On Participatory Economics and What Must Be Done
An abridged version of the following conversation with Michael Albert, developer with Robin Hahnel of the participatory economics model or “Parecon” appeared on Truthout.
MICHAEL ALBERT: Participatory economics proposes a small set of institutions that define the heart of a new type of economy. These institutions are conceived to further various values: self-management, solidarity, diversity, ecological sanity. The idea is that as you carry out economic activities—in other words, as you produce and you allocate and consume—you simultaneously accomplish not only those functions, but by virtue of what the institutions require of us as we operate, you also advance those values.
The basic institutions that are meant to accomplish this are few. There are worker and consumer self-managing councils; where self-management means that people should have a say in decisions proportionate to the degree they are affected by them. There is equitable remuneration—referring to the share we get in the economy in the form of income, our claim on the social product. Under participatory economy these are in proportion to how long we work, how hard we work, and the onerousness of the conditions under which we work. There is also what’s called balanced job complexes, which is a way of organizing the tasks that we do, so that our work lives, our economic activity and production, has a comparably empowering effect on us all. Finally, there is an allocative system to apportion work, labor and effort—the goods and services we produce—that isn’t a market or central planning but is something we call participatory planning. So in a nutshell, that’s participatory economics (http://zcomm.org/category/topic/parecon/).
GAR ALPEROVITZ: Even though I disagree with many aspects of Michael’s model, what I like about it its rigor and clarity. Parecon is a very tough-minded economic vision and model and it sets a standard for us to look at.
One place to start (with my own work) is that—given the specific historical conditions we face in the United State—I’m primarily interested in the question of how we begin to move in the direction of a model that realizes the kinds of values that Michael just laid out though is different in structure. I am interested in the political economy of institutional power relationships in transition. The question is one of “reconstructive” communities as a cultural, as well as a political fact: how geographic communities are structured to move in the direction of the next vision, along with the question of how a larger system—given the power and cultural relationships—can move towards managing the connections between the developing communities. There are many, many hard questions here—including, obviously, ones related to ecological sustainability and climate change.
I’ve called the model for what this might plausibly look like in practice “the pluralist commonwealth”: commonwealth because it seeks transitionally to restructure political reality by democratizing the ownership of wealth, pluralist because it embraces a variety of institutional approaches towards that end. The model includes some planning, a great deal of decommodification, and partial use of markets in certain areas. It adheres to the principle of subsidiarity, meaning we decentralize as far as possible to the local level where direct democracy is truly possible, but we are also not afraid to look towards institutional forms like regional or national public ownership when the problems are best solved at those scales…
More broadly, it’s a community-centered vision, starting with the questions “How does the community I live in begin to restructure? What are the next steps that could move us towards a larger egalitarian, democratic, and ecologically sustainable culture?” As we move towards the pluralist commonwealth, economic interventions that stabilize communities–for instance by localizing the flows of goods and services, or by promoting worker ownership–not only have immediate practical benefits, but provide the necessary preconditions for the growth and development of a renewed culture of sustainable democracy that can serve as the basis for still further transformations at larger scales. But the model is designed to make maximal use of actual on-the-ground forms of democratized ownership–the millions of employee-owners, the thousands of community development corporations and cooperatives that already exist in the US serve as a key starting point.
Importantly, the focus is on transitional forms, not on ultimate theoretical final states. A full description of the model, its elements, and many of the challenges that come up in connection with the approach is available at:www.pluralistcommonwealth.org
On Experimentation and Possibility
MICHAEL ALBERT: I appreciate in Gar’s work the emphasis on being attentive to what is possible now. We don’t go out in the streets trying to do things that can’t be done. In the context in which we find ourselves seeking ideal relations now, as if they can be had over night, doesn’t make a lot of sense.
I think where we may have a difference, is on the importance not only of addressing what’s possible now, but also whether or not this leads where we want to go—which to me means that we have to have some understanding of where we’re trying to go. So for instance, Gar mentioned that his understanding of the future would include some markets. Well, if we mean the same thing by “markets” (people use the term in all sorts of conflicting ways), then I would probably disagree. Markets are a form of allocation that I don’t think a good classless self-managing society can have, and have it be consistent with those kinds of values. Now that doesn’t mean that you can just say: no markets tomorrow. That’s the part I agree with Gar about.
