An approach to economic governance proposed by Michael Albert
Opening essay offered as part of an extended exploration of views conducted with Michel Bauwens. Digital Curator and co-founder Peer to Peer Foundation
"Participatory economics, or parecon, envisions a new economy to replace capitalism and also 20th century socialism. Parecon rejects not only private ownership of productive assets, but also remuneration for property, power, or output, corporate divisions of labor, authoritarian decision-making, and both central planning and markets. It takes as guiding values solidarity, diversity, equity, self management, ecological stewardship, and also efficiency at meeting needs and developing potentials and in accord with these guiding values, advocates self managing workers and consumers councils, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning.
Parecon's aim is that:
- People should have a say in decisions proportionate to the degree they are affected, including having relevant knowledge as well as circumstances that engender confidence and skills for participation.
- People should receive social output in accord with the duration, intensity, and onerousness of the socially valued work they contribute - unless they cannot work and/or have special medical needs, in which case remuneration is for needs as well.
- There should be no class division due to differences in ownership or in access to empowering work or any other systematically differentiating economic circumstance.
- Relative values guiding allocation should reflect full personal, social, and ecological costs and benefits, and acted upon in a self managing manner that promotes solidarity.
To be worthy and viable, Parecon's values need to capture human aspirations, and its institutional implications for people's actions and interests need to propel those values.
Parecon delivers economic self managementI became a leftist in the mid 1960s. People controlling their own lives was a key theme of our commitments. But what did self management mean? It couldn't be that I could do any old thing I wanted, and not just because I might want to employ someone as a wage slave, or even a personal slave, or I might want to steal or kill or whatever. More, I can't by virtue of my lone desire do any work I favor, or consume any item I desire. As a member of society, I must manage myself consistent with others being able to manage themselves to the same degree.
In accord, self management came to mean that I and everyone should have a say over decisions proportionate to their effect on us. Sometimes, majority vote was the best approximation to everyone having that level of influence. Other times, consensus was the best way to achieve it. Sometimes two thirds for a decision was best, or even one person deciding, as in me deciding how to arrange my desk. Likewise, when a lot is at stake, extensive discussion, debate, and refinement of proposals make sense as part of attaining self management. Other times, with less at stake, quicker procedures would be better.
With the goal enunciated, it didn't take long to realize that if we should all have a say in decisions proportionate as they affect us - not with an anal idiocy as if decision making were a math problem, of course, but broadly and up to the point where trying for further precision would cost us more in time and hassle than it would gain in desirable decision making - the implications for economics were major.
An economy is a general system in which each choice, sets the context for all other choices. If I consume a pencil, you can't consume that pencil. More, if we together in our society produce 100,000 pencils, we aren't producing whatever we could have with the labor and resources that went to the pencils. Economists call this "opportunity cost." Doing any one thing foregoes using the component energy, resources, and labor to do some other thing.
This means every decision affects every actor, albeit some actors far more than others. Workers producing pencils are greatly affected by pencil production. People consuming pencils are highly affected by it. Even those who don't want pencils are somewhat affected, because, among other implications, if no one got any pencils there might be more or cheaper pens, or more of something else for those who didn't want pencils.
Thus, for an economy to be self managing, workers must have a say in their workplaces about their activities as producers, but consumers must also have a say about what they get to eat or wear or ride, and also about what is available, and this needs to be true of all actors in proportion as they are affected, which of course varies from case to case and from item to item.
We must have workers' councils and consumers' councils where each council uses self managed decision-making methods. But we must also ensure that the interface between workers in one plant and another, and between consumers in one region and another, and between workers and consumers throughout the economy, include all actors having appropriate influence.
Suppose workers in a plant make their local operating decisions in the most self managing manner conceivable, but central planners or markets impose output levels on them which they have too little say over. Goodbye self management.
Likewise, suppose consumers choose what they want from among society's outputs, individually and collectively, using highly self-managing methods such as looking at lists of availabilities and freely choosing among them, but the selection options they have are determined with their having insufficient impact. Again: goodbye self management. And similarly what if those who breathe pollution insufficiently influence car sales unless they happen to be the buyer, or if those who produce bicycles insufficiently affect the availability of roads, or for that matter either affects these choices too much?.
