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Is a participatory economics with NO BOSSES possible? Michael Albert’s interview with ThePressProject

The Press Project

A member of mέta’s Advisory BoardMichael Albert is a founder and current member of the staff of Z Magazine as well as staff of Z Magazine`s web system: ZCom. Albert`s radicalization occurred during the 1960s. His political involvements, starting then and continuing to the present, have ranged from local, regional, and national organizing projects and campaigns to co-founding South End Press, Z Magazine, the Z Media Institute, and ZNet, and to working on all these projects, writing for various publications and publishers, giving public talks, etc. Albert is the author of 21 books. Most recently these include: No Bosses: A New Economy for a Better World (Zero Books, 2021), Fanfare for the Future (ZBooks), Remembering Tomorrow (Seven Stories Press), Realizing Hope (Zed Press) and Parecon: Life After Capitalism (Verso). Many of Albert`s articles are stored in ZCom and can be accessed there along with hundreds of other Z Magazine and ZNet articles essays, interviews, etc. This is his interview with Greece’s The Press Project:

Why NO BOSSES? Is this a utopian vision or a concrete and realizable roadmap?

I think it a vision composed of five proposed future institutions. But I think it is not utopian in the sense of impossible or unattainable. In my view, it seeks a worthy, attainable, classless, and self managing post capitalist economy. No Bosses isn’t a roadmap either. For one thing the participatory economic vision will be continually updated by experience. Over time, countless contingent features will be implemented differently in different places. Also, there won’t be just one way to attain the envisioned new economy. Broadly similar obstacles to going beyond capitalism exist all over, but details differ from place to place. For that reason, the paths travelled to overcome obstacles will also differ.

You call for participatory economics, participatory planning, a collective, decentralized, cooperative, self managed way to go. Could you describe this in a nutshell?

Participatory economy, often called parecon for short, has five defining features: a commons of society’s productive assets; workers and consumers self managing councils, a new way to divide up labour called balanced job complexes; a new approach to income called equitable remuneration; and, as you note in the question, a new approach to allocation called participatory planning.

Advocates of Participatory economics, myself included, claim that these core features are mutually compatible and supportive. We claim they can deliver output suited to human well being and development and properly attentive to ecological and social consequences. We claim that the core features will, when implemented, eliminate class division and rule. They will not only eliminate poverty but apportion circumstances and goods and services fairly. More, they will accomplish all that while delivering to both producers and consumers a say over the economic decisions that affect them proportionate to the effect on them. It’s a mouthful, to be sure, but advocates of parecon believe we need its features for our economic future.

Why ‘participatory economics’? What would be the difference from socialism? And what’s the background (the people, the story) in this collective endeavour to articulate a participatory economics?

I guess we called it participatory economics because one identifying attribute is the self managing participation it affords people.

How is it different from Socialism? Well, all variants of socialism discard private ownership, but most replace it with state ownership—and not with a productive commons from which people request to use parts to produce on behalf of social well being.

Likewise, some types of socialism have had workers councils, a few have had consumers councils, and some have even celebrated these as centrally important. The difference in this regard is that socialism’s favoured approaches to decision making were typically very far from the self management participatory economics proposes.

Also, no version of socialism I am aware of had or even explicitly proposed to have what we call balanced job complexes to replace the corporate division of labour that is ubiquitous in both capitalism and twentieth century socialism. Jobs are always combinations of tasks, and in both capitalism and twentieth century socialism the formula for how to combine tasks into jobs, is to make each job a combination of either overwhelmingly empowering tasks or overwhelmingly disempowering tasks. As a result, in both approaches, about 20 percent of all employees—engineers, managers, accountants, and so on—have a near monopoly on empowering tasks that in turn convey to them information, access to tools of decision-making, connections to others, confidence, and other attributes critical to decision making. Advocates of participatory economics typically call this empowered 20 percent the coordinator class. Then there are also about 80 percent of all employees who are left with jobs that diminish their information, access to tools of decision making, connections to others, confidence, and other attributes critical to decision making. Advocates of participatory economics typically call this disempowered 80 percent the working class.

