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Bringing Together Economic Visions | Michael Albert [plus a video interview]

znetwork | By Michael Albert

We can all list many perspectives that propose different post capitalist economic aims. Must we see each perspective as a contender against the rest? What if they have compatible aims? Could we try to combine their primary virtues into a new encompassing perspective? Would an encompassing perspective be able to fulfill all our main desires? Could it attain practical viability and include only worthy features? 

Inspired by that hope, we here very briefly summarize nine currently contending economic perspectives. We then propose a tenth composite perspective conceived to bridge divisions and establish links among the nine others. Note, however, that we only consider post capitalist economics. One could also consider post racist, post sexist, post authoritarian, and post unsustainable societal components to similarly seek unanticipated but welcome synergy among “contending perspectives.” If economic perspectives can unify, perhaps perspectives for other aspects of life and then for a summation of all aspects can also unify.

Here then, are the main assertions of nine economic perspectives that often contend rather than unify.

  1. Mainstream Marxist Economy (MME) mainly seeks to eliminate private ownership of the means of production to in turn eliminate an owning capitalist class that accrues profits and decides outcomes. MME’s advocates differ over what to do with liberated means of production. Make asset ownership statist? Deliver ownership of each workplace to its workers? Institute a productive commons? Despite those differences, MME’s advocates agree on the overall goal: End class rule by capitalists so that workers control their own circumstances and benefit from their own efforts. Beyond that, for allocation some MME advocates propose central planning. Others propose markets. But MME advocates agree that allocation should provide workers and consumers control over worthy outcomes. 
  2. Councilist Marxist Economy (CME) extends from Anton Pannekoek to Rosa Luxembourg to Cornelius Castoriadis and beyond. CME wants workers councils to propose and decide workplace policies. It wants consumers councils to propose and decide individual and collective consumption. Some CME advocates say that such decisions should always be made by majority vote. Other CME advocates say actors should decide outcomes in proportion to the degree the outcomes affect them. This could be by majority vote, by consensus, or by whatever else works. CME wants allocation to achieve sought ends without wasting valued assets and to be self-managed. For that reason, CME typically rejects central planning and markets and seeks a decentralized alternative. 
  3. Anarchist Economy (AE) stretches from Bakunin through Kropotkin to Goldman, to Anarcho-Syndicalism, and more recently to Chomsky. AE rejects private ownership of means of production and all authoritarianism. It typically proposes a productive commons and council self-management. It recognizes the need for different voting methods and styles of deliberation in different situations. In particular, beyond all that, it adds to our emerging mix of desirable aims an insight that there is a third class which Bakunin initially called “intellectuals,” which Barbara and John Ehrenreich much later called the “professional managerial class,” and which Albert and Hahnel mere moments later called the “coordinator class,” but which all agree has the capacity to become a ruling class that operates over and above workers. AE seeks worthy production and consumption self-managed by those affected. Thus, AE rejects class rule. It adds to our emerging menu of aims that we should eliminate the division of employees into an empowered class that rises to rule a disempowered class.
  4. Solidarity Economy (SE) sees itself as an umbrella term more than a specific vision. It asks: Do people mutually benefit one another as compared to advancing at one another’s expense? SE’s aim is that workers and consumers should have mutual concern and shared interests. As to how precisely to achieve such aims, SE is highly diverse with much under its umbrella, but all its arrangements seek that actors move away from antagonism and toward solidarity. SE rejects that some benefit at the expense of others. It wants all to enjoy mutual benefit. It implicitly favors approaches that propel solidarity without undue detriments. It implicitly rejects approaches which obstructs solidarity, including class division and top down or competitive zero-sum allocation. It explicitly adds achieving solidarity to our emerging menu of aims. 
  5. Green Economy (GE) also has many versions, but they all agree that economic life should be sustainable and occur in reciprocity with environmental relations. Suppose some sector of production uses more of some critical resource than the environment or people are able to replace or substitute for each year. Clearly, that resource will in time run out. Similarly, suppose a sector produces some by-product that despoils the environment in a destructive manner that we can’t reduce or mitigate each year. Clearly that despoliation can become unendurable. GE seeks institutions that account for reduction of needed inputs and profusion of harmful outputs. It favors institutions that facilitate environmental reciprocity. It rejects institutions that obstruct environmental reciprocity. Advocates of GE differ about how to accomplish their aims, but most agree that old economic forms of property ownership, decision making, and allocation are decidedly unecological.
  6. Degrowth Economy (DGE) is a GE that determines that current use of irreplaceable resources and current output of damaging materials are, in sum, already too great to continue. DGE advises up front that some amount of current economic activity is unsustainable and highly unlikely to become sustainable by way of technological or social innovations. DGE urges that unsustainable industries need to “degrow.” Degrowth advocates differ considerably over what we need to cut back by how much, but they agree that democratic decision making should inform such choices. DGE also typically advocates that the choices should de-colonize and pursue equity. It follows that a DGE, like a GE, adds to our encompassing agenda the need for production choices to properly judge sustainability and either what investment in correctives to make or what degrowth to undertake.
  7. Feminist Economy (FE) looks at economic activity from the angle of kinship. It makes two primary additions to our agenda regarding specifically economic aims. 1) Economic life must not produce systemic differences in costs or benefits due to sex, gender, or any other kinship related attribute. 2) Economic life must respect, accommodate, and certainly not subvert additional implications of feminist social change including insights and changes in home life, in sexual preferences and practices, in relations of parents and children, and in the implications of caring activity on those who undertake it, including altered conceptions about who that should be.
  8. Intercommunalist Economy (IE) looks at economic activity from the angle of cultural constituencies. It too makes two primary additions regarding specifically economic aims. 1) Economic life must not produce systemic differences in costs or benefits due to race, ethnicity, religion or any other community related attribute. 2) Economic life must respect, accommodate, and certainly not subvert additional implications of intercommunalist social change including, in particular, insights and changes regarding mutual relations of cultural communities and their borders and especially innovations regarding protection of all cultural communities from domination or negation by others.
  9. Anti-Authoritarian Economy (AAE) looks at economic activity from the angle of citizenship and polity. It also makes two primary additions regarding specifically economic aims. 1) Economic life must not produce systemic differences in costs or benefits due to any social or personal attribute that would produce undue political elevation or subordination. 2) Economic life must respect, accommodate, and certainly not subvert additional implications of political social change including, in particular, politically mandated rights, responsibilities, and procedures.

