on Parecon (Participatory Economics – Life after Capitalism), by Michael Albert
A lucid attempt to outline the key principles, characteristics, and potential workings of an economic system based on collaborative, bottom-up planning of both production and consumption by self-managed and networked organisations – layered networks of worker and consumer councils managing a process whereby essentially harmonised plans are arrived at via negotiation.
There is a nice moment near the end of the book where briefly addresses the potential of this vision to excite enough to galvanise a genuine mass movement, and adds the little disclaimer: ‘The particular words one person uses to talk about Parecon may not be overly inspiring – something of which I may be guilty’. It is true that he leaves the stirring passages and heart-tugs to others – but read it for some logical groundwork and practical direction.
The premise behind the vision and the ongoing effort is perhaps this: that if we can see the potential of a third way between central planning and market allocation (not a compromise between the two, but a the third point of the triangle that, structurally, incorporates the relevant freedoms of the market and avoids its ill effects) then we should be aiming for it. Even if we think it is only slightly possible, are generally sceptical of its plausibility. His book, and the theory developed around Parecon, is an attempt to describe such a system.
I’ll not attempt a full review here, and aspects of the book will creep I’m sure into many later thoughts and posts. But these are what I consider to be two of the main pillars of its logic and call, or, inversely, the two large ‘barriers’ to the plausibility of the project.
The main barrier is a belief in whether it is socially acceptable to, rather than to rise as high as possible give the laws of the economic game, have a game at all in which some get rewarded out of all proportion to their effort or sacrifice, but by exploitation of luck, advantage of birth.
i.e. How much do we value a version of the ‘Joe the Plumber’ premise – that it is preferable that inequality exists because there is a faint chance we may get on the right side of inequality. That is is preferable that there is a faint chance we may ourselves may somehow or other attain luxury out of all proportion to our work, win the right to own wage-slaves and command vastly disproportionate amount of people’s and the earth’s resources.
(Most of the other premises are at the moment relatively uncontestable. This is the social challenge, resting on it is the right to own property, to exploit where there is market advantage, to profit unduly from the work of others)
Would we rather have a game in which what we receive from society and our labour is in proportion to the effort and sacrifice we contribute?
The second obstacle is whether we are up to it, as a species: whether, even given supporting institutions that avoid accumulations of information advantage or capture of the sources of influence by a subgroup of society and education systems that gear us to being informed and taking appropriate concern and control, we would still rather hand over power and influence and control to an elite.
Whether we collectively do not want and would not want – even in a supporting environment – to appropriately influence the world around us, a have our due say in how we spend our lives, and what others do and we do collectively to the extent if affects us, our society and the things we care about.
You can only answer this question for yourself: would you?
I suggest that if some can, almost if not all can. I suggest with others that whether we have engaged participation in life is up to what we are taught to expect and put up with, and whether we are taught both self-respect and empathy together.
The second half of this second objection is the assumption that western democracy and shareholder capitalism has got us there already, or only has a little further to go. Can we, do we (all of us, not just an elite) habitually exercise an input proportionate to the extent if affects us and that which we care about? Not just in our free time and at weekends but in our working lives, our productive labour?
If we get ourselves past these objectives; if we believe these characteristics to be both desirable and have no reason to trust them impossible; if we decide that we think some version of it is good, preferable to what we have (1) and we decide that we think some version of it is possible, we have that capacity in us (2); then it seems to me that we are most of the way there, and what remains is practical demonstration of the alternative, a truly participatory economy.
Notably (for myself at least), work under a Parecon seems to tick both boxes in my previous post – The two good reasons for doing anything at all. The book suggests, expanding on Juliet Schor’s commenting that per capita output doubled from 1955 to 1995 and people were never given the choice to just work less, that with expunging work not collectively desired or directed at human wellbeing, it would only take a maximum of 13 hours a week to acheive the same level of per-capita output ‘relevant to meeting real needs and expanding worthy potentials’.
The most striking consequence for me of this mildly damning statistic, for at least me and those keen on economic efficiency, is the tremendous waste of billions of person-hours, and what could have been done, enjoyed, lived in its place.
For the moment, I want to be looking at aspects of this kind of system as it can be created independently, via organising and organisations, and organisations can take from Parecon thinking in order to make themselves structurally worthwhile, and inclined toward self-management, with worker/stakeholder participation at multiple levels.