Interview with Michael Albert
Interview with Michael Albert
AttacD-AWWO: Can you say something about the process, the discussion that lead to Parecon (participatory economics) and the book that is now also appearing in German translation this fall?
Michael Albert: Sure. It was a long process. It started out by responding to people who would constantly ask "what do you want?", not just to me, but to movements of all kinds. We became attuned to the fact that that desire was a realistic desire, that people want to have realistic answers, serious institutional answers. The discussion involved critiquing existing options: what is called market socialism and centrally planned socialism, what was in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, critiquing that, looking at the past history, trying to see elements that were positive, whether there, or in other historic occurrences: Spain, Spanish anarchists, uprisings in various other places. It involved critiquing markets in a thorough going fashion; trying to understand the real problems. And eventually, it carried on to the problem of trying to formulate the values that we actually aspire to, that we really hold dear. And finally, it meant trying to define institutions that would accomplish those values - accomplish the economic functions: production, consumption, allocation - but that would also further the values that we had settled on as the ones we thought worthy. And that sort of logical progression lead to the thing that is called "participatory economics", defining institutions for a different way of doing economics.
In attac Germany, we had a much shorter but perhaps similar discussion, and there was a lot of controversy, for example about the role of markets. Some of us advocate market economy and want to have adaptions of it, others want a radically different type of market economy, and still others want a non-market economy. Didn't this controversy also arise in your process? Is your book just one position, or is it a consensus?
Robin Hahnel and I had an antipathy, and even a horror, toward markets before we even embarked upon a project of trying to create participatory economics. My own view is that asking for good markets is like asking for a good dictatorship. You can certainly have a better or worse dictatorship. And you can certainly have a better or worse market system which is to say you can have a market system with constraints on the market, with pressures that prevent it from doing worse things that it would do without those constraints, even imposing some positive attributes on markets. But markets themselves intrinsically have horrible implications, horribly anti-human and anti-social class-creating implications. Because of that, I call myself a market abolitionist. The same way I wouldn't want to see dictatorship and slavery in the future, I also wouldn't want see markets in the future. I think that they are that bad.
Many people use the term markets in a way that is too large. I mean, if by markets you mean a place where you get stuff, of course that exists in a good economy. It also existed in the Soviet Union, which was a centrally planned economy and didn't have markets, but certainly had places where you go and get stuff. That is not what a market is.
What a market is, is a particular kind of institutional arrangement, in which people compete by buying and selling and trying to get as much return as they can when they buy, and trying to buy as cheaply as they can, and sell at as high prices they can. They try to extract advantage, and they do it competitively. And that process, systematically, with lots of actors involved, leads to a relative valuation of everything, which is to say prices for everything. And that method of determining prices, and of organising activity and of motivating people, with much more discussion than we are doing right this instant, I find abhorrent. It produces not just individualism, but a selfish and a greedy individualism that is oblivious to the implications of one's actions to others. That's one problem.
A second problem is that markets get prices wrong. Market exchange takes into account the buyer and the seller, but not other people who are affected beyond the buyer and the seller. So markets do not account for the desires of people affected by pollution, for example, or by by-products, whether positive of negative. As a result, the prices markets arrive at are wrong. Markets impose on workplaces a need to compete and to cut costs in a manner detrimental for the people who work there, and that produces class division between them and managers. Markets have all sorts of negative implications, I think. But this last is the way it came up in our thinking, after we thought about how would we organize workplaces in a good society, in a good economy, so that they were equitable and just, so that there were no class divisions, and so that workers could manage themselves. How would we do it so that the distribution of income was desirable and equitable, so that workers and consumers had appropriate decision making influence.
After we thought about all that, we then said ourselves: OK, can you have the institutions that we have described to accomplish an equitable and classless workplace, and then join all workplaces together and join them to consumers with a market? And what we discovered was: no, you could not do that successfully. The market would subvert what we had sought as the desirable workplace institutions! So we had to find up a new form of allocation, to complete the economic system that we were advocating. And that was called participatory planning.
Could you explain who is "we" in this process? You told me that you, even before the discussion process, agreed on being market abolitionists. How did you get to this consensus? For us, it really was a controversy.
There is two different "we"s. One "we" is anticapitalists. People who were against capitalism - people who want a better world. Now that "we" does not at all agree on participatory planning, by any means, or on participatory economics. But I am part of that "we". And so part of the development of my thinking (and that of Robin Hahnel, who I developed participatory economics with) was because we were part of that big "we". And that, I think, lead us to be anti-Leninist. It lead us to being anti the old socialist models. It lead us to be anti-market. It lead us to be anti a lot of things.
Then that lead me to go off and think about "What we are for?". And that is a second "we". Robin Hahnel and myself were the actual writers of participatory economics. I think we were channelling the aspirations of lots of people. We were channelling the vague and general insights of a part of the movement, the new left. And we made them concrete in this economic vision, I hope. That is what we thought we were doing, and that is what I think we did. And if it has a merit, then that is what we did. So there is two different "we"s.
The one big "we" of the globalization critique movement might also be focused in the world social forum. Could you tell us your experiences when presenting Parecon at the WSF?
I have done that a few times. And I also have travelled around the world, presenting participatory economics, in places ranging from Turkey to India to Germany and Italy, in the first world, in the third world, in different contexts. It is quite remarkable that the audiences have very similar reactions and questions everywhere. The positive and the critical reactions are similar.
On the world social forum, you do not get to interact that much. But it lead to many invitations. And you can tell from the response of people how they react. Generally speaking, the reaction to participatory economics comes in two groups: There is a group that sees themselves as very strongly socialist. That sector - people who often are organized in political parties - reacts very positively to participatory economics, but very critically and most aggressively, when I talk about what is wrong with Leninism. So it is an odd combination.
The rest, the people who are not associated with Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist parties, they generally react very positively to participatory economics and very positively as well to the strategic notions that I propose.