GAR ALPEROVITZ: Here’s how I think about it. We need to remember the importance of learning and experimentation—you can’t really know what’s going to happen. For instance, if you take control of a workplace, there are a lot of different ways in which a workplace can be controlled. And since nobody knows enough about what all the effects are going to be at large scale, with really significant social change, I think we should try to do some of this piecemeal.
I think that Michael’s projection is utopian in the best sense of that term; I don’t see that as a negative. It’s where we might be when we get to where we want to be. But I think, both as a historian and as an economist, that the problem is quite different from that: how, in the specific historical condition of the United States today, do we move towards a more egalitarian society, one that transforms the ownership of capital, one that builds and nurtures community and that is ecologically sustainable? Lay three or four decades on the table: how do we move towards these larger goals?
So I’m much more interested in an evolving and reconstructive approach that reconstructs community, changes power relationships, and also moves towards some kind of planning. Not just allocative planning, but, in a society of 300 million, large-scale geographic planning to stabilize communities. I come from Racine, WI, a city of about 100,000. The rug was pulled out from under the economy there: industries moved out, all driven by the capitalist relationships dominant in the marketplace. What would be ways to stabilize economies, stabilizing the health of communities so that we can build constructive kinship and other relationships of democratic participation in them?
MICHAEL ALBERT: I agree we need to experiment—but I would say, for instance, we have been doing this for, conservatively, a couple hundred years, and some things we have learned. We may not know all the different options various kinds of workplaces will adopt, from country to country, from locale to locale, etc. But we do know that some very few things need to occur if people in those workplaces are going to be free to decide what they want.
What participatory economics is saying about economic life and what participatory society is saying more generally about the other realms in life is that there are a few institutional choices that really aren’t particularly optional. We can’t have private ownership of the means of productions and vast corporations and make believe that we’re going to have self-management for everybody. In the political sphere, you can’t have a dictatorship and make believe that you’re going to have public participation, freedom, and self-management and justice. Those institutions are contradictory.
So participatory economics doesn’t say that all workplaces will look alike. It does say, however, that we need to apportion work in such a way that 20% don’t dominate 80%. That should be a truism, basically.
GAR ALPEROVITZ: Let me clarify several different points in agreement and disagreement. I don’t disagree in principle with Michael: finding ways to organize work in which people are not locked into power relationships of the kind he’s talking about, is very important. Having said that, it’s not easily done, and it’s complicated.
For example, I was just out at Isthmus Engineering in Wisconsin, a worker-owned company that was in Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. It is a real high-tech, very advanced scale, robotic building worker-owned cooperative and nobody in their right mind in that place wants to be the power player. You’d think somebody would want to take control of the damn thing. Not at all. No one wants to be in charge. So what do they do? What they do is hire a manager who wants to do that, subject to the recall of the workers themselves. And they regularly recall them, when they don’t like what they’re doing. So how people actually in the practice of the workplace want to allocate different roles becomes extremely complex.
What Must Be Done?
GAR ALPEROVITZ: I don’t claim to have a sophisticated view of how transitions might take place in the specific conditions facing other countries, but I do think a lot about the United States. Here, we need to develop community-wide structures of democratic ownership, we need to work out cooperative development, we need to work out participatory management, we need new ecological strategies developed at the local city, state, regional level. We need to go forward in nationalizing several large corporations: I think that’s possible, we nationalized General Motors, we nationalized several of the big banks, de facto, we nationalized Chrysler, we nationalized AIG. I think there will be more crises, and at some point rather than being bailed out by the government, the public may keep the corporations it has to rescue.
