by Michael Albert
Albert’s radicalization occurred during the 1960s. His political
involvements have ranged from local, regional, and national organizing
projects and campaigns to co-founding various organizations and
projects, writing for various publications and publishers, giving
is also the author of numerous books, in most cases with his co-author
Robin Hahnel. Most recently these include: Thinking Forward
and Thought Dreams, Looking Forward: Participatory Economics
in the 21st Century, Political Economy of Participatory Economics,
The Killing Train and Moving Forward. He is currently
an editorial writer and columnist for
Z MAGAZINE. Buying Dreams
is published with the permission of
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ECONOMICS INSTEAD OF CAPITALISM
incorporates private ownership of the means of production, market
allocation, and corporate divisions of labor. Capitalist remuneration
is for property, power, and to a limited extent contribution to
output. Class divisions under capitalism arise due to property
and also due to differential access to empowered versus obedient
work. Huge differences in decision-making influence and quality
of circumstances flourish. Buyers and sellers one-up each other.
The public reaps the social and ecological catastrophes that self-interested
capitalist market competition sows.
capitalism, suppose we advocate common leftist core values: solidarity,
diversity, equity, self-management, and ecological sustainability.
What institutions can propel these values as well as admirably
accomplish economic functions?
we might advocate public/social property relations in place of
privatized capitalist property relations. In the new system, all
citizens own each workplace in equal part. This ownership conveys
no special right or income. Bill Gates doesn't own a massive proportion
of the means by which software is produced. We all own it--or,
symmetrically, no one owns it. At any rate, ownership becomes
moot regarding distribution of income, wealth, or power. In this
way the ills of personal accrual of profits yielding huge wealth
workers and consumers could be organized into democratic councils
with the norm for decisions being that our methods of dispersing
information to decision-makers and of arriving at preferences
and then tallying them into decisions should convey to each actor
about each decision influence over the decision in proportion
to the degree he or she will be affected by it.
and consumers councils would be the seat of decision-making power
and would exist at many levels, including sub-units such as work
groups and teams and individuals, and supra-units such as workplaces
and whole industries.
in councils would be the economy's decision-makers. Votes could
be majority rule, three quarters, two-thirds, consensus, etc.
Votes would be taken at different levels, with fewer or more participants,
depending on the particular implications of the decisions in question.
Sometimes a team or individual would make a decision pretty much
on its own. Sometimes a whole workplace or even a whole industry
would be the decision body.
voting and tallying methods would be employed as needed for different
decisions. There is no a priori single correct choice. There is,
however, a right norm to try to efficiently and sensibly implement:
decision-making input should be in proportion as one is affected
we alter the organization of work by changing who does what tasks
in what combinations. Each actor does a job, of course. Each job
is composed of a variety of tasks, of course. What changes from
current corporate divisions of labour to a preferred future division
of labor is that the particular variety of tasks each actor does
is balanced for its empowerment and quality of life implications.
person participating in creating new products is a worker. The
combination of tasks and responsibilities you have at work accords
you the same empowerment and quality of life as the combination
I have accords me, and likewise for each other worker and their
balanced job complex.
not have some people overwhelmingly monopolizing empowering, fulfilling,
and engaging tasks and circumstances. We do not have other people
overwhelmingly saddled with only rote, obedient, and dangerous
things to do. For reasons of equity and especially in order to
create the conditions of democratic participation and self-management,
when we each participate in our workplace and consumer decision-making,
we each have been comparably prepared by our work with confidence,
skills, and knowledge to do so.
the typical capitalist situation is that some people who produce
(I want to call them the coordinator class) have great confidence,
social skills, decision-making skills, and relevant knowledge
imbued by their daily work situations, while other people who
produce (who I want to call the working class) are only tired,
de-skilled, and without relevant decision making knowledge due
to their daily work situations.
