Born in 1947, Michael Albert has been a radical activist since he opposed the Vietnam War as a student at MIT in Boston in the 1960s. He has gone on to write more than 15 books and establish some of the most important organisations of the American radical left – from the progressive publishing house South End Press, to Z Magazine, and the popular website ZNet. A visionary and strategist, Albert, along with Robin Hahnel, has developed a form of “participatory economics”, or Parecon, as an alternative to capitalism and centrally planned socialism.
In the UK for a short speaking tour to promote Parecon, Albert spoke to Ian Sinclair at the annual Anarchist Bookfair in London.
- PN: Why do you think it is important for progressive activists to have a clear vision and strategy for the future?
- Michael Albert: First of all, if you don’t know where you want to go you are very likely to wind up some place you don’t want to be. It’s a simple phrase, but there is a lot of truth to it. The second thing is a common phrase, particularly among anarchists and young folk: plant the seeds of the future in the present. You can’t plant the seeds of the future if you have no idea what the future is and are unwilling to say anything about the future. You don’t want a blueprint because it’s not for us to make a blueprint. And we’re incapable of it anyway. But what you want to do is think through a vision where what you are doing is figuring out those key institutional changes that are necessary so that people in the future can determine their own future.
The third reason, and this is the paramount reason in many respects, is that when Thatcher said: “There is no alternative”, she had her finger on the pulse of the world. She was not a fool. She was basically saying “the reason why we stay in power and everyone else stays underneath is because they don’t think there is an alternative.”
Deep down inside people think it is inevitable. They think fighting against poverty, war and capitalism is like fighting against ageing, cancer or gravity. It’s a fool’s errand – just stupid. So people don’t do it and instead try to take care of themselves within the rotten circumstances that we all encounter. So vision undoes this and gives hope, direction and counters cynicism.
- PN: What is your assessment of how progressive activists have engaged with questions of vision and strategy in your lifetime?
- MA: It’s been pathetic. We’ve done tons of analysing what’s wrong and explaining how capitalism, patriarchy and racism hurt. We do it one way, and then we do it slightly different again and keep doing this. Everybody knows this. What they don’t know is what do we want and how do we get it. The amount we do that is miniscule by comparison.
- PN: What is wrong with capitalism?
- MA: Capitalism is theft. Capitalism is murder. Capitalism is poverty. Capitalism is starvation. Capitalism is indignity. These phrases are real. It sounds like rhetoric in the absence of an alternative, but the reality is that they are real.
Tens of millions of people around the world die of starvation and preventable diseases every year – that’s murder. In the US there are 30 million people who live below the poverty line. There are seven million empty hotel rooms every night and there are seven million people who are living under bridges and out of boxes because they have no home. The numbers being the same is a coincidence but it is striking. Now think of the people a bit better off who have jobs. Compared to 100 years ago they have material wealth. But they have no dignity or control of their lives. They function by obeying and enduring boredom. Even if you look at the top of society they are just the rats who won the race. At its worst the system is horrific, at its best it’s grotesque. People so rich they make the kings and queens of old look like paupers.
- PN: Could you summarise your vision of Parecon?
- MA: Participatory economics is an alternative to capitalism and what has been called centrally-planned socialism. It doesn’t have a lot of features because the idea is to just map out the critical features that will allow future workers and consumers to control their own lives. It says future people will decide. Therefore workers and consumers need a place where they can express their preferences – worker and consumer councils.
The second institutional choice is about how we make these decisions. Does one person have all the say or is it democracy where everyone has a vote and the majority rules? Is it consensus? It’s none of these. It’s self-management, meaning for each decision, roughly speaking, we should all have a say proportionate to the effect it has upon us. So sometimes that’s democracy. But sometimes if one constituency is more affected they will get more say.
How much income do people get? If the disparities in the share of the social product are huge then you aren’t going to have a good society. So what should be the norm? Well you shouldn’t get income because of property, so that should go. In the market system you get what you can take – bargaining power. But that’s a thug’s economy. What about the socialist norm that you get back what you contribute? I don’t like this either. The reason I don’t like this is because it rewards a lot of things it shouldn’t reward. It rewards me if I have better tools than the next guy. It rewards me if I am producing something more valuable than the next guy. It rewards me if I am working with more accomplished people.
