Michael Albert, born in 1947, is an author and political activist of the anarchist-syndicalist movement, living in Boston (Massachusetts / USA). He is editor of the internet platform “ZNet” as well as co-editor and co-founder of the political Z Magazine, where for example Noam Chomsky and Uri Avnery publish.
Albert founded the alternative publisher “South End Press” and is the author of seventeen books and hundreds of articles. Together with Robin Hahnel he conceived the vision participatory economics which is currently in a big discourse. In the book titled “Parecon” – which is short for “participatory economics” – Michael Albert describes a post-capitalist society and economy. This book, highly praised and translated into many languages including German, by publisher name, he describes a complex system radically different from the dominant capitalist economy of exploitation and private ownership.
The “Kritische Masse” met Michael Albert on October 10th. in TÃ¼bingen in a workshop and lecture about parecon, which was part of his recent European tour.
1) What picture do you have of a better society and do you think it can be built on the base of our current political system?
I think any society of course has many parts, some of which are very critical, like the economy and also kinship, culture, politics, ecology, and international relations. Parecon is a vision that is rather well developed and debated for the economy, but not the rest. A vision for all of society would of course include much more than solely economics, including parpolity, say, and parculture, and so on.
My image of a better society combines these various elements. For the economy, I have a pretty developed picture – parecon – including workers and consumers self managed councils, equitable remuneration for effort and sacrifice, what we call balanced job complexes, and participatory planning. For other parts of life, my picture of a better future is more under construction, so to speak, and I have written recently about such mattes in a book titled Realizing Hope from Zed Press.
I don’t know quite what you mean “can we build a better future on the base of our current political system?” We have no choice but to build it from where we are now. Where else can we start from? So in that sense the answer is yes, of course whatever we build for the future is built from where we are now. If you mean, however, do we preserve the current political system in a better future, making it one part of a better future, then I feel that the answer is no. It seems to me that just as we need to go beyond capitalism, our current type of economy, to a new type economy which I call participatory economy or parecon, so too do we need to go beyond our current political systems to a new one with different institutions, which we might call parpolity.
2) Which political basic idea is for you the most likeable and how does the nucleus of the “Parecon”-idea come up to this idea?
Here too, I am not precisely sure what you are asking. Politics involves, as I understand it, partly arriving at shared decisions about laws and norms, partly adjudicating disputes, and partly entering into collective projects with various social rights and responsibilities for those affected. When you ask what basic political idea I like, I guess you mean for these political functions, and for arriving at shared norms and rules I can say that I definitely prefer what I call self management – that people have a say in decisions in proportion as they are affected by them. For adjudication and what is typically called executive branch matters, however, I am more vague. I recommend for all this, though, the work of Stephen Shalom, accessible from ZNet.
3) In your book titled “Parecon” you draw a concept of a society where people still have to work and where they still follow the principle of goods trade-off and still with the medium of money. Although other alternative authors try to show us, that a society without money, with only few hours of work per week and a “gift economy” should be possible already now. Do you think, those ideas and the “Parecon” – idea are compatible, for example with “Parecon” as an important step?
Honestly, I don’t think those ideas are coherent as workable economics, though I like their spirit and in some cases their underlying values.
People who are able have to work because it is both just and fair. I don’t think anyone believes, in fact, that it is appropriate for someone to not share in any of society’s labor yet to consume whatever they wish. But there is no good way to decide how much I can consume if it is uncorrelated to my work — or to my need and social averages, if I can’t work.
To say that I don’t have to work and that I get whatever I want from the social product regardless of how much I do in fact work, has diverse problems. Not only does it make unjust allocations virtually inevitable, it removes the means by which an economy’s participants are able to discern how much people want things and thus what kinds of investments make sense, how labor and energy and resources should be apportioned to different pursuits, and so on. Honestly, it just has no relation to reality, even while the underlying sentiments are both humane and of value. What the preson saying he or she doesn’t want money or income or exchange usually means by all this is that each of us should be responsible and should work an appropriate amount for the amount we wish to consume – but the problem is there is no way to know what an appropriate amount is, save in terms of some remunerative principle and mechanism. And that is what parecon provides. And moreover it provides one that is both equitable and viable.
So, I actually do think that parecon provides an economy consistent with the values and aspirations of people who don’t like money or don’t like exchange or don’t like income and so on, but it provides an economy that is not only consistent with such a person’s underlying values, such as equity, diversity, solidarity, and self management, but also with getting economic functions accomplished consistent with meeting needs and developing potentials, paying attention to different levels of want and need and so on. There are other matters too, bearing on this, but perhaps the above is enough for now.
4) At least in Germany, many left/anarchist/â€¦ people also see the shortage of weekly work-time and the slowing-down of economic and social processes as a necessary way to solve the ecological and social problems and of course as desirable for personal life quality. What role does the shortage of weekly work-time play for you?