We’re talking about democratizing the ownership of wealth, or socializing in some form. I think that needs to be a pre-condition in any of the systems we’re talking about. The model that I call the pluralist commonwealth incorporates a variety of these strategies, not simply worker ownership—though I do put a great deal of emphasis on worker-ownership and workplace democracy. But that’s only one form of democratizing ownership. There are also, for instance, city-wide models. In Colorado, we just had the takeover (“municipalizing”) of the electrical utility. That’s city-wide, geographic ownership of the means of production, it’s democratic ownership. There are 2,000 public utilities which could become the basis of a whole municipal scheme or strategy. Several hundred cities own hospitals. A number of the states already are moving toward ownership of state banks; many already own chunks of other businesses. Most people are simply unaware of these developments, or of models like this where we already can see expanding public ownership through municipal and state ownership. These are geographic ownership structures, that point for larger scale entities towards regional or national forms of public ownership.
The Pluralist Commonwealth model aims at steadily beginning to develop the institutional substructure necessary for future larger changes, but also that begins at the level of an ordinary community re-orienting itself. I think the appropriate near term trajectory of change we’re working with is 30 years, that’s a timeframe that’s reasonable for developing participation to the degree possible, ecological sustainability, reconstruction of community, laying groundwork for a reconstruction of a non-growth system over time. Beyond that timeframe other things may be possible…
MICHAEL ALBERT: You mention nationalizing, and it could be a good thing or a bad thing. It can be a good thing if it’s moving us in a good direction and a bad thing if it’s moving us in a bad direction. That seems pretty obvious. But if we look at it over time, we have lots and lots of instances that are not good, that don’t move us in a positive direction.
What characterizes positive direction? What characterizes it is more and more people having a more and more appropriate level of say over their own lives. What characterizes it is more and more people getting a fairer and fairer share of a social product and getting a fairer set of burdens they have to fulfill to be a part of society. If we can agree about that, we can make demands. Right now in the present, we can demand changes in the minimum wage, changes in the wage structure in a particular firm, we can demand new budget items in our national or local budget. But to do these things and much more in a way that moves us forward, our approaches now have to create an infrastructure that will stay with us and aid us rather than be corrupted and hurt us in the future. And they will have to develop more and more movement, and more and more activism because people are liking them.
There’s a resistance, it seems to me, about saying something about what we want, as if doing so would cause us to trample real and desirable options. If we say we don’t want a division of labor that would put 20% above 80%, somehow that’s going to cause a problem. If it doesn’t cause a problem to agree on that, and agree that it ought to be part of what we are seeking, let’s just say it and move on. If we say that we don’t want people to own the means of production and who get their income in the form of profit, if we don’t want that because that makes class division, crushes solidarity, demolishes dignity, and creates skewed income distribution, then we should just say it. That isn’t going too far. It’s not extrapolating so far into the future or into details that it somehow restricts us. On the contrary, it can help orient us.
We have to think about how to make demands and how to build structures that are part of the trajectory of change that takes us where we want to go. But that means we need to know something about where we want to go, as well as where we are at and what’s possible right now.
GAR ALPEROVITZ: For 40 years, my argument has been that democratizing ownership of wealth has been the key to egalitarian society and the goals of egalitarian society. That’s what I’ve been writing about, that’s what I’ve been experimenting with, that’s what I’ve been developing, and that’s what the vision of pluralist commonwealth is all about. But you start at the local level, both at the workplace, community and other institutions and you reconstruct the egalitarian democratized structure as well as participatory structure. That is where the learning takes place. You learn to do it in one community and it may be possible to spread to another community if you have achieved anything of significance. And as this happens, we learn more how to move towards the vision that is much larger than just the community level. That’s the whole strategy of what we’re doing in the current phase of development. Beyond this, if the work is done well, further things may be possible.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t an absence of fear that bad dynamics are going to emerge. For instance, worker-owned co-ops, on their own, floating in the market, tend to replicate the behavior of worker-owned capitalists in some circumstances. They sometimes develop positive participatory schemes, sometimes not. But we know from the studies of worker-owned plywood companies in the US, they can tend to develop conservative attitudes, not socialist attitudes. So there’s a whole question about the role of worker-owned companies, and even though I’m an advocate of further democratization of the workplace, we also need to be building larger structures.