Conceiving An Encompassing Economy

Even offered as ridiculously succinctly as above, our set of nine summaries is certainly a mouthful. We can’t even pronounce the sum of it all, MMECMEAESEGEDGEFEIEAAE. But our concision in summarizing each perspective’s main priorities was not random. We emphasized primary positive desires. We deemphasized differences over means to attain primary positive desires. Our resulting task: Propose a unifying perspective that can attain all nine perspectives’ central positive insights and avoid features any of the nine perspectives would reject.

To start, to meet the core desires of mainstream Marxists clearly an encompassing vision will need to eliminate private ownership of productive assets. To that end, an encompassing perspective might propose a productive commons. If society judges prospective producers’ proposals socially worthy and environmentally viable, they get to use commonly held productive assets to produce socially beneficial products. 

Next, to attain councilist aims, an encompassing perspective could propose that to self-manage production and consumption workers and consumers could use suitably conceived venues, called councils. Not only the councilist perspective wants workers and consumers to oversee economic life, but so do the rest, supposing that workers and consumers doing so could be shown viable and consistent with each perspective’s other aims. However, advocates of each of the nine perspectives might reasonably ask how an encompassing perspective proposes to ensure that workers and consumers councils will make informed, wise decisions.

Moving to the Anarchists, how might a new perspective encompass AE’s aim to eliminate an empowered class that rules over workers? How might it ensure that workers are well equipped to intelligently self-manage? Since a key factor bearing on these aims is the empowerment implications of day to day economic involvements, an encompassing perspective might seek conditions that prepare every employee to effectively participate in council deliberations and decisions. While only the anarchist perspective calls for this, if a new division of labor that delivers equal empowerment could be shown worthy and viable, it is hard to see why any of the eight other perspectives would oppose it.

The same calculus applies to attaining solidarity as emphasized by SE. Why would a new economy reject actors benefitting mutually instead of actors benefitting only at one another’s expense? Thus an encompassing perspective might urge that production, consumption, and allocation should align all actors’ interests as much as possible and certainly not force their interests into debilitating opposition. Instead of a rat race where only a few survive while the rest are humbled, subordinated, and impoverished, economic institutions should cause all economic actors to have mainly shared rather than mainly contrary interests. A primary step might be to make incomes equitable so that when I benefit you don’t lose and vice versa. Another primary step might be to organize decision making that doesn’t resemble a cauldron of contending interests. A third step might be to replace competitive allocation with allocation that unifies participants.

Next we have Green and Degrowth economies. Their addition to our growing list of aims is that when workers and consumers determine what to produce and consume, they should take into account environmental as well as personal and social costs and benefits. To this end, an encompassing perspective might propose a new allocation system in place of markets and central planning because by analysis of their incentives and logic, we know markets and central planning establish a drive to accumulate irrespective of impact on anything other than enlarging profits while maintaining existing hierarchies of wealth and power. When to reduce or even reverse growth in a sector due to its use of essential resources or due to its production of damaging byproducts needs to be democratically decided. An economy should therefore reveal potentially mitigating replacements for dwindling resources or develop means to more frugally use them, and should develop means to reduce or remove of negative byproducts by way of organizational or technical innovations—or, when needed, should degrow equitably.