I don't know how to answer the question beyond that, but participatory economics is not widely known, it is not widely debated and not widely accepted or rejected as yet. But it has got a growing constituency and a growing interest around it. Gaining visibility and thus evaluation is a hard battle, because there is another group that hears about participatory economics and reacts to it by not really wanting it discussed at all. And that's the group of people - they are often anti-capitalist, they are certainly for a better world - who occupy positions of relative power in current movements. They may be publishers. They may be running radio stations. They are people who play a very important role in disseminating information, and in determining what's debated and discussed and evaluated, by determining what is written about and what is talked about in our media. And that sort of people so far, here I am talking about the U.S. and UK, has seemed to me to be actively uninterested in participatory economics. And that's very troubling. It has made it a difficult process to try and make people aware that there is this system that they can judge and assess and try to see whether or not it is what they want, and make it their own or change it, if they want. It is very hard to do that if you can't talk through the media, that's our media, I am talking about - of course mainstream media has relatively little interest. And it has been difficult so far to do that.
Attac is an organisation which is present in about 60 countries. Have you approached attac with Parecon, and what are your experiences if you have?
No, not in a systematic way, though certainly attac people have been at talks, for example at the forums, in Belgium and France, etc. I would love to present parecon more formally to attac, or actually anyone. My interactions with attac have been very modest. I would of course be ecstatic to have participatory economics presented to attac and have attac debating and forming judgements about it, adapting it etc. The attac members in France who I know did not seem to be interested in it. If it is of interest to people in attac, that would be great.
We will see what we can organize. Coming from the process to the features of Parecon: a big debate in attac Germany was the role of the big transnational companies. Should we transform them, reform them, destroy them?
I am not sure if this is the right question. It does not make any sense to talk about destroying them. You can't destroy the operations that generate food....
... say, divide into smaller parts ...
I don't think that size is the issue either, if that's the question. The first question for me is structure. The issue is: do you want to have workplaces that are owned privately, which a few people get profit from? My answer is no. This answer holds not just for the big multinational ones, but for all corporations which are privately owned. Private ownership is a recipe for the economy intrinsically serving an elite, and only accidentally serving everybody else. The priority is to obtain profits for the owners. That is not my idea of a good economy, and so I am opposed to private ownership. That's a profoundly important thing that I share in common with the whole historical heritage of socialism. I think that capitalism gets its name for a reason: capitalists have tremendous power, tremendous influence, and tremendous wealth, and all that should be overcome. All that has to be eliminated. There can't be that ownership.
But there is a second problem. If you look at these corporations and look inside them, you see that there is a hierarchy of the character of work. About 20% of the population of a corporation does largely overwhelmingly empowering things. It does work, and it has day to day responsibilities, that give it great of control over its own situation and considerable control over the situation of the 80% below. Its position gives it higher income, higher status, better conditions, more energy, makes it less depleted by work, and so on. The 80% below, in contrast, is doing all the rote and the boring and the tedious and demanding and degrading tasks. And the 80%, as a result, may be made less knowledgeable each day, by work, while the 20% is made more knowledgeable each day by work. The 80% is made less confident, the 20% is made more confident. The 80% becomes less inclined to participating in any kind of decision, even if it had the right - it doesn't in capitalism - and the 20% becomes more and more inclined and able to make decisions. So what you get is a domination of the 20% over the 80%.
What follows is that if we take the step of eliminating the owners, but we leave the familiar corporate division of labour, then we still have a class division. I want to call the 20% the coordinator class, and the 80% the working class. Seen that way, we can have a situation in which we have an economy that elevates the coordinator class to a new ruling status. I think that is what market socialism and centrally planned socialism historically did. I would call them market coordinatorism and centrally planned coordinatorism. I think also that Leninism is the ideology of the coordinator class. It leads towards coordinatorism, even if most of the adherents of Leninism wanted something very different from that. That's what the framework gravitates toward, that's what it generates historically. That's also what it proposes, if you look at the actual models.
For me, you have to get rid of the private ownership, you also have to get rid of the corporate division of labour, and you have to come up with a new way of dividing labour, called balanced job complexes, that eliminates class division. To have justice and classlessness, you have to remunerate differently also: instead of giving people income based upon power, or based upon ownership (which translates into power in a market system), or based upon output (which also translates into power in a market system, but could be rewarded on its own account in some other system), you should remunerate people based upon the duration of their work, the intensity of their work, and the onerousness of their work. If the work is more degrading, you get more pay, not less, as now. If you work longer, you get more. If you work harder, you get more.
Suppose we do this kind of change to remunerating duration, intensity, and onerousness of work, we change the division of labour to balanced job complexes, we have self-management, we have real democracy in the workplace, where actors influence decisions in proportion as they are affected by them - which is another central feature of parecon - what we discovered when we thought about this is that if you lay on top of all these changes central planning, or if you lay on top of these changes markets, you destroy them. The allocation system imposes on the workplace the old structures again. So that's why we needed to come up with an alternative to central planning and to markets, to combine with these other attributes of a good economy.
Some of us in attac Germany think that an alternative to centrally planned socialism should be based on the experiences in Yugoslavia or the Czech 68 movement, the Prague spring, Ota Å ik,... There were a lot of reforms just concerning the question of democracy within the plants, building workers' councils and so on. Wouldn't that line of experiences and discussions lead into the direction of Parecon?
Yes, I believe so. All the inclinations you mention, if you extrapolate their logic and their aspirations, I think you get to participatory economics. But that's true also of fighting for higher wages in capitalism. So in other words: you can imagine somebody who says: capitalism is horrible, but it is all we could have. And so we should ameliorate the ills, and we should put in structures that try and make people better off. This is a reformist, but a sincere reformist, who is really trying to help people but thinks capitalism is forever. And we come along and say: wait a second. The direction you are going is good, but you are leaving the basic institutions, which by their very logic and the behaviour compel from people results contrary to what you are trying to do. Why don't you make those reforms part of a process that is going to change us away from capitalism and that is going to create new institutions consistent with the values you favour?