This is what’s happening, for instance, in cities like Cleveland: the notion is a community-wide ownership structure that encompasses partially independent worker-owned companies. And these businesses are partly supported by the purchasing power of non-profit institutions like universities and hospitals that depend on lots of public money, and this arrangement then begins to give stability to the whole geographic community, articulating a vision and politics that builds for the entire community. It’s a mixed model that is being tested.
My argument is that the planning model can be managed partly by economic participatory economic planning, partly by market, but critically, when you get to the point where you can do that kind of planning, the model becomes less and less significant because it’s constrained and encompassed in a larger framework. I think the question that most critics of your model, Michael, have raised is important: the notion of each person laying down what he or she plans to buy or needs against a production schedule, that is, what they’ll actually contribute, becomes an extremely difficult path to envision as realistic. Somebody pointed out recently in an article in Jacobin that if you look at just the kitchen goods for sale on Amazon, there are millions of items. Now that’s not the society we want, obviously, but it points to the magnitude of the issue: the planning problem becomes extremely difficult if you don’t use some forms of market to adjudicate purchases and production.
I think we need to move experimentally with planning and markets, as well as with community development forms that don’t include either one. I’m very interested in how we democratize and socialize, at different levels, the ownership of productive wealth. And then moving steadily from models we learned from up from community to region to nation, always following the principle of subsidiarity: keeping it as low as possible.
MICHAEL ALBERT: You mention that markets will corrupt a worker cooperative because it’ll create a context in which—and I agree with you—there’s a tremendous incentive to essentially, maximize, not just profits for owners, but surplus among that workforce. And so you begin to see the same kinds of behavior, say colluding, not cleaning up the environment, speed ups exploiting workers who are weaker, and so on and so forth. Okay, agreed. The solution you bring up is that we can have some community-wide participation that puts restraints upon the way those pressures and incentives play out. Well, I don’t disagree with that as part of an answer. That’s certainly plausible.
But another way you can try to proceed is by understanding that the problem is the impact of the market. Or understanding, that a corporate division that divides the work classes into two classes of labor, one above and one below, corrupts what you’re doing. If we understand these two sources of corruption or subversion of our aims, then we can talk about them, and we can build a movement where the people who are participating are aware that over the long haul, we have to solve the problem of the division of labor and the problem of allocation, because if we don’t, the old corporate and market structures will corrupt what we’re doing.
It’s certainly true that if you have millions of goods, and you ask, can Joe look at all those millions of goods, evaluate them, and ask how much of each he wants—that’s absurd. Joe can’t do it, and he’s also not remotely interested in doing it. But even now, of course, neither Joe nor you nor I evaluate all possible options, but we still find options that suit us. So in a participatory economy, the consumer and the producer basically have to indicate their desires for different categories of clothing or food or housing, or various kinds of luxury goods or enjoyable goods. That doesn’t mean you have to itemize down to the color or the size. Many things are statistically totally determinable once you have the overall inclinations of people.
In Venezuela right now, there are diverse experiments going on, trying to experiment locally with alternatives that move towards a more egalitarian society, in which wealth and power are democratized—they’re trying to do at least elements of what we’re talking about. And in these experiments, two things come up pretty often, not just as long-term issues, but as immediate short-term issues: the division of labor in the workplace, and the impact markets in corrupting possibilities.
So for instance, in the countryside they have consumer co-ops, that is to say, communities which are trying to find a way to determine their overall consumption and trying to share it among the various members of the commune in a fair way. And then nearby, there are producer communes that are producing, for instance, the agricultural goods that the neighbors are going to consume. So what they have begun to do is to negotiate allocation. Instead of having a market determine how this transaction between the people who are farming and the people who are eating in the countryside will occur, they meet together and negotiate cooperatively what they think is just and fair and right. That’s potentially a beginning for participatory planning.
You mentioned the case of workers in the factory that didn’t want to be the ones particularly running the show, so they would go out and hire a manager. I understand that. It’s a perfectly understandable dynamic and even predictable. What happened in Yugoslavia is instructive: they made a revolution, got rid of the capitalists, instituted market socialism, and initially had workplaces where everybody was treating everyone equally, everyone calling everybody comrade and so on. But over time, because of what you described earlier, the competitive pressure of markets, these Yugoslav workplaces have to cut costs, make alienated decisions, to pollute, and on and on. If they previously met together in councils and decided they wanted things like daycare, air-conditioning for everybody, and clean air in the workplace and wanted to clean up for the community and so on. Then, nonetheless, under the pressure of competition, they had to start going back on those decisions. And because most people didn’t want anything to do with going back on those decisions, and certainly didn’t want to be the ones to make such degrading choices, they went out and hired managers and got them from business schools from capitalist countries to a large extent.