job complexes do away with this division of circumstances and
the associated class hierarchy. They complete the task of removing
the root basis for class divisions that is begun by eliminating
private ownership of capital. That is, they eliminate not only
the role of owner/capitalist and the associated disproportionate
power and wealth, but also the role of intellectual/decision maker
with its excessive power and wealth. Balanced job complexes apportion
conceptual and empowering and also rote and un-empowering responsibilities
in tune with true classlessness.
comes remuneration. We work. This entitles us to a share of the
product of work. But the new participatory economic vision says
that we ought to receive for our labors an amount in tune with
how hard we have worked, how long we have worked, and with the
sacrifices we have endured at work.
get more by virtue of being more productive due to having better
tools, more skills, or greater inborn talent, much less get more
by virtue of having more power or owning more property.
be entitled to more consumption only by virtue of expending more
of our effort or otherwise enduring more sacrifice. This is morally
appropriate and it also provides proper incentives due to rewarding
only what we can affect, not what we can't.
balanced job complexes, for eight hours of normally paced work
Sally and Sam receive the same income. This is the case whether
they have the same job or any job at all. No matter what their
particular job may be, no matter what workplaces they are in and
how different their mix of tasks is, and no matter how talented
they are. If they work at a balanced job complex, their total
work load will be similar in its quality of life implications
and empowerment effects, so the only difference relevant to reward
for their labors is going to be length and intensity of work done,
and with these also equal the share of output earned will be equal.
If length of time working or intensity of working differ somewhat,
so will share of output earned differ somewhat.
decisions about the definition of job complexes and about what
rates and intensities people are working? Workers do, of course,
in their councils and with appropriate decision-making say using
information culled by methods consistent with employing balanced
job complexes and providing just remuneration.
is one very large step remaining, even to offering only a broad
outline of participatory economic vision. How are the actions
of workers and consumers connected? How do decisions made in workplaces
and by consumer councils, as well as by individual consumers,
all come into accord?
causes the total produced by workplaces to match the total consumed
collectively by neighborhoods and other groups and privately by
individuals? For that matter, what determines the relative social
valuation of different products and choices? What decides how
many workers will be in which industry producing how much? What
determines whether some product should be made or not, and how
much? What determines what investments in new productive means
and methods should be undertaken and which other investments should
be delayed or rejected? These are all matters of allocation.
options for dealing with allocation are central planning (as was
used in the old Soviet Union) and markets (as is used in all capitalist
economies with minor or greater variations).
planning a bureaucracy culls information, formulates instructions,
sends these instructions to workers and consumers, gets some feedback,
refines the instructions a bit, sends them again, and gets back
market each actor in isolation from concern for other actor's
well being competitively pursues his or her own agenda by buying
and selling labor (or the ability to do work) and buying and selling
products and resources at prices determined by competitive bidding.
Each person seeks to gain more than other parties in their exchanges.
is that each of these two modes of connecting actors to accomplish
allocation tasks imposes on the economy pressures that subvert
the values we favor. Markets, even without private capitalization
of property, distort valuations to favor private over public benefits
and to channel personalities in anti-social directions thereby
diminishing and even destroying solidarity. They reward primarily
output and power and not effort and sacrifice. They divide economic
actors into a working class that is saddled with rote and obedient
labor and another class, who I call the coordinator class, that
enjoys empowering circumstances and determines economic outcomes
while accruing most income. They isolate buyers and sellers as
decision-makers left with no option but to competitively ignore
the wider implications of their choices, including effects on
planning, in contrast, is authoritarian. It denies self-management
and produces the same coordinator class / working class division
and hierarchy as markets. With central planning the division is
built first around the distinction between planners and those
who implement their plans, and then extends outward to incorporate
empowered and dis-empowered workers more generally.
line is that both these allocation systems subvert rather than
propel classlessness. What is parecon's alternative to markets
and central planning?
in place of top-down imposition of centrally planned choices and
in place of competitive market exchange by atomized buyers and
sellers, we opt for cooperative, informed choosing by organizationally
and socially entwined actors each having a say in proportion as
choices impact them, each able to access needed accurate information
and valuations, and each having appropriate training and confidence
to develop and communicate their preferences.
