Envisioning a postcapitalism worth striving for: an ongoing debate between Michael Albert & Yanis Varoufakis

Michael Albert and Yanis Varoufakis, members of mέta’s Advisory Board, take part on an ongoing debate on how a postcapitalism worth striving for could look like. This is their first exchange, with more to follow soon.

Michael Albert’s statement:

1. Participatory Postcapitalist Vision

Michael Albert, 30 October 2021

For me, the defining institutions of capitalism are private ownership of productive assets; authoritarian control of workplaces; production for profit; a corporate division of labor wherein empowered employees dominate disempowered employees; remuneration for property, power, and/or output; and allocation by markets and/or central planning.

To my eyes, these capitalist institutions produce obscene inequity, vile anti-sociality, and soul crushing indignity. They impose stupefying, empathy destroying, democracy defiling, and world-ravaging economic conditions.

To my mind, this poses a paramount question. What new post capitalist economic features are essential to ensure that our future selves will freely determine the details of their future lives with dignity, equity, and social solidarity? Here are the defining features participatory economics proposes:

  • A new conception of the natural and built workplaces, tools, and resources that we use to produce society’s goods and services. We call this a “Productive Commons,” and we propose it to replace private ownership of productive assets.
  • Workers and consumers workplace and neighborhood councils (and industry and regional federations of councils) that we use to convey to all a say over economic decisions proportional to the extent those decisions affect them. We call this “council self management,” and we propose it to replace authoritarian control of production and consumption.
  • Jobs composed of tasks that together provide each worker a manageable mix of responsibilities which convey by their daily accomplishment average “empowerment effects.” We call this mix “balanced job complexes,” and we propose it to replace a corporate division of labor that elevates an empowered coordinator class above a disempowered working class.
  • Equitable remuneration for how long, how hard, and the onerousness of the conditions under which we do socially valued work. We call this “equitable remuneration,” and we propose it to replace remuneration for property, power, and/or output.
  • And decentralized cooperative self-managed negotiation of production and consumption in light of personal, social, and environmental costs and benefits. We call this “participatory planning,” and we propose it to replace markets and/or central planning.

Advocates, myself included, claim that these five institutional aims, which we of course expect to see refined by future experience and augmented by diverse contextual policies and features that emerge from future practice, can together establish a classless, self managing, sustainable, and even aesthetic post capitalist economy that serves the fulfillment and development of all people.

Some advocates call this “participatory economics.” Some call it “participatory socialism.” But all its advocates, myself included, claim that these five proposed defining institutions can together serve as a flexible visionary scaffold we can refine and build on to help us traverse the road to winning a post capitalist economic vision. More, we claim that such participatory vision can inspire hope and sustain commitment. It can provide orientation to help us plant the seeds of the future in the present, win immediate gains in non-reformist ways, and traverse a trajectory of changes that avoids winding up other than where we wish to arrive.

Yanis Varoufakis’ response:

2. Do we really want negotiations to replace markets and hierarchies?

Yanis Varoufakis, 4 December 2021

Portrait of Yanis Varoufakis. He is wearing a dark blue shirt and a black jacket. He is staring optimistically and smiling

At the very heart of a heartless (and distinctly irrational) capitalist world lies the curious idea that the crushing majority who work in the corporations do not own them while the minuscule minority who own them can very easily not even know where they are located, let alone work in them. This gross asymmetry is the source of exorbitant power in the hands of the few to wreck the lives of the many, as well as of the planet. And it is not just a matter of unfairness. It is more a matter of wholesale alienation, as even the capitalists are condemned to live like sad bastards resembling guinea pigs running faster and faster on a treadmill, going nowhere.

So, it is a great relief that, here, I do not to have to argue about the need to terminate capitalism. That Michael and I are embarking from a common belief that capitalism must end in order to debate the type of feasible postcapitalism we want.

Michael traces the source of illiberty, inequality and inefficiency in the private ownership of productive means, which lies behind the elevation of profit to the only motive and begets the soul-crushing division of labour within a company as well as within society at large. Spot on! He is also right to propose a ‘productive commons’ and to point to the importance of a decentralised system of decision-making (extending beyond the workplace to the community, the neighbourhood etc.). Lastly, I agree wholeheartedly with the principle of participatory planning as a replacement of the power of bosses (capitalists or any type of ‘coordinator class’) to decide “who does what to whom”, to quote Lenin’s famous words.

But here begin our differences. Michael employs two words that ring alarm bells in my head: “equitable”, which he links to the remuneration of work (especially of ugly or dirty tasks); and “negotiation”, which he proposes as the basis for consumers and producers to decide, together, what must be produced and in what quality/quantity. My alarm is due to a deep conviction that both words are wolves in sheep’s clothing, hiding the prospect of new forms of domination and oppression.