So, for parecon to solve the self management problem is true only if (a) it solves the problem of defining what self management means while also understanding and highlighting its central importance, and (b) it solves the problem of accomplishing economic functions without imparting to some actors more than proportionate say and to others less than proportionate say, but, instead, within an acceptable margin of error and without systematic and snowballing errors, it allots proportionate self managing say to all.
The features of parecon most critical to its solution to the self management problem are understanding that each person's freedom needs to extend to the point of others having similar freedom but should not extend further than that; understanding that not only what we do immediately day to day has to be self managed, but also the broad context in which we make those day to day choices; realizing that familiar corporate divisions of labor and market allocation produce a separate and dominating elite with excessive say over outcomes; realizing that sharply hierarchical decision making likewise destroys self management; and finally institutionally committing to self managed councils, balanced job complexes and participatory planning in place of the offending options.
Parecon attains equityRegarding equity, parecon argues that we should each receive for our socially useful contributions a share of outputs in proportion to how long and hard we work at useful production and the onerous of our work, and for no other reason.
Someone might think, instead, that it is equitable for Bill Gates to get income equal to that of whole populations of numerous countries combined by virtue of owning property. It is fair for him to receive the value of the property's product.
Or someone might think it is equitable for Tiger Woods to get less but still an incredibly gargantuan income by virtue of the value of his fantastic athletic talent to those who like to watch golf tournaments.
Or someone might even think - and this person probably had to go to business school to develop this highly trained and sophisticated viewpoint - that a thug with great bargaining power - I have in mind our corporate centers of power but it applies to many other agents having ample power as well, such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers - ought to be welcome to use it to extort income.
Parecon, in contrast to these more familiar preferences about remuneration, rejects remunerating property, or bargaining power, or even personal output. You don't get more income in a parecon because you are born with highly valued talents or capacities, or because you happen to produce something highly valued, or because you work with highly productive partners, or because you own property, or because you are personally or collectively strong enough to take it. You get more in a parecon simply for working longer, or harder, or at worse conditions, as long as you are producing socially valued output.
The norm emphasizes not only the ethical basis of equity but also that for work to earn income, its product has to be socially useful. You can't work hard digging holes in your back yard and filling them. Nor can you work hard at making something useful and desired, but do the work in a slipshod or incompetent fashion. In such cases, you are not creating socially desired outputs the whole time you are laboring, which is to say not all the time or effort you are expending is warranted by the desirability of its product and therefore not all of it deserves remuneration. Similarly, I can't be shortstop for the Yankees or quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts in a parecon, nor could I be a surgeon or opera singer. My efforts would not be appreciated, being little different than if I were digging holes and filling them.
The claim that parecon attains equity means that parecon's combination of methods and structures ensures that each actor who is able to work is afforded a share of the social product in proportion to the duration, intensity, and onerousness he or she (usefully) expends. Parecon is not manic to the tenth decimal place about this, of course. Rather, in different pareconish workplaces workers will adopt methods of assessment and more precise norms that they prefer, consistent, however, with the overarching guidelines. What parecon contributes regarding equity is, first, clarification as to its meaning and composition and, second, institutions that facilitate attaining it, which are, again, the participatory planning system, balanced job complexes, and the self managed councils.
Parecon solves the problem of classlessnessThe usual approach to class is that economic classes are a product of ownership relations. The main focus is capitalists owning the means of production and workers owning only their ability to do work. Other classes such as peasants are deemed less important as are differences between little or big owners, skilled or unskilled workers. The issue is capital versus labor.
Parecon additionally wonders about managers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, ceos. Is it helpful to lump these highly empowered workers with either rote workers below or with more powerful owners above? Or is this in between group significantly different from both owners and workers?
Parecon says what makes a class is that a group's position in the economy gives it interests collectively different and contrary to other classes, and, especially, that its position not only gives it a different methodology for personal advance and a different associated self image and image of others, but also a potential to rule economic life.
Parecon labels a group between labor and capital the coordinator class and says it matters both to how capitalism works, and, even more so, to what has in the past replaced capitalism. Parecon realizes, that is, that what has in the past been called socialism has had core institutions that didn't elevate workers while eliminating owners, but that instead elevated coordinators while eliminating owners. In the 20th century socialist economies, in the pareconist view, workers didn't dominantly decide economic outcomes and equitably share society's output. Instead, coordinators monopolizing empowering conditions of work dominantly decided economic outcomes, and greedily aggrandized themselves from society's output.