This wasn’t a healthy process, and this is what we’re talking about when we talk about changing the division of labor in the workplace so that everyone’s doing their fair share of empowering and disempowering work. It doesn’t mean that management pe se disappears. It means that managing, and conceptualizing and organizing and doing agendas, and all sorts of various empowering tasks, as well as the rote tasks, are handled in a way which doesn’t elevate some people to dominating others.
On the ground
GAR ALPEROVITZ: Just to clarify: In the model I mentioned—the one that featured in Michael Moore’s movie—the workers didn’t want to “manage;” they wanted control—which is to say the manager (administrator) if he was not responsive to their needs and desires. Let’s again return to what’s happening on the ground—all but ignored by the mainstream press. What’s interesting is that a truly massive process is underway that I have not seen happen in my entire adult life, particularly with regard to the ownership of capital and the development of co-ops, and worker-owned companies, and land trusts, and community owned structures and municipalization strategies. Though the public press does not cover this, it is, in fact, explosive. In my experience most activists and radical theorists are also unaware of the range of activity. (Our website community-wealth.org is one useful resource for coverage of these developments). As people learn more and more about the development of this pattern of democratization, they are also teaching each other principles that can be applied at higher levels as we move forward. As I said earlier, given the challenges facing the dominant system there are certain to be opportunities again with the big banks—more crises—and as people learn different principles over time, getting to national and regional scale of democratization is possible. I believe a parallel process is also likely over time in connection with health care: As the system falters and fails, moving towards democratization is likely. California passed single-payer twice, but this was vetoed by Schwartzenegger. Vermont is likely to establish it this year. And beyond single-payer is likely to be a still more democratized system in a sector now nearly 20 percent of the economy.
The most interesting developments that are going on, in my experience, are those that build and anchor workplaces in communities. In Cleveland—and an increasing number of other cities in the United States—what you have is a quasi-public entity, that is, a hospital or university that has a lot of public money in it, providing support by purchasing goods and services from worker owned companies linked together as is part of a geographic community-wide structure, with part of the surplus feeding back into the community to create new businesses. So it’s not just about the workers, but as a matter of structure and principle, it’s a vision that builds a community—or commune—and that’s happening experimentally in many parts of the country.
Interestingly, in Argentina, if you look at the recuperated factories and other businesses, many of them now are actually moving towards the model I just suggested, with places like the municipality (for instance Buenos Aires) purchasing from them as a way to stabilize their market and to socialize their procurement for public use, schools and hospitals, for instance. That structure of using a larger public institution—in this case, city government—to sustain and nurture different patterns of cooperative production stabilizes the market. This is where I think the exciting action is if we want to think about possibilities of moving toward a larger systemic vision. And as I said earlier, we could come back to the question of whether that eventually ends up using markets in some cases, or cooperative parecon styles in some areas, or public planning in other areas. I think it’s an open question.
MICHAEL ALBERT: I don’t disagree that there are many experiments, and in those experiments, people learn principles and those principles can be applied more broadly. There can be instances, although I’m not sure there’s much of this in the US that’s of any merit, of governments helping local experiments to stabilizing their operations, but I don’t think this is going to happen at a significant scale anytime soon unless movements force it. And I don’t disagree that in Venezuela and, to an extent, in Argentina, the government has indeed helped experiments become more and more participatory, more and more moving toward self-management, and that is exciting. I was very much excited by the taking of the firms in Argentina. I am excited in the United States, by the development of co-ops, and the extent to which people in the co-ops really do want something new, and more generally by the simple fact of the changing consciousness in the United States which is very much drifting away from faith in capitalism.
GAR ALPEROVITZ: On that latter point, that’s exactly where you and I agree entirely!
