Albert Interviewed for The Socialist Worker
(1) (Judy Cox:) What are your fundamental criticisms of capitalism?
(Michael Albert:) In a famous pithy phrase -- capitalism is theft. In my view, which takes this response a bit further, capitalism is greedy aggrandizement alongside harsh denial. It is untrammeled accumulation accompanying ecological dissolution. It is alienated production and consumption that denies dignity and integrity. It is competitive anti-sociality that violates human solidarity and hope. And it is climaxed by imperial global machinations and nearly perpetual war. Capitalism is satanic might be a succinct summary, I suppose.
More technically, capitalism incorporates as its defining institutions private ownership of productive property, remuneration for bargaining power especially in the form of profit-seeking, hierarchical corporate divisions of labor in workplaces, and markets for allocation.
What is wrong with capitalism is that these institutions impose class rule by a few percent of the population so that some people own huge swaths of wealth and dominate social choices while other people sleep under bridges and freeze. Capitalist institutions produce anti-sociality in which not only is economic life a rat race (where even the winners are rats), and not only do nice guys finish last, but in my more pithy rendition of this popular insight, for the most part in capitalism garbage rises.
Capitalist institutions produce grotesque disparities of wealth and power so that within corporations there is a degree of domination that transcends even political dictatorship for denial of popular control over daily life conditions and choices and a degree of gluttony that transcends even the wealth of royalty for its ostentation.
So what is my main criticism? Capitalism produces anti-sociality not solidarity, gluttony and poverty not equity, alienation and homogenization not diversity, and authoritarian corporate hierarchy not self management. It makes war on humanity.
2) What are the key ideas of Parecon?
Parecon (short for) Participatory economics emphasizes that an economy's defining institutions should facilitate production, consumption, and allocation to meet needs and develop potentials of the whole population. That an economy should not waste resources, energies, talents, or other attributes we hold dear. That an economy should enlarge (rather than obliterate) solidarity, equity, diversity, and self management.
And that to attain these ends, we need new institutions. And finally, Parecon advocates as new defining institutions workers and consumers councils with self managing decision-making methods, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning, and Parecon describes how these could work together in a whole economic model.
Put differently, Parecon urges that we ought to eliminate the division of the population into opposed classes, We should not have some who rule and others who obey, some who prosper and others who perish. And it urges that to eliminate class division we need to redefine economic arrangements not only to remove ownership of productive property and accrual of profits by a tiny capitalist class, but also to eliminate monopolization of empowering work and access to levers of decision making power by a larger but still minority "Coordinator class." And so it advocates the institutions noted in the paragraph above.
3) How do you answer the accusation that it is utopian to think things can be organized differently?
What is utopian is to ask for the impossible. That's what the word means. So it is utopian to stare at a tree and ask it to fly, or ask it to grace us with love and affection. And it is utopian to ask people to fly under their own power by flapping their arms. It is utopian, likewise and even more relevantly, to ask people to be owners of capital and yet simultaneously reject profit seeking, or to ask markets to deliver solidarity, or to ask central planning or corporate centers of power to deliver self management. These entreaties are utopian because they seek to have entities function in a manner outside their logic and structure -- in a manner that is impossible for them.
So, for example, to say that we should ask dictatorship to be democratic is utopian. To say that we should employ markets and corporate divisions of labor as a means to attaining equity and justice, is utopian. But there is nothing at all utopian about asking, can I think of ways to relate to trees that better suit my values -- as compared to asking a tree to fly or to love us. And can I conduct myself more in accord with my values, as compared to can I do the impossible? And can we organize production, consumption, and allocation to better accord with our values, as compared to can we get markets to be socially just?
Yes, we could come up with utopian answers to even these sensible questions, indicating that institutions can do what they are incapable of, as in wanting corporations to serve the public good, or authoritarian political forms to promote participation and liberty. But we can also come up, I believe, with useful answers to these useful questions.
The a priori idea that there is no alternative to existing oppressions has through all history been a bulwark of reaction. There was no alternative, at one time, in the rhetoric of slave owners regarding slavery, to the rhetoric of kings and princes regarding royal rule, to the rhetoric of (many) men regarding women having no vote or jobs, to the rhetoric of (many) whites regarding apartheid subordination of blacks in South Africa and Jim Crow racism in the U.S., and so on. To say there was no alternative to these evil relations all rationalization, of course, and so too for the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism.