So parecon's class insight is that beyond capitalism there is classlessness, yes, as one option, but there is also coordinatorism as another option, where coordinatorism is an economic system that retains the class division between those who monopolize empowering circumstances in their work - the coordinator class - and those who mainly follow orders and suffer tedious conditions - the working class - and in which the coordinators rule the workers.
Saying that parecon solves the class problem is therefore saying that (a) parecon solves the problem of identifying the key classes. And (b) parecon's institutions don't elevate coordinators above workers, but instead create conditions in which no group has interests systematically opposed to the interests of other groups and conveying to it means to dominate those other groups.
The features of parecon most central to its solving the class problem are seeing that economics produces people and social relations and not simply outputs; understanding that not only ownership relations but also the conditions under which people work and their daily roles impact both their collective motives and their operational means; realizing that corporate divisions of labor and market allocation produce the coordinators as a separate and dominating class; and finally committing to balanced job complexes and participatory planning in their place.
Parecon promotes economic solidarityThere is an important movement of activists largely centered in Latin America and parts of Europe, that says they favor "solidarity economics." In essence they are presumably rejecting economic structures that cause actors to see one another as opponents or as means to ends. They favor economic relations that align actors so that the interests of each are mostly in accord with the interests of others. I am certainly still competing with Peyton Manning or Derek Jeter if I want to be quarterback of the Colts or shortstop of the Yankees, since it is true that we can't all have the spot. But once we do have responsibilities and tasks in the economy, advocates of solidarity economics want an arrangement that causes each person's pursuit of gain to be consistent with and to even enhance everyone else's pursuit of gain, rather than my doing well meaning you do worse, or vice versa. More, it would be nice to have an economy that nurtures empathy by causing even those who are most greedy and egocentric to have no choice but to be cognizant of and even supportive of other's needs and aspirations if we are to pursue our own. That would be serious solidarity. And seeking such an end provides a positive aim as compared to just avoiding the manipulative, often violent, and nearly always egocentric personal and collective rat race typical of current economies.
So the claim that parecon promotes economic solidarity says that parecon creates a context in which for me to materially advance means either the whole social product grows - which benefits everyone - or requires that I work longer, harder, or at worse conditions, which doesn't impede others from earning similarly if they wish to. More, parecon's logic also imposes when we consider choices for new technologies or other investments, my interests and other people's interests never systematically and repetitively clash and, most often, they even fully accommodate.
For example, we all benefit from the most effective reduction in onerous labor via an improvement of everyone's balanced job complex, rather than benefiting simply from a change instituted in our own workplaces as against others. The idea is when the dust settles we all wind up with average work conditions, so attaining the best average is in everyone's interest. What creates this context, again, is parecon's institutions, in particular its self managing councils, equitable remuneration, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning.
Parecon's implications todayThere are many strategic implications of favoring parecon for activities we undertake now. For example, since our choices should embody the seeds of the future in the present in order to inspire and educate and also meet needs now, our institutions should have equitable remuneration, balanced job complexes and self management. If our efforts to win change need to empower constituencies to seek ever more, and to move toward where we wish to wind up, then our demands for change should move toward pareconish structure and our arguments and actions taken to win change should disseminate and generate support for pareconish vision.
Whether building new institutions, making demands in existing institutions, or trying to improve relations in some part of economic life by redefinition and reorganization, parecon's ultimate values and institutions should inform immediate demands, organization building, institution building, and consciousness raising. More, this should also hold for visionary aims we settle on for other aspects of life, such as kinship relations, culture, and political relations - summing to a participatory society." (http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/21283)
Parecon vs. Economic DemocracyThere has recently been an extensive debate between proponents of Michael Albert's Participatory Economics (Parecon) and David Schweikart's Economic Democracy. LInks about the debate can be found here at http://www.ecodema.org/archives/000171.html
It has a summary of the 2 positions:
Parecon is a proposed economic system that uses participatory decision making as an economic mechanism to guide the allocation of resources and consumption in a given society. Proposed as an alternative to contemporary capitalist market economies and also an alternative to centrally planned "socialism" or coordinatorism. The underlying values that parecon seeks to implement are equity, solidarity, diversity, and participatory self-management.