And now let us take the case of socialism. In Yugoslavia, or in Czechoslovakia, or in the Soviet Union, or wherever, when there were dissident movements trying to improve the economies in those societies, it was very similar. What they were doing was good, what they were demanding was admirable and desirable, but there were two ways they could do it. One way was assuming that the economic system writ large in those countries was going to persist, and that they were only adapting and modifying it, to ameliorate its pains, quite like being reformers in capitalism. In that case, they were leaving, I think, fundamentally important structures such as markets, central planning, and corporate divisions of labour in place, and were just trying to moderate the pain that those structures imposed.
Why not instead have those movements, like solidarity in Poland and so on, fight for changes, but try for them as part of a process leading to a new kind of economy, participatory economics, which has different institutions?
Market socialism has a corporate division of labour, remuneration of output, market allocation, and class division including coordinator class dominated decisions. Participatory economics rejects all of those defining features. All of them. It rejects markets, and replaces them with participatory planning. It rejects the corporate division of labour and replaces it with balanced job complexes. It rejects remunerating output, or power, and replaces that with remunerating effort and sacrifice. It rejects decisions that are dominated by the coordinator class and replaces that with classlessness and self-management. So parecon is a fundamentally different system. Movements that have tried to improve what was called socialism, like various anti-capitalist movements, at their base espoused workers' management, popular control over the economy, and equitable distribution. These values, are consistent with, I think, and would be made complete by the participatory economics system, but in their economies these values ran against the grain of the economy, and could only be had as a kind of a intrusion against its logic, like winning higher wages in capitalism is an intrusion against capitalist logic, which then regrettably, would tend to get rolled back. So I supported all that kind of movement for improvements in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakian, and so on, I supported those kind of movements, but just as I go beyond reformism in the United States, I go beyond reformism for coordinatorist economies, too. I want classlessness - solidarity, equity, diversity, self management - and that means I have to want institutions consistent with these values. And the institutions of market socialism and centrally planned socialism - which I prefer to call market coordinatorism and centrally planned coordinatorism - violate those values.
There are also positions, I think you call them green bioregionalism, which arise from e.g. India, where people are e.g. producing cotton for the world market dominating them and letting them starve. It is a big advantage for them just to return to self-sufficiency, subsistence, just growing food for their basic needs. This has grown to a movement in third world countries. Don't you think that this is a quite urgent matter that should be addressed by Parecon?
I don't like the idea that this is our future. There are situations in which I would advocate it and fight along side it. In the present, of course. But to say that the goal for a desert is to have only what a desert can grow, and the goal for an opulent area to have what an opulent area can grow, makes no sense to me. There is nothing equitable and just and humane about that, even if in the present, sometimes self sufficiency is better than existing options. There is nothing ecological about it either. That kind of self sufficiency - sundering exchange - is not a good idea. There is nothing wrong with trade per se. There is however much wrong with trade that is oppressive, that accrues most benefits to the rich and powerful, and imposes on the weak even worse conditions than they had previously. That's horrible. But the solution to that is not to get rid of exchange entirely.
To make the point graphically, that is a bit like saying: suppose that there are people in the United States who are a bit peculiar, and they look around and see that production is alienated. And the solution, they deduce, is to have no production. Just pick from trees and that's it. And we won't have clothes. And we won't have violins. For me, that's a senseless solution. It does eliminate nasty production but it throws out the baby with the bath water. I think the same is true for saying that each area of the world, or within a country, should be self-sufficient. That throws out the baby which is sharing equitably in the plenty of our earth and the plenty of our productive capabilities, with the bath water which is imperialism and market competition. The latter should be eliminated, yes, I agree. But the idea that people should exchange the fruits of their labour, there isn't anything wrong with that. What's wrong is that it is done in an oppressive way that robs dignity and robs people of control.
I understand for sure the desire, whether it be in the first world or in the third world, to extricate oneself from control by banks, by finance institutions, by the IMF, and so on. Absolutely. But what we want to replace corporate globalization with is internationalism, not isolationism. Isolationism is not forward thinking, internationalism is. What we want to replace the IMF and the world bank and the WTO with, is institutions which cause exchange to benefit people, and in particular to most benefit the people who are worse off, and to narrow the material gaps that exist around the world. That's a positive solution. But just saying that now that we have exploited the hell out of the whole world, they should be self-sufficient - what is that? No. Wealth should be redistributed, so that the poor become well-off. The solution isn't for the United States and Germany to go their merry ways, and for the poor to try and make do. That might be better - and it is better - than for the United States to keep ripping them off. But it is not better than to have a system redistributing wealth back to where it belongs. That's better still. And that's what I think we should be interested in doing.
There is a concept called deglobalization, which kind of tries to find a different balance: not the global market and trade as we currently have them, where for example a yoghurt is produced with thousands of kilometres of transportation, because it is assembled at very different places. Walden Bello has coined the concept of deglobalization: you should give priority to do things locally, if you can, and if you cannot do them locally, you of course have exchange at a regional, national, continental or even global level. This is called subsidiarity.
It is common sense with a bad label, I would say. What is being said, I think, is that we should produce and exchange in a manner that meets people's needs and develops potentials, and that respects the environment, and puts workplaces in range of resources, so that we don't waste money on transport that is unnecessary. All this is common sense and desirable (a good economy would do that), but it has a bad name: deglobalization. What does that mean? We should reduce ties between people? Ties between people are good. Sharing knowledge and experiences is good. Sharing resources and products is good. Should it be the case that when you live in a cold climate, you can't eat oranges? Maybe. Maybe it's true that getting oranges from warm climates to cold climates is so expensive and so destructive that it shouldn't happen. But you surely shouldn't decide that a priori, in advance. You should look at what it costs and what the situation is, and if it is doable, and people can enjoy oranges in all climates - good. They should. Why not? That's a good thing. So how do you know in advance? When you have an allocation system, which can examine productive possibilities, and examine preferences that people have, and can arrive at accurate prices, accurate valuations of different possibilities, then people can self-manage the choice. And only academics or intellectuals want to decide in advance what size the things should be, how far things should be shipped. You can't decide that in advance: it is different for different items. So you don't need a norm like "do local" or "do global". What you need is to understand why it is sometimes desirable to do things locally, and sometimes it is desirable to do things more centrally.
