There are, there have always been, and there will always be alternatives. The denial of human freedom to construct a different social order is the mantra of the dominant, but it doesn't matter how many times it is repeated, how loudly it is broadcast by the priesthood of the status quo, nor how long people are forbidden to give voice to their hopes, history will not come to a crashing end. The mythology of the Cold War allowed us two choices; in the era of global capitalism that has followed the collapse of the so-called communist world, we are expected to believe that we have only one. The struggles of millions of people around the world have consistently given the lie to this destructive faith, but although myriad movements have shared important characteristics, a libertarian and democratic ethos for example, it might be argued that what has been lacking is an attempt to create a coherent shared vision, accesible to the multitude, a coherent starting point for a debate about what life could or should be like after capitalism.
This need for a common platform has provided the impetus for the Project for Participatory Economics. True to the admonition of Murray Bookchin that libertarians should not be the guardians of the "ossuary of anarchist saints", Michael Albert and his collaborators have developed a sophisticated new model for a post-capitalist economy. The project, now a dozen years old, has recently given us Albert's magnum opus Parecon: Life After Capitalism. In his talk at the World Social Forum III in
"like all of you I despise capitalism. I don't want an economy in which Bill Gates has as much wealth as the population of
It is clear then that Participatory Economics is motivated by a rejection of the values of capitalism, but its strength is in its statement of positive alternatives; it has its own coherent value system, and a model for their application in a new economy.
Howard Zinn has written that to "be truly radical is to maintain a set of transcendental beliefs (yes absolutes) by which to judge and thus to transform any particular social system." Participatory economics has always had at its ethical core a statement of anti-capitalist economic values. Albert argues that these values are quite simply antithetical to capitalism: equity; self-management; diversity and solidarity.
Any list of values will initially beg more questions than it answers, but Participatory Economics defines these economic goals with precision. According to Albert it is equitable for people to be remunerated according to their effort and sacrifice rather than for inherited advantages; self-management can be said to exist to the extent that power is distributed according to the relation of each actor to specific decisions; diversity must exist in order to avoid the risks inherent in "travelling down a single path", and regimentation is to be avoided "in any respect, cultural or economic." Solidarity is of vital importance in order that we should not view one another "as objects to exploit or with other hostile intentions."
In addition to these four, there is one more evaluative norm considered important to the proper functioning of a participatory economy: efficiency. As well as promoting desirable economic values an economy must get the job done, expressed needs must be met without waste. Together these norms, or "preferred values", provide an almost encompassing means to judge an economy adequate or not. In itself this list is a valuable codification of ideals that run counter to the temper of capitalism. Crucial to the validity of such desiderata is the extent to which values can be practically applied, and moreover the effectiveness of mechanisms for ensuring that, where scope for tension exists, a balance can be struck both between these values and with other possible desires, for example privacy or ecological concerns.
On the matter of private ownership of the means of production, in Parecon Albert writes that there "has to be a shortest and simplest chapter in every book This is ours." In a participatory economy the means of production would no longer be owned by anyone. This condition is the sine qua non of this alternative to capitalism. Beyond this, the model for an economy based on participatory democracy, is quite simply the detailed alternative to one in which we are divided into a class of owners and a class of non-owners.
A participatory economy as envisaged by Albert and his collaborators would be a thoroughly democratic enterprise. The bare bones of any economy are production and consumption. The organisation of a participatory economy would be carried out at the most basic level through tiers of both worker and consumer councils. The free flow of information about production and consumption would underpin this council system. The aim would be for consumption and production decision making to be a social activity; participatory and equitable. Albert formulates the ideal like this: "parecon incorporates councils at diverse levels, from the smallest work team or family to the largest industry or state, and beyond. The actors involved need appropriate information and need to be properly confident, empowered and skilled. They should utilize decision-making procedures and communication methods in their councils as they see fit, adapting these as best they can to the time and hassle involved and to the possibilities for error and abuse, and seeking to attain appropriately informed decision-making influence in proportion to the degree each person is affected by decision-making outcomes."
In practice there would be an iterative process whereby production plans and consumption requests would gradually converge, providing the direction for the economy in question for the next time period. Whilst this democratic negotiation might sound nightmarish in the initial phase of any participatory revolution, year on year more information would be gathered and would become available as the starting point for each subsequent planning iteration.
It is clear that information would be the vital factor in the proper functioning of participatory production and consumption. The creation of indicative "prices" for products would include what are currently called external costs, and thus collective decision making would reflect the important truth that economics does not take place in a social and ecological vacuum. The Parecon website (www.parecon.org) provides a mathematical model to demonstrate that items would be produced until their "true social opportunity cost" equalled their "marginal benefit to society." As well as advancing the values normally damaged by capitalist (and centrally planned) economies then, a participatory economy would fulfill productive and allocative functions more efficiently than either.