It proposes to attain these ends mainly through the following principles and institutions:
workers' and consumers' councils utilizing self-managerial methods for decision making, balanced job complexes, remuneration according to effort and sacrifice, and participatory planning.
For a deeper understanding here is the whole online version of the book: Participatory Economics: Life After Capitalism.
Schweickart's EconDem is a proposed form of market socialism that embodies three key ideas:
Democratic management of each productive enterprise by the workers
Democratic management of capital investment by a form of public banking
A (mostrly free) market for goods, raw materials, instruments of production, etc. The firms and factories are owned by society and managed by the workers. These enterprises, so managed, compete in markets to sell their goods. Profit is shared by the workers. Each enterprise is taxed for the capital they employ, and that tax is distributed to public banks, who fund expansion of existing as well as new industries.
For a deeper understanding see the book: After Capitalism by David Schweickart .
This article by the latter, is a devastating critique of the democratically-planned economy as proposed by Parecon.
Markets vs. EgalitarianismDavid Schweikart at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=26&ItemID=9795
"Where does this leave us? Must we give up on the dream of a humane future beyond capitalism? I think not--but we must think hard about the viability of the alternatives we propose. We must also pay attention to the ethical foundations of our proposals.
In particular, we should reject the obsessive egalitarianism that underlies the Parecon proposal. This strict egalitarianism is morally problematic.  It undercuts the generosity of spirit a socialist ethic should promote. Suppose, for example, that I am happy with my work and with my level of consumption. Then I learn that you got more than I did without working any harder. May I take vicarious pleasure in your good fortune? May I fantasize that I too might one day get lucky? If your greater income is a reward for your greater contribution, may I feel good that you are so honored. May I consider honing my own talents so that I too might be rewarded more? Not if I'm committed to the Parecon principle. If you got more than me without working any harder, I am a victim of injustice. Righteous indignation is the appropriate response, not pleasure or inspiration. I experience your success as my humiliation. This is not an ethic of solidarity.
Strict egalitarianism is the ethic of squabbling siblings. (Gary got a bigger piece of pie than me. That's not fair! Gary gets to stay up later than me. That's not fair! Dad likes Gary better than me. That's not fair!) It is not an ethical principle that should command our allegiance. 
If we want to construct an economically viable, ethically desirable, alternative to capitalism, we should distance ourselves not only from Albert's obsessive egalitarianism, but also from his implacable hostility to markets: "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-remunerates producers, introduces class divisions and class rule, and embody an imperial logic that spreads itself throughout economic life.  "
Markets indeed have defects, but they have virtues as well. We need to think dialectically about markets. Markets are democratic (in that they respond to consumer preferences), and they are undemocratic, (since they tend to exacerbate income inequality). Markets enhance the space of individual freedom, (since consumer choices are not subject the approval of others), and they contract the space of individual freedom, (since market choices often have third-party effects). Markets provide incentives for constructive behavior (efficient use of resources, innovation) and for destructive behavior (consumer manipulation, disregard of ecological consequences). Neither market fundamentalism nor market rejectionism is an appropriate response to the reality of economic complexity.
God knows, we do not want to live in a world dominated by rapacious, unaccountable economic institutions that pit worker against worker, drive levels of inequality to almost unimaginable levels, and are in the process of devastating the ecology of the planet. We need a better way. But a life preoccupied with negotiating work complexes, forecasting one's future consumption, revising lists, scrutinizing the consumption lists of one's neighbors, posting notes on the qualitative aspects of desired purchases, voting on national plans vastly more complicated than the Federal Budget is not the answer.
This is not the place to defend an alternative proposal, one that avoids obsessive egalitarianism and allows for a regulated market, but interested readers might want to check out my After Capitalism" (http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=26&ItemID=9795)
Parecon vs. P2P TheoryAn extensive debate with Parecon is featered here at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/zdebatealbbauwens.htm
InterviewJerome Roos interviews Michael Albert:
"ROAR: You also spearheaded, together with Robin Hahnel, the idea of ‘participatory economics‘. Could you explain in layman’s terms what participatory economics is about?