Let me give you an example. Suppose, in the United States somebody came along and said: we have to choose (this isn't quite the choice, but suppose it was) between having two huge bicycle plants, one in Ohio and another in Kansas, and they provide all the bikes for the whole country. And the other person comes along and says: no, let's have 5000 bicycle plants, located in small areas, and serving the small areas. And the second person says, the reason why we should do this is because those two bicycle plants will have to ship the bicycles all over the country. And the costs of that shipping, in the resources that are used, in the effort that it takes, and in the energy it will use up, is substantial. So it is economically unwise. And the argument has some merit, of course, except from one thing: the person didn't look at the other half. The 5000 bicycle plants need steel. They need rubber. They need resources. They need people. So is it the case that in fact on balance, what you save in the transport of the bicycles, by moving the bicycle plants all over the country and close to people who will use them after they are produced, outweighs what you lose in having now to ship the steel to 5000 places instead of to two plants? We need to think about this one minor extra step. Or would it be true that the little bits of pollution that each of those 5000 plants generate - it's less for one of those small plants than it is for one of those big plants - would cost more to clean up then to focus on cleaning up and regulating two of them? It is not clear. You don't know in advance. So what you want is not a norm "small is beautiful", not a norm "decentralization is optimal", but an allocation system that lets people affected decide case by case.
What you want is to understand what the issues are, and to have an allocation system which actually distinguishes between these processes and is able to assess what the relative costs are that are associated: the environmental costs, the human costs, the social costs, the material costs, and then makes the right judgement. And that is I think what participatory economics provides. It doesn't prejudge the answer. It provides a mechanism that lets people decide which outcomes they prefer, which takes into account their preferences, the ecology, and so on. And that, I think, makes much more sense than trying to have a universal solution before the fact for all cases. To me, many of the people who talk about decentralization do it as kind of a - I hate to say it disparagingly, but taking it to an extreme, it is almost like a religious mantra. You should do this, we have to be decentralized, we have to be self-sufficient. What it means, is that most places in many countries would have to do without things that are desirable. And it also means that you would have so many small plants, that probably the ecology would be completely obliterated. It turns out that it is not necessarily ecologically the wisest course. I am not sure whether it is better to have two big bicycle plants or 5000 small ones. But I wouldn't bet any money that it is better to have 5000 small ones, even just for the ecology. It is without question better to have pretty much anything than to have two big capitalist bicycle plants, because two big capitalist bicycle plants will first generate bicycles, and second a gigantic amount of pollution, as a matter of policy in order to reduce costs and to raise profits. And in fact, I am also quite sure that 5000 capitalist bicycle plants would be infinitely worse than two large Parecon bicycle plants, because the 5000 capitalist ones would all spew out garbage. And the 5000 bicycle plants connected together by markets would be much worse than two Parecon plants linked together by participatory planning. And whether 5000 participatory planning bicycle shops would be better than two of them - I don't know. But I do know that participatory planning big plants would be better than market socialist ones, centrally planned socialist ones or capitalist ones. All you have to do is to look at eastern Europe, and the God-awful ecological mess that it was, in many ways worse than the United States, even, to see that that system does not solve the problems of the ecology.
Another issue for the decentralization point of view is democracy. People should take decisions in circles where they can discuss with other people they know, and should discuss those matters that affect them.
I think that there is some truth to this observation, but by and large I have to admit I also think it is sort of a lazy and confused notion. What enables democracy and self-management is institutions whose structures promote democracy and self-management. It isn't size. It is very possible that Microsoft is more democratic internally, and has a more democratic culture internally than a Ma and Pa grocery in downtown Seattle that has five employees. I don't know that that is the case, but it certainly could be, even now, with current Microsoft and a current corner grocery. The notion that small means democratic is simply wrong. What means democratic is democratic institutions, self-management means self-managing institutions - large or small. I think the observation you mention embodies a right desire, yes: democracy, participation, self-management, people influencing the decisions that affect them - but I think it does not look at the problem carefully enough, thinking hard enough about it.
Small capitalist firms are often the most grotesque in terms of internal hierarchies, and not the most desirable. Do they have to be the most grotesque? No. But they certainly could be. Which ones are going to be better? The ones that have coalitions of workers that fight for better conditions and more control. Those are the ones that are going to be better. That's what's going to make it better, not size. What's going to make it better is that people make it better. The reason why participatory economics has a new division of labour is because unless you have that division of labour you don't have democracy, you don't have self-management, you have 20% ruling 80% and this is true whether your factory has 100 people in it, and 20 people ruling 80 people, or whether your factory has 2000 or 20000 people in it, and has 4000 ruling 16000 people, isn't the key ingredient. The key ingredient is: does your factory, your work place, have a new division of labour? Does it have workers' councils? Does it have a new way of making decisions, in a self-managing fashion? Is it structurally different, rather than is it different in size?
There is a person with pseudonym Darwin Dante, who has taken statistics and has tried to compute what are necessary hours of work per week. He has subtracted advertisements, products with planned malfunction after a certain time, finance institutions, banks, and also added the benefits of automation for reduction of work, and he computed that five hours per week suffice. Maybe he has forgotten time for councils and planning. But there are various groups that question the notion of work as a notion that is useful for a free society. There is a new way of knowledge-based production in the capitalist economy, where you really have big plants run almost entirely by computers, with very few workers. Shouldn't this potential be used for reducing work to a minimum, with the result that perhaps such a detailed bookkeeping of indicative prices and working hours as parecon incorporates might become superfluous, and be considered over-bureaucratic.