With this corporate division of labour, even if there is “employee control” via councils, the empowered coordinator class will make proposals, set agendas, do the talking, make the decisions. They will rule. Before long, even in the unlikely event that workers are invited to council meetings, they will not wish to be merely powerless bystanders and for that reason they will avoid attending. Because of the corporate division of labour that ensures they are disempowered, the working class will have little choice but to follow orders or seek fundamental change. But what fundamental change?

The participatory economic alternative to coordinator rule over workers is to do the obvious: apportion empowering tasks among all jobs so all jobs are comparably empowering, and so all employees, now all workers, are comparably prepared to participate in decision making. These new type jobs are called balanced job complexes.

Similarly, past socialisms have typically mostly remunerated actors not for property, a step forward, but most often still for output or bargaining power. Participatory economics instead remunerates for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labour.

And what determines what is socially valued? Allocation. And for allocation socialisms have typically opted for either central planning, for markets, or for elements of both, though some socialists have urged the need for democratic planning. Participatory economics explicitly rejects both central planning and markets and proposes in their place what it calls participatory planning which is a decentralised, cooperative process that takes account of full personal, social, and environmental costs and benefits to arrive at production and consumption that advances human well being and development.

So this vision is called participatory economics, and books that present it, like No Bosses, now available in Greek, further describe and argue the viability and worthiness of participatory economic proposals for economic life after capitalism.

What are the objections that are usually raised by the average reader of NO BOSSES/PARECON and how would you answer those?

Objections typically take the form that participatory economics would do more damage than good. Reasons offered vary. I briefly summarised the five core features above, but to briefly summarise answers to people’s concerns is not my preferred way because it doesn’t do justice to all their concerns and doesn’t give full answers to any. Still, with the proviso that to really address critics’ concerns, which is to say to fully explain the character of participatory economics and why it would be worthy and viable, is the agenda of books about the vision—here, in an interview, I can only hope that any reader who would like to achieve a worthy and viable post capitalist, classless, equitable, self managing, sustainable economy, will please consider longer treatments. For the moment, however, to at least foreshadow a more complete answer to your question, I will try to briefly summarise a broad response, very loosely, to critics’ main concerns.

Critics say: To make productive assets into a commons of built and natural productive assets would remove the most industrious actors, who are of course capitalists, from deciding outcomes, and would thereby lose their unique innovation and their steadfast devotion to efficiency.

I reply: Capitalists are, first, not the most industrious much less most innovative of citizens. They are instead virtual dictators in the firms they own, and together rule society as well. They amass gargantuan wealth while others suffer inadequate or even barely livable incomes. They don’t seek innovation, they seek to preserve their wealth and power. Their version of efficiency is to maximise their profit while they do not waste things they value. And since they don’t value workers lives, social well being, or ecological balance, they routinely violate each in pursuit of profit-making efficiency. The idea that by making capitalists’ productive property a Commons under collective social control we will lose something that only capitalists can provide, and that that loss will offset the multitudinous benefits of our escaping their authoritarian control and ending their vile enrichment, is ludicrous. But in that case, why are they on top?

Some capitalists are merely lucky in their parentage. Sometimes, capitalists have a lucky idea, or indeed sometimes they work hard. But mostly, to defend and enlarge their wealth and control, they all all operate like cutthroat pirates or, very rarely, at best, like personally nice pirates. While libraries of books address all these matters bearing on the ills of private ownership of productive assets, here, to avoid turning an interview into a book, I offer only the above brief reaction. We get rid of capitalists’ power over all. We get rid of capitalists’ self enrichment. We get rid of capitalists’ perverse priorities. We get rid of all that to the good of society. One ruling class gone, one to go.