MA: Participatory economics, or parecon, is a proposal for a new way of doing economics to replace capitalism such as we have in the U.S., but also to replace what has previously gone under the name twentieth century socialism, such as they had in the Soviet Union and China
Parecon takes a minimalist approach to visionary description by settling only on broad attributes of just four aspects of economy. It takes a maximalist approach, however, about the benefits sought by describing the core institutions essential for and able to generate and sustain economic life that is classless and self-managed by workers and consumers, that generates solidarity and diversity, and that cares for the ecology.
In other words, Parecon vision tries not to go beyond what we can know and also not to go beyond what it is our responsibility to address. It is not for us to bias much less to now make choices future people should be free to make as they desire. Our task is instead only to provide future people the institutions which will empower them to make those choices.
ROAR: So what are parecon’s core features?
MA: First, parecon has workers and consumers self-managing councils. Self-managing means participants have a say in decisions essentially in proportion to the degree they are affected. Sometimes this will mean majority rules, other times consensus, sometimes a different algorithm for tallying preferences. Sometimes it will mean extended debate and lengthy cogitation, other times more quick assessment and decision. The aim isn’t some particular way of counting or discussing, it is that the way of counting and discussing chosen in each case does a fine job of delivering self-managing say plus information flow and deliberation sufficient for wise decisions to emerge.
Second, parecon has remuneration for the duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor. You can’t produce what people don’t want and be remunerated for that. For what is desired and for what does meet needs and develop potentials, however, you work and you are remunerated such that if you work longer, you work harder, or you work under worse conditions, you make more.
This approach turns out to not only be fair, but also to properly incentivize activity and, as well, to properly discern and communicate levels of desire for economic inputs and outputs needed for purposes of decision making. The parecon approach contrasts with remunerating property, power, or output — none of which occur in a parecon and all of which generate unjust income differentials, distorted information, and perverted motivations.
Third, parecon has what are called balanced job complexes. Each worker in any economy always has various responsibilities and tasks which together comprise his or her job. In participatory economics, however, each person’s job is meant to convey, comparable empowerment effects via the experience of doing it, as every other person’s job. There is a division of labor in parecon — some do x, others do y, and so on. But, there is not a hierarchical division of labor conveying to some (who I call the coordinator class) greater empowerment and income, and to others (the working class) less power and income.
In the traditional corporate approach, which is common both to capitalism and to twentieth century socialism, about 20 percent of the workforce monopolizes the empowering tasks. In other words, they do jobs which are largely composed of tasks and responsibilities that empower those doing them — giving them overarching information, skills, knowledge, social ties, energy and initiative, and access to levers of control. Here we are talking about engineers, managers, accountants, CEOs, lawyers, doctors, high-level professors, and so on. The other 80 percent of the workforce is left doing jobs composed of tasks and responsibilities that disempower those doing them by diminishing their skills, knowledge, social ties, energy and initiative, and separating them from all means of control.
The former empowered group, called the coordinator class, operates above the latter disempowered group, called the working class. Their situations give these two classes contrary interests and give great power to the coordinators. In capitalism, the coordinators are between labor and capital, often carrying out the will of the owners, but also, to a degree, advancing their own interests in conflict with workers below and with owners above. In twentieth-century socialism, while owners no longer exist, the coordinator class not only still exists; it becomes the new ruling class. For this reason, advocates of parecon tend to call twentieth-century socialism coordinatorism.
Think of workers councils. With the old corporate division of labor preserved, even if they have a commitment to self-management, that commitment will be trumped and destroyed by the institutional implications of the corporate division of labor. Twenty percent will dominate discussion, agenda setting, debate. A counsel meeting might formally welcome all members of a workplace to participate, but because a fifth of those members are highly empowered, and four fifths of them are disempowered, the former group will dominate the latter.
In time, even if initially there was a sincere commitment to democracy or even to self management, that commitment will be swamped by the daily reality of exhausted workers obeying commands that emerge from enervated coordinators. The corporate division of labor inexorably structurally subverts the gains of self-managed councils, and similarly, those of equitable remuneration, which the coordinators soon enough eliminate, raising their own incomes. Thus as one of the minimal features a new classless economy must have, it requires a new way to apportion labor.