If this Dante fellow was right, and if we changed to participatory economics, meaning that you have to work five hours a week, and the rest of the time you can do whatever you want, then spending all the time figuring out how to arrange the economy might not be so wise, because it is just a small part of life, a tiny, miniscule part of life.
But I don't think Dante's claims are credible or even enlightened, honestly. I can well imagine that in a participatory economy, people would decide to work 30 hours a week, may be even 25, or 20 hours, but not much less than that, for two reasons: one is that work is a big part of life. It is a desirable thing. Work that is alienated, work that is under other people's control, work that is producing garbage, is not pleasant. And we are for diminishing it, sure. But work that contributes to the social good, work that makes life better, for oneself and for others, is desirable. It is part of what we do to express ourselves, to express our creativity, and I don't see eliminating that. For example, we can have machines that play all the instruments of a symphony. You can go and watch the symphony, and there would be a machine sitting in the chair and playing the instrument. Would that appeal to you? It wouldn't appeal to me. There are some things you get rid of and some things you do not get rid of. Some things that are appropriate to have equipment do if possible, and some things that are inappropriate to have equipment do, even if you could arrange for it.
And there is an additional matter: To say that you can decide how much work is needed is to say that you know in advance what people want. This makes no sense to me. So let's say for a minute -which I don't believe - that Dante was correct, that you could have subsistence production, you could produce food enough to keep everybody alive, with five hours work a week from everybody. Honestly, I think it is ludicrous, but if you could, so what? Do people want to work five hours a week and have nothing but a subsistence diet and a subsistence roof above their head and subsistence clothing? Or would they rather work some hours longer, to have nice clothes, a nice place to live, and nice musical instruments, sports, books etc.? Would people prefer to have nice parks, nice all sorts of things, that they can enjoy? Would they prefer to have symphonies and so forth? I think the answer is yes. But in a desirable economy how long people chose to work is going to be up to people. People are going to make a choice.
In an equitable society, a just society, I live a rich and fulfilling life. I have control over my own situation, and one of my decisions is: do I want to work 30 hours, 25 or 20 hours. That's a choice. Which would I prefer? Would I prefer to have more stuff or would I prefer more time off? If we work longer, all of us, than five hours - to use Dante's hypothetical claim - we can produce all sorts of fascinating things, which we can enjoy, which otherwise we won't have. We have this productive potential and we can choose to use it or not. I don't know what people are going to decide. What we need, however, is an economic system that lets people make that choice. And that's what participatory economics does.
Yes, but assuming that we could reduce work to five hours a week, wouldn't it be much better to have the rest being spent for free activities, where people of course can improve things, produce things that are valuable for the society, but these hours beyond the five hours need not be subject of this book-keeping process: remuneration for effort and sacrifice etc. All this book-keeping process and this kind of swapping which is implicitly in parecon: I do some work, and if I work longer, I can get more, ... Wouldn't it be better to have a sphere of really free activity that is completely beyond all this book-keeping (which is necessary, but not for such a large extent).
We should be clear that in my view, at least, this is a hypothetical question: I think there is no five hours work for everybody with a good living standard, but I will accept your hypothesis. My answer is still no. And the reason that my answer is no is not because I think that free activity is a bad thing - it is a good thing, and so we will chose to have lots of leisure. But to think that free activity will produce the stuff beyond subsistence that we want, but it will do it without having planned it, without having made any decisions about it, is entirely inefficient and irrational. For example, you work five hours within the economy and then you are going to go off and you will know that we will work out this subsistence income, whatever it is. And you will try it out, and then you feel like putting in another 20 hours to express your talents and to individualize your capabilities and to do something socially useful. So you decide to go off and do X. How do you know whether X is needed? How do you know whether X is redundant? You need to know that. Ii does not make any sense to just go off randomly and do it. Once you do do it, what determines how much more stuff you get - out of the free labor everyone has been doing? If I did ten free hours and you did 20, do we both get the same? How do we get it? How do workplaces get their inputs for work that is voluntary and not tracked? Your question betrays a feeling that some might have that there is something awkward about being conscious, about keeping track.
But I think there is something depressed, or desperate about that sentiment and some of the others you have conveyed as well. In other words, there is something desperate about the question: shouldn't everything be small? Shouldn't everything be local? Shouldn't everything be outside book-keeping? In each case, there is a feeling, I suspect, that the problem isn't the social institution, the problem is just any institution, any structure. So what we have to do is be very small, and to be only with our friends, and to get things outside the economy. And escaping structure will be the humane, caring thing that we believe in. What I am trying to say is that you can have an economy which is rational, which functions in accord with people's needs, which tallies and sees what people want, which fulfils it - and which generates solidarity, self management, etc.
In other words I am saying you can have large workplaces, central workplaces, and certainly workplaces at all, that have the qualities that you want in what you are calling free-time productive activities. Some of your free time you go swimming. Some of your free time you go sun-bathing, you play, or whatever you do. Okay, that is outside the economy. But you are also saying, however, that a lot of free time, especially if you work only five hours, you will be doing things that are socially valuable. And you want to have done it in the free time, because you want to have certain attributes: you want it to be free, you want it to be fulfilling, you want it to be liberating, you want it to be manifesting your talents. I agree with all of that. But you think to get that, you have to extricate the work from being part of a system which is attuned to people's actual needs and desires, which is attuned to other people, to what they are doing with their time. In fact you not only don't have to extract it from that, but doing so will reduce, not enhance, it humanity. You can have all the positive traits you want, and also not be redundant, and not be wasting your time doing something that is not wanted.