When someone says it is utopian to think that we can transcend capitalism - you should see if they are smiling or crying as they make their profound announcement. A person could honestly believe TINA, though for the life of me I have no idea on what basis -- but then the person ought to be crying. It would be like saying, in some past age, we can't transcend slavery. Surely someone bringing that harsh news to the public, particularly to slaves, wouldn't be gloating about it if they sincerely cared about humanity.
That some people gloat when they shout TINA is a dead give away that they aren't denying alternatives out of sober reflection, but that they are denying alternatives as a tactic to annihilate hope and desire and to curtail thought because they wish to preserve existing relations.
If someone says TINA, and has tears in their eyes, okay, I think they are horribly wrong, but I can at least respect their humanity about it and we can discuss their reasons. When someone says TINA with glee, however, I have admit that I have to work to not become abusive or violent. Calling aspirations for justice and equity utopian is the same.
4) What are your strategies for achieving a participatory economy?
These questions are so huge. I am trying to respond in accord with space limits, but it is difficult. Can I recommend some larger sources...both for the model and its many features, and also for strategic issues?
People should please consider looking at the new book from Verso titled Parecon ( http://www.zmag.org/ParEcon/pelac.htm ). It presents the model and discusses in detail its logic and attributes, with examples, etc., as well as dealing with related concerns and criticisms.
And for issues of strategy and program there is a book from AK Press titled Moving Forward. There are other books too...and most easily there is an extensive web site at www.parecon.org (a part of the Z/ZNet web system, which is at www.zmag.org) that has whole books, articles, interviews, questions and answers, and so on.
Now, regarding strategies... Well, the task is to win changes that better people's lives in the present but simultaneously leave us in better position to win still more in the future - non-reformist reforms.
Part of doing that is increasing the number of people who have a radical critique, and then, more, the number of people who have a vision for what they want beyond capitalism and a commitment to seek it.
Part is developing organizations and structures, partly related to amassing strength to win victories in the present by applying our energies effectively, and partly related to preparing for the future by learning about and developing new structures in accord with our ultimate aims, and creating means of applying greater strength in the future.
Without going on forever, one thing that participatory economics tells us bearing on these matters is that there are not only two classes to strategically think about, regarding what is called class struggle, but there are three, capitalists, workers, and what I call the coordinator class.
And likewise, there are not only two systems -- capitalism and something better called socialism to think about. Rather, there is capitalism, there are some systems that combine markets or central planning with corporate organization and public or state ownership which are popularly called socialism but which I label coordinatorism because in them what I call the coordinator class rules, and then there is -- I believe -- a system that is classless, in which people control their own labors and consumption with appropriate influence, without class division and class rule. I call this participatory economics.
What follows from this is that it is not enough to just be anti-capitalist, if we want to wind up somewhere desirable, but that we must also understand what is unworthy about what has gone under the label socialism -- its markets or central planning, its corporate division of labor, its remuneration for power and/or output, its class rule by those who monopolize empowering work -- and that we should gear our organizing efforts to avoid these pitfalls and attain structures we truly prefer.
I think this insight has powerful implications for not only the kinds of economic gains we seek to win in the present -- such as higher wages, shorter hours, better conditions, different investment patterns, and especially, redistributions of economic power -- but also for how we organize ourselves.
Our efforts should not incorporate class divisions, classist attitudes about remuneration and decision making, and classist structures for our own decision making -- but should instead embody in the present the logic of the future that we seek. For an advocate of participatory economics, this means, among other things, trying to attain balanced job complexes and self managing decision making methods and structures.
We need to win non reformist reforms, to create organizations that embody and lead toward our aims - particularly, regarding the economy, worker and consumer councils (as in Argentina, now, for example). We need to practice and spread the ideas of balanced job complexes and self management, in a pattern of improvements in society and enlargements in our own institutions, until we can literally replace existing economic structures with new preferred ones.
And I should conclude by noting that for me economics, which we are discussing, is important but not alone important. I think we need vision not only regarding the economy, but also regarding kinship, culture, and the polity, for example. And I think fighting for desired defining institutional goals in these realms, as well as in the economy, is essential for generating and sustaining hope, for having a positive orientation, and for being strategically oriented not only regarding what we reject, but also what we seek.