Balanced job complexes are that new way, in a parecon. Each worker has a similar job situation vis-à-vis empowerment effects. In other words, each worker does some empowering tasks, and some disempowering tasks, where the combination into the whole job complex, on average, is similar in its overall empowerment effects as each other person’s job complex. As a result, there is no structural pressure producing a more empowered coordinator class above a disempowered working class. There are just economic actors, all comparably empowered, together engaged in self managing economic life.
Fourth, parecon also needs a means of allocation. The problem to overcome is that both markets and central planning, the two familiar options, are inadequate to allocating consistently with classlessness and self-management. They each by their dictates for behavior and motives, undercut the benefits and even the lasting presence of workers and consumers self-managing councils, equitable remuneration, and balanced job complexes. If we accept that it is so, for a minute, we are left with a problem. How does participatory economics arrive at inputs and outputs of economic activity that is consistent with self management and doesn’t introduce class division?
Parecon’s answer is called participatory planning. The heart of this approach is pretty simple, almost too simple, at first hearing, to seem viable. Workers and consumers councils via their nested relations propose their desires for consumption and production. They assess the proposals of others and moderate their own, in accord with new rounds of information. In essence, they cooperatively negotiate inputs and outputs in light of needs and potentials and in accord with equitable remuneration. Indeed, the parecon claim is that this is not only possible, but truly efficient at meeting needs and developing potentials, and that it conveys self-managing say, as well.
And that’s all of it. As a vision, Parecon is workers and consumers self-managing councils, equitable remuneration, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning. Of course each instance of this type of economy will have a tremendous array of detailed additional features, and of refinements of those that are most basic, as well, often varying somewhat from case to case, country to country — even workplace to workplace. But the claim is that attaining these four features is key to attaining classlessness, self-management, solidarity, diversity.
ROAR: How do you believe this vision could contribute to the creation of an alternative society?
Well, how does any vision help with attaining a desired future? And then, we can ask, as well, does parecon help in any special ways? The first part is easy enough. A vision should help us understand the present, and the roots of its ills, by contrast to a better future. A vision should motivate activism. Indeed, an obstacle, arguably the biggest current obstacle, to massive, uncompromising, unrelenting, opposition to injustice is a fatalistic belief that there is no alternative and injustice is just a part of life, so one must put up with it and make do. A vision should inform belief in an alternative, and overthrow fatalism.
A vision should orient us so we are able to move in the direction we desire to go, rather than moving other than where we desire. This may seem trite, but, if we look at history, it isn’t. In case after case, movements have wound up other than where they intended, or at least, other than where the great mass of their members hoped. A vision should help us frame short, medium, and long-term goals and help us act consistently with reaching those goals, help us construct what is needed, etc.
Similarly, a vision should help us incorporate the seeds of the future in the present. How would you do that, not knowing anything about a desirable future?
Okay, so about parecon in particular? Is it a useful vision?
Well, following the above general flow, first, I need to note that parecon doesn’t stand alone, but is, instead, part of a way of looking at things which says right off that economics isn’t everything. Economics isn’t even alone a prime thing. Rather, economics is very important, but so is kinship, culture, and politics — and thus vision bearing on those spheres of social life is prime, just as economics is prime. But, for purposes here, if we aspire to a participatory economy, how can that help us actually move forward, from the present?
Well, parecon can help us understand the roots of economic hierarchies and class division, of income differentials, of social and movement agendas, issues of budgets, and so on — all in the present, by the contrast between what we have now and our envisioned, very different future. Parecon can motivate us, by revealing the possibility of liberated life after capitalism and showing that the ills of current economic life are not inevitable but are social. It shows how different social arrangements would eliminate current ills.
Of parecon’s many implications for the direction forward we need to take to arrive where we wish to go, perhaps one in particular stands out. There are two kinds of life after capitalism. One kind occurs in a coordinator-dominated economy with inequitable income distribution, production for surplus, and authoritarian subjugation of workers. This is what we call coordinatorism or twentieth-century socialism. The other kind occurs in a classless economy with equitable income distribution, production for meeting needs and developing potentials, and self-management by workers and consumers.
This is what we call participatory economics. In this light a critical thing that the parecon vision does is to alert us to and focus us on and even help us comprehend how to build movements, fight struggles, and construct infrastructure all leading to classlessness, not leading to more class division.
