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Reflections on Michael Albert’s “No Bosses,” Participatory Economics and movements

Lucas Alden

The world at a crossroads. A world abound in interrelated crises. Distrust in society’s institutions at an all time high – with no institutions excluded. Misdirected fear and anger resulting among populations.

One way to see the story of our times is that of systems out of control. Interlocked systems – economic, governmental, civic, private – spawning interrelated crises.

The question then might become, “what do these systems have in common?”

With the major gains in consciousness made over the last century – thanks to the birthing of popular movements barely inconceivable prior to the 1960s – where should the focus of the general working population be in order to make lasting change? How can we begin reversing course on these crises? Going beyond them?

Despite these crucial gains, any form of a united resistance among the many popular movements to the institutions largely responsible for the crises is scarcely to be found. Rather it’s been, after all is said and done, a scattering.

Even less to be found than resistance with a common glue is shared vision for not just what we don’t want but what we do want, and the will to organize and strategize in an attempt to propose and implement said visions.

Why might this be the case, both for global crises as well as the lack of popular organization and resistance?

Well, Michael Albert has much to say on this you may find worth your time. “No Bosses – A New Economy for a Better World”, out now from Zero Books in autumn 2021, offers a “scaffold” of a vision for an economy which present and future populations will hopefully add to or detract from as they see fit. As he says, a “planting of the seeds of the future in the present,” which is our responsibility.

Is Albert just another intellectual, disattached and disaffected by the everyday struggles and concerns of ordinary working people, and coming up alone with solutions to their problems he doesn’t understand? Well, read the book and you’ll quickly discover how Albert’s work separates itself from the conventional pack. There is indeed an interminable list of self-important intellectuals both in the mainstream – academia and otherwise – as well as those purporting to be of popular movements, who have supposedly taken up the task of finding so-called solutions and failed. Our so-called “best and brightest” in governments, corporations, think-tanks, universities and media.

In the case of those inside private and state power systems, they seem to pretend not to be a cog in those very systems and inevitably carry out the imperatives of those systems, to the detriment of the general population.

In the case of academics, despite the unique freedoms afforded them, the arena is largely characterized by a conformity to existing power structures, in the end becoming an appendage to the current milieu. Thus, the fear, bitterness and rage of our age, rightly or wrongly, doesn’t distinguish among elites in governments, academia, media and other policy institutions.

As for movements, sadly but not surprisingly, the work of their internal “higher-ups” also too often tends to, first of all, not even attempt to offer up solutions grounded in the day to day realities of the populations they purport to be fighting for. When some do offer up solutions, even good ones, they tend to be in name only, and not collectively worked out with those same populations on a participatory level – or even with the working structures of the movements themselves. Consequently, movements too often are seen by the public simply as posturing when protesting in the streets and squares.

Most of the time, however, movements are simply engaging in analysis – often crucial analysis – but just analysis. Movements then wonder why more don’t join them after telling the working populations about our horrid state of affairs, leaving an impression that we are all just powerless victims of a far-off power play, and not engaging with them – towards objectives – on a regular basis in a participatory manner. Or even making an attempt to. No agency, no movement, no change.

All this does not contradict the fact that, thanks to movements of the last half century, consciousness has been dramatically raised. The very real and profound deficits of these movements, however, form much of the basis out of which visions like Parecon – Participatory Economics – laid out by Albert in “No Bosses” come forth.

I don’t see the vision as academic at all. Indeed, I even, in part, have reservations with it being labelled a vision. It seems to me more like someone with integrity holding up a mirror to those concerned and those involved. A non-patronizing reminder to “play nice.” Or reminders that deep down we all truly know that none of us is superior to any other. Or that, if any of us have visible talents, they can’t be allowed to be lorded over others, because if they are – amongst much else – out goes the efficiency, the objectives of the organization or the workplace and the dignity of the participants. Or that, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we understand that human organization, on the smallest or the vastest of scales, simply cannot endure if existing heirarchies are allowed to persist. Irregardless of organization, whether anti-war groups of 10, workplaces of 50, labor unions of thousands or corporations of hundreds of thousands of workers. Not if there is to be any real semblance of “democracy” and effectiveness. Or dignity. Or fulfilment. Or…

….even survival of the species.

