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Vol. 3, No. 5, 2004

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Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein


by Michael Albert

Michael AlbertMichael 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 public talks.

Michael 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 ZNET.

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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.

To transcend 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?

To start, 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 differentials disappear.

Next, 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.

Workers 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.

People 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.

Different 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 by decisions.

Next 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.

Every 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.

We do 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.

In contrast, 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.

Balanced 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.

Next 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.

We shouldn't 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.

We should 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.

With 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.

Who mediates 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.

There 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?

What 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.

Existing 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).

In central 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 obedience.

In a 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.

The problem 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 the ecology.

Central 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.

The bottom line is that both these allocation systems subvert rather than propel classlessness. What is parecon's alternative to markets and central planning?

Suppose 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.

That 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.

The participatory 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.

Is the 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 economics includes

* Self managing workplace and consumer councils for equitable participation

* Diverse decision-making procedures seeking proportionate say for those effected by decisions

* Balanced job complexes creating just distribution of empowering and dis-empowering circumstances

* Remuneration for effort and sacrifice in accord with worthy moral and economic logic

* Participatory planning in tune with economics serving human well being and development

Together 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.

Just 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.


When 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.

If we 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.

So, opposing 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.

This 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 up.

Fighting 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.

There 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.

For example, 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 world.
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 movements.

But, 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?

The answer 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 aspirations.

For example, 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.

Imagine, 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.

Imagine, 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.

And imagine 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.

What 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 we favor.

Viewed 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.

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