Regarding planting the seeds of the future in the present, what parecon does is to point us toward prioritizing building councils, incorporating self-management into our decision-making, trying for balanced job complexes in our own projects and, when we have budgets, trying for equitable remuneration, and even, when we develop elements of economic exchange, trying for participatory planning.
It also, in accord with the points above, pushes us to fight for changes throughout existing institutions that move toward these sought attributes. In other words, we plant these seeds in institutions we build, meant to be suitable for a new economy, but also by winning changes in existing institutions, pushing them in directions toward the new economy. These are not small matters but instead go a long way toward helping to define what a revolutionary project and movement and organizations ought to look like.
Of course there is much more to say about all this, and to explore and learn. Indeed, at the moment, people are close to putting up a website for an International Organization for Participatory Society — advocating parecon plus new visions for the other spheres of life as well. This organization’s interim structure and program emerge from participatory society aims and values. Indeed, there is a real sense in which this hopes to be the culmination of the initial desires — when starting Z Magazine and then Z Communications — to have a community of like-minded folks working together. Quite a few branches and chapters are already being built, and when the site makes it all visible, hopefully there will be much much more.
ROAR: Can ‘participatory economics’ lead us out of the current crisis — and if so, what are the pathways through which we can bring it about?
Well, it depends what crisis we are talking about. Let’s go back five years, ten, however many you like. In my eyes, there was then, too, a crisis — because then too there were gargantuan numbers of people who were hungry, poor, denied dignity, denied education, lacking a say in their lives, raped, shot, used, abused, starved, and so on. The current crisis is called a crisis in the mainstream not because it hurts the overwhelming bulk of humanity, but because it hurts or threatens to hurt the rich and powerful. That is the only time the mainstream looks out at society and sees a “crisis.” The rest of the time, the pain and suffering that are just as evident, and vile, aren’t crisis, they are just business as usual.
Okay, so can participatory economics help lead us out of the crisis that I see, the one always there, the one that derives from capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and authoritarianism? That is, the one that derives from the presence of economic, kinship, cultural, and political institutions that pervert human potentials? Yes, it can, broadly as described above.
Can it help us out of the current “crisis” as in the real one plus the current disruption for elites and additional pain for everyone else? Well — that is not so clear. If we mean can it help us out of this mess in a way that gets us back not to business as usual, but, rather, on a path toward real and lasting change, yes — it can help with that, but we have to do a lot of work for that to occur. Can it help us back to business as usual? No.
So what pathways would it involve? Well, there are so many things we could talk about. But, as just a few examples — it could inspire and enlighten us to seek full employment with shorter workday and workweek. It could inspire and enlighten us to seek massive, even gigantic, cuts in military spending, alongside major enlargements of social spending. It could inspire and enlighten us to promote massive allotments to education for all, to health care for all. It could inspire and enlighten us to promote changes toward participation within firms, and in broader macro-economic life. And that’s just the beginning, and only for the economy. Vision for politics, culture, and kinship could inform changes in those spheres as well.
ROAR: It seems to me that your vision of participatory economics is quite close to the main ideas in libertarian Marxist thought (particularly the work of Rosa Luxemburg and the Council Communism of Anton Pannekoek), as well as the main principles of anarcho-syndicalism and the communitarian ethos of traditional movements like the Kibbutzim and the Quakers. To what extent does your vision differ from these intellectual traditions and practices, and where do you see an overlap? Were you inspired by any particular philosophies when you set out to develop your ideas?
I have to admit I am not particularly familiar with the Kibbutzim and the Quakers. But, yes, I and many folks I have worked with were quite influenced by Luxemburg and Pannekoek, in particular, and by Kropotkin, Bakunin, and various other anarchists, as well. I think parecon is an extension of that very broad heritage, and I think participatory society is too, though that is a larger leap given the relative economism in the past.
The idea of councils is consistent, clearly, with past priorities of this broad trend. I think parecon spells out self-management more carefully than many others have, but nonetheless, my guess is they would have no problem with it. The ideas of equitable remuneration shouldn’t cause any of them any difficulty, I think — were they here to let us know — but these ideas are again, spelled out more carefully and I hope more clearly in the parecon literature.