Critics add: To have workers and consumers councils self manage would gain participation at the cost of bad decision making. More, to balance jobs to try to get better decision making would end coordinator rule, and indeed it would end the coordinator class per se by making all employees self managing workers, but balanced jobs would also horribly diminish output because workers would have to do empowering tasks they can’t excel at and coordinators would be wasted having to do disempowering tasks beneath their status.

I reply: This idea that worker and consumer councils would inevitably make stupid decisions assumes that workers and consumers are genetically dumb, or at least unavoidably ignorant, that workplace and community decisions are like rocket science, and that therefore this change would bring about classlessness but would simultaneously cripple output and innovation. It would get dumb decisions and thus usher in classless poverty.

This is like the argument, decades back, that women couldn’t be surgeons, but could only be subservient housewives who sometimes unexpectedly rise to do mindless tasks outside the home as well. That sexist view mistook women’s lack of knowledge, skills, confidence, etc. to be an unavoidable outcome of their genetic endowment. It ignored that patriarchal institutions and sexist training prepared/repressed women to fit subordinate or caring roles and no others. Decades have now shown that to elevate women (so far only in part achieved) hasn’t reduced productivity and destroyed quality by underutilizing men, but has instead begun to utilise the capacities of a repressed, exploited, subordinated half of the population, women, (as well as to utilise some new qualities of men no longer diminished by men’s perverse elevation), and so has increased productive capacity, and mainly made progress toward liberating half of humanity. The analogy to concerns about class hierarchy is strong.

That is, coordinator overseers mistake workers’ lack of knowledge, skills, confidence, etc., as being due to workers’ genetic endowment instead of having been imposed by classist institutions and restrictive training that requires 80 percent of the workforce to obey orders and endure boredom and that accordingly stifles their capacities and inclinations. In fact, to balance jobs will call forth training that empowers all future employees and will then itself empower all employees so as to liberate and utilise the in those way’s unleashed talents and potentials of 80 percent of the population heretofore suppressed and underutilised. This new productivity will more than outweigh the productivity lost due to prior coordinators having to do their fair share of less empowering tasks. To balance jobs as a means to eliminate the basis of coordinator class existence, and to therefore have all employees become empowered workers prepared and inclined to self manage, will not only eliminate the coordinator/worker class division and its many horrible injustices, which is its main gain, it will also as a kind of collateral benefit liberate the capacities of all instead of only a fifth of employees, thereby increasing productive potentials.

Continuing the analogy, those (men and sometimes women) who argued against women doing work outside the home sometimes literally believed, sincerely though ignorantly, that women just weren’t capable of more. Other times they were defending old ways that benefitted them and were fine with restrictions on women that kept them down despite that they had no actual reason for thinking as they did other than defence of their selfish interests. Similarly, sometimes arguments against balanced jobs and for maintaining the coordinator worker class division are based on sincere belief of low capacity of workers. Other times, however, they derive from desires to maintain coordinator class status, and to restrict the education and development of workers, despite lacking any real reason for the stance other than selfishly protecting old ways and the benefits they accrue to the coordinators.

Critics also argue that to remunerate equitably for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labour would take away the possibility of getting rich and for that reason would insufficiently incentivize people to become doctors and the like.

I reply that to the extent that work needs an incentive, and that people need to enjoy a fair share of the social product, what we need to remunerate is peoples’ effort and sacrifice at socially desired labour, not their property, bargaining power, or even output. If you get income for working longer, harder, or doing more onerous socially valued tasks, then you have an incentive to do those things, or not, as you choose. If you are paid for property, it isn’t for what you do, but what you own. You have an incentive to retain what you already own and to own more, but that incentive, is, when viewed soberly, to defend and enlarge injustice. If you get paid for bargaining power you can try to increase your own and reduce other peoples, but that is again enriching self by harming society. If you get paid for output that rewards you in part for luck in the genetic lottery (being stronger, more talented in one dimension or another), or for luck in having more productive equipment, or in that you happen to be producing something more valued, and so on. There is again no useful incentive effect. Nor is it, for people who advocate participatory economics, socially positive to pile material rewards onto those who are already benefiting from luck. On the other hand, all workers getting income for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labour justly rewards effort and provides an incentive for what one can actually choose to increase. It provides sound incentive while it delivers just remuneration.

