Parecon and France
An interview of Michael Albert on parecon made for the french anarcho-communist newspaper "Alternative libertaire". The french version is available at : http://www.alternativelibertaire.org/spip.php?article1245.
Alternnative Libertaire : What are the functions that have to be accomplished by any economy?
Michael Albert : An economy has to produce goods and sevices that we then enjoy both for survival and pleasure. It also has to facilitate our getting those outputs of economic activity, which is to say, consumption. And between production and consumption comes what's called allocation. It has to determine how much is to be produced, of what, with what ingredients, going to whom, and so on. None of this is controversial. Any economist would agree.
It is important to realize, however, that all this activity occurs by social relations and is undertaken by people who are in turn directly affected by the very acts of production, consumption, and allocation. A workplace, for example, takes in raw materials and intermediate goods each morning, and spits out final goods at the end of each day. But it also takes in people including workers, managers, owners each morning, as well as taking in various social relations among all these people, and it spits out at the end of each day sometimes changed people and changed social relations, perhaps exhausted, perhaps without a limb, perhaps enervated and enlightened, perhaps with hierarchies reproduced or altered, and so on. So, broadly speaking, this characterizes what an economy does.
Alternnative Libertaire : If we agree that capitalism and the actual "neo-liberal" order should be fought on the ground of values, then what are the values that a good economy should promote?
Michael Albert : For myself, it seems to me that an economy considerably affects relations among people, ranges of options that we have, who gets how much of the social output, how much say people have in what occurs, our relations to the natural environment, and our relations to other economies in other societies. And I think starting with these aspects provides a good jumping off point for establishing worthy values.
In that light, I'd rather have an economy that promotes solidarity than one which causes people to be antisocial. I'd rather have an economy that widens and diversifies options than an economy that homogenizes and narrows options. I'd rather have an economy that has just and equitable distribution than an economy which aggrandizes a few at the expense of the many. I'd rather have an economy in which each person has a say in decisions proportionate to the degree they are affected, rather than authoritarian relations. I'd rather have an economy that respects and takes account of the surrounding environment than one that despoils it mercilessly. And I'd rather have an economy that treats distant people in other economies as we would like to be treated by them, in turn--what we might label internationalism--than an economy that looks at other people elsewhere as targets for exploitation.
We can spell out the above in much more detail, of course. For example, economic institutions and the roles they provide ought to cause each actor to benefit not by hurting or even ignoring the plight of others, but in concert with others. Even if we are brought up personally greedy and avaricious, an economy should require that to get ahead we have to care about the general social welfare and the well being of others because our well being is tied to those general levels. Instead of nice guys finishing last, being nice ought to be instilled in us by the very act of our seeking to get ahead and as a component of doing so. Being nice ought to be an avenue to doing better, not worse, in society.
Likewise, economics should widen possibilities and enrich options rather than placing all eggs in one basket. We don't want an economy that homogenizes outcomes that huge groups of people have little choice but to undertake. We don't want an economy that consigns us to a class which has a pre-ordinaed position, culture, disposition, etc., but to diversify outcomes and ensure that we can each freely choose among them all.
For equity, more controversially, I think that economies should provide income to actors for the effort and sacrifice that they expend in socially useful labor. An economy should not reward property so that Bill Gates is worth more than the population of whole countries. It should not reward power so that those with guns or monopolies of any kind are rich and the rest are poor. It should not reward output so that those born lucky enough to have highly valued talents or those lucky enough to be able to work with better tools, earn more on top of their luck. Instead of these familiar approaches, a good economy should ensure that we each and all get income for how long we work, for how hard we work, and for how onerous our work is, while ensuring as well that we are producing things society values.
For decision making, people should be able to easily determine what is occurring in the economy, any why, as well as the likely implications of different choices that have to be made, and people should be able to express their preferences about those choices, conveying to each actor, whether individually or collectively, a level of influence proportionate to the effect on the actor involved. Owners, planners, or other agents should not decide for workers and consumers how their lives are to be lived. Each actor should self manage consistent with all others doing likewise.