Balanced job complexes is new but only in its execution. I think that that idea or aspiration was there, however fuzzily, as well. The basic perception of a class residing between labor and capital goes back to Bakunin, though I think identifying twentieth century socialist economics as coordinatorist is arguably new, as is the very explicit formulation of balanced job complexes. Finally, I think participatory planning is largely new.
ROAR: Finally, you have written a number of books on Marxism and socialism more generally. Is Marx still relevant today? And how does your own vision differ from orthodox Marxist thought?
I am never sure what people mean when they ask this sort of question. Is Marx relevant? The person? Like any other person, we can read and learn from his life experiences. If one wants to look at his life, great. If not, no problem.
The question means, instead, sometimes, and I assume with you, are Marx’s writing relevant? This is different, but still befuddles me quite a bit, I admit. His writings contain many ideas. Are many of those still relevant? Yes, of course, as with most any other writers of great merit. Of course, in this case, relevance means relevance not only for understanding but for changing the world, and, as a result, while one can read Marx for the ideas, there ought to be, and I think are, many others one can read who have employed and refined the ideas usefully.
The last part of the question I get. Very briefly, I would say orthodox Marxism is about economics and everything else only derivatively to its relation to economics. It has a view of history that is based on economic dynamics and contradictions and their implications for classes and their struggles. It identifies as centrally important owners — capitalists — and workers, and analyzes much about the system called capitalism in light of the ownership relations by which it defines those classes. There are many Marxists who are orthodox, in the above broad senses, and among them there is in many parts of the world a further set of allegiances — to Leninist conceptions of change, organization, etc.
Pareconish and parsocish thought differs very substantially from just about all of that. First, it continues to consider economics critically important, but it adds matters of gender and kinship, culture and community, power and politics, at that same high level of importance. It no longer sees history as built on economics and as some unfolding pattern of inevitable contradictions and resolutions, but has a much more diverse view. It retains most of the Marxist understanding of the dynamics between labor and capital — which was incredibly insightful — but it adds the coordinator class, in between, due to broadening attention away from just ownership to the full array of relations that profoundly impact motives and conditions of participants in the economy.
I don’t want to go on too long. But here is the most controversial claim. When Marx examined a body of thought he would ask, what does it include, what does it leave out, and in its inclusions and exclusions, whose interests is it serving? He wanted the inclusions and exclusions of his views to be such that they would serve the oppressed.
When I look at orthodox Marxism and see the exclusion of rich feminist, nationalist, and anti-authoritarian (anarchist) insights, it says to me — following the logic of Marx himself — that the body of thought is serving the interest of the groups at the top of those hierarchies. Many Marxists have understood this, I think, and have begun augmenting Marxist thought and ideas to include those insights. This is what, actually, the emergence of things like feminist Marxism, socialist feminism, nationalist Marxism, anarcho-Marxism, were all about four decades ago.
But, regarding the economy, there is also an exclusion — awareness of, conceptualization of, attention to, the coordinator class. I believe if Marx were around today and looked at orthodox Marxism, and looked at the history of post-capitalist efforts such as in the Soviet Union, etc., he would notice that exclusion and in a disciplined application of his own advisories, decide that Marxism had become, against his desires, not an ideology of the working class, but an ideology of the coordinator class.
Like bourgeois thought doesn’t highlight the full profiteering logic and activity of its beneficiary class, owners — orthodox Marxist thought, and indeed most Marxist thought, does not highlight the full surplus controlling logic and activity of its beneficiary class, coordinators. Indeed, orthodox marxism — and Leninism, the strategy of that class — doesn’t even acknowledge their existence, which is a pretty impressive degree of not highlighting.
Does it matter if I am right about how Marx the person would react, reborn today? Not a whit. What matters is whether, if we look more carefully and fully, the above makes sense. If it does, than all those socialists who currently pledge themselves to various Leninist and otherwise coordinator hiding approaches — which is a great many particularly in less developed countries — would be well advised to consider if their aspirations wouldn’t be better met by being aligned with participatory economics and participatory society movements. I think so. Perhaps others will too." (http://roarmag.org/2012/04/parecon-participatory-economics-interview-michael-albert/)
- Hahnel, R. (2008) ‘Robin Hahnel Answers Various Criticisms of
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