Even with directly democratic workplaces and consumer councils, it could be possible for just the kind of power gradients to emerge that the Participatory Economics Project has set out to eliminate. It is partly to avoid the pitfall of the development of a co-ordinator class that parecon includes the idea of the balanced "job complex". People in a participatory economy would have a balanced mix of tasks. This would both widen people's experience to allow for more informed decision making, and prevent the growth of sclerotic privilege in the body economic. Once again Albert makes a paraphrase redundant: "the human costs and benefits of work would be equitably distributed. Corporate organization would be relegated to the dustbin of history, with council organization and balanced job complexes taking its place."
A great deal of work has been done over the last twelve years and more to clarify the mechanisms by which a participatory economic system would function. Many of the major texts supporting this work are now available free online. The authors of the Participatory Economics Project obviously hope to create as wide a debate as possible about their ideas. Examples of how decisions might be taken under parecon form a central part of this proselytising mission. However, it has been just as important for the advocates of this model to field questions and criticisms in an attempt to systematically address the most obvious lines of potential weakness in their model.
Parecon is by definition an economic vision. This has been one of the points which has needed to be clarified in the face of a range of ideological challenges. Whilst the values inherent in parecon certainly suggest principles upon which a new polity might be built, Albert is at pains to point out that he has not made prescriptions for human life beyond the needs of a just system of production, consumption and allocation. Readers coming to participatory economics looking for a wealth of ideas about race; gender; ecology and other important fields of radical activism may be disappointed. Economics, Albert argues, is a pervasive, central aspect of human existence, and, inasmuch as this would also be true under a participatory economy, no doubt we might expect parallel transformations in kinship; polity; cultural and ecological relations.
The clearly delimited nature of the Participatory Economics Project is indicative of its role as a catalyst for debate, and gives the truth to the importance Albert places upon diversity. The hope of the authors of this model is that its clarity will give a positive lead in a revived discourse about what the world might be like after capitalism. There is no expectation here of slavish adherence to dogma, and no overarching prescription for all that ails us. Albert writes: "the implications of a vision depend ultimately on movement responses. It is not books that will determine how vision is used, but those who read books and extend, alter, apply, and utilize their offerings."
For those who have drunk deeply at the well of leftwing history it will be immediately apparent that participatory economics owes a very great deal to the work of earlier generations of libertarian socialists and anarchists. This is a debt that Albert acknowledges. At the time of the collapse of the old Eastern Bloc the idea was mooted that the anti-statist socialisms of old might once again dare to show their faces in public. Well, Leninism lies in the dust of history; irrelevant to the new movements that everyday rise against global capitalism, and the likes of Albert have developed a contemporary vocabulary for expressing a radical vision of change, one not based on dictatorship but on radical democracy.
Michael Albert's latest book has attracted some heavyweight praise. Noam Chomsky has endorsed the work thus: "There is enormous dissatisfaction, worldwide, with prevailing socioeconomic conditions and the choices imposed by the reigning institutions. Calls for change range from patchwork reform to more far-reaching changes. Michael Albert's work on participatory economics outlines in substantial detail a program of radical reconstruction, presenting a vision that draws from a rich tradition of thought and practice of the libertarian left and popular movements, but adding novel critical analysis and specific ideas and modes of implementation for constructive alternatives. It merits close attention, debate, and action."
If the Participatory Economics Project achieves its short-term aim then many more of us will soon be discussing its merits and its shortcomings. All of us, anti-capitalists; ecological activists; socialists; anarchists; social ecologists; radicals and reformists, need this debate. It seems an increasingly indisputable truth that in order to avoid a catastrophic outcome we must develop viable alternative models for human life on Earth.
The best of these models will in part be applicable right now, in our workplaces and communities, but will perhaps also form the basis of a new world. The time when anti-capitalism can be easily characterised as negative and vacuous must come to an end. As another high profile sympathiser with the Project for Participatory Economics, the American historian Howard Zinn, once wrote: "To move men to act it is not enough to enhance their sense of what is wrong, to show that the men in power are untrustworthy, to reveal that our very way of thinking is limited, distorted, corrupted. One must also show that something else is possible, that changes can take place. Otherwise people retreat into privacy, cynicism, despair, or even collaboration with the mighty."
And the original 100 word review:
PARECON: Life After Capitalism [Participatory Economics] Michael Albert Verso 2003 ISBN 1-85984-698-X Reviewed by Paul Jennings
This is Michael Albert's model for a post-capitalist economy. In Parecon he refines ideas from his earlier works; he addresses and counters the arguments of actual and hypothetical critics. Here an economics textbook meets a utopian programme; it is highly readable and meticulously argued. Albert's vision is of an egalitarian economy with self-management at its heart. Such visionary work forces open the vistas of alternate futures which the hegemony of capital and state has obscured. History, a patient declared dead by some, is resuscitated by such endeavours. Chomsky writes of this book: "It merits close attention, debate, and action."