I don’t know what “shortage of weekly worktime means.” Do you mean that there is not enough work for everyone and also too much for some? That is true now, certainly, but it is always a matter of distribution and thus of social relations. There is no such problem in a parecon. Do you mean economic choices have to account for ecological impact so that much will be reduced or eliminated? That’s true and can only happen with an economy that properly values ecological implications, which parecon does.
More generally, understanding worktime, in a parecon, If we decide we want so and so much consumption, and such and such effect on the environment, and we invest in so and so technologies – then we will be left with some amount of work to do in accord with all that. Dividing that among the working populace might lead to a thirty hour average work week, or a twenty hour average week, or whatever. Less is better, all other things equal, not worse. There is no problem of fewer hours per se, therefore. In a parecon fewer hours just means we can get what we want in less labor time – which is good.
Parecon removes the drive to accumulate for the sake of avoiding competitive failure. It removes profit, as well. It makes income equitable. It shares out labor responsibilities equitably, as well. And it values inputs and outputs in light of full true social costs and benefits including ecological. How long the work day and work week is derives from how much people want to consume, which is to say, how large a social product people seek, and from the effectiveness of technologies of production, as well as from attention to ecological constraints.
5) Our magazine is mainly directed to young people – what would you do concretely in your life for your better society if you would be young?
I wish I was! And what I would do depends where I was. If I was a student in the U.S. or Germany, for example, I would try to organize on my campus. I would NOT seek to create a small group – 20, 50, or 100 people stopping at that level, but would instead try to organize across my whole campus, reaching out by face to face organizing in living groups and all over my campus precisely to students who didn’t agree with me, seeking to build a large and militant organization and movement. I would work to orient it around campus issues, domestic social issues, and international issues – addressing matters of race, gender, class, ecology, and war and peace. I would try to build participatory structures for the organization and movement, and try to win them on campus as well – structures that would welcome new members, fill members’ needs, provide lessons for the future, equip us to fight for the future, and be seeds of the future in the present, etc. I would try to win diverse reforms on campus and in society, but always seeking to have the struggles continue after winning immediate aims to seek new gains, all as part of a trajectory of change aimed at winning a new society.
There is obviously much more to say. But the above is, I hope, at least indicative, and the only variation if I wasn’t on campus would be trying to do the same thing in my community, or neighborhood, or workplace, etc.
6) And what kind of social movement(s) you think is currently necessary to change the world – in the sense we’ve discussed now – into a better one?
We need a very massive movement – upwards of a third of the population in any society. And it needs to be highly self conscious, with its members participating in conceiving and implementing all the movement’s dimensions, especially its aims and methods. Movemeent organizing that uses books and other modes of presentation that are utterly arcane and impenetrable to normal people have little to do with this project, I think, if anything more often obstructing it more than furthering it. I think worthy and effective movements will need self managing structures consistent with our aims for the new society. They will need broad focus on all the key dimensions of social life. They will need to employ diverse tactics, particularly to reach out widely and to create a congenial, welcoming, and empowering environment for new participants. They will need audacity, confidence, and also modesty. They will need to listen, but also to assert. I can imagine a massive antiwar movement, or anti corporate globalization movement, or feminist movement, or anti racist movement, or green movement, or anarchist movement being part of this larger movement of movements, of course – with each developing new features of the sort I have noted.
7) Which qualities do you miss in the current social movements and alternative scenes – and which attributes they maybe could have less?
I miss an ability to answer the question “what do you want?” with a coherent vision of a better society – both worthy and viable. I miss an orientation not just to be on the side of justice, but to try to actually win a new society – a mindset that believes in winning and seeks to accomplish it. I miss an awareness of the hidden injuries of class oppression as sophisticated as the widespread understanding that is typical on the left of the hidden injuries of race and gender oppression and I miss an awareness of the role of what I call the coordinator class and its interests in society and in social struggle as well. I miss a quiet, patient, but also militant and driving passion to reach out to wider and wider audiences rather than circle the wagons with a limited number of like-minded allies. And I think we could have less of what we in the U.S. call a purer than thou attitude, less of an ingroup approach to organizing, less apocalyptic politics, less personalizing and backbiting, and so on.
But, you might have asked, what qualities do you like and what gives you great hope? All over the world steadily growing numbers of activists are moving toward prioritizing self management and diversity and solidarity. There is great attention to gender and race and there is ample openness to addressing matters of class as well. There is energy and comittment.
Honestly, looking at the U.S. and Europe, I think the missing link is young people. Were students and youth more generally aroused in a manner like they have been at many other points in history, the rest of the population would be incredibly receptive, I believe. And I have hopes, from events in the U.S., that an upsurge of young people is not far off. We will see.
8) Michael Albert, thank you very much for the interview!
You are very welcome