sacrifice. The marketized workplace structure will push toward class division. More, it makes no sense to have an infrastructure for “market exchange” and have only a few goods marketed. In fact, it only has sense to both consume via the participatory plan and also via markets if there are lots of things to buy on the market. But then all the associated ills of markets would be spreading — and we may as well have markets for everything and say goodbye to classlessness. And second, the purported time gain is false, in any event.
Ehrenreich: That response raises all kinds of questions and sets off some alarm bells in my mind. To start with one of them, which may seem trivial, but is actually very central to our differing visions of a utopian arrangement: When you say “let’s say someone, really values time a whole lot,” I cringe. Is there anyone who doesn’t? What’s important to me is my work and time with friends and family. In my vision of the good society, there is more time for these things, not less. So I want as little time devoted to planning as possible. Maybe I’m just a deadbeat, but I do think this issue needs to be taken seriously unless parecon is to be run, by default, entirely by weirdly obsessed nerds.
Albert: I referred to someone “really caring about time a whole lot” referencing someone valuing time so much that saving even a little would outweigh eliminating class division, exploitation, mispricing, misdirection of motives, and so on. I pointed out that even such a person, and I don’t think that is you by a long shot, would have no reason to worry about parecon’ time implications, because parecon in total frees time rather than robbing it.
To not care about time would be odd, I agree with you. We should value saving an extra hour a week, but not so much as to sacrifice equity, solidarity, diversity, self management, sustainability, and an end to class division to attain that extra hour.
Suppose having a dictator would save time. Suppose allotting supreme power to an owner of some firm and derivative power to some managerial henchmen keeping others completely subordinate would save time. Suppose utilizing markets would save time. Time concerns shouldn’t trump all other concerns. That said, in fact, in parecon to participate in decision making rather than to obey decisions taken by others takes some time, but other time reductions more than offset this.
I indicated diverse factors bearing on time reduction last answer. But let’s concretize one. In the mid 1950s, which was generally considered the golden age of capitalism, as our mutual friend Juliet Shor points out, the per capita output in the U.S. was nearly exactly one half what it rose to about 40 years later. That means by the mid 1990s we could have worked one week on and one week off, or a month on and a month off, or a twenty hour work week, and produced the same total output per person as we had available in that earlier golden age. Market competition ensured, instead, that the total time allotted to work went up instead of down. Participatory planning would have let us choose. And that immense gain isn’t the whole story. Parecon would also save time no longer allotted to producing excess advertising and packaging, to producing shoddy individual goods replaced by collective durable ones, and of course time no longer allotted to military production.
I should add, I don’t think there is anything nerdy about people deciding their own lives.
Ehrenreich: OK, let’s forget about the slackers v. the nerds and approach the time issue in a more socially serious way. On a panel you organized at the 2003 World Social Forum, a former mayor of Porto Alegre described a real-life experiment in something like parecon — the city’s “participatory budget,” introduced by the Workers’ Party (P.T.). For a year, hundreds of ordinary citizens representing different neighborhoods and themes — health, welfare, housing, transportation, etc. (but n.b. — not lipstick colors or skirt lengths!) — met repeatedly to devise the next year’s budget, or at least that half of the budget other than fixed expenses. Then the Brazilian radical economist Paul Singer observed that, if it took hundreds of people a year to plan 50 percent of the budget for one medium-sized city, the process of planning for a nation could be cumbersome beyond imagining. Doesn’t that give you pause?
Albert: The Participative Budget project in Brazil is a fascinating and important experiment. But it certainly does not give me pause. It came about because when the Brazilian Workers Party (PT) began to win city and even state government elections, the legislature was hostile and likewise the judiciary. The PT had unchallenged control of only the government budgets where they held mayoralties and governorships, such as in Porto Alegre and the state called Rio Grande Del Sol. When the governor there planned to raise minimum wages, the legislature quickly organized to pass a law that any raise given at the lower levels of income had to be matched by a proportionately identical raise at every other level of income, thus obviating the gain. Given this type of obstruction, the PT decided that a campaign they could embark on without sabotage from other branches of government was to incorporate public involvement in deciding what the PT-led governments would spend taxes on.
So the participative budget program was initiated as a kind of consultation between government ministries and sectors of the populace brought together for the purpose of discussing about 10-15% of the government budgets. It is certainly a pareconish direction to move in, though it didn’t explicitly reject markets or private ownership, or propose any alteration to workplaces, etc. Indeed, it was really a political innovation. It diverged from parecon not only in scale, not only in having no aspect on the producer side — not only isn’t it about numbers of dresses or lipsticks to be produced, it isn’t about deciding any production outputs at all — and not only in being a government project, but also in its entire infrastructure and methodology.