Take “equitable”. Who decides what it is fair to pay you to go down the sewers, to maintain them? I suppose the answer is: the collective. Does the collective have the right to specify that you must go down the sewers for that wage without your consent? I hope not. But, if your consent is required, then the wage setting is not much different to a market mechanism, where the collective is your employer.

Take “negotiation”. This implies consensus. Which implies huge social pressure on a dissident to acquiesce to the majority’s view; e.g., to their rejection of a weird but potentially wonderful idea that the majority cannot wrap its mind around.

Personally speaking, I find suffocating the prospect of having to reach via negotiation a common understanding of what I must do and of what an equitable reward is for me to do it.

Before I suggest an alternative to negotiations, I felt the need to express, early on, this feeling of suffocation. And to ask our readers: Am I alone in feeling that authentic freedom requires not just the end of capitalism but also a degree of autonomy from the collective?

Michael Albert’s response:

3. Equitable, Negotiated, Classless Self Management

Michael Albert, 8 December 2021

Yanis, you say our differences begin beyond our both rejecting capitalism, advocating a productive commons, favoring participation in planning, and seeking to replace the “coordinator class.” But do we agree that to end coordinator class rule we need to replace the corporate division of labor with jobs balanced for empowerment? Do we agree that we should all decide our lives up to where our choices impinge on others, but from there on, others should have their self-managing say, as well?

You express alarm that I use the words “equitable” and “negotiation.” You worry that these words may hide new forms of domination. But “equitable” means we receive income for how long, how hard, and the onerousness of the conditions under which we do socially useful work. Why would that alarm you? The only thing equitable remuneration has in common with market remuneration is that in each you get an income. But with markets you get what you have the bargaining power to take. With equitable remuneration, you get what you and your fellow workers decide accords with your duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work.

And regarding “negotiation,” I assume you agree that any economy will and should involve people acting jointly with other people. Doesn’t it follow that in worthy postcapitalism, a worker won’t just do or get whatever they alone choose? Call what they do together exploration, conversation, or negotiation, what’s the alternative? One person or a small class decides? Competition decides?

You don’t want people telling you what to do. Okay, but people telling you what to do seems a strange way to characterize decisions that you participate in. In any event, do you think there could or should be a society where each person would decide their own remuneration, their own consumption, and their own work, with no concern for others?

You say you find suffocating ”the prospect of having to reach via negotiation a common understanding of what [you] must do and of what an equitable reward is for [you] to do it.” In participatory economics no one tells you what you must do and you are part of who decides what is an equitable reward. You are a participant in society, not atomistically aloof from it.

You have a job. Suppose your workers’ council, of which you a full member, decides when the work day starts. It sets council agendas, it determines the composition of balanced jobs, and it decides how to apportion income among its workers. Assume mutually agreed sensible deliberation plus self-managed decision making procedures. Would that be suffocating? To achieve “a degree of autonomy from the collective,” participatory economics makes diversity a prime value and emphasizes the need to respect and even preserve minority positions. But shouldn’t post capitalist division of labor, decision making, remuneration, and allocation deliver goods and services but also solidarity, diversity, equity, self management, and sustainability? We haven’t yet explored how all that can happen, but can we agree it needs to happen?

Yanis Varoufakis’ response:

4. Flat management, democratic planning and a basic income

Yanis Varoufakis, 23 December 2021

Portrait of Yanis Varoufakis. He is wearing a dark blue shirt and a black jacket. He is staring optimistically and smiling

Michael: Glad that we are proceeding slowly, refusing to take for granted vague terms like ‘equitable’ and ‘just’ – terms within which all manners of oppressions and irrationalities can take refuge. Before proceeding, and in the interests of full disclosure, let me state it for the record that, from a young age and to this day, I have signed up to Karl Marx’s dismissal of equity (as a bourgeois notion) as well as to his antipathy to defining freedom as the right to make free choices as long as they do not impinge on others.

So, when you ask me whether we agree “…that we should all decide our lives up to where our choices impinge on others, but from there on, others should have their self managing say, as well”, my response is: No, we certainly don’t. Interdependence is a given in any social network. Thus, according to your definition of freedom, every Tom and Dick has the right to scream that Harriet’s choices somehow impinge on theirs. Who will adjudicate then? Tom and Dick, merely because they are in the majority (or any majority for that matter)? That is unacceptable.

You ask me why I am alarmed by your definition of equitable: “…Equitable means we receive income for how long, how hard, and the onerousness of the conditions under which we do socially useful work.” The answer is because I shudder to imagine who will decide what constitutes ‘socially useful work’. What happens if Harriet wants desperately to work on some new project that Tom and Dick consider ‘socially useless’? Or who gets to quantify how hard or onerous a particular job is? The majority again? Just writing these words makes my throat choke with angst.