That is very clarifying. I think I wouldn't advocate taking this extra free activity which is socially valuable outside the planning process. I fully agree that it should be part of the economy, and it should be coordinated by consumer and producer councils. So I fully agree in this respect. But I would not remunerate it. For example, the free software movement has created e.g. the Linux operating system, which is in many respects even better than the capitalist product that Microsoft sells, and all these free software people, at least in the starting phase, have been working for this without any remuneration. They have got their remuneration from elsewhere, say from these five -or, under capitalist conditions, even 20 or more - working hours per week, but then, in their free time, they have created Linux. And of course, there was coordination, but not remuneration.
I am unimpressed, honestly, by this kind of argument, though again I understand and respect the sentiment. I think it is the same thing as above, abstractly. Let's go back to the five hours, and even add another 15 hours, and it is all going to be socially desirable. Then you agree that it has to be part of the planning system, because you don't want to be producing stuff that nobody wants, and you don't want to be redundant, and also, you have to interact with other people: you need all sorts of inputs. Where do you get those inputs? How does society know...? So you need the planning system. However, you don't want remuneration. You don't want prices.
Well, I think you are missing something: the planning system isn't there, unless prices, meaning relative valuations, are there. You cannot decide whether this or that pursuit is worthy without having accounted for its true and full social costs and benefits. Suppose what you want to do in your extra time - beyond those five hours, a hypothetical situation - is to produce arts, musical instruments, computer software, or whatever. Why should you be given the resources to do that? How do we know that you are not incompetent? How do we know that it is not a waste of time and resources? How do we know if anybody wants it? How do we know how much they want it? Maybe they want it a lot and a lot of effort should go into making sufficient items available. Maybe a lot of resources should be going to that. The problem with the idea that everybody should just get what they want, and that everybody should just give what they want, is that you have no way of knowing what people in fact want, and how much they want it. The reason why you need people to manifest their preferences by saying I want this a lot, and I want this, a little, which you do by showing how much of your income you are going to part with for it, is because without this indication the economy is flying blind. That indicator is very important to the economy. That indicator is not alienating.
Suppose you were shipwrecked on an island, and you were trying to figure out what everybody should do. Now in this case I give you the five hours a week: it is a very productive island, with lots of food lying around, and the weather is not too bad. So in five hours a week from everyone, you can all survive. (Actually, on second thought - this is preposterous, I think, but let's assume it nonetheless.) Now in fact, you all are going to be there many years, at least, so beyond survival you'd like to have schools, and you'd like to plant fields, and you begin to hollow out musical instruments, you'd like to have all sorts of stuff, you'd like to have better than just huts, which are survival, you'd like better food than just what falls. So you all agree: five hours a week are survival, the rest of the time we should do whatever the hell we want - but a lot that improves everybody's life. That's an option. But does it make any sense?
One person does nothing. One person does a lot. When you all come together to get the stuff that the voluntary effort, over the five hours, generated, the person who does nothing takes the same amount as the person who does a lot. Is that fair? I don't think so. That's one problem.
The second problem is: suppose three people go off and decide that what they are going to make is something nobody wants. Well, you say: we all sit around and plan it. But all sitting around and planning it is exactly what you do for the five hours type work. It's precisely everybody saying what they want and how much they want it. That's what you have said you would like to avoid for all work above the basic five hours. You can only sensibly show how much you want is in light of relative valuations. And you can only arrive at relative valuations by saying: out of your income, how much would you allot to this and how much would you allot to that.
Now what is the problem with doing that, what is it about doing that which makes you nervous? I think it is the feeling that if you get remunerated, you somehow sullied your activity. You somehow made it no longer pure. It is not social any more. It's bad. If you buy something, in the sense of giving some of your income for it, it's sullied the exchange somehow. But I think this feeling arises from the experience of capitalism and makes no sense regarding an economy like parecon.
We are part of the social community. We are participants together in that social community. There is nothing wrong with tallying in a participatory and effective way, to see what we all want. There is nothing wrong with us feeling the pressure of that tally influencing our choices so that we moderate our choices in light of our collective social situation. That's socially desirable. That's what allocation does.
The idea of free software is interesting. The people who have advocated it are however often not even anti-capitalist. The people in the United States, who very much saw themselves as socially innovative at the beginning of this thing, are not anti-capitalist. They just happen to have something awfully close to a fetish about software being free. Do they talk about software firms getting rid of the coordinator class? No. That does not enter their mind. Do they get upset when they negotiate with a firm that sells the Linux in a package, and is a corporation? No, they do not get upset by that. The only thing they care about is for the software to be open to change by users, because they say this is some special attribute of software. What they are understanding is that there is a special attribute of software under capitalism, software is quite different under capitalism than some other products. But in a good economy, software is like anything else. It is something into which workers put hours of their ability, of their capacity, and that requires other inputs, like electricity and light bulbs and fuses for the workplace, and so on, and that requires requires energy and time, and that generates an output, useful code, that can benefit people. It is the same as any other kind of production, I think, in those respects. And it should be accomplished in a manner that is consistent with the values that we all hold dear.
I do not hold dear as a value not tracking things. I do not hold dear as a value not accounting for social costs and benefits. I do hold dear as a value not accounting in a way that is geared to producing profit for a few. I definitely do agree with that. But again, we are throwing out the baby with the bath water if we get rid of accounting for values per se. The idea of free provision of works and free taking of the product being a higher value than remuneration for effort and sacrifice and getting stuff via your income, is very dubious, philosophically, because it lacks means to generate the information that allows for attention to people's needs and just distribution. I think it's dubious also because we don't live in a world where you can actually work five hours, but that's a different matter.