In No Bosses, Parecon, or a sensible economy working for all, clear-sightedly lays out a set of values as its basis upon which the scaffold will be built. These values recall the phrase, “everything we need to know we learned by kindergarten,” but all too often remove as adults, which has more to do with existing incentive structures in current society….and a prodigious lack of popular organization. It would be pretty hard to argue against these values. Equity, self-managment, solidarity, efficiency, diversity and sustainability.

Any arguments against these? In this day and age, for a variety of reasons, diversity and sustainability won’t be touched, except by the most vicious hardliners and deniers of objective reality. Let’s hear you tell your kids, your students or your co-workers that there shouldn’t be equity, self-management or efficiency in society. Or that there CAN’T BE – we’re not capable of doing better than this. (More on that in a minute).

Herein lies much of the essence – and exceptional value – of Albert’s Parecon layout in No Bosses. Modern and classical “liberal” and “conservative” orthodoxy aren’t at a loss for platitudes and pronouncements of liberty, equality, fraternity, justice and democracy. Take a look around. Are our societies overflowing with these principles today? Are they even detectable? Were they in the past? If not, then why not?

In No Bosses, much of the essence of the vision of Parecon, in my view, is simply mapping out what these platitudes actually mean and what they would look like in modern society. Or, should we say, actually taking these values seriously. And that means applying these values not abstractly to society but to the day to day productive areas of peoples’ lives – the economy. It also means that to actually attain these values, if we agree on them – to get to some degree of a participatory economy and hence society – these values will have to be deliberated on en masse and a set of institutions will need to be put in place in a participatory manner in order to fulfill these values.

What could these institutions be, asks Albert.  Consumers and Workers Councils, Remuneration based on effort, Balanced Job Complexes and Participatory Planning and Participatory Allocation. These few simple institutions, if deliberated on and carried out in a participatory manner, can realize the values set forth and create a better world.

Don’t like your workplace? (if you’re “lucky” enough to have one at all) Have a problem with a few owning all the wealth and property, thanks, by the way, to your work? A small class of individuals making all the decisions in tandem with the owners? That same class doing all of the interesting, creative and decisive work – in short, the empowering work? You’ve got no say in the conditions and decisions of your work? Your salary remains the same despite your effort? Etc, etc.

Well, try putting in place a set of balanced job complexes and remuneration based on “how hard you work, how long you work and the onerousness of the conditions under which you work.” After all, wasn’t this what our better grade school teachers – not radicals – espoused to us as kids? They rewarded and recognized who gave the most effort, especially on collectively worthy endeavors, not who was most talented or who consistently got an “A.”

Solidarity, diversity, equity and sustainability speak for themselves. Check out what No Bosses has to say on these for more.

But what does Albert mean by “self-management?” Each individual ordering himself around? Everyone out for themselves? The perfect right-libertarian fantasy? Well no. Self-management means collective self-management. It means a democratically owned and run workplace and set of workplaces where class is extinguished by way of eliminating not only owners but the coordinator class within workplaces and throughout industries who have monopolized the empowering work. Getting right down to it, it means that everyone has a say in proportion to the degree in which they’re affected.

But, asks Albert, even if a workplace features self-management, do we automatically get better decisions? In principle yes, I’d say, but what about the 80% of the workforce who have been doing disempowering work, as opposed to the 20% of coordinators who enjoy empowering work? (This division generalizes to society as a whole too.) Mentally and physically draining, rote, repetitive work which atomizes workplaces and individuals, limits their potential and abilities, reduces their knowledge, reduces their confidence and gets them to feel that they don’t or even that they shouldn’t have a say in decision-making.  

