Parecon: Life After Capitalism
Parecon: Life After Capitalism
Pressures to alleviate or eradicate poverty have perhaps reached a peak in many parts of the world, particularly in developing countries where the adoption of economic policies induced by the International Monetary Fund have led to debilitating declines in human well being. Condemning capitalism and the international institutions that perpetuate the neoliberal agenda, however, is nothing novel, and today many are focusing their search on answers and alternatives, rather than more scathing criticism. Although the latter pursuit is not abandoned totally, it is smartly contextualized within a promising vision of an alternative economy in a new book entitled Parecon: Life After Capitalism by author and activist Michael Albert.
Parecon is Albert's latest book in a long string of economic treatises, and it attempts to compress his complex theories on participatory economics into a simple digestible package. A formally trained physicist who abandoned the discipline to study social change and economics in the wake of the Vietnam War, Albert helped found Z Magazine and South End Press, two well known institutions in the world of leftist literature. Albert has been working on the alternative vision of participatory economics for over a decade, and the amount of effort spent on refining and elaborating this vision is quite apparent as one makes their way through the delightfully organized sections of Parecon. In a nutshell, Parecon provides a compelling argument that a society free of economic injustice is not only desirable, but that another world is indeed possible.
Albert's book is much more than a prolonged attack on market capitalism, although he manages this quite aptly, alongside strong critiques of both centrally planned and market socialism. Instead, Parecon provides a radically different economic model in which the values of equity, self-management, diversity and solidarity become central to all economic institutions. Much of Parecon is devoted to describing how these institutions - ownership, allocation, division of labour, remuneration, and decision-making - will function in a participatory economy.
Such an economy would do away with private ownership of productive capital, and the labour of the new socially-owned workplaces would be organized by a principle Albert calls "balanced job complexes", in which each job would contain a variety of tasks balanced for empowerment and desirability. Eliminating the hierarchy that characterizes corporate workplace organization is essential in achieving an equitable society. He insists, however, that this proposal is nothing like Soviet-style socialism, which rather than creating classlessness, gave birth to a "coordinator class" of economic planners who wielded greater power than the workers whose interests often differed from theirs.
Also moving towards this goal is Albert's mode of remuneration, which compensates people according to effort and sacrifice (and according to need in the cases of those who cannot work, such as young children and the severely handicapped). Workplace decisions would be decided in workers' councils, in which the amount of input of any individual is based upon the extent to which they are affected by the outcome. Economic allocation, the institution that Albert believes is the most challenging part of his vision, is also based upon the values of equity and self-management. Parecon advocates participatory planning, a system "in which worker and consumer councils propose their work activities and consumer preferences in light of true valuations of the full social benefits and costs of their choices."
Following Albert's theoretical explanation of participatory economics, he offers a section with examples of how a parecon would function in daily life. These applications of the institutions underlying "pareconish" work, consumption and allocation provide a deeper understanding of how Albert's theory can be made practical and how the various aspects of a parecon interact to form a comprehensive economic vision. Finally, Albert fills over seventy pages refuting various criticism of parecon, helping to fill in gaps and possible misunderstandings, and providing a more complete grasp of his comprehensive economic vision.
Albert's participatory economics is an attractive alternative to modern capitalist economics, and he succeeds in presenting the vision to a general audience in Parecon. Even so, Albert's refutation of the market economy may not convince those who find themselves sitting right of centre. This may be due to the near total dominance of free-market ideology rather than any shortfall in Albert's ability to elucidate his ideas, however, as he provides much more than the ungrounded idealism that can often undercut such manifestos. For this reason the book functions as a valuable treatise for anyone interested in economic theory, but is particularly of interest to those who are indeed seeking a system that works for the majority.
Evidence of Albert's wish for Parecon to attract a wide audience is his refusal to define any of his institutions as socialist, although he is clearly influenced by social anarchist philosophy. Although Albert heartily admits this, he explains that too many people associate the term "socialism" with Soviet-style communism to make attempts to separate them worthwhile. Rather, he rightly advocates that we "leave behind the label socialism as a positive descriptor of what we desire so as to avoid guilt by association and related confusions." Moving forward in the language (and rhetoric) of economic theory may be the right strategy to take when confronting market economists who have the upper hand in influencing popular culture.
Particularly appealing in Parecon is Albert's aspiration of providing a flexible framework for a new economy, prescribing large-scale general characteristics rather than one-size-fits-all procedures and practices. The specifics of a parecon - whether to use consensus or majoritarian decision-making; how to adjust allocation in between planning intervals - are left up to each council and each society to decide for itself, depending on their specific circumstances. Furthermore, Albert believes that many of these choices, such as decision-making protocol, should remain somewhat flexible within a council or society, so that the right practice for each individual circumstance can be adopted. Of course, this can only effectively be done to a certain extent, but his point is that rigid and universal institutional standards do not reflect the reality faced by economic decision-making, and prescribing a strong vision, while leaving minor details aside, is a more appropriate way of handling the issue.
The foundation of this vision, as with most any social ideology, is based upon human nature, and this is unfortunately one area in which Albert could have made his case stronger. He most certainly has an opinion as to what comprises human nature, and why humans as such will benefit from a parecon, but we are forced to take him on his word that his views are the right ones as he provides no sources to back up these assumptions. For instance, Albert rhetorically asks: "If humans are greedy, self-centred, violent animals wouldn't we expect that all humans, confronted with the opportunity to take a delicious morsel at no cost to themselves, would do so?" Albert, of course, believes that humans are not greedy by nature, and blames capitalist institutions for instilling this quality in us. Although Albert's assumptions may be right, however, references to other philosophical or psychological texts would improve the strength of parecon's foundation.
Another shortcoming of the volume is a lack of concrete examples of currently functioning parecon institutions. Upon completing the book, one is left wondering why, if the model is so flawless, have any of these principles not been incorporated in today's organizations? The truth is that they have; several organizations and cooperatives, including Albert's own South End Press, consciously subscribing to pareconish values. Albert resorts, however, to providing only hypothetical situations, and it is not clear why he has forgone real-life examples for fictional illustrations.
As alluded to in the opening paragraph of this review, participatory economics may be of special interest to those in the field of international development who are seeking a structural solution to inequality and underdevelopment, rather than the pursuit of marginal reform. The framework provided by Albert is one that, provided the flexibility he grants, may be applicable across various cultures and societies. One may become frustrated, however, by the lack of any discussion on how such an economy can be manifested in an increasingly globalized economy that places debilitating constraints on state autonomy. Other than briefly mentioning the possibility of instituting democratic replacements to institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, one must draw their own conclusions as to how the international economic realm will come into play in a state-based participatory economy.
Of course, Michael Albert concedes that Parecon is simply an economic vision, and the development of a participatory political vision (as well as proposals for participatory culture and kinship) will shed greater light on the implications of international influence on a parecon, as well as how such an economy could be brought about in the first place. This latter conundrum is also one deliberately left out of Parecon, although Albert often points to earlier books of his as well as the parecon website (www.parecon.org) when the subject of how to actualize such an economy arises. For Albert, "just as scientists need theoretical frameworks to guide their choice of experiment, so too political activists need overarching vision to guide their choice of social experiment." And this participatory vision is what Albert successfully provides for activists and academics alike, with the hope that it will be used to inspire social projects aimed at defeating inequality and leading to people democratically managing their own lives.