That the participative budget is slow (though I think it actually runs on the schedule set for it, and though much of the slowness may be attributable to the government side of the equation, rather than running long because it must take that long or because the public is the problem) tells us no more about how participatory planning would operate than the fact that a half a bridge won’t get us rapidly across a river tells us about the affectivity of a whole bridge to get us quickly across a river, or then the travails of central planning tell us about participatory planning’s prospects, for that matter.
Skirts, and now you mention lipstick too, keep resurfacing. In participatory planning what is addressed by the cooperative negotiation between consumers and workers during planning is their quantities. Inside firms, rather than a boss deciding their composition, colors, etc., this is handled however workers councils choose, though without class division. Consumers don’t enter consumption proposals enumerating the lipstick shades they want, colors, sizes, etc. Just how many lipsticks, broadly. They later pick what they like at distribution outlets. Teasing details from the amounts they desire is handled statistically.
All this is elaborated in more detailed discussions of the procedures in the book and elsewhere. But parecon doesn’t require that the consumer explore the detailed issues associated with lipstick colors, or even pay attention to lipstick colors other than how they do now – which is by choosing, on the spot in a store, which color he or she likes. And the same holds for skirt sizes, colors, lengths, etc. But to accomplish all this easily, parecon doesn’t make the mistake of marketizing lipstick and skirts (and so much else) and thereby consigning the larger issues of how many to produce, by what methods, using what techniques, and with what remuneration for those doing the work, to market motivations and dynamics. Instead, it uses statistical averaging techniques to avoid nitpicking detail, while keeping the driving dynamics of decision making under the purview of workers and consumers who cooperatively negotiate the outcomes with proportionate influence.
Would a working participatory planning be efficient in reaching decisions and in getting them to reflect self managed preferences in light of the true social costs and benefits of competing options? I have said that yes, it would, and I have offered some modest evidence for it, but the real and compelling case requires presenting and assessing the full participatory planning model as, for example, in the book, Parecon.
I guess what I would say here is that if readers would like there to be an alternative to class-dominated market or centrally planned allocation, and if they would like to be able to advocate such an alternative knowing its properties (or improving them as they see fit), they ought to look at the more complete description of participatory planning’s procedures and institutions and judge its properties for themselves.
Ehrenreich: Singer also asked, what do you do when changed conditions, say a natural disaster, require instant decision-making? How do you answer this question?
Albert: The question about responding to changes in people’s preferences or in material conditions, whether modest or major, is very important, of course. Any economy needs to be flexible or it will be disastrous in various respects. Indeed, there is a full chapter in the Parecon book, even after the full presentation of the model, exploring this issue in detail. Both markets and participatory planning have to reply to changes and shocks. Markets do it by actors seeking to exploit the new situation to increase profits or surplus using prices that reflect bargaining power rather than social costs and benefits and little concerns for who goes without missing outputs or other possible ramifications. Effects ripple out from the affected industry. Results accrue. And this takes time and involves diverse implications, often moving outcomes even further from just and desirable results.
In participatory planning, effects are also systemic, and also ripple outward from centers of change. Sometimes they are modest and have damped ripple effects, as when slack planning covers the changes or when industries in question can increase output with overtime. Sometimes, as with a big disaster or a major breakthrough in productivity, real juggling and resetting of options must occur, or if it is more efficient and desirable, changes must wait a new planning period.
There are many ways this can happen. It can be that valuations of items change and that some people go without affected items when prices climb, shifting their expenditures elsewhere, while others get what they sought, though at increased cost. It can be that, instead, valuations are held steady but some people go without due to shortfalls — either randomly or perhaps in accord with assessments of need — as production comes back into accord with desires. The details of alternatives and why one or another would be preferred in different situations would take too long to elaborate here. The point is, the norms guiding the situation are workers and consumers preferences. The process is self managed. And the results occur with only modest dislocation, even in difficult cases.
I guess the answer for this interview, then, is yes, responding to shocks is very important. If it turns out participatory planning is inadequate in this regard, it would certainly need refinement, though it certainly wouldn’t be an argument to employ markets or central planning, which react to shocks like they react to everything else, in the interest of dominant classes and therefore with horrible repercussions. As to whether participatory planning has failings in this regard, I think when readers examine the whole parecon system they will see that it very closely addresses these issues, and can handle them adroitly as well as in accord with parecon’s guiding values.
Ehrenreich: You say your notion of parecon was influenced by your experiences with real “alternative” organizations like South End Press. Can you tell us something about these experiences and how they shaped your thinking?
