Parecon: Life after Capitalism
Reviewed by John Brady
Thursday, June 12 2003, 04:24 PM
One of the distinct pleasures I take away from Star Trek is sharing in the show's fantasy of a post-work society. Make no mistake, the ship's crew and the citizens of the federation's many member planets engage in plenty of activity. They calculate. They plan. They strategize. They attend Starfleet academy. They discover new worlds. They fight. And on and on. But despite all of this action, no one ever really labors. The audience is never privy to the rote, tedious tasks and the physically demanding toil that, even with this fictional society's advanced state of technology, would certainly still be necessary to allow the Federation's citizens to continue to disseminate the tenets of tolerance and liberal humanism to all corners of the known universe. Sure, there are the many computers and holograms to pick up some of the slack, but who makes and programs all those computers? This is the question that sometimes pops into my head as I am watching, and at these moments I will imagine a factory filled with hordes of child laborers on some distant planet sweating away soldering the circuits that allow society to function. Such an image runs counter, of course, to the vision that the show asks us to enjoy, namely the supremely attractive vision of a world where human energy is no longer taken up meeting the basic challenge of necessity, but can instead by dedicated to the nobler pursuits of enlightenment and discovery. The utopian unreality of this vision is part of the fun. For a moment we can imagine a world free not only of toil, but the conflict, alienation, and tedium that almost always attends it.
A similar sense of utopian unreality pervades much of Michael Albert's recent book Parecon: Life After Capitalism. Although because we are dealing not with TV entertainment but with social theory, a genre where the moral and intellectual stakes are measurably higher, I found this utopianism more frustrating than pleasurable. Parecon provides a blueprint for a post-capitalist economy organized around popular participation in all aspects of economic activity: consumption, work, allocation. The goal is to replace the capitalist vices of competition, hierarchy, and possessive individualism with the more humane virtues of solidarity, diversity, and equality. Computers figure prominently in this scenario, too. It is with their help that society is rendered transparent and thus amenable to participatory steering and control. If Star Trek asks us to fantasize about a world beyond work, Parecon asks us to fantasize about a society completely aware of itself and thus beyond politics. Accessing data from across all sectors of the economy, the citizens of a parecon (Albert's shorthand for a participatory economy) collectively participate in planning everything: the outputs of the firms they work for, the allocation of goods, and communal and personal consumption levels. In one exemplary passage, Albert asks us to imagine Tariq, who, accessing his housing cooperative's computer, goes about planning his consumption for the year.
"To develop a personal consumption plan, Tariq consults...estimates of indicative prices, assessments for collective consumption for members of his neighborhood, and average personal consumption estimates, and settles on a 'borrower/loaner' status. To simplify, similar products of comparable quality are grouped together so Tariq needs to express preferences for socks, but not for colors or types of socks; for soda, books, and bicycles, but not for flavors, titles, or styles of each. Statistical studies enable facilitation boards to break down total requests for generic types of records, soda, or bicycles."
As I read this and similar passages, I kept coming back to my Star Trek question: But who makes all those computers? Other questions quickly followed: What happens when they break down? When did Tariq and his compatriots become so self-possessed and self-aware that they could accurately forecast their desires and how best to fulfill them one whole year in advance? And more to the point, what happens in the face of significant disagreement about the economic priorities and values of such society? Negotiating such conflict is part of the function of the public realm, but Albert makes no allowance either for the possibility of disagreement, its persistence, or the necessity of managing it through political action. Instead he places an incredible amount of weight on the clarificatory power of social transparency and the solidarity generating potential of participation. From their computers, individuals will be able to see across the vast expanse of society and into the depths of their own inner lives. Armed with this knowledge, they seem automatically to understand what their tasks are, what their needs should be, and how they should fulfill their obligations to the rest of society. In the end, we are asked to imagine a world in which people have escaped the necessity of conflict, both personal and political. Individuals no longer have to face either their own potentially conflicting desires or each other's potentially divergent visions of what society's guiding values should be. This avoidance of conflict defines the limits of Parecon as both a model for economic justice and a practical guide for radical change.
Parecon is available from Verso