Finally, and of overarching impact, in accord with the aims of inter-communalist, feminist, and anti-authoritarian economy, an encompassing perspective might seek to prevent production or consumption that generate material or power hierarchies of wealth, circumstance, or influence. It might simultaneously respect achievements emanating from intersecting kin/gender, cultural/communal, and political innovations as each emerge from and are propelled by transformations of those economy-intersecting spheres of life. And, of course, it might treat other economies outwardly in accord with the values it respects and fulfills inwardly.

Participatory Economy?!

The preceding discussion suggests what types of proposals might conceivably propel advocates of each of our nine highlighted perspectives to agree on an encompassing, overarching economic vision. And, indeed, an existing tenth perspective called participatory economics seeks to mature in precisely that direction. Its core economic institutions are a productive commons, workers and consumers self-managing councils, a new division of labor called balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor (plus full income for those who can’t work), and, finally, for allocation, participatory planning in place of markets and central planning.

Here are the key aims of the nine perspectives where for each we very briefly note how participatory economics might meet them.

  • Eliminate capitalist class rule. To achieve this, Participatory Economics replaces private ownership of productive assets with a productive commons from which producers propose to borrow assets to produce socially useful outputs.
  • Institute workers and consumers self-managing councils. To achieve this, Participatory Economics directly institutes self-managing workers and consumers councils and federations of councils to self-manage local production and consumption and also larger scale allocation decisions.
  • Ensure workers ability to make informed decisions and eliminate a class of empowered coordinators that rules workers from above. To achieve this, Participatory Economics eliminates the capitalist (and the twentieth century “socialist”) “corporate division of labor” which empowers roughly twenty percent of all producers over roughly eighty percent of all producers. In its place participatory economics institutes “balanced job complexes.” This constructs jobs as combinations of some empowering and some disempowering tasks, such that each job is comparably empowering to all other jobs. There is no empowered class above disempowered workers. More, all economic actors enjoy daily circumstances that convey information, skills, confidence, disposition, and access suitable to intelligent self-managed decision making.
  • Ensure that workers and consumers enjoy solidarity. Participatory economics achieves solidarity by three main features. First, income is equitable for all and in no way a function of zero sum interactions. Your income climbs only for reasons of duration, intensity, or onerousness of your socially worthy work. This does not disadvantage anyone nor does income climb so high for anyone as to cause invidious comparison. When you get more you deserve it. Also, a person’s income climbs when everyone’s income climbs. Second, your say over decisions is like everyone else’s say over decisions. All abide by the same self-managing norm. Likewise, in participatory economics actors determine and express their preferences in accord with and informed by other’s preferences. Actors seek an overall outcome in light of implications for self and for others, rather than seek a solely personal outcome regardless of implications for others.
  • Properly account for environmental effects of economic choices, including, when necessary, invest in sustainable means to accomplish desired production and consumption, or, when necessary, degrow unsustainable industries. To achieve this, Participatory Economics utilizes participatory planning to account for environmental effects. As well, a Participatory Economy can non-disruptively accommodate ecological innovations and policies conceived and decided beyond the economy.
  • Do not allow for systemic material or influence advantages by kin, gender, age, sexual identity, race, ethnicity, nation, or other cultural differentiation. Respect extra economic aims as urged by Feminist, Intercommunalist, and Anti-Authoritarian economics. Participatory Economics achieves all this by the simple fact that in it no constituency can have systemic material or influence advantage because all income is equitable and all decision making is self-managed. To abide more subtle, complex, or other innovations bearing on kinship, culture, and political innovations, a participatory economy within a society must intersect with other realms consistently and the only aspects of a participatory economy that could interfere with that are its virtues regarding economic income, circumstances, and degree of decision making say.

We do not suggest that this short essay proves participatory economics can be a unifying tenth perspective for the other nine. We claim only that it makes sufficient headway in that direction so that if you think having a unifying economic vision would benefit anti-capitalist activism, then perhaps you might also agree that it is worth working to arrive at an encompassing perspective. One step might be to more comprehensively display, debate, and explore the ten approaches to economic vision offered here with a guiding hope to promote greater unity in place of proliferating contentiousness.

Does Participatory Economics encompass? Can Participatory Economics make MMECMEAESEGEDGEFEIEAAE into PE? That is for you and time to decide.

And a recent interview with Michael Albert: