Elena Molinari Interviews Michael Albert

(1) Many mainstream economists and historians claim that there is only one economic system viable in the world in the XXI century, and that is capitalism. Is the system of Participatory economy alternative to both capitalism and socialism? How and why?

To say that there is only one way forward is very convenient for advocates of that way, of course. No matter how odious that way may be, we are all stuck with it. But in fact, TINA – there is no alternative – is just a big lie, whether it is Margaret Thatcher or Bill Gates or Berlusconi who claims it.

Yes, participatory economics is an alternative to both capitalism and what has been called socialism. It seeks to implement different values and proposes different institutions.

Participatory economics elevates solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management, while accomplishing economics to meet needs and fulfill potentials.

In other words, parecon tries to have people benefit via mutuality rather than competitively ripping off each other. Parecon fosters variety rather than homogenization. Parecon provides actors just shares in accord with the exertions they undertake and the sacrifices they make, rather than rewarding property or power. And parecon apportions to each worker and consumer influence in proportion as the actor is affected by decisions, rather than giving some immense power and others none.

But what about actual institutions? To further its values, parecon opts for decentralized and grassroots workers and consumers councils instead of highly centralized corporations and government bureaucracies.

Parecon opts for remuneration for how long we work, how hard we work, and what harshness we must endure in our work, instead of paying for property or bargaining power or even output.

Parecon opts for job complexes that apportion empowering work conditions equitably instead of giving a monopoly on empowering work to about twenty percent of the population. In a parecon, we each do a mix of tasks which has comparable overall empowerment and quality of life effects so that circumstances are equitably distributed, rather than some people having fulfilling work and some having debilitating work. The division of labor that consigns most to passive obedience is gone.

Parecon opts for self managed decision making in which each actor has a say proportionate to effects on them instead of hierarchical rule in which a few actors lord their decisions over others. No dictator has ever contemplated telling a population it had to ask to go to the bathroom, yet this is quite typical in large corporations. In parecon we impact decisions with a fair and appropriate say.

And finally, parecon opts for a system of cooperative negotiated determination of allocation in place of both markets and central planning. No longer do we try to sell items by regardless of effects on the buyer. No longer is fleecing others the national pastime. No longer do we shop until we drop, work until we expire. No longer is waste profitable. No longer is the environment a target for violation.

In capitalism there is an owning ruling capitalist class. In what has been called socialism there is an organizationally dominant ruling coordinator class. In parecon, there is classlessness. 
(2) Has Parecon been tried or applied anywhere in the world, in any way? With what results?

Various institutions have incorporated aspects of pareconish norms and structures, sometimes explicitly aware of the whole model and sometimes not. I helped found a publishing house in the U.S. that is pareconish – South End Press. Other efforts in publishing, music, stores, etc., have taken up these norms, as well. The participatory budget in Porto Alegre and Sao Paulo in Brazil and in other cities as well are not a full parecon, not even close – but are on a related path. And the same can be said for occupied factories and neighborhood councils in Argentina, and the grassroots democratic participation in Kerala, India, and so on.

It is hard to institute truly participatory values and methods while swimming in a sea of corrupt commercialization of all life – but it is not impossible. Experiments have been instructive about how to do this kind of design, and have been beneficial regarding product and for those involved.
(3) If you wanted to introduce a Participatory economy system in a country, or town, or community, where would you start from?
We can create institutions – there are publishing houses, music recording companies, restaurants and stores, even a dentist’s office, I am told, that utilize balanced job complexes and remuneration for effort and sacrifice and self managed decision making procedures.
We could try to incorporate these kinds of anti-authoritarian and classless structures in our movements. organizations.

To have a full town or community be pareconish is another matter, because it is not obvious how to institute participatory planning in a small part of a large economy. Our economies have markets, parecon does not.

As far as winning a parecon in a whole society – that is a matter of building sufficiently powerful movements so that workers and consumers councils successively win ever more sway until they become the core institutions of economic life. One can see the broad path this might involve in Argentina, though movements there don’t, as yet, have this explicit aspiration or sufficient power.

(4) What conditions need to pre-exist for Parecon to succeed? Do you see them in present capitalist societies?

I think some things necessary to win a parecon in capitalist societies are (a) emergence of much larger movements for change – including winning more just distribution of income, shorter work week, more say for the public over budgets, and so on. (b) Emergence of institutional experiments in actual pareconish organization to learn and become versed in what is needed in a desirable economy, and to spread desire as well. And (c) emergence of the infrastructure of a new economy – workers and consumers councils nested into cooperative communication and struggle. Instances of all of this are visible. More work is essential.

(5) Where does Parecon stem from, from what historical and
philosophical point of view? Does it have any predecessors?
I think parecon emerges from the heritage of anti-authoritarian  struggles. The workers and consumers councils of parecon are consistent with grassroots structures that have arisen over and over in history, and even right now in Argentina. The remuneration norms of parecon have broadly arisen whenever workers have taken their operations into their own hands, as in the Spanish Anarchist experiences, for example. The idea of balanced job complexes is largely new in breadth and scope – but accords with historical desires to re-conceptualize labor to eliminate class division and class rule. Participatory planning is also new, but in accord with aspirations of workers and consumers as voiced repeatedly in the past, and now throughout the anti corporate globalization movement.

(6) Is Parecon easily applicable in different cultures, or is it a
Only relevant in the West?

Parecon is an economic system and in any whole society that we aspire to, there will of course also be a political system, cultural relations, family and kinship relations, and so on. A desirable economy such as parecon will have to be compatible with desirable structures in these other dimensions of social life.

If a society had a culture which elevated one sector of the populace over another and expected the economy to honor and further that elevation by remunerating members of one religion or cultural group or gender more than some other, or by apportioning more power to them, or by apportioning better conditions to them, parecon could not comply. Parecon simply does not offer such hierarchy in power and reward.

I don’t see how this feature is a debit, however, and I certainly don’t think it is more of an obstacle to success for parecon in the East than in the West. For example, in the U.S. it is hard to imagine a parecon for the economy, but harshly racist or sexist structures in the rest of society. Opting for a parecon is pretty much tantamount to opting against hierarchical rewards and empowerment throughout society, just as favoring family relations that produce healthy and caring and optimally liberated youth would run contrary to having those children grow up to enter a workforce that treated them as either rulers or ruled.

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