MICHAEL ALBERT: But where we seem to disagree is around participatory planning. Most people don’t criticize Parecon because of its notion of what is equitable, or its notion of self-management, or its notion that we should have solidarity; they criticize it for being too complex. The claim is that at some point the participatory planning process simply burdens people in a manner that people won’t accept, or shouldn’t have to accept, and that we should try to do it in a more efficient way, for instance, through markets.
My problem with this objection is twofold. First, it very quickly comes to the conclusion that it’s too complex, there are too many steps or too many people involved in the planning process—all of which there are answers for, which, however, are generally ignored by the critic. And second, it goes back to markets as a solution. The problem with markets isn’t necessarily their complexity (although some of the ones that exist today are so complex that nobody knows remotely what they’re all about!). The problem with markets is not that they demand too much of us. The problem is that they turn us into egomaniacs. They destroy the ecology. They produce class difference and gargantuan income differentials, much poverty and some plenty.
So I will grant you that it may be the possibility that when we experiment with it, and when we learn more about it, participatory planning will require some very clever refinements so as to reduce the amount of time and complexity that’s involved with that part of our lives. But to say that we can’t go through this process of experimentation and refinement, and that therefore we have to fall back on markets, is analogous, to me, to somebody saying that democracy puts complex demands on the voters, and therefore it would be much easier to have a dictator decide. Actually, it’s even worse, because you could imagine a dictator who is reasonably humane but markets are structurally incapable of delivering humane outcomes. In such an approach one is literally trading a fear of complexity, for a certainty of cataclysm.
GAR ALPEROVITZ: Michael, we just discussed two specific models in which worker-ownership is combined with one or another form of public planning, and a third where this is partially true. In Cleveland and in Buenos Aires the use of public purchasing partially stabilizes the market for worker-cooperatives. In Venezuela co-ops themselves provide support for each other (while in practice they also receive public support, i.e. another form of planning in the real world.) The critical point here—for a transitional strategy—is to understand the complexity of these processes and at the same time attempt to foster further movement, practically, towards a more evolved model without jumping steps and creating chaos in the learning and development process.
MICHAEL ALBERT: Gar, you’re involved in what I think are incredibly important and valuable experiments trying to do things in new ways. Wouldn’t it be advantageous when working with people who are setting up co-ops to help them understand that they don’t want to replicate the old division of labor which will corrupt their values and aspirations—that they should want to organize their work in a new way that has everyone participating and empowered? Wouldn’t it be advantageous to help them understand how market pressures will conspire to corrupt their creativity? And wouldn’t it be desirable to help them see that there are ways to avoid those ills?
GAR ALPEROVITZ: On participatory planning within the firm or within the community question, on restructuring jobs and the culture of work—with rotation and open-book management and so forth—that sort of thing is already being developed in many parts of the country, experimentally, and I certainly agree that that is the direction to go.
Caveat, what you find is that in many situations is that many people don’t want to do these things! The reality of the world we live in is that people sometimes aren’t interested in many circumstances; no matter how much young radicals yell at them, that isn’t what they want to do right now. So you have to work with the reality, and it’s particularly important because what we often find is that people who care about these issues, actually don’t want to deal with what poor black people who are interested in co-ops or what working class people who are actually trying to develop worker-owned firms actually think and feel. We need to learn to listen to what the people need and want, and not try to impose on them a whole schema that they may not. This is historically difficult stuff: how do we balance the project of raising consciousness, advancing a vision of utopia, with the real and honest engagement in real-world experiments.
And more may be possible than we think. As I said earlier, there has been a change in consciousness that makes this one of the most interesting periods of American history, maybe the most interesting. There’s a loss of belief in the corporate system, there’s a recognition that something is fundamentally wrong, there’s a discussion beginning around socialism amongst younger people, who recent polls show react slightly more favorable to that formerly taboo word than to “capitalism”. So there’s an openness to discussing things, and also to questioning the traditional state socialist model as the only alternative on the table. So there’s an opening to a whole different vision of where to go forward. I think that’s where we are in the question, so let’s not blow it; let’s see what we can develop over time.