I tend to think that there are no doubt norms that are higher than the norms of participatory economics. Suppose, for example, you are a parent and have two children. Your daughter plays piano, and your son plays harmonica. Your daughter's birthday comes around, and you get her an expensive piano, it costs 4000 dollars. You get her this piano, she smiles, and she is happy. Your son's birthday comes around, and you get him a harmonica. It costs 250 dollars. He plays the harmonica, smiles and is happy. Now, what do you do? You might say: Wow, I just spent 4000 dollars on Sally, and on Sam, I just spent 250 dollars. So now I should go and buy Sam a small car to even this up. Or you might say toyourself: Sally is smiling, and Sam is smiling. They are both happy, their fulfilment levels are comparable, the fact that it cost more for one and less for the other - who cares? I do not to have to equal up, I have equalized their fulfilment. That is a higher norm than Parecon has at its core and you could imagine trying to devise an economy which allocates and produces and consumes, and which is trying to equilibrate fulfilment, which is different than attaining justice, equity, and fair income. In a Parecon, you and I have a fair income, and I might be sad, and you might be happy. In this other economy, let's call it Nirvana, the economy ensures that we are comparably happy. So that's arguably a higher norm. I think that it is probably impossible. I think it is definitely way in the future, after Parecon, if it's not impossible. That might be what's feeding your feelings, that kind of sentiment.
But I really think that the desire to escape allocation is a little like the desire to escape production, to escape technology. It notices that something is bad: capitalist technology is bad, capitalist production is bad, capitalist allocation is bad, and instead of getting rid of the capitalist part, and generating a good replacement, desirable technology, desirable production, desirable allocation, it cancels the whole damn thing. So escape it all: get rid of technology, get rid of the production, or in your case, get rid of allocation. And then you come back and say, we can have allocation ;et's just dispense with remuneration and income, but you cannot have both. If you want people to work for nothing, and if you want people to take stuff without expending from a budget, you cannot have participatory planning, because you cannot evaluate the relative worths.
I think that one issue is control. You have subsistence, and you have a planning which goes beyond that. And you have of course to tell people that if they consume more, then more work is needed but I would not tell this to people in a way such that control is involved. I would release the control, the book-keeping, the credit cards. I just would say it very roughly. Control yourself, your consumption beyond the basic needs...
You can't control yourself in accord with what others are doing, equitably, if you don't know the value of things. Nor can the economy generate sensible levels of output without people manifesting their preferences to generate relative valuations. I can imagine a participatory economy which says: we think that it is important to closely track effort and sacrifice. And I can image one that says: we do not think it is important to so closely track it, we can do it in sort of rough way. Not only that. I can imagine that in a participatory economy we can have workplaces with different approaches: some with very precise internal accounting of effort, or perhaps seven duration, and others with very rough and loose internal accounting of effort, or perhaps even duration. I might prefer to work in a place with loose accounting. Someone else might prefer to work in a place with very close accounting. Maybe he could earn average, 2% more, 3% more, and so on up to 10% more, or whatever and likewise downward. Maybe I could only get average, under-average or over-average. That's a choice in how we set up each workplace, but beyond that option it is critical that for the workplace as a whole, and for the economy as a whole, preferences and results for items produced and consumed be tracked. There is nothing mandatory about which we track duration or intensity of work in particular workplaces. It could be done in more that one way inside of an economy. Two economies could also have different attitudes about it, and workplaces within one economy could have different attitudes about it. There is not a fixed solution.
But the idea that the issue is control honestly doesn't make sense to me. Society, and economies, are not anything goes. If you and I work in a plant, or live in a community, we can't just each ignore the other, and the rest of our workmates or community mates to do our thing regardless of effects. That I get an income and spend it on my consumption does limit my options, and ought to, so that everyone else has the same freedoms and options I have rather than my working little and taking a whole lot, and impinging on other's conditions unfairly by that choice.
But I think that there is some quality behind it: whether you have control by society, or self-control.
What is the difference you have in mind? People think of society like Darth Vader or something. Society is the people, if it is a good system with self management. So when you say control by society - it is just cooperative negotiation among people, according to norms they all agree to, that is establishing limits and options, and this is self-management. The only real issue here is not more or less social and personal control, because at least parecon is adament about self-management, meaning each person having a say in decisions in proportions as they are affected by them. The issue is, whether it is worth the effort and the time to account overly closely, or whether you can be very relaxed about it, because people will be responsible, and because you can get the indications, even if you are relaxed about it, supposing you set things up cleverly. I think that is a real issue, a real debate, and a trade-off. But I do not think what we are gaining or losing is self-management, or freedom, or something like that. I do not think what is happening if we have participatory planning is that an outside entity, Darth Vader, Martians, or markets, with a logic either beyond our reach or overly controlled by a few, is governing us. Parecon is under control of us. What's controlling us is us, nut with each in touch with and respecting the rest.
But still, any kind of society, of structure bears the danger of alienation. Even if you have good intentions, good thoughts about this, if you have practical experiences, and so on, you should have in mind that with any kind of structure, there is the danger of alienation. I do not say that there will be alienation, but you should keep the issue.
But that's why you do not remove the issue. That's why you do not say: let us do it voluntarily without any structure. You in fact have a structure which as best you can establish generates self-management. I agree with the last thing you have said. But it is a desperate position to say: if we have social organisation, it will oppress us. I think social organisation will liberate and free us, if it is good.
Can you say something about how people could achieve a Parecon? Probably South End Press, the firm that you have founded, has influenced Northstart Press, a fictitious Parecon firm in the Parecon book. Has, vice versa, Northstart influenced Southend? What is the relation between theory and practice?
I think that very broadly there are two key aspects to achieving a parecon. On one side there is battling within the whole economy, in its parts, for changes in workplaces, communities, budgets, and so on. These battles are to win reforms that improve people's lives. They seek higher wages, better conditions, shorter work weeks, pollution controls, public say in federal budgets, and so on. The movements that fight for these many gains see each demand and victory as part of a process raising consciousness and commitment, building infrastructure, and always seeking still more gains until, finally, the movements are large enough to take over all of economic life. These mechanics make these movements non reformist even though they are often fighting for only partial changes.