Parecon emerged conceptually from examining the experiences of many post capitalist economies and efforts, of course. And very central to that were some of our own experiences. When we formed South End Press, for example, we wanted it to implement our values, not only in the books we chose to publish, but also in how we structured our workplace. We knew we wanted real democracy, but when we sat around to talk about how to achieve that, serious issues arose.
First, what did it mean? Was everything to be decided by a vote of everyone with fifty percent plus one winning? And second, however decisions were to be arrived at, we realized our procedures wouldn’t matter all that much if we came to the meetings to discuss them with very unequal preparedness, motivation, and insights to offer.
So, regarding the first point, we realized that we wanted to discuss and make decisions in a way that gave appropriate say to each person involved, but we also realized that how much say that was would vary from case to case since impact and importance would vary from case to case. We were allergic — like you — to spending long amounts of time on low importance choices. And no one wanted others telling them what to do when it was largely a personal choice.
As we worked out rules, hiring and firing became a consensus decision because of the powerful effect a new employee might have on each person who might not like that new employee. Many broad issues were fifty percent plus one, though of course we would seek overall agreement first — salaries, hours, definitions of jobs, and so on. Accepting a book was two thirds needed in favor with recourse for opponents to delay decisions. Choices about how specific members or teams would organize their own time were made by those folks, not by everyone.
In short, we worked out in practice the processes and norms of self management including learning the efficacy of using different modes of decision making for different issues, and of allotting different numbers of people to making different choices depending on who the choices affected and to what extent. The norms regarding parecon decision making emerged naturally from all that. Similarly, while the council commitment of parecon has a long pedigree on the left, it was reinforced by the South End Press experience.
The payment approach in SEP wasn’t so directly related to parecon’s exact commitments, but indirectly it was. We had almost no resources for the first few years so people worked for room and board and no more. Everyone worked very hard, well over the usual full time job, but even given that, some people worked longer than others. There was no difference in pay, however. We all got room and board, period. When there was sufficient income to have salaries, we put upper limits on them — in accord with our respecting social averages. It was still true, however, that we all got the same pay. Everyone put out intensely, and everyone worked a long week, and for those who worked extra there simply was no more pay to be had. So the extra was just considered volunteering. But for me, being part of SEP and trying to learn from what we were doing while also thinking through other experiences, what I and Robin Hahnel, my partner in developing the parecon vision, teased out was the remuneration for effort and sacrifice idea.
The main impact on parecon of the SEP experience, though, was about the division of labor. We realized that if some people were editors or handled the finances, and other people just typeset the books or cleaned the office, no matter what initial pay structure we set up, and no matter what initial voting and discussion procedures we chose, in time the former folks would dominate all outcomes and the latter folks would become typical employees. The former would raise their own incomes and lower that of the subordinates. The hierarchies of power, income, and circumstance that we dreaded would worm their way back into our project. So we incorporated what we later refined and called balanced job complexes to insure that our work impacted us all in ways that facilitated all of us being able to participate and have a motivated and informed say in the decisions affecting us.
It wasn’t easy to do because it was a small operation with not all that many tasks to do so that apportioning tasks in a balanced way was difficult. Ignoring details, everyone did editorial, everyone did typesetting (which was backbreaking and hugely time consuming) and then some people did some functions like promotion, others did other functions like organizing production and fulfilling purchase orders, but with everyone doing a balanced mix in their overall job. This set of choices about how to organize SEP was, I think, a huge impetus to the parecon idea of balanced job complexes, though it became refined when thinking about applicability to a whole economy rather than just a single small workplace.
Ehrenreich: Why don’t you call yourself a socialist? It seems to me Parecon is well within the socialist tradition. Are you uncomfortable with being associated with that tradition?
Albert: Is the socialist tradition about fighting against domination and hierarchy in pursuit of classlessness and self management? Or is the socialist tradition about crushing grassroots direct involvement in economic and social life and imposing domination from above?
The fact that you and I prefer the former tradition doesn’t negate that the latter tradition has been a ubiquitous outcome for projects called socialist. And I think that we have to pay attention to that. And that we have to pay attention to common usage among the constituencies we wish to talk with, and also to the impact that using labels can have on narrowing our own thinking.
When applied to economics the word socialism means state or public ownership, market or centrally planed allocation, remuneration for output (or arguably for power), and corporate divisions of labor. These features have been present in every economy that has labeled itself socialist. They have characterized the design and logic of almost all movements that have called themselves socialist. They are present in nearly all written accounts of a socialist economic model that go beyond espousing values to actually specifying institutional aims. And finally, these are features that I reject the same as I reject private ownership of productive assets.
