Socialist Worker

Michael Albert on how we could all take part in running a better world

Michael Albert of Znet is the first contributor to Socialist Worker's new series, Life After Capitalism. He is one of the best known figures in the anti-capitalist movement and author of Parecon: Life After Capitalism.

Issue No. 1853

What are your main criticisms of capitalism?

Capitalism is greedy aggrandisement alongside harsh denial. It is untrammelled accumulation accompanying ecological dissolution. It is alienated production and consumption that denies dignity and integrity. It is competitive anti-sociality that violates human solidarity and hope. Capitalism incorporates private ownership of productive property, remuneration for bargaining power and profit-seeking, hierarchical corporate divisions of labour, and markets for allocation.

These institutions produce anti-sociality not solidarity, gluttony and poverty not equity, alienation and homogenisation not diversity, and authoritarian corporate hierarchy not self management.

What are the key ideas of Parecon?

Participatory economics (Parecon) emphasises that an economy's defining institutions should facilitate production, consumption, and allocation to meet needs and develop potentials.

An economy should not waste resources, energies, talents or other attributes we hold dear. An economy should enlarge solidarity, equity, diversity, and self management.

Parecon advocates workers' and consumers' councils with self managing decision-making methods, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, balanced job complexes and participatory planning. Put differently, Parecon eliminates the division of the population into opposed classes-Parecon doesn't have some who rule and others who obey, some who prosper and others who perish.

And Parecon urges that to eliminate class division we need to redefine economic arrangements not only to remove ownership of productive property and accrual of profits by a tiny capitalist class, but also to eliminate monopolisation of empowering work and access to levers of decision making power by a larger but still minority 'coordinator class'.

How do you answer the accusation that Parecon is utopian?

What is utopian is to ask for the impossible. It is utopian to stare at a tree and ask it to fly, or ask it to grace us with love and affection. It is utopian, in the same sense but more relevantly, to ask people to be owners of capital and yet simultaneously reject profit seeking. Or to ask markets to deliver solidarity, or to ask central planning or corporate centres of power to deliver self management.

To ask dictatorship to be democratic is utopian. To employ markets and corporate divisions of labour as a means to attaining equity and justice is utopian. But there is nothing utopian about seeking ways to relate to trees that better suit my values-as compared to asking a tree to fly or to love us. And, similarly, it is not utopian to try to organise production, consumption and allocation in better accord with our values.

The claim that there is no alternative to existing oppressions has through all history been a bulwark of reaction. There was no alternative, at one time, in the rhetoric of slave owners regarding slavery, to the rhetoric of kings and princes regarding royal rule, to the rhetoric of (many) men regarding women having no vote or jobs, to the rhetoric of (many) whites regarding apartheid subordination of blacks in South Africa and Jim Crow racism in the US.

To say there was no alternative to these evil relations was mere rationalisation, of course, and so too for the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism.

When someone says it is utopian to think that we can transcend capitalism- you should see if they are smiling or crying. A person could honestly believe there is no alternative – but then the person ought to be crying. It would be like saying, in some past age, we can't transcend slavery.

Surely someone bringing that harsh news to the public and especially to slaves wouldn't be gloating about it if they sincerely cared about humanity.

What are your strategies for achieving a participatory economy?

The task is to win changes that better people's lives in the present but simultaneously leave us better able to win still more in the future – non-reformist reforms.

That requires increasing the number of people who have a radical critique, and the number of people who have a vision for what they want beyond capitalism and a commitment to seek it. It includes developing organisations able to amass strength to win victories in the present by applying our energies effectively.

Such organisations are able to prepare for the future by learning about and developing new structures in accord with our ultimate aims. Our organisations need to melt into the society we desire, not establish lasting impediments to that society.

One instructive thing that participatory economics tells us is that there are not only two classes to strategically think about, but there are three-capitalists, workers and what I call the coordinator class. And likewise, there are not only two systems-capitalism and something better, called socialism-to think about.

Rather, there is capitalism, there are some systems that combine markets or central planning with corporate organisation and public or state ownership which are popularly called socialism but which I label coordinatorism because in them what I call the coordinator class rules.

And then there is a system that is classless, in which people control their own labours and consumption with appropriate influence, without class division and class rule.

I call this participatory economics. What follows from this is that it is not enough to just be anti-capitalist, but that we must also understand what is unworthy about what has gone under the label socialism – its markets or central planning, its corporate division of labour, its remuneration for power and/or output, its class rule by those who monopolise empowering work.

We should gear our organising efforts to avoid these pitfalls and attain structures we truly prefer.

I think this insight has powerful implications for the kinds of economic gains we should seek to win in the present and how we should organise around them-such as higher wages, shorter hours, better conditions, different investment patterns and, especially, redistributions of economic power. It also has important implications for how we organise ourselves so as to produce the infrastructure of a new economy and society.

Our efforts should not incorporate class divisions, classist attitudes about remuneration and decision making, and classist (or otherwise authoritarian) structures for our own decision making. But our efforts should instead embody the logic of the future that we seek.

For an advocate of participatory economics, this means, among other things, trying to attain balanced job complexes and self managing decision-making methods and structures in our current efforts. We need to win non-reformist reforms, to create organisations that embody and lead towards our aims – particularly worker and consumer councils (as in Argentina, now, for example).

We need to practise and spread the ideas of balanced job complexes and self management, in a pattern of improvements in society and enlargements and refinements in our own institutions, until we can literally replace existing economic structures with new preferred ones.

And I should conclude by noting that for me economics, which is what we are discussing, is important but is not alone important. I think we need vision not only regarding the economy, but also regarding kinship (families, nurturance, sexuality, socialisation, etc), culture (race, ethnicity, spirituality, etc), and the polity (legislation, adjudication, implementation, etc).

And I think fighting for new defining institutions in these realms as well as in the economy is essential for generating and sustaining hope, for having a positive orientation, for being strategically oriented not only regarding what we reject, but also what we seek, and for being able to organise ourselves and build infrastructure that leads where we wish to wind up rather than leading (against our desires) to some newly oppressive condition we would never want to endure.

Michael Albert's book Parecon: Life After Capitalism is available from Bookmarks for £16. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com

Znet is an indispensable resource for what happening in the anti-capitalist movement. It is a free website that gathers writings, speeches and interviews with leading figures in the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements. They include Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk, Arundhati Roy and many others. The site is regularly updated. Go to www.zmag.org/weluser.htm


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