Talk Delivered to Venezuela Conference on Crisis of Capitalism

Michael Albert, along with Greg Wilpert, is attending a conference in Venezuela this weekend. He will be conducting a series of interviews there, with responsible people about economics, politics, kinship, race, ecology, and international relations over about a week’s time, as well, and we hope to provide audio and transcripts to the Z audience shortly.





First, I want to thank you for inviting me to speak, at this conference.


It is always a privilege, honor, and responsibility to speak publicly…


…especially to a highly sophisticated audience…


…and even more so when the audience is overwhelmingly anti capitalist.


How humbling and inspiring to be talking and listening to you all here today.


Thank you very much for the opportunity.


More, I am not from Venezuela, not from Latin America, not from the Third World – but rather, from the U.S.


And to have a gringo like me here – from the heart of the beast – that presents a daunting responsibility.


My country, the U.S. is the world’s leader in violent crime per capita.


It leads in the gap between richest and poorest.


It leads in means of communication, but also in levels of ignorance and deceit.


It leads in the manufacture, dissemination, and use of weapons of mass destruction, and of weapons generally…


My country leads as well in interventions abroad, in violent coercion, in arrogant export of commercial and often vapid culture, and of course in virtually unlimited hypocrisy.


My country, its core institutions and the commitments they impose on leaders and led alike, is an enemy of every person on this planet seeking a better life.


And yet, my country, like all others, also has potential to change.



Capitalism’s Crisis


The broad theme of this conference is the crisis of capitalism.


I think I know what you mean by that phrase.


But I have to say that for me, and I imagine for you too, the crisis that is just the ebb and flow of changes deviating from capitalism’s average, is not the big story.


The deeper crisis of capitalism – well, it is like the crisis of slavery, say, or the crisis of starvation – it isn’t the variations that occur in ugliness.


It isn’t the moment when the system is somewhat worse.


No, the crisis of capitalism is capitalism itself.


The crisis is not just when capitalism is upset, rickety, having problems.


The crisis is capitalism’s persistent perpetual ugliness per se. It is the system per se, even at its very best.


Of course the ups and downs of capitalist economic cycles and conflict dramatically affect the context in which we work, live, and fight for change.


That is true, but for me, the catastrophe of capitalism – to use a more graphic word – is that capitalism, even at its very best, is theft from the many to profit the few.


The harsh and subservient labors of most citizens fantastically enrich a few others who don’t have to labor at all.


All too often, those who work longer and harder get less for their efforts. Those who work less long and less hard get more. It is an upside down morality. 


Likewise, capitalism, again even at its best, is alienation and selfishness.


Within capitalism the motives guiding decisions are pecuniary not personal. They are selfish not social.


We each seek individual advance at the expense of others. We suffer an anti-social environment in which nice guys finish last.


In capitalism, venality is rewarded, greed is rewarded, selfishness is virtuous – and evil rises.


And if you don’t believe evil rises, if you think that is too harsh – just look in the White House.


Capitalism is indignity for most of the population. It reeks of subservience to bosses and owners.


Capitalism crushes us with nearly perpetual atomization, routinization, and manipulation.


Capitalism so aggressively abuses us that we begin to see these horrible impositions as the currency of our lives.


We begin to forget that they are actually obstacles to good living.


Capitalism’s most consistent product is degradation of human potential.


Capitalism routinely generates vile individualism imposed on our personalities as our only way to get by at all, much less to do well.


Capitalism is a rat race in which winners and losers alike must behave ignominiously, becoming much less than their best selves.


In my country about forty million people are poor – about 7 million have no homes and live in public spaces, under bridges, and in cars. in a country with a gross domestic product of some 14 trillion dollars, what kind of moral decrepitude is that?


Capitalism is war, starvation, ruling and being ruled. Capitalism is barbarism. It is the Devil’s idea of home.


But we here in this conference all know this. There is no new insight in this message about capitalism. So the issue becomes, what do we want instead?


Our Alternative Vision?


