Moving Forward: Program for a Participatory Economy

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Any left movement worth its name needs to present a compelling alternative to existing ways of life. If we have a sense of what's wrong with our society, it is incumbent upon us to try and come up with a better alternative. Though this position seems commonsensical, it has been immensely difficult for leftists to agree on a concrete agenda...

Michael Albert

Reviewed by Jonathan Sterne

Thursday, November 15 2001, 11:51 AM

Any left movement worth its name needs to present a compelling alternative to existing ways of life. If we have a sense of what's wrong with our society, it is incumbent upon us to try and come up with a better alternative. Though this position seems commonsensical, it has been immensely difficult for leftists to agree on a concrete agenda for change or a vision of the good society. Many have given up: in the academic circles where I run, one often hears preemptive objections to "utopian," "totalizing," or other forms of programmatic thinking on the basis that these enterprises are inherently vanguardist, or worse, oppressive -- since in imagining alternatives, social visions inevitably exclude other possibilities.

So it is no surprise that Michael Albert's Moving Forward begins with a defense of programmatic thinking, since the book is meant as a blueprint for a more just economy. For over ten years, Michael Albert and his sometime collaborator Robin Hahnel have been working to refine a vision of participatory economics -- or "parecon" -- a series of books, interviews, and articles. Albert's Moving Forward is the latest print contribution to this project. In this very accessible book, Albert outlines the basic principles of parecon, anticipates and answers basic questions about his model, and argues for its necessity.

Albert's project should be applauded by all leftists, whatever their particular orientation. Though I will take issue with some of the specifics of his platform below, I strongly recommend this book and the parecon project as food for thought. They represent a needed alternative to the ongoing myopia of left thinking -- in the U.S. and elsewhere. Early in the book, Albert anticipates a variety of objections to his kind of programmatic thinking. He argues that while we cannot have a blueprint for social change, we need some sense of what we want so that we can go after it. More to the point, "values support and inform vision, but they are not its entirety" (p. 11). Rather than nebulous goals like "equality," Albert actually tries to reason out what equality in the economy might look like.

Moving Forward is structured around Albert's platform: seeking just rewards for effort, self-management, dignified work, and participatory allocation. Each section of the book offers an outline of his position, and then anticipates objections and responds to them in a question-and-answer-style format. The book avoids specialized and technical discussions, aiming instead to offer the broad outlines of the position. Readers interested in a more technical discussion of parecon in terms of economic theory would be wise to turn to Albert and Hahnel's The Political Economy of Participatory Economics. The book ends with discussions of economics and "the rest of life," practical questions around platforms, and a discussion of the reform vs. revolution dyad that's plagued left thought for some time.

Albert's goals are relatively simple and straightforward, though they would ultimately require a total transformation of the capitalist economy. I will briefly sketch each of them:

Albert argues that renumeration should be made according to effort, sacrifice, and need -- and not according to actual contribution to the economy. This is an important departure from traditional left economic thinking. Albert persuasively argues that renumeration according to actual contribution rewards the accumulation of wealth or other forms of fixed capital. If two people expend the same effort cutting sugar cane, but one has better tools, that person will make a larger contribution.

Albert's conception of effort and sacrifice is relatively simplistic 񠨥 rather quickly reproduces the mental-manual labor distinction (I'll return to that below) and tends to suggest that manual labor in most events requires more effort and sacrifice than mental labor. His examples of manual labor are rote working class jobs like coal mining and cane cutting while his examples of mental labor are largely professional managerial class jobs (though he does mention secretarial work on more than one occasion). Still, this is not a tremendous weakness in his argument, since rather than assigning a fixed calculus for effort or sacrifice, he argues that workers should rate one another on this scale. Though the logistics of this would need to be more fully worked out at each site, workers would rate one another on some kind of scale, either a 0-100% with fine gradations, or they could assume everyone performs an "average" job only deviate from that rating in special cases. Next, compensation would need to be regulated among workplaces by rating productivity against expectations and resources. As Albert points out, these are just proposals 񠴨e logics themselves would be negotiable. The point is simply to replace wage labor with a more egalitarian and participatory model.

This brings us to the second part of his platform: self-management. He argues that the default for parecon should be democratic self-management, while acknowledging that there will be times when it is most appropriate for the good of a society to delegate decision making to a particular group that may have some kind of expertise. He does not argue for a consensus model of decision making (a good thing, since consensus models of decision making can be paralyzing), acknowledging that even in an ideal society, well-intentioned people will have differences of opinion.