And finally, says the critic, to decentralise planning, with no markets to drive accumulation and orient allocation or no experts in charge of planning choices, would opt to produce less and would take infinitely long and no doubt horribly diverge from sensible choices.

I and advocates of participatory economics reply, first you better be wrong because both markets and central planning impose the corporate division of labour and thus the coordinator worker division with rule by the former. Both central planning and markets horribly violate the ecology to the extent of literally first slouching and now sprinting toward global suicide. Both operate with unjust remuneration that further enriches the already rich and further impoverishes the already poor. And both orient economic outcomes toward the maintenance of existing social relations and the benefit of dominant classes. It is actually, in each case, much worse than these brief words suggest, but we only have so much space.

In contrast, the most complicated or complex part of participatory economics, called participatory planning, utilises diverse tools and methods—but mostly self managing worker and consumer councils—to work compatibly with other participatory economic features to deliver and allocate goods and services in accord with self managed proposals while simultaneously properly accounting for personal, social, and ecological implications. It does all this via a kind of cooperative negotiation of workers and consumers activities. Rounds or iterations of proposing worker and consumers activities, assembling the implications, and proposing anew in light of new information, leads before long to an agreed plan. There is no top and no bottom. No centre and no periphery. There are workers councils who propose their workplace activity, and consumers councils and federations of councils who propose their personal, living unit, community, state, and national consumption, with each workers and consumers council receiving new information with each new round of proposals. Obviously, for this component of participatory economics, like for the others, only more so, further presentation of its many aspects (for example, bearing on the how’s and why’s of making worker and consumer proposals, on how the proposals come into accord, on how they take into account external effects such as those on the environment, on how they properly allocate income claims on output, on how they assemble and utilise qualitative information, and much more) as well of discussion of concerns about each aspect would be necessary for a compelling case.

Do you happen to have any relevant examples/‘pilots’ in which such an experiment has succeeded and constitutes the answer in practice.

There is certainly no whole society that has ever attained participatory economics. That, of course, doesn’t mean it is impossible, only that it hasn’t happened yet. There are, however, countless partial experiments bearing on elements of the vision, often, and in fact nearly always, without any awareness that the whole vision even exists. Thus there are thousands of coops with more or less equitable remuneration, and some with attempts at worker control and even balanced jobs to avoid class division. There are also attempts, in some places, to cooperatively negotiate relations between productive communes and neighbouring consumers, as well as efforts to involve communities in budget allocations. And there are even a few workplaces that adopt their relations in full awareness of the participatory economic vision.

NO BOSSES is published by TOPOS books in the series by mέta, the Centre for Postcapitalist Civilisation, where you are a member of its international Advisory Board. How did this synergy come about, and how is it progressing?

I think it perhaps came about, at least proximately, though I am not entirely sure, by way of a series of interactions between myself and Yanis Varoufakis. But it was, in any event, a very nice and natural fit given our quite similar priorities vis a vis transcending capitalism into a better future. Since getting going, the partnership has continued with my main contact being the very formidable and quite brilliant Sotiris Mitralexis of mέta.

Any particular message to a Greek audience of readers?

Greece has undergone so much turmoil. It is a remarkable country, at least in my admittedly mostly very distant view of it. Greece has been the origin point of so much. Having recently skated so close to being a point of origin, again, this time of going beyond all that sucks the life out of humanity, I hope the participatory economic vision proves helpful in on going Greek efforts, and I would love to hear Greek readers’ reactions to it: your criticisms, extensions, questions, and indeed whatever you might want to hear more about, and whatever you think might help participatory economy’s advocates do better in our efforts to advocate it.

To that end, I am at [email protected]

Write to me. I will write you back.

The Greek translation of NO BOSSES will be launched this Saturday in Athens: https://metacpc.org/en/nobossesathens/