Regarding the ecology, an economy should properly account for the implications of actions on ecological balance and should permit actors to make choices taking into account not only short and medium term direct human and social implications, but broader and longer term environmental results as well. An economy should not sacrifice tomorrow for today, not even for everyone today, much less for a small elite today.
And regarding international relations, of course global ties are desirable. But shifting relations among nations so that those who are already wealthier and more powerful get richer and stronger while those who are already less wealthy and less powerful get poorer and weaker is not desirable. Economies should relate to other economies with the same attention to social values as they relate to their own members. That will be internationalism, and I think it is parecon writ large, just as imperialism is capitalism writ large.
We could keep refining these values and examining their implications and mutual compatibility, but what is essential, in my view, if values are to guide our thinking about a better economy, is that the values be attainable while also producing and allocating goods in a manner that meets needs and develops potentials without wasting human or material assets that we care about. This means values must include incentives to get needed tasks done, to benefit from capacities, etc. If all these gains are possible, in other words if we can have an economy that does production, consumption, and allocation and that while doing so expands solidarity, diversity, equity, self management, ecological balance, and internationalism, then surely we ought to opt for that economy instead of continuing to endure the horrendous capitalist violation of all that is worthy we now suffer.
There is another value, if we come at the whole question from another angle, which serves as a useful guide too, though it is perhaps a little more abstract and in that sense less of a simple guide than the above. It is that an economy should be classless. Its institutions should not demarcate people into opposed sectors that violate one another, dominate one another, etc.
Alternnative Libertaire : What are the core principles of particpatory economics? Could you briefly describe how these principles help promote the values you think are important?
Michael Albert : The idea of participatory economics, or parecon, is to try to describe institutions for production, allocation, and consumption that get those tasks done in ways that fulfill and develop human potentials while enlarging solidarity, diversity, equity, self management, ecological balance, and internationalism. A pareconish commitment therefore entails that we reject institutions which fail in these regards. For example, one wouldn't have these values and propose slavery as a good system for producing cotton. Slavery can obviously get cotton produced, yes, but at the cost of the values.
Similarly, it turns out that private ownership of productive assets, corporate divisions of labor, remuneration for bargaining power, property, or even output, top-down decision making, and market or centrally planned allocation also violate the values. So this approach of parecon pushes us past familiar economic systems and requires that we conceive new institutions.
Alternnative Libertaire : So just to make it clear : what is the status of property of the means of production in a parecon?
Michael Albert : Either think of it as everyone owns an equal share of all such property. Or think of it as no one owns any such property at all. The point is, ownership is simply not a factor, really, not even a concept, regarding farmland, machinery, resources, etc. What property bestows on an owner in capitalism--the right to decide and the right to accumulate--exist in a parecon, but very differently. The right to decide, for example, goes to everyone who is affected by outcomes in question. Property has nothing to do with it. The product of labor in a firm does not accrue to owners of that firm--there are none--or even directly to the firm's workers, but to a social product which is the sum of all outputs from the economy, which we can then each consume from in accord with the duration, intensity, and onerousness of the work we did contributing to its composition. Again, property has nothing to do with it.
Alternnative Libertaire : Parecon requires remuneration of socially valuable work based on effort and sacrifice : on what ethical and/or economic basis are some other criterion of remuneration rejected? For example, why not remunerate people on the basis of need or contribution to ouput only? Why also reject a gift economy based on the free distribution of goods and services?
Michael Albert : Parecon does remunerate need in some cases. For example, if you have special medical needs, or if you can't work. But the main remunerative norm is, as you indicate, to remunerate duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor. Parecon rejects remunerating property because it is inequitable, destroys solidarity, etc. It rejects remunerating output because that has no valid incentive affect which can't be better accomplished in other ways, and has the adverse moral effect of rewarding people for luck, whether in the genetic lottery (being born with a great voice, fast hands, etc., or in having good tools that increase output).
Parecon doesn't remunerate need as the only norm, rather than an exceptional one, because it is economically dysfunctional to do that not, really, it is not even coherent. We can't take everything we may want--we would want more than we and others wish to spend our time producing. So what we need has to be less than what we might hope for or desire. But how do we know how much less to seek? What is an appropriate amount for me to say I want to take from the social product? The answer is, it is an amount consistent with my effort and sacrifice in proportion to that of others, unless I really do have special medical needs. Saying anyone can take anything that they want also leaves us no way to know how much we value different outputs, therefore how much effort should go into them, and which should be foregone due to being insufficiently valued, which produced in greater abundance, due to being highly valued. It destroys the possibility of sensible allocation.
Imagine you are shipwrecked on an island with a thousand others - a big ocean liner sank. You are going to be there for a long time. You need to set up a little society. How do you arrange your economy? This is actually a good exercise to think through. Do you have a lottery and give all the land and fruit trees and whatever else is the basis for production to a few folks to control while hiring the rest of you as wage slaves? Do you let the doctors who were on the boat accrue great leisure and the best homes and whatnot, because they have a monopoly on socially valued skills and knowledge? Do you let someone who says he wants to swim and sun bathe all day eat the fruit of your hard labor, having contributed nothing himself to the social product?
Different people will have different answers to these and many more questions one might ask. What parecon says is that the economically and morally sound approach is to remunerate socially valued effort and sacrifice, as well as to create conditions that support and to then utilize self management. Other options violate our values and also establish perverse incentives. It is a long story to argue in full, but perhaps the main logic is already apparent.
Alternnative Libertaire : I guess you do not advocate for each of us to measure the number of kilocalories burnt while working, so how could effort and sacrifice be measured in a practical way?
Michael Albert : Think of it as duration, intensity, and onerousness of work. Duration is easy, of course. Intensity isn't that hard, either. One indicator is output. We don't reward the value of your output, but we certainly can look at it as an indicator of the effectiveness of your efforts. But more, parecon has other key features--workers and consumers self managing councils, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning. So the answer has many aspects. In a workplace, extrapolating from knowledge of the plant's assets and methods, the output of the plant tells us the total of socially valuable intensity/duration that was engaged. How is the remuneration for that labor then divided among the actors?
Well, it is for them to judge. You and your mates are rather good at knowing who is exerting and who is off in cloud cuckoo land all day. As to onerousness, balanced job complexes largely take care of that, because equalizing jobs for empowerment effects (which is what this type division of labor aims at) largely equalizes for onerousness as well. Of course there is more to it, but in general, the answer to the question who decides--whatever it might be--is those who are affected, meaning, generally, workers and consumers. And the answer to how they decide is in light of the best available information, short of belaboring a point beyond reason, of course, and with self managing say for all.
Alternnative Libertaire : Regarding allocation you define yourself as a market abolitionist. If one can easily understand how a soviet-style centrally-planned economy violates self-management, why then reject markets? Aren't markets a rather efficient institution where consumer are free to get what they want? Could you then explain in some details the reasons why you reject markets as an allocation institution?
Michael Albert : All these questions require much longer answers than makes sense in a brief interview, of course. I hope folks will pursue the matter further. That said, markets have a wide range of damning failings. They don't in fact just give us what we want. Often, rather, we learn to want what they give us. More, they pit actors against one another and in doing so call forth anti social motivations and behavior. Markets also mis-value all inputs and outputs to the extent that those inputs and outputs have implications for people beyond the buyer and seller, especially when they have wide social relations or ecological effects. This supposedly efficient mechanism, the market, gets the price of gasoline wrong, for example, by a factor of just about ten. Think about calling that exemplary. So why are they called efficient. Because indeed markets are efficient, very efficient, for accomplishing production, consumption, and allocation in a way that aggrandizes a few while also preserving their dominant position, while impoverishing many.