The second key broad part of winning a better future is creating examples of future structure in the present, partly to inspire, partly to experiment and learn, and partly to enjoy the benefits. Such projects of course inform what we think about our aims and structures that can make them real and therefore influence how we define and talk about what we fight for in the major institutions of society, to ensure that our efforts lead where we wish to wind up. In turn, our fights in the broader society teach us about what people need and desire, informing the visionary projects and also keeping them grounded and in touch with reality. The two parts need to be connected to gain their full weight in unison.
South End Press is, as you note, one example of trying to do the second part. It was trying to create an institution that would reflect our values and implement them in the present, structurally, while of course publishing valuable books. SEP predated parecon's formal conception and very much informed it via the experiences I had shared with others designing its operations. And yes, Northstart Press, the fictitious example in some of the parecon books, is of course based pretty tightly, but not exactly, on the SEP experience. And, in turn, as ideas about parecon developed, the practice changed, too.
There are some free software activists that have studied Marx and develop ideas for a new type of economy (project Oekonux, http://www.oekonux.org; see also the recent book by AndrÃ© Gorz: "L'ImmatÃ©riel - Connaissance, valeur et capital", the latter unfortunately currently available in French and German only, I think). What do you think about that?
I can't comment on the substance since I haven't read anything or even heard anything about it until now. But I would certainly love to think through this material, though, regrettably, I can only read English. In any event, I am glad to hear it is occurring. Gorz I am familiar with and at various points I have quite liked his work. In fact, he had an early book, in English called Strategy for Labor, which put forth the idea of non-reformist reforms, which is what I allude to directly above talking about winning improvements and not then going home but instead, seeking still more, based on higher consciousness and better organization developed in each struggle.
Are there any experiences with the planning process? Can e.g. consumers learn to specify their desires in advance? Any experiences with that?
Participatory planning has not existed anywhere that I am aware of, no. Of course I think consumers can broadly indicate their desires in advance. If you knew, by overarching categories, what you consumed last year, and knew prospective changes in your overall budget due to more or less overall output anticipated for the whole economy this year, surely you could broadly decide how much you wanted to work - in order to consume commensurately - and broadly what the components of your consumption would be. The system is flexible, though, and regular updating is both required and easy.
What do you think about participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre? Although it only concerns a tiny part of the economy, it still has brought some experiences with a democratic planning process. Couldn't these experiences be valuable for participatory planning in Parecon?
I think it is a good example, broadly speaking, of a kind of reform that movements can seek to win in the present, in this case in the government sphere of the economy, which can be fought for and organized in a way that then leads further toward a full pareconish future. But in Porto Alegre, while I like the idea very much, that isn't really quite how it was done, I think. There was never that I know of broad discussion, much less it being a central feature, about having cooperative participatory planning in time extend into workplaces and their relations, or even into the private sphere at all. Likewise, I think much of the paraphernalia and probably of the discussion and means of discussion, and of the options available, of these experiments was constrained by their acceptance of the overall current context and lack of a guiding conception of where this experiment ought to be heading. That said, however, of course I think these are very desirable and informative projects that should be emulated and expanded as widely as possible, though adapted, as well.
You very explicitly state that in an economy with self-management, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, keeping the market will undermine all the positive values. And this also has been the experience of self-managed firms and companies. How can then a strategy be successful that tries to implement Parecon ideas in firms that participate in the market?
Are there any practical experiences with a participatorily planned market-free economy?
The same can be said for private ownership. Keeping that would undermine, and still does undermine, any innovations aimed at justice, equity, etc., that we might win in the near term. Indeed, persisting private ownership has often rolled back such gains. This doesn't, or shouldn't, cause us to feel it is all or nothing. It should make us realize that when we win higher wages or better conditions or other gains while there a few percent of the population still owns all workplaces, the victories, while desirable and worthy, are tenuous. Private ownership will continually seek to undo them. So we have to defend them and we have to enlarge them and in time, if they aren't eventually going to be rolled back and if we are going to get much further, we have to change ownership relations so that our gains become part of the logic of a new economy rather than beachheads against the old one.
I think part of the answer to your question is that the same logic applies to markets. They certainly have features that work to subvert many changes we might win. So we have to keep fighting not only for new property relations, but for new allocation relations as well - and for new divisions of labor, etc.
I think you are right that a strategy which sought only to build firm after firm, more or less alongside or within a sea of capitalism, a sea of market exchange, a sea of corporate organization, thinking that in time it would grow to be half, then two thirds, and then the whole economy, would be doomed. This is for lots of reasons, not least a dearth of resources with which to build truly large and technically rich firms. And this is one reason why strategy for winning a parecon is only in modest part about building alternative structures now. It is also about fighting within existing structures, workplaces, industries, communities, to improve and then transform them. But with this two-pronged approach it is certainly possible both to build new pareconish institutions of our own, and to win changes in existing firms and even industries, all designed to travel a road to full transformation, and thus all continually defended against roll back even as we try to win still more gains.
There is no participatorily planned market free economy now. One could imagine transformation in Cuba say, toward parecon, which would be from a centrally planned coordinator economy toward parecon. And one could imagine a trajectory toward parecon in Venezuela say, or Brazil, say, perhaps with considerable government support and even inspiration, or not. And likewise one could imagine such a trajectory for the U.S. where I live, or for Germany, where you live. Of course the real trick is not only to imagine the alternative economy, and the steps toward reaching it, but to make these steps begin to happen and to learn from the ensuing experiences, continually refining both our vision of a new economy - and of a whole new society, for that matter - and our techniques for attaining it.
Thank you for the interview.
You are very welcome. It has been my pleasure.
The interview was taken on September 9th, 2005, during Micheal Albert's visit in Hannover and Berlin. The interviewer was Till Mossakowski. Special thanks to Leonardo Torres for having the idea of this interview, to Hans Thie for help with local arrangements and to Joseph Goguen for help with the transcription.