The antidote to this is your balanced job complex, where all members of the workplace – all members – share in the tasks which are required to keep the workplace functioning. Ever ask yourself what your boss actually does, if he does anything at all? Why those managers enjoy confidence and access and make so much more than you but you’re pretty sure that anyone else could be doing their job – or actually doing it much better? Ever wonder what all this talk of so-called “qualifications” and “expertise” actually means? What those degrees actually did to make your workplace – let alone broader society – more equitable and efficient?

Albert asks another excellent question. Even if we have a workplace based on self-management and balanced job complexes, thereby radically altering the division of labor and decision-making with its far-reaching positive ramifications, in a vacuum we’d still be in a market system. What’s the problem with that, one might say?

The short answer, according to Albert – and he’s not alone, by a longshot, and neither is his view limited to so-called radicals – is that markets, by their very nature play a central role in delivering a society based on tension. The tension of competition for goods, jobs and much else. The tension of short-termism. Externalities. The very word in itself is a defining notion of markets – whatever decision I make, my company makes, my industry makes, the hell with the (inevitable) consequences to society. Exploitation, pandemics, apathy, fear, depression, atomization, poverty, inequality, starvation, wars of aggression, pollution, climate change all become externalities. Markets are instrumental in producing anti-social behavior, the seed out of which so much of this is born.

In short, the survival of the species, in our current reality, becomes an externality in a market-driven economic system.

The antidote – participatory allocation – where a series of proposals between workers’ councils and consumers’ councils produce an annual plan for allocation of good and services. These rounds of proposals for consumption and production, from an individual level to a neighborhood, to a city, to a region and so on – foster cooperative relations instead of unending antagonism.

Participatory allocation is the most detailed of parecon’s defining institutions. Can it be done? Pie in the sky?

It doesn’t take much to wonder, at this point, that if strong elements of these institutions are not pursued seriously, then what will become of human society in the coming years? The alternative is the real existing economy we’re living in, whose destructive and exponential tendencies are felt by all.

When we say that Albert’s work on Parecon outlined in No Bosses is not academic, it is a compliment. It is to say that it’s a hell of a lot easier to come up with academic models for career, self-gratification and to impress your colleagues than it is to have to the moral fortitude to work out something, based on real experience, that not only holds up a mirror to self and society but presents a vision to which we can all relate on both the deepest and most immediate levels, and which says we all have a vital stake in what occurs in this workplace, this company, this neighborhood, this union, this movement. That means we must all have a substantial say and play a substantial role to have any hope of realizing the values laid out.

For this Albert is actually doing the job of an educator, unlike so many so-called “educators” and so-called “leaders” and “coordinators” in workplaces and movements. Which may be more of a critique of the pre-determined roles and heirarchical structures than the individuals themselves. Albert is attempting to not only lay out an economy and a society in which all are actively empowered, but that we’re capable of realizing this in the first place. That all can and should have a vital say in their collective conditions. That each of us are worth way more than real conditions – or establishment orthodoxy – get us to believe we are. That we are collectively capable of way better. That common concerns – and objectives – far outweigh individual or sectarian priorities. And that all this has a lot to do with reversing and going beyond current reality.

No Bosses – and Parecon – provides invaluable insight for anyone who cares to engage collectively on any level and in any way in the pursuit of a better world.

What I finally get out of No Bosses and Parecon overall is that, if one has any hope at all to effectively build consciousness, better movements, a better economy and a better world which will last, any and all engagement should in essence be taken as an educational opportunity – for all parties. As opposed to opportunity for self, or name. One aimed at mutual empowerment with a wide scope in order to further gains in the pursuit of objectives. With the understanding that if this isn’t the pursuit to some substantial extent, and decisions and power are left to this upper 20% echelon of any and all organizations, escaping our current existential crises is utopian-like, fantastical thinking.

Unlike Parecon.

In terms of ideas and practical vision, No Bosses walks the walk, not just talks the talk. An indispensable contribution.

What do you think?

It’s up to all of us desiring a better world on the ground to walk the walk as well.