Albert's third part of the platform, dignified work, is to my mind the most interesting and suggestive part of the entire book. Albert argues, essentially, that we need to get rid of job descriptions as we know them today. Sure, there will still be people who have specialties, but instead of the rigidly hierarchical model of bureaucracies, we could imagine a division of labor where everyone does some onerous and some rewarding labor. This would mean, for instance, that rather than having secretarial and custodial staff in a business, everyone would do some of the secretarial work and some of the cleaning as well as some of the brainwork of the organization. As a professor, I find this vision of myself and my colleagues each doing some of the mailing and filing quite amusing, but also quite compelling, given the heavy workloads we currently heap on our office staff and the messes we leave for our custodial staff. Though Albert doesn't make the connection himself until the end of the book, this is also promising for a feminist economic agenda, since presumably all work could be reclassified according to effort, and the domestic "second shift" endured by many women could reallocated more fairly by bringing domestic labor into the general economy (since right now, it is not usually recognized as "work").

Finally, Albert needs an alternative to both markets and centralize planning, since markets tend toward an amoral capitalism, and centralized planning tends toward totalitarianism. He calls his alternative "participatory planning" where groups of workers, or even conceivably representatives of organizations, would work together to plan the economy in both the short and the long term, balancing people's needs and desires with their abilities to produce.

Obviously, Albert's arguments are more sophisticated than I can present here, but this should give you a good idea of his approach. The end of the book deals with issues such as race, gender, and ecology, though far too briefly in my opinion. In general, the view of culture in Moving Forward is a bit too underdeveloped. For instance, Albert too quickly concedes that a participatory economy would need to make room for Mozart-like geniuses (though he does argue that support for art and artists, too, should be debated as a social good). Yet, the very notion of the artistic genius is in part a product of capitalism. Presumably a participatory economy would go with a participatory culture. To follow through on the music example, many cultures around the world assume that everyone will be a musician at some point or another in their lives. Musical performance is a more massive and infinitely more participatory endeavor than the Western concert tradition where the lone genius guides the orchestra. I would refer the interested reader to Christopher Small's Music-Society-Education. I don't mean to digress into music in order to nitpick, but rather to argue that in rethinking the economy, we must also rethink culture as well. You cannot change one without changing the other.

Gender, race, and ecology all have economic and cultural dimensions, and while I agree with Albert that his model is essentially sympathetic to feminist, green, and antiracist positions, he spends too little time teasing out their implications. Apart from brief discussions at the end, these concerns don't really affect Albert's economic analysis. His repeated use of coal mining, for example, ignores the fact that in a just economy, less environmentally damaging power sources (solar, wind, water, geothermal, etc) would be central to a more just economy. Albert also largely leaves the state system intact. While I agree with him that anarchist anti-statism may not be a feasible alternative for large societies, I also would challenge him to think beyond the modern nation-state. For the most part, his economic model assumes some kind of polity in a national form. Given that states arose at a particular point in history, it might also be possible that they disappear in the future. It makes sense to me, as long as we are talking about justice in economy, ecology, gender, race (and sexuality, which is something that Albert only mentions obliquely by acknowledging feminist criticisms of the nuclear family) to think in terms of an ultimately global polity. Of course there would need to be many levels of political decision-making. But a humanistic political vision might as well embrace humanity.

One of Albert's major concrete demands -- as a first step -- that the amount of work for each individual be reduced by about 25%. He suggests that with this shorter workweek, people would be free to participate more in self-governance. But I think we should be wary of this quid-pro-quo mentality, where the work of governing replaces other kinds of labor. Yes, people should have a right to self-governance, but they should also have a right to delegate some of their political work to a representative. Any vision of a participatory economy and a participatory culture must include some space for labor that is essentially a form of play: "labor" that is without direction, purpose, or goal -- activity that is pleasurable or meaningful in and of itself.

Despite whatever quibbles I may offer, Albert's Moving Forward is well worth the time and effort it takes to read. As I've said throughout, Albert's writing style is plain and to the point. There are a few clumsy sentences here and there that could have used some copyediting, but the book is immensely readable. Though I am not entirely satisfied with Albert's program, I am very pleased that he has offered it. I look forward to a moment when leftists can once again engage in a serious and earnest debate over the good life. Moving Forward takes us one step closer.

Moving Forward is available from AK Press 

Copyright © 2001 by Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.

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