You ask: “Do we agree that to end coordinator class rule we need to replace the corporate division of labor with jobs balanced for empowerment?” Sure, we agree. But, who gets to decide the job balance necessary for Harriet’s empowerment? My answer is: Harriet. No one else. Not Tom and Dick. No worker council should tell Harriet what is good for her to do, let alone decide on her behalf. Sure, they can chat about it in the assembly, on the company’s intranet, via all sorts of teleconferences etc. But, unless Harriet gets to decide what Harriet does, it ain’t self-management.

Naturally, the question then becomes: How do things that need to get done get done? I have concrete ideas on how to answer this all-important question. But, in the spirit of taking this conversation slowly, I shall begin by setting down five basic principles that enterprises should adhere to:

Authentic self-management: Participants (i.e., worker-co-owners) must be free to join at will, or to quit, work teams within the enterprise – and to pursue projects without anyone’s permission

Democratic hiring & firing: A democratic process must determine who is brought into the enterprise, but also who is fired (Nb. The right of the collective to dismiss a participant as a necessary counter-balance of authentic self-determination)

A basic income for all: Without an adequate basic income, to fire a participant is to jeopardise her capacity to live. This would vest too much power in the hands of the majority (within the enterprise) while, at once, making it harder to fire someone that deserves to be fired.

Democratic resource allocation: The collective decides how much the basic salary is, how much to spend on infrastructure (including R&D), the enterprise’s multi-year plan and, lastly, how much to set aside for annual bonuses (to be distributed according to a democratically agreed process)

Your thoughts?

Michael Albert’s response:

5. Your Freedom Is A Condition for My Freedom, and Vice Versa

Michael Albert, 27 December 2021

Yanis, self-management doesn’t mean Tom can’t do things that impact others. It only means everyone should influence decisions in proportion as they are affected. For self-management an affected group that decides some issue may be a whole council, a team, or even an individual. For different issues, self-management may need more or less deliberation and require different ways to tally preferences into decisions. You ask who will determine what decision-making methods and procedures workplaces use. The workers council, of course.

Make telegraph machines no one wants? Make wheels for vehicles no one drives? Consume all you want oblivious to what others want and to the size of the social product? No society can allow each person to decide these sorts of things on their own. So how do we make sure everyone gets a say proportional to how decisions affect them? If just you are affected, you decide. If just a group is affected, the group decides. And decision-makers always use procedures that best convey proportionate say.

So of course Harriet decides what job Harriet wants to do. But how? Harriet’s workers council assesses workplace tasks and apportions them into jobs balanced for empowerment. Harriet applies for a job she likes. If Harriet is ill-equipped for her preferred job, Harriet’s council won’t accept her application because her working at that job would be socially irresponsible. So, yes, Harriet chooses her job, but she chooses it from among jobs the workplace offers that she can do well.

Do you really think Harriet should instead “pursue projects without anyone’s permission”? That would imply that Harriet can utilize resources, inputs, and tools however she pleases. She need not be competent. She need not fit the environment of her workplace. She can waste tools, time, and space making telegraph machines no one wants. She can produce wheels for vehicles no one has. And what about other people with other ideas for how to use the tools, time, and space Harriet would be commandeering? I wonder, do we differ about how to combine individual freedom and creativity for each with individual freedom and creativity for all?

Switching to remuneration, you ask, “who will decide what constitutes socially useful work?” Well, does anyone want the product? If not, producing it was not socially useful. Did the production responsibly utilize resources, tools, labor, and other inputs? If not, not all the work was socially useful. Thus the whole population together decides what is socially useful via allocation we have yet to discuss.

Finally, the guaranteed basic income you favor is possible but not necessary in a participatory economy, though getting a full income while moving between jobs or if you can’t work is necessary—but a full income, not a “basic income.” I wonder if the democratic planning you favor is markets plus democratically chosen policies to mitigate market failings. If so, I instead prefer participatory planning without markets at all.

Yanis Varoufakis’ response:

6. Five conditions for a democratic workplace

Yanis Varoufakis, 24 January 2022

Portrait of Yanis Varoufakis. He is wearing a dark blue shirt and a black jacket. He is staring optimistically and smiling

Michael: To my question “Who decides if Harriet is allowed to choose her projects?”, you responded: “the workers’ council, of course”. To the question “Who decides what product or activity is socially useful?”, you replied: “the whole population together decides”. My gut reaction to your answers is a gut fear stemming from a natural dread I have of, as liberals and anarchists put it, the tyranny of the majority. Then again, democracy is only possible if the demos decides. The question is: Can democracy-at-work be made compatible with a degree of personal autonomy from what the majority thinks?  