MICHAEL ALBERT: We agree that there’s a giant opening. We agree that we don’t want to blow it. We agree that it’s certainly the case that lots of times people don’t want to change their circumstances dramatically in a direction which doesn’t seem worthwhile, or which even seems like it might even be some kind of con game.
Again using the Venezuelan example, it’s frequently the case that at workplaces down there’s an effort to introduce workers management or workers self-management that the workers themselves resist, not because they resist the idea of self-management per se, but because they think it’s a scam to get them to work harder, without them really having any more power than they do now. So I agree with you, of course, one doesn’t impose something, but one does have to discuss it if you’re ever going to get there. And that means discussing in a way that moves in the direction that we want to go to: which means talking about changing the division of labor and about the problems with markets and a real alternative.
I could be completely wrong about this, but I think that markets as an institution, even without private ownership, are vile. They’re not just vile; they’re one of the worst creations of humanity in its entire history. They warp human development, warp personality, misprice virtually everything. They skew the direction of development to have little to nothing to do with the human well-being of most of the population. They violate the ecology. They produce class division. We know that central planning is also a horror. It’s a horror when it’s imposed on a workplace like in General Motors, which is essentially planned internally, and it’s a horror when it’s imposed on the whole society. It seems to me that saying these things should be no more controversial than saying we don’t want dictatorship or we don’t want private ownership. No one would say that the fact that we need to experiment, to learn, to listen, implies that we ought to hold in reserve or even jettison our understanding that private ownership and dictatorship are disastrous.
Now, I agree with you, it is a big deal to articulate what the participatory alternative is. But the discussion shouldn’t be that any participatory alternative is too complex or demanding so we have to fall back to markets. There is no falling back to markets. Falling back to markets is like falling back to dictatorship.
There has to be, instead, a constructive suggestion of an alternative way of doing allocation. This idea of the possibility of stabilizing experiments through government policy could be a positive thing, but could also of course be an incredibly destructive thing. To the extent that we can force the government to utilize some of its gargantuan resources to benefit experiments that really would enhance the well-being of the population, that’s terrific. But you’ll have to force it because the government is in the hands of the rich and powerful. That’s part of the process; we don’t want to do it in a way that elevates the government as being our savior and dissolves movements. We want to do it in a way that builds movements and builds continuing pressure.
You talk about all these various experiments and I agree. I think setting up a co-op is good. Setting up a co-op with self-management is better. Setting up a co-op with self-management and with balanced job complexes is even better. Setting one up like that, and that’s in a position to negotiate with its consumers is terrific. And if they can get aid from public funds to stabilize and ensure survival, great. But I don’t think that is the road all by itself to a better society: we also have to have massive movements which are making demands both in specific institutions, say like General Motors, and also in society as a whole.
GAR ALPEROVITZ: That goes without saying, Michael, I totally agree with that! That’s what I’ve saying and writing about for years. But once you get away from the abstract that we’re talking about, these principles, if you actually get your hands dirty and start talking to different groups other than the gang of young people who we find easily these ideas accessible very quickly, it’s a different game. How do we reach ordinary Americans in my hometown of Racine, WI where the problems are just extreme? How do we begin to understand them, and where they are coming from, and actually work with them in a way that works? That requires both understanding of the principles, but also being willing to test different ideas with them: patience and humility.
MICHAEL ALBERT: I was in Argentina in a room with about 50 people that were there from different occupied factories and I’d been asked to come and speak. We started around the room and the first person who spoke described their situations and concerns, and by the time we got to the 7th person, and this really happened, a lot of people in the room were crying. This person spoke and put it very eloquently and said: I never thought I could possibly ever be saying anything like this—he, too, was tearing up. He said that we took over the workplace, the owners and the upper management were gone, because they didn’t want to be a part of a workplace that they thought was going to fail. And we took it over and made it work. But now he had to say, I’m afraid Margaret Thatcher was right, there is no alternative. This is why they were crying.