There is another matter, actually are many more matters, but one that is particularly relevant to your question, though a bit more subtle than the rest. Markets create an allocation context in which even if we eliminate private ownership of workplaces, productive land, etc., each unit has to compete with others for market share lest it go out of business. It turns out that in this context, even if units began with self management, remuneration for effort, and so on, in short order all those nice features would disappear. Markets would cause these units, as they have done with actual endeavours historically, to establish in pursuit of competitive advantage via cost-cutting, in particular, what I call coordinator class positions, remunerating the people holding these positions and turning off air conditioning and speeding up assembly lines and so on, far more highly, and giving them far more say over workplace decisions.
Markets, in other words, impose, even against our wills, anti social motivations, misevaluations of inputs and outputs, and also class division and class rule, and this is so even if we have eliminated the capital/labor distinction. This is a large part of why, in my view what has historically been called market socialism is in fact an economy that violates the values I have proposed as worthy, and an economy that elevates what I call a coordinator class to ruling status over workers.
Alternnative Libertaire : Parecon requires allocation to be done via a partipatory planning : what would this process imply for an individual as a consumer and as a worker?
Michael Albert : Too many things to even list much less seriously describe them all here, of course. But mainly it means that each economic actor, partly as worker and partly as consumer, engages in a cooperative negotiation of the whole economy's inputs and outputs with other actors. This occurs by way of the workers and consumers councils which propose their preferred economic actions--whether what they think they want to produce or what the want to consume--and then, on hearing what others (and all society) has proposed, and on seeing the relative values that all these proposals imply for different inputs and outputs, each actor, individually (or often in groups), makes a new round of proposals.
This round-by-round negotiation--economists call these rounds of information exchange and proposals iterations-- leads toward a viable and worthy plan, self managed, without a center, without planners above others, and without actors seeking to get ahead at the expense of others. Of course my just saying it doesn't make it so. But hopefully the claim that such a thing can exist will spur readers to consider the possibility, and thus parecon, in more detail.
Alternnative Libertaire : One of your criticisms of marxist theory is that it is based on the analysis of the economy based on the existence of only two classes and that it "hides" the existence of a a third class : the "coordinator class". Could you describe what you mean by coordinator class?
Michael Albert : I mean the group of people who by virtue of its position in the economy resides, in capitalism, between labor and capitalists, and then in what I call coordinatorism, resides at the top, ruling over workers.
The idea is simple. It isn't just ownership that can convey collectively to a group a different status, power, and income. If one group has jobs that are systematically more empowering due to conveying information, skills, and connections, etc., that too can set that group above those below who lack these circumstances. In capitalism, for example, managers, lawyers, engineers, doctors, and all told about 20% of the population who do empowering work and have considerable control over their own circumstances and those of people below, are what I call the coordinator class.
So we have in this view three classes, not two. We have coordinators, workers, and owners, and not just workers and owners. This matters because this third group isn't just some workers who are a little better off. And it isn't just some owners who are a little worse off. And it isn't just some stratum of either group or whatever other terminology we may offer. Rather, it is a group which has different interests and agendas and methods within capitalism, and, even more important, it is a group that can become the ruling class in a Soviet or Yugoslav type economy, that is, in what has been called centrally planned or market socialism.
The key point is that this possibility means that an anticapitalist movements isn't, by virtue of being anticapitalist alone, therefore necessarily in favour of classlessness. Such a movement might favour classlessness, yes, or it might favour coordinator class rule. More to the point, whatever its stated or even really felt aspirations may be, or whatever the aspirations may be of some or even many of its members, such a movement may have adopted methods of organization, decision making, cultural celebration, and so on, that are consistent with seeking classlessness, on the one hand, or that are consistent with elevating coordinators to ruling power, on the other hand. We have to be anticapitalist, yes, but also literally in favour of classlessness rather than coordinator class rule.
What I think about Marxism Leninism, in light of the above, is that historically it has led to coordinator class rule over and over. I believe it has institutional commitments, for example to democratic centralism, that lead there. And I believe it also has a conceptual apparatus that denies even the existence of this possibility by denying that there is a third class at all and claiming that if some presumably post capitalist system is horrible, well then, it must not be post capitalist after all--because there is only horrible (perhaps state) capitalism and wonderful (perhaps deformed) socialism to choose among when labeling, say, the old
Alternnative Libertaire : What would prevent this coordinator class from rising to power in a parecon?
Michael Albert : There is no structural means, and instead there is the opposite. It is a little like asking what has prevented slaveowners from owning slaves in capitalism, except more so. It isn't just that it is outlawed. Rather, it is that the institutions of the economy preclude it. In a parecon why would anyone want to work for a boss, work for an owner? But more, how could such a workplace operate, given the need to interact with the participatory planning system which requires workers councils to self manage?
Parecon doesn't just frown on class division and class rule. It establishes norms of operation and role structures such that actors cannot function in the manner that class division and class rule requires. You can't be in a balanced job complex, have work is comparable in its empowerment quality to what all others also have, be remunerated for your socially useful effort and sacrifice like everyone else, operate like everyone else in a workers and consumers council with self managing say, and yet be above others. But if you don't operate in these ways, then you aren't in the economy at all. It is really as simple as that, once you have adopted appropriate institutions, that is.
Alternnative Libertaire : It could be argued that parecon doesn't adress the question of the state. Would a parecon be compatible with parlimentary democracies as we know them or do you think that a parecon would imply some changes in the organisation of political life?
Michael Albert : Parecon is an economic vision, and only an economic vision. This is not because I think economics is all important, alone important, or most important. Rather, it is because the economy is one important part of society about which we can usefully, instructively, and I think inspiringly, have a vision. I think the same holds, however, for other parts of society, not least its political sphere or polity.
Yes, I think parecon implies various changes in polity if polity is to be compatible with this new type economy. Vice versa, too. A desirable polity has implications for economics, and we can certainly ask can a parecon meet a good polity's requirements. Indeed, I recently did a book, Realizing Hope, with Zed Press in
So, yes, I think we need vision for what we might call a participatory society, a desirable society in which economy, polity, culture, community, and other dimensions of social life all compatibly advance values that we hold dear such as solidarity, diversity, equity, justice, self management, ecological balance, and internationalism. Participatory economics is just one part of that, no more and no less.
Alternnative Libertaire :
Michael Albert : This, like most things, will be determined, perhaps differently in different cases, by the citizens of a new society. Such activity could be made part of what is deemed work, as you suggest, and thus handled like all other work, as part of the planning process, with industry councils, and so on. I don't think that makes good sense, myself, but a parecon could certainly accommodate that choice. The reason I don't think it makes sense is multifold, but here are a few key aspects.
First, I don't think bringing up a child is like producing a bicycle, or even tending a patient. I think it demeans it to say it is.
Second, I also think that these types of activity, undertaken in households or living units, are different in that the "product" is very largely directly consumed by the producer. Suppose I design and redesign my living room each week, or even each day. Should all that labor count for my income? The more I work on my house, the less other work I have to do? I get the newly laid out room. I get the income. I get it all. This is quite different than when I work in a workplace with a workers council in a parecon.
Third, indeed, if we want to make bringing up children and cleaning up or making prettier my living room or lawn part of the economy, part of a parecon, we would have to bring it under the purview of workers councils, industry councils, and so on. This step too, I think, isn't a very desirable path to follow.
So why do some people urge that we make house work part of the economy the minute we have ideas for just economy? Of course, it is because they wish to overcome the horrible tendency for women to be exploited by having to bear the full burden of household labor. But why does achieving that gain entail calling upon the desirable features of the economy, such as balanced job complexes. Why can't we just also revolutionize other parts of society? Why can't we have new norms and relations for socialization, nurturance, etc., rather than subordinating these realms to the logic of the workplace and its structures?
I am inclined to think that that is the better approach to take, but parecon can accommodate either. What parecon does do, intrinsically, regarding gender, is to ensure that there can be no systematic gap between men and women regarding either influence, power, or income, in the economy itself.
Alternnative Libertaire : More broadly how would a parecon affect the kinship sphere?
Michael Albert : Every economy requires incoming young men and women to join it each new year to keep operating, of course. There are always new workers and new consumers. These new generations therefore inevitably have to be prepared by their upbringing and schooling to participate.
In capitalism, this means channelling the new generation to fit class norms and hierarchies. In contrast, in a parecon, this means new incoming workers and consumers have to have a sense of equity and justice. They have to have their capacities developed, their inclinations for self management and participation honed. They can't anticipate or expect to be ruled or ruling others. They can't anticipate or expect to be elite or downtrodden.
Whereas home life and schooling in capitalism has to create workers ready to endure boredom and take orders and has to create coordinators ready to administer orders and withstand stress and has to create owners ready to preen and posture all the way to the bank, home life and schooling in a parecon has to create workers ready to self manage in concert with others while doing their fair share of onerous and of fulfilling labor. This holds for men and women, and so homelife at least to this degree must treat them equally.
More, women will have incomes and responsibilities in the economy no different than men, and will therefore in no way be dependent or subordinate due to economic life, quite the opposite, which more or less means that families will have no choices but to be equally egalitarian and just, else why would women put up with them?
Alternnative Libertaire : How would environnemental issues such as sustainable development and global climate change be adressed in a parecon?
Michael Albert : Well of course we hope that citizens in a parecon would decide in favour of sustainability and against destroying themselves by generating global warming. But what would facilitate this?
What a parecon does about these matters, as all others, is to provide a context in which information is not biased by the interests of a few and the flaws of competitive allocation. In a parecon we will know the true and full social costs and benefits of available options. What else a parecon does is to provide a context in which those affected have a say proportionate to the effect on them. It won't be the case that a few people can make great profits off environmental destruction, providing themselves islands of cleanliness while others suffer. We can't say for sure now what people will decide in a better future. Sure, we can guess, but I think it isn't the real issue for us. Our real issue is establishing institutions which propel people to address environmental and really all issues with valid information and appropriate say--and that's what having parecon's balanced job complexes and participatory planning, among its other structures, facilitates.
Alternnative Libertaire : So far where has parecon been implemented in the world and what are the feedbacks you're getting?
Michael Albert : No country has a participatory economy. There are experiments, however, in many places, that bear on the issues. Sometimes these are self consciously pareconish in intent--thus people set up workplaces, for example, very explicitly trying to incorporate pareconish norms and structures and in particular self management and balanced job complexes, the seeds of a better future in the present. Other times these experiments may have no awareness of parecon per se, yet nonetheless reflect and be consistent with a pareconish approach. For example, a pareconish movement could institute participatory budgets, as have many towns in the world for example in
Perhaps this is a good point to close with. Let's imagine, for a moment, that parecon becomes a very widely advocated vision for a post capitalist future in many parts of the world. What implications would it have for actions undertaken now?
First, there would be more efforts to create pareconish workplaces, partial experiments in participatory planning, etc. All these would be undertaken self consciously as part of a larger project and explicitly for inspiration, to learn from the experience, to meet needs, etc.
Second, there would be struggles to win gains throughout major industries and whole economies. These would address questions of income distribution, decision making, division of labor, ecological constraints, the length of the work day, large investment projects, and so on. Many of these efforts would look quite like current struggles, at least in regard to their demands, but all of them would orient themselves as part of a larger campaign, seeking parecon, and thus trying to enlarge peoples' commitment to its values and structures as part of the organizing work.
Finally, third, our own movements and their projects and components would be redesigned, at least to a degree, to accord more with leading toward parecon. For example, our movements would internally abide pareconish values and norms, seeking to be self managed, to have balanced job complexes, and so on. It is much like our attitude to race or gender issues. We understand that our movements should not be internally racist or sexist but should instead embody the race and gender values we have for a future society. Similarly, a pareconish insight will be that our movements should not be internally classist. They should not be coordinator run or coordinator defined. They should instead seek to embody the values we have for a future society--classlessness--now.