In the past, I have spent considerable time calling myself an unorthodox Marxist, or a libertarian socialist. I wrote books like Socialism Today and Tomorrow that rejected aspects of today’s models of socialism but advocated other models for tomorrow. But I think there comes a time where we have to admit that we have lost the war of words, or at the very least we have to recognize that it is a battle with diminishing returns, and move on to the real substantive issues without conceptual baggage.
I am anti private ownership of means of production, anti profit, anti market, anti central planning, and anti remuneration for output. I am anti corporate divisions of labor and anti coordinator class rule. I favor specific institutions contrary to all those characteristics. That means I reject much of what has gone under the name socialism and instead advocate things like balanced job complexes and participatory planning that have not gone under that name. I guess I think that worrying about whether other leftists will think we are rejecting what is good in the heritage when it is utterly obvious that that we aren’t should not be a concern for advocates of parecon. I think our concern should be whether people who seek classlessness and who advocate institutions to attain classlessness can communicate effectively with the rest of the world.
Ehrenreich: In the book Parecon, you make no mention, that I can find anyway, of remuneration for the work of “caring” in the home – child raising, caring for the elderly, etc. This is a big issue with feminists: how do you address it?
Albert: I talk about this in various places, but perhaps at less length than you might desire. What is the relation between parecon and issues of gender is the broad matter, and the specific matter is what is done vis a vis work in the home.
For the former issue, a parecon would have to respect goals implemented for kinship and gender relations. I don’t know what those goals will be. Perhaps changes in the nuclear family and living units more broadly will be important. Perhaps changes from mothering and fathering — which are now gender-defined roles — to parenting which could in the future be a genderless role. Maybe other changes will be critical, and obviously there will be much diversity.
The key claim for parecon is that it won’t contradict innovations sought by feminist activism. Men can’t have disproportionate economic control or inflated income in parecon because no one can. In fact, if the gender and household sphere of a society imposed a hierarchy of men over women, an accompanying parecon would contradict it because a parecon would disrupt any gender hierarchy by treating men and women equally. So in this sense, not only does parecon have to respect a desirable approach to home life and gender and sex issues more broadly, but also vice versa. Nurturance and socialization and relations among people in their living units and regarding sex, has to yield citizens able to hold balanced jobs, able to participate in self managed decision making, able to partner in work with all kinds of other people, etc.
But what about household work? I think the answer is that there may not be a single answer. I can imagine a society which says that household work is part of the economy so that all such work would be in balanced job complexes and remunerated for effort. But I can also imagine, and I would prefer and also think it more likely, a society in which household work wasn’t thought of that way.
For example, I don’t think the nurturing and upbringing of a child is the same broad type of activity as building a bicycle or a computer, or even teaching school or staffing a daycare center. Both child rearing and workplace production take time and energy. They both have important outcomes. But I think rearing the next generation inside households is so qualitatively different than producing outputs in workplaces that it shouldn’t be thought of under the same rubric. That doesn’t mean it should be apportioned unjustly, of course. It just means the norms that would govern housework would be part of what we might call the kinship sphere, not the economy.
I guess I don’t like thinking about household labor in a way that makes a child and family life analogous to a product of a workplace and work, though I realize others might disagree. However, to disagree out of concern that in a parecon women would be exploited by having to do household labor on top of their remunerated workplace labor seems to me to say that we can have goals regarding economics that improve workplace conditions, but we can’t have goals regarding kinship that improve household conditions and I see no reason to think that. Also, this is all separate from daycare facilities, schools, etc., that presumably would exist in a parecon, and would employ people doing their socially valued labor in accord with parecon norms.
There is another issue, bearing on other parts of household labor, that makes it problematic to think of homes as a workplace in the economy. Suppose you like to work a whole lot on designing and redesigning your living room, your whole residence, or your lawn. That could be a lot of activity but should it count as part of your contribution to the social output? The problem is, you are the main beneficiary. I think it is more accurately termed consumption and not seen as part of your balanced job complex. Could parecon treat it as work? Yes, I guess it could. Should it? I don’t think so, but again others might disagree. And again, this is different from a landscaping industry, which does work for households, neighborhoods, etc.
What parecon says is that workplaces and industries should remunerate for effort and sacrifice, should feature councils as venues of negotiation and decision making, should use self management methods for arriving at choices, and should employ balanced job complexes. Consumption should occur in accord with budgets and via participatory planning. But beyond these broad features, and the infrastructure of participatory planning, there is tremendous room for variation (just as there is lot of variation among different instances of capitalism, or any other type of economy). I have my own preferences about lots of aspects of a future society, like housework, or the interface between economics and religion, or what is consumption rather than work, and so on. Others will differ, and various patterns will emerge, perhaps differently in different countries. There is much more to life than economics, and parecon is just an economic goal.