National Sections of the L5I:

Michael Albert

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

Unlike Susan George or George Monbiot, Michael Albert does not defend capitalism . In his book, Parecon – Life after Capitalism he states that he wants to get rid of it entirely and replace it with a different, more just, equitable and efficient system without private property and exploitation. He calls this system parecon – a participatory economy.

Attacking global capitalism for “producing poverty, ill health, shortened life spans, reduced quality of life and ecological collapse”, Albert asks the question: “What specific global exchange norms and institutions would do better than that what we currently endure?”

He says we should replace the imperialist institutions of the IMF, World Bank and WTO with “an International Asset Agency, a Global Investment Assistance Agency and a World Trade Agency” which would work to attain core values of parecon, equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management and ecological balance.

His vision is one in which the private ownership of the means of production – the businesses, factories, mines and farms where the wealth of society is produced – is abolished. Instead the productive assets of society are owned equally by all.

Under parecon our world will no longer be controlled by the decisions made in the board rooms of the global corporations. No longer will have to make do with electing corrupt and unrepresentative politicians to purportedly democratic institutions which ignore the will of the majority and only rule in the interest of the rich and powerful. In its place we will have a world administered by democratic councils. Workers’ councils will administer every workplace “in which each worker has the same overall decision making rights and responsibilities as every other.”

No longer will we have the blind hand of the market deciding our consumption choices for us. In place of the market we would have consumer councils organised on a local level, deciding and planning consumption.

Under parecon the way we work would also be radically different from today. Albert introduces the idea of a “balanced job complex” in which each and every one of us would spend time doing empowering work that would give each of us an “equal chance of participating in and benefiting from workplace decision making.”

The remuneration we receive for the work we do under capitalism bears no resemblance to how socially necessary or valuable it is. So while nurses struggle to make ends meet, the professional gamblers who work in the stock exchange make millions. In a world based on the principles of parecon remuneration for work should be based upon how “much effort or sacrifice we have endured in our useful work”. And it would be society through its workers’ and consumers’ councils that would decide what type of work was more valuable and useful to society as a whole.

So far, so excellent. But we have three vital questions. Could this model operate without a central planning authority? If not, would such an authority of necessity become undemocratic and thus undermine the egalitarianism and efficiency of the system? And without such an authority, could a participatory economy even come into being in the first place?

First, let’s take the question of whether the model could operate without central planning. Without central planning, how could one commune (or guild of communes) in parecon be prevented from fixing prices that do not fairly reflect social costs? How could a specific commune’s pricing be prevented from reflecting its higher labour productivity, or its lower productivity? In short, how would one prevent the emergence of a market?

Albert’s reply is not only that parecon does not have a market because of its participatory planning and planned prices, but that a market cannot emerge. He says “It still cannot happen because society just doesn’t allow it. The planning process will not provide the [exploiter’s] firm with inputs, and it will not accept its outputs.”

How does he know? Without a central authority, any producer or consumer council could do this – the system of negotiated relations between autonomous units absolutely would allow it.

He has only two answers to this problem. One is absurdly idealistic; the other violates the precepts of his system.

The first is that exploitation would be unworthwhile because it would entail becoming a social outcast -. “a very high price to pay for income above and beyond the already quite comfortable and socially rich existence parecon typically provides.”

With one bound, Albert is free. He has leapt over the central problem, which is not how some pure construct of his mind might function, but how we can get from a market economy in which the majority is emphatically not quite comfortable and socially rich, to a socialised economy, without the market subsuming, reincorporating and ultimately subordinating elements of democratic planning and reproducing an exploiting property owning class. As the new society emerges, people will still be poor and unequal. And it is of course at this stage that the danger is at its greatest of the market re-emerging.

Albert’s second answer to the problem is that the planning process “won’t allow it.” And indeed, however much he tries to present the planning process as an entirely consensual and negotiated affair between the various workers’ and consumers’ councils and federations, he is forced to develop also the notion of Iterative Facilitation Boards which set indicative prices for consideration by local bodies, and then revise them as the local bodies resubmit proposals. “Overly optimistic and otherwise unfeasible” proposals are “whittled down”. Through a process of successive iterations, “proposals move closer to mutual feasibility” and thus the procedure “generates equity and efficiency simultaneously.”

This is fine when the system is well established and understood by all to work to raise living standards. But how might a society in transition from capitalism to democratic planning confront this process?

Contending proposals are inevitable from the discrete units. Mutual feasibility is less likely to be apprehended by the contending groups. Poverty, conflicting needs of development, a vast private sector and a growing black market, sabotage by former capitalists and their supporters, the intervention of foreign capitalist powers, shortages as a result of blockades,- these are the life or death issues that a real postcapitalist society will have to “whittle down” in its “iterations”. Perhaps, just perhaps, some councils or “iteration boards” might not always agree to accept the majority’s final “iteration” of the plan. Then what?

And this is where central planning comes in because we have to address the contradictions that arise in all transitional situation – conflicts that need mediation at the highest level.

But Albert has a mortal fear of central planning. He believes that the monstrosity of bureaucratic and anti-worker planning carried out by the elite caste in the former Soviet Union arises as a direct result of central planning, and that therefore central planning must be avoided at all costs.

But if central planning necessarily results in domination by a new elite, oppression of the workers, inequality, inefficiency and stagnation, then eventually it will collapse as the USSR finally did. If central planning inevitably leads to Stalinism, then there really is, as Margaret Thatcher said, no alternative to capitalism.

History, however, does not support this ultra-pessimistic view. The first country in which central planning was attempted was backward, the majority of its people were not involved in modern capitalist production but were peasants, it was subjected immediately to devastating foreign invasion and, crucially, the social revolution that inaugurated the new regime of workers’ councils failed to spread to more advanced countries. By the time the five year plans were drawn up, the USSR was dominated by a self-sustaining bureaucratic caste which arrogated privileges to itself and feared the self-activity of the workers as much if not more than it feared capitalist restoration.

Why should the next social revolution have to end in this way? Next time we may begin in a more advanced country, or may have greater success in spreading the new social relations so as to aggregate the efforts of the working people of many countries.

In the section of his book in which he distinguishes parecon from central planning, Albert explains with admirable clarity precisely the methods that can be used to hold any planning system to democratic account, whether local or central. He explains that planning and administration roles could be rotated.

But why should this apply to tasks dealing with local issues but not to tasks dealing with regional or national ones? The prevention of bureaucracy is indeed a critical task in building a successful postcapitalist system, but the mechanisms to prevent it can apply to a central as much as to a series of integrated and negotiated local plans. They are: democratic decision making; freedom of parties to operate within the workers’ councils and to campaign for amendments and changes to planning priorities; rotation of administrative/bureaucratic tasks; no such individual to earn more than the average wage for other skilled tasks; recallability of all such individuals from the position; public access to the inputs and outputs that enable the plan to be drawn up; decentralisation of as much of the planning process as possible, allowing democratic centralisation of whatever is necessary.

In this way, the government of persons can really begin to make way for the mere administration of things, without preventing the majority from taking steps to assure the subordination of market forms and the success of the transition to democratic planning, or socialism as we shall continue to call it.