I think you should get income for how long you work (duration), for how hard you work (intensity) and for how hard the conditions under which you work are (onerousness), as long as you are doing socially-valued labour. You can’t just dig holes. That’s the opposite of what we have now. Right now, the less you work, the less intensely you work and the more pleasant your working conditions, the more you get. Why? Because your bargaining power gets you those circumstances and it gets you more income.
Then, you have to get rid of the division between managers, lawyers, doctors and engineers, and everybody else. It’s not that they are smarter genetically. It’s not that they are more deserving. It’s not that they are more industrious. That’s all a pile of crap. What happens is the working class gets beaten down – go listen to John Lennon’s Working Class Hero – and the coordinator class gets elevated and made confident. The way to deal with this is to redistribute the thing that gives this coordinator class its dominant position – empowering work. So give everybody a mix of empowering and disempowering work – a balanced job complex – so that difference is eliminated. The last feature is you can’t have markets or central planning. Either one of these will undo the things above. If you have worker councils, equitable remuneration and balanced job complexes, the implications of market competition will undermine your accomplishments and re-introduce all the old crap.
So you have to replace markets and central planning with participatory planning – a new way of doing allocation. This avoids a centre or top, it’s self-managing, it’s cooperative, gives everyone a say and arrives at a correct valuation of items in the economy which takes into account its ecological, social and personal effects, which markets don’t.
- PN: Are there any countries where Parecon, or a form of Parecon, has been successfully introduced?
- MA: If there was a country in the world that had a participatory economy you wouldn’t have to ask the question. Everybody would know, not least because the United States would be trying to put it in a coffin. But are there countries that are doing things that are similar to participatory economics or involved in a process that could lead to participatory economics? Yes.
Venezuela and Bolivia are doing a great many things that one would be doing as part of a project or struggle to produce this kind of society.
- PN: What are the repercussions of Parecon for the internal dynamics of progressive organisations working today?
- MA: We haven’t learned the lesson of “plant the seeds of the future in the present”. If balanced job complexes are a critical component to the future then Left practice in the present should have balanced job complexes and self-management.
Also, there is a natural tendency of those at the top to feel like they are the heart of the movement and that their brilliance and expertise is essential. And they protect it, and they feel they are protecting it in the interests of humanity. So they don’t like Parecon or the idea of Parecon growing and becoming powerful. Because if it did it would mean their organisations would have to be restructured.
It’s the same as when women fought sexism and won the battle of incorporating the seeds of the future in the present – the Left shouldn’t be sexist. We had to rectify our movements. We haven’t done it perfectly yet, but we did have to do it.
If you look at the number of interviews or reviews I’ve done on Parecon, there is an interesting correlation. There is none in the mainstream and on the Left it is only the organisations that are cooperative, more anarchistic, that give Parecon visibility. The larger Left organisations? Nothing, not a single comment. They won’t critique, they won’t debate and they won’t comment.
- PN: How do you respond to those who say Parecon will never work because it ignores our selfish and greedy human nature?
- MA: I say something like: “Think of one person you know who isn’t greedy or selfish”. That person is a better argument for a human nature compatible with a good society than 100 million greedy slugs is an argument for a human nature that isn’t. Why? Because every institution creates greedy slugs. All the institutions produce myopic, driven greed. It’s only our underlining inclination to be humane that stands up against that and prevents us from being really horrific.
Even if you grow up in our society as a caring, sensitive human being, when you enter the economy you will succeed only if you become anti-social. You will fail if you remain truly sensitive and caring. Because if you are truly sensitive and truly caring you will be worrying all the time about people who are starving to death and how your activity is contributing to human suffering. But if you can turn your mind off to all that and not care about the people you squash then you’re fine – garbage rises.
In Parecon, it is the opposite. If you grow up to become a greedy person and enter a participatory economy, to get ahead you have to be social and concerned about the well-being of others. Solidarity is produced by Parecon. Anti-sociality is produced by capitalism.
- PN: What keeps you motivated after over 40 years as a radical activist?
- MA: I want to win. I’m not in this to be able to look at myself in the mirror. I’m not in this to fight the good fight and lose. I want to win. I don’t see any other reason to do this. I would have been a physicist. That’s where I’m good. That’s what I would have done if I lived in a good society. But when I looked around myself when I was in school I couldn’t keep going as everything was so horrific. So I switched and went against the war. And I was fuelled then, and am still fuelled now, by wanting a different society. I want to help create it. I want to contribute to it.