At this point in our discussion we need to set out concrete rules for the governance of enterprises. Here are five that I would like to propose:

  i.               Democratic planning

Competing enterprise plans are put forward by members, each accompanied by a full rationale. They include how many resources to commit to R&D, which product or technology to invest in, the level of remuneration etc. Members are given a long period to read up on each proposal, to debate them and to form preferences. They are then invited to rank the proposals in order of preference on an electronic ballot form. If no plan wins an absolute majority of first preferences, a process of successive elimination takes place (based on Australia’s ranked preference electoral system) to determine the winning Plan.

ii.               Autonomy

Teams are formed (as per the Plan) by a democratic process that matches slots with applicants. No one is compelled to take a slot they do not want. Each retains the right to work, alone or in spontaneously formed teams, on any project she or he deems compatible with the Plan – without anyone’s permission.

iii.               Remuneration

A basic salary is paid to all, whose level is decided democratically as part of (i) above. Additionally, the collective can set aside a sum for two types of bonuses: (A) Job-specific; i.e., the collective decides that an X% bonus is right, reflecting the job’s unpleasantness or high skills necessary. (B) Person-Specific; i.e., a reward for extraordinary services to the enterprise’s overall performance, atmosphere etc. For example, each member is given 100 brownie points to distribute amongst her colleagues across the enterprise. Then, the total Personal-Bonus kitty is divided in proportion to how many points a member has received from everyone else.

iv.               The right to quit – and the right to a basic income

To be genuinely free and an authentic participant, a worker must have the right to walk away from a company if she feels the majority is stifling her. To render this right real, as opposed to theoretical, the worker must have an ‘outside option’. This is why an unconditional basic income (guaranteeing a life with dignity) for all is not an optional extra for the good society – but a fundamental obligation to its citizens

v.               The right to fire – and the right to a basic income

At the same time, for the majority to be free from toxic individuals, the collective must have the right to fire (by democratic vote) a member abusing her autonomy – a right that the collective can only exercise if it knows that everyone has the right to a basic income guaranteeing a life with dignity.

Over to you.

Michael Albert’s response:

7. Postcapitalism’s components

Michael Albert, 29 January 2022

Yanis: I don’t think we have fully addressed each other’s views on self management or on people being free to do whatever they like. You say you “dread” the “tyranny of the majority.” I propose to preclude tyranny by minorities, by structures, or by majorities with self-managing institutions. You ask “can democracy-at-work be made compatible with a degree of personal autonomy from what the majority thinks?” I ask “what institutions can facilitate informed self-managed, classless decision-making as well as solidarity and autonomy?” To answer, I propose:

  1. A commons of productive assets to eliminate capitalist rule;
  2. Workers and consumers self managing councils to eliminate coordinator class rule;
  3. A participatory division of labor to prepare all to self manage;
  4. Remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor to achieve equity;
  5. And participatory planning to allocate in accord with well being.

I claim these features provide an institutional scaffold on which anti-capitalists can add diverse refinements based on experience and circumstance.

You describe workplace “democratic planning” by which workers will propose activities for their own workplaces. I welcome your particular steps as possible interim goals on the way to a post capitalism. I agree they could also persist in some participatory economic workplaces where participatory planning would allow them to account for effects on and desires of other workplaces and consumers. Without that addition, however, I believe your workers would have no good way to mesh their proposals with others throughout the economy. If they were to instead use markets or central planning to promote a mesh, they would suffer horrible constraints and pressures.

For “autonomy” you propose that any work team should freely do anything they think appropriate. But surely each team’s and each workplace’s actions need to accord with what other teams and other workplaces do. I propose participatory planning to provide the needed information and context to attain that result.

For remuneration you propose steps workers could seek in a transition and could even choose for a particular participatory economic workplace, though of course other workplaces might reasonably opt for other steps. But don’t you agree that rewarding talents or bargaining power would have neither economic nor moral benefit and would create major income inequalities? Also, don’t we need to explain what determines the total income available for workers in a firm to disperse among themselves? In a participatory economy, the total available would equitably reflect the duration, intensity, and onerousness of the totality of socially valued work done in that workplace. Do you agree with that or favor some other basis for remuneration?

Participatory economy of course agrees with you that people should be free to quit a workplace and still receive an average income while they arrange for new employment elsewhere. Likewise, of course anyone who can’t work should get average income, and everyone should get medical and other agreed-on free goods. We agree too that workers councils can fire employees for good cause, but shouldn’t listening and correcting often preclude the need to quit or terminate?

This is an ongoing debate between Michael Albert and Yanis Varoufakis: more entries will be added soon.