Suppose we come at this question by doing a kind of thought experiment.


Let’s make believe we, here in this room, are a gathering of all the employees in some Venezuelan or U.S. workplace. Let’s say, we are an aluminum plant.


We are considering what we want for our better economy by thinking first about our own workplace.


What do we want here?





First, we all reject capitalism so we all easily agree that we don’t want a few folks owning our workplace.


So we eliminate private ownership of our aluminum plant, right off.


More generally, we want no more private ownership of productive assets anywhere in our country.


The owners need to be expropriated.



Councils and Self Management


But beyond that very obvious step, I hope we would all also agree that we don’t want top down decision making by a relatively small elite.


We don’t want a few people to decide everything for us, here in our aluminum plant, while the rest of us just implement their instructions.


And if we did agree on that, then maybe we would decide, as well, that instead of top down rule, we would like to have self management.


Maybe we would decide, that is, that we want each of us to have a say in the decisions that affect us in proportion to how much we are affected by them.


If we are more affected, we have more say. If we are less affected we have less say.


We of course utilize the insights of people who are more knowledgeable, but we do not let experts have excess power or more votes.


If we like self management, we will likely also decide that we need a place for all workers to exert their influence – a workers council.


After all, if we the workers in this aluminum plant don’t have a venue to develop and express our views, how can we manage ourselves?


And with self-management as our aim, our decision-making methods at every level might often be one person one vote and majority rules.


But sometimes more support might be required, say two thirds for a decision, or consensus.


And for some decisions more time might be taken than for other decisions, for more deliberation.


The point is, we agree to pick the method of debating and resolving different issues in ways designed to convey self-managing say to everyone involved.


So, uncontroversially, we in this aluminum plant decide that in our workplace we will have a workers council, and various groups and work teams, and self-management throughout.


And of course we hope other workplaces will follow a similar path.



Equitable Remuneration


Next, we consider income.


How much should each person receive for his or her labors?


At first – we are a very radical bunch – we propose we all should just get the same amount and be done with it.


But then someone says, wait, what if I want to work longer or less long than others?


Shouldn’t I get more or less as a result of working more or less? We all pretty quickly agree on that.


And then someone says, okay, but what if I work harder, or, for that matter, what if I like to take it easy, and I work less hard?


Shouldn’t I get more of less in accord with the intensity of my efforts? And, yes, we all agree about that too.


And then someone says, hold on, a second.


I am going to be working in front of a hot furnace, and some of you work in nice air-conditioned offices.


I have to be alert every minute, and constantly exerting myself, and some of you spend a lot of time chatting on the phone, or otherwise congenially involved.


My situation is clearly much more onerous. None of you with better conditions would trade with me.


Shouldn’t I get more pay, for doing more onerous work?


This takes a little discussion but, before long, yes, we agree on this too.


So it turns out we agree that equitable remuneration or income payment, in our aluminum plant, will be based on how long people work, how hard people work, and how onerous the conditions are under which people work.


And we also agree that nothing else will warrant remuneration.


We won’t remunerate for property: you can’t own and earn that way.


Nor will we remunerate for power. You can’t have more because you have the bargaining power to demand it.


And we won’t remunerate for output either. You can’t have more because you are more productive due to using better tools, or even due to having more talent. There is no moral or incentive reason to reward that.


Therefore, for both moral reasons and incentive reasons we decide that the thing to provide income for is the thing we can actually impact in response to incentives, and the thing we are responsible for and that we give of ourselves for – duration, intensity, and onerousness of work.


But someone points out, well, wait, we shouldn’t get paid for doing stuff that is useless, or that we are no good at.


And is certainly true, so we finally decide that remuneration in our new workplace – and by extension what we want for our whole economy, too – should be for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor.



Balanced Job Complexes


Okay, we institute self-managed decision-making and equitable remuneration in our aluminum plant.


We are all very excited and very proud as well as very serious about these innovations.


So far, this is not uncommon.


It is broadly what happens, often, when factories are occupied or otherwise turned over to their workforces as co-ops, for example.


And at this point, in our aluminum factory, we decide, okay, we know what we want, so let’s get started.


So we all begin work, at the same jobs we had in the past.


But that means about one fifth of us are doing all the empowering tasks – the conception, administration, and design.


Our work inspires us and gives us confidence, skills, and knowledge.


The other four fifths or us, however, are doing rote, repetitive, and otherwise disempowering work.


Our work tends to exhaust us, reduce our confidence, and curtail or even diminish our knowledge and skills.


I want to call the former 20%, the ones who have a monopoly on empowering work – managers, financial officers, engineers, lawyers, doctors, etc. – the coordinator class.


And I want to call the latter 80% who do the rote and repetitive labor the working class. 


So now comes the problem.


In this aluminum factory of ours we’ve made decision-making innovations and we’ve made remuneration innovations, but we’ve left the old division of labor as it was.


And this is indeed a problem for many co-ops and other workplaces trying to become more humane.


That is, in our aluminum factory, when we meet in our council…who has all the evidence and insight to offer and the confidence and even energy to contribute?


The answer is the coordinator class, the one fifth, not the workers, the four fifths.


And what happens is after a time the coordinator class members – the people with a monopoly on empowering work – start to dominate all outcomes.


And the rest of us are exhausted, bored, and alienated, and we begin to not want to even attend decision-making meetings.


And in time we stop attending, and the coordinators make some very important decisions.


They change the norms of remuneration so they get much more, and they  generally usher back in oppressive relations.


In short, the old corporate division of labor divides the workforce into empowered coordinator class members and disempowered workers.


It subverts our other accomplishments and impedes our very worthy desires.


The old division of labor, even just naively preserved, reintroduces into our workplace, class rule and all the attendant indignities and inequities that go with it.


So what do we do about this?


How do we undermine the coordinator / worker class hierarchy in our Aluminum plant?


Well, this is a bit like the situation with owners.


We didn’t just remove the owners, we removed the structural cause of some people existing as a separate and powerful class above others.


And that’s what we have to do regarding coordinator rule too.


We have to redistribute that which gives the coordinator class its dominance.


We have to ensure that from our work we are all prepared and able to participate fully.


And so we decide to implement what I call balanced job complexes as our new division of labor.


With balanced job complexes, the old empowering tasks still exist, of course.


But now the empowering tasks are shared throughout the whole workforce rather than being monopolized by a fifth of it.


We all of course do a mix of tasks we are suited to in our jobs.


What is new is that my mix, and your mix, and the next person’s mix are all comparable to one another in the overall empowerment they convey.


In this way we go beyond getting rid of the owner / worker division to also get rid of the coordinator / worker division.


In other words, our attention to the division of labor is all about classes.   


By virtue of their deed to property, owners in capitalism preside over means of production. They hire and fire wage slaves. But eliminating this incredibly oppressive class relation is not the same as attaining classlessness.


Another group in place of owners, and also defined by its position in the economy, can wield virtually complete economic power and aggrandize itself above workers.


To avoid rule by this coordinator class requires that we eliminate the basis for its separate existence.


We must replace corporate divisions of labor with a new approach to defining work roles.   


Everyone who is able in any society will by definition be doing some collection of tasks as his or her job. That much is inevitably true, always.


If the economy employs a corporate division of labor, for about a fifth of us, our tasks will combine into a job that is largely empowering, and for about four fifths of us, they will combine into a job that is largely disempowering.


In contrast, balanced job complexes combine a range of tasks into jobs so that the overall empowerment effect of each full job is like the overall empowerment effect of every other full job.


We won’t have managers and assemblers, editors and secretaries, surgeons and cleaners.


The functions these actors now fulfill largely persist in a good society, of course, but the tasks are divided up differently.


Some people still do surgery while most don’t, but those who take scalpel to brains also clean bedpans, or sweep floors, or assist with other hospital functions.