combination of features could work compatibly with council centered
participatory self-management, remuneration for effort and sacrifice,
balanced job complexes, proper valuations of collective and ecological
impacts, and classlessness. To these ends, activists might therefore
favor participatory planning, a system in which worker and consumer
councils propose their work activities and consumer preferences
in light of accurate knowledge of local and global implications
and true valuations of the full social benefits and costs their
choices will impose and garner.
planning system utilizes a back and forth cooperative communication
of mutually informed preferences via a variety of simple communicative
and organizing principles and vehicles including indicative prices,
facilitation boards, and rounds of accommodation to new information--all
permitting actors to express and to mediate and refine their desires
in light of feedback about other's desires, and to arrive at compatible
choices consistent with remuneration for effort and sacrifice,
balanced job complexes, and participatory self managing influence.
above a full picture of an economic alternative to capitalism?
Of course not, it is way too brief. But within the limits of available
space, it is hopefully provocative and inspiring. Participatory
managing workplace and consumer councils for equitable participation
decision-making procedures seeking proportionate say for those
effected by decisions
job complexes creating just distribution of empowering and dis-empowering
for effort and sacrifice in accord with worthy moral and economic
planning in tune with economics serving human well being and development
these features constitute the core institutional scaffolding of
participatory economics, an institutional alternative to capitalism
and also to what has been called centrally planned or market socialism
but which really should be called coordinatorism.
before getting on to strategy, however, I should say that in my
view economic vision and agenda is not enough. I am emphasizing
economics because it is my main area of investigation and because
the assignment for this book was to address capitalism. But we
also need political, cultural, and gender related vision and agenda.
Our positive movements should not just be anti capitalist and
not even that plus pro participatory economics in its place. They
should also be anti authoritarian, anti racist, and anti sexist,
and they should be pro a new political, cultural, and kinship
vision as well.
we struggle for change we are generally trying to win changes
which improve people's lives in the present and auger still more
improvements in the future, or we are trying to develop our means
to do so by raising consciousness and building projects and movements.
do all this with the intent of attaining a new system, it is revolutionary.
If we do it assuming that the systemic features around us are
permanent, it is reformist.
capitalism and advocating parecon, my first strategic implication
is that we ought to be fighting for changes in the present or
building means to win more changes in the future all in a manner
that leads toward a whole new system rather than presuming replication
of this one.
means our choices of issues to fight around and even more our
choices of how to discuss those issues and develop consciousness
bearing on them and our means of galvanizing our energies into
lasting movement forms has to move toward where we want to wind
for better wages or distribution of income we should be developing
awareness of and support for remuneration for effort and sacrifice.
Fighting for better conditions and quality of life at work, we
should be developing awareness of and support for balanced job
complexes. Fighting for a say over outcomes in workplaces or the
national budget, we should be developing awareness of and support
for participatory planning. As venues of struggle we ought to
be building workers and consumers councils, when able. The choice
of demands but also methods and content of our acts should all
be influenced by our goals.
is also an overarching issue. Seeking classlessness we must not
have a movement that perpetuates class division and that empowers
what I call a coordinator class while disempowering the working
class. This advisory, taken seriously, would over time impact
virtually the entire array of choices that face activists.
our own organizations should be as classless as we can now make
them, our decision making should be as self managing as we can
now make it - and likewise our divisions of labor should be as
classless as we can now make them, which is to say they should
incorporate balanced job complexes and self management. In other
words, if we seek parecon, we should not build alternative institutions
and movements that replicate capitalist divisions of labor and
modes of decision making and remuneration - just as if we are
against racism or sexism we should not build movements that perpetuate
these ills via their cultures, roles, etc. Instead, regarding
the class issue we should seek to progressively incorporate pareconish
structures and norms such as self management, councils, participation,
equitable remuneration, and balanced job complexes, and regarding
race and gender we should progressively work toward anti racist
and anti sexist structures and norms. We can't do it all overnight,
nor should we be apocalyptic about it, but if we sincerely seek
a better world, anything less than this direction of innovation
is not only hypocritical, it is suicidal due to disempowering
and even alienating constituencies who must define and win that
In other words, an additional major strategic insight of a participatory
economic viewpoint is that we need to incorporate classless values
and structures in our demands, our process, or projects, and our
beyond that, how come past anti-capitalist struggles that sought
socialism and that won, have instead universally mired down with
authoritarian dictatorships, homogenized cultures, patriarchal
kin systems, and alienated, polluted, and class-divided economies?