He said: we took it over, we were so excited, we made our wages equal. We instituted democracy. We had a workers’ council. We made our decisions democratically, and after a period of time, all the old crap came back. All the old alienation came back, and now it just feels the way it used to feel. And they were all saying it, person after person was saying it. I talked to a woman in one of those workplaces who had been working in a glass factory, in front of an open furnace all day long. Then they take over the factory and they go around the room and ask who wants to do the finances and keep the books, and nobody would do it, and she volunteered to do it. She’s just a worker, the same as everybody else in the place, she hasn’t gone to school or anything. I asked her “what was the hardest thing to learn?” She wouldn’t tell me. So I asked again and she didn’t want to tell me. “Was it to do the financial books?” No. “Was it to operate the computer?” No. “Was it to do accounting?” No. What was it? I was at a loss. She says “Well, first I had to learn to read.”
And four months later, she is doing the accounting and the bookkeeping for this glass firm which is now functioning at a surplus, whereas the capitalists have been running it into the ground and losing money. But the downside was that she, as the accountant, was becoming a member of a class of people in that factory, about 20%, who were highly empowered and who appeared far more pivotal to the functioning of the factory. And who, over time, were bringing back the old alienation, even though she was just a wonderful person.
So I tried to describe the idea of balanced job complexes. When they took over, and the manager who was doing the accounting left, somebody volunteered because not many people wanted to do it. And I said: well, pretty soon what happened is that you had one-fifth of your workforce doing work that’s really empowering, and after a while they’re governing, and after a while they’re paying themselves more because they think that they deserve more, and the rest of the people aren’t even at the meeting where this gets decided.
And they agreed with this; it helped them see that there was a reason for this: it wasn’t human nature. Thatcher wasn’t right. It wasn’t inevitable. They could’ve done things a little bit differently and could have had significantly better results. But one told me: we did a lot of that, and we still had problems. We were trying to reapportion tasks and so on, and it still went bad. So then we talked about the market and the pressure that it put on them to compete, and the way that pressure slowly but surely re-introduced the old division of labor. So my experience is somewhat different from yours: I find that it’s easy to talk to working people about, say, balanced job complexes—I have more trouble talking to perhaps half the young radicals nowadays, and much more trouble talking to left academics. With the latter, it’s almost impossible!
GAR ALPEROVITZ: I don’t think there’s a difference in the value structure here. We may have some different experiences. I think there are some places where people will in fact pick up on those themes and try to develop rotations and accept the inefficiencies that they will experience in the short run. But all of this takes a lot of energy and a lot of time, and some people just don’t want to do it. In some places, people will. And I think the question of experience, given the stage of history of the real world, where we are really at, will help us understand how to what extent we can push these developments in different areas. I regard this as a question of testing the real world. Not whether or not these principles about planning and markets are correct in the abstract: these questions are testable, and we should test them wherever we can. But I am cautious about imposing or trying to impose a vision on people who don’t want to hear the vision. The critical thing is whether or not the communities in which we are engaged wish to do an experiment with and test the models that intellectuals, and radicals, the left, and theorists, and so on come in with. And the answer is, in many cases, no. And for reasons that are good reasons, for instance, in some places, they are frightened to death that it will blow up the current structure of work and they’ll lose their jobs. People will understand what you’re talking about, but they are going to find the solutions, the mix of principles and problems that works for them, in their situation. And that mix is by no means obvious: by no means is theory a reliable guide to the way this comes out in the real world. So for instance at Isthmus: they understand the dynamics of power and management, but they don’t want to share those responsibilities: for them, the solution is to recognize that those are positions that nobody wants to do, and you hire someone to do them that you can control democratically or even fire, if you don’t like what they are doing. The values you’re talking about, I don’t disagree with at all. What we’re talking about is where we are in this stage of history with specific communities, all with different skills, levels of support, income, and training and all ultimately exposed to the markets whether they like it or not. This is the reality where we need to move and advance these different ideas. And to do so effectively, it seems to me to be a matter of testing as we go, on the one hand—and projecting a larger possible longer-term vision, on the other. I suspect that to the degree we actually keep testing and developing in the real world, there is likely to be convergence on several levels between many of the Parecon and the Pluralist Commonwealth models.
US coins image via shutterstock. Reproduced at Resilience.org with permission.
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