is because in their concepts and strategies, despite the wishes
of most of their grass roots adherents, that's what those prior
movements aimed for. Anti-capitalist revolutions have not failed
to produce self-managing societies due to inexorable laws of social
organization or of human inadequacy. The problem was instead within
them. The movements succeeded in their goals, but succeeding meant
instituting what their commitments implied: one party political
rule, coordinator ruled economies, and also homogenized cultures
and still patriarchal kinship relations. It was not fate or nature
or physics or even the aspirations of the great mass of their
members that prevented these past efforts from being fully liberating.
It was their strategies which were aimed at and successfully attained
outcomes contrary to what most of the participants hoped for.
Thus another major strategic insight of having participatory economic
goals is that we need to say goodbye to Leninist strategic blindness
to or support for coordinator domination and statist authoritarianism,
and to organize for short- and long-term aims using organizational
forms and methodologies that really do accord with our highest
imagine diverse movements each of which offer direction for their
focused area - gender, race, economy, ecology, war and peace,
etc. -- but which take their lead from other movements regarding
focuses beyond what they directly prioritize. Call this entire
conglomeration a movement of movements where the total project
is the total sum of all the parts rather than a least common denominator
coalition of them.
also, an electoral component that is beholden to the grass roots
activists and democratically organized and empowered. And imagine
parallel and entwined efforts to create grassroots councils in
workplaces and neighborhoods, in turn seen as the infrastructure
of a new type economy to come.
too, demands for diverse immediate improvements all sought not
as ends in themselves but as steps toward a new society. Each
new demand for better pay and income distribution, for a shorter
work week, for affirmative action, for better voting rules, for
more power at work, for changes in military budgeting and foreign
policies, for participatory budgeting, for replacing the IMF,
World Bank, and World Trade Organization, for establishing a world
parliament, and many more gains, is sought in ways that leave
movements larger, more committed, more intent on continued struggle,
and structurally better able to empower workers, women, minorities,
and all subordinate citizens, rather than in ways that quickly
suffer roll-back or become dominated by elites.
as well a sustained, reasoned, and patient commitment to incorporate
in our work the features we seek for a new society such as balanced
job complexes, self management, feminism, multi-culturalism, political
participation, etc., both so that we learn more about these aims,
and also to demonstrate their worth in order to meet needs, inspire
desire, and provide hope.
impedes doing all of this is not the power of the state or the
ubiquity of manipulative mass media. These are huge factors, of
course. But they are a given. That's the world we operate in.
The key variable over which we have influence is ourselves. We
need to move from exclusively indicating what is wrong with society
to largely advocating what we desire for society. And we need
to stop incorporating contemporary societal assumptions that we
hate in our projects, and to instead start implementing those
with one disposition, history has so far been a horrible accumulation
of oppression and suffering. Viewed with another
disposition, however, history has chronicled humans discovering
their own finer potentials and together mounting heroic offensives
to attain them -- against monarchy, feudalism, slavery, Jim Crow
racism, apartheid, sexual subjugation, second class citizenship,
sexism, heterosexism, dictatorship, one party rule, capitalism,
and coordinatorism (calling itself socialism) -- and seeking,
in their place, equity, justice, and freedom. The gains humans
have made have been steady and plentiful. Now a major leap is
possible. Consistent with past efforts, we can now attain fully
liberatory goals, including, I think, participatory economics
and also alternative structures for polity, culture, and kinship.
We have only to make the effort.