Michael Albert is interviewed by Matic Primc (first posted by Dialogi)
As crises around the world threaten ultimate calamity, what can we do? Where can we hope to arrive? Is there a post capitalism that holds immense promise, or does any such venture promise only a belated return to from where it arose?
The world seems to be moving sharply to the right. Past successes are rolled back. Labor organizations struggle and the working class itself, for whose benefit the left supposedly exists, is starting to become more wedded to the right than the left. Democracy is under attack. Ecological collapse accelerates. Problems abound, yet the western left seems to be ideologically stuck. The main efforts of the organized left seem to be on fighting to preserve vestiges of the social state, to fight for human rights of minorities and on marginally better, yet still inadequate, response to the environmental catastrophe. Gone, banished to the “extreme left”, if that, is the idea of getting rid of capitalism, and very often even those who do advocate the end of capitalism lack suggestions on how to organize a postcapitalist society. Today we speak to an author who, learning from past attempts at a better society, proposes a new societal and economic vision. In this interview we focus on the latter.
Michael is a tireless activist since the 1960s. He organized protests in Boston against the Vietnam War while a student at MIT, and has since never ceased working towards a better world. He is the co-creator of Participatory Economics (with Robin Hahnel) and author of more than 20 books and countless essays, notably Parecon: Life after capitalism (2003) and the latest No Bosses: A New Economy for a Better World (2021). He is a co-founder of South End Press (run as a Pareconish enterprise), Z Magazine, and Z Media Institute, and currently hosts the podcast RevolutionZ. You can access his work perhaps most easily via the website called ZNet.
Primc: Michael, do you agree with the above analysis of the state of the left and what was it that propelled you into creating a vision of a better economy?
Albert: On the current state, yes and no. I think that what you say is true, but only part of the picture. We on the left tend to see threats but not signs of gain. I think there is also growing potential around the world and even where I am, in the U.S. The glass is part full, part empty, and I think we are sometimes too intent on the emptiness and insufficiently aware of the fullness.
Regarding what made me write about economic vision, the key things were when I first started nearly fifty years ago, and have been as I have written often in the interim, and remain, even as I wrote the recent book, No Bosses, and as we do this interview; a belief that we need vision to sustain and orient our focus in the present, as well as to attain what we want, and not something else, in the future. A vision for a better future provides orientation and guidance. It informs our critique of what we now endure, but beyond that it lets us be positive instead of only negative. How can we plant the seeds of the future in the present, how can we have our efforts lead where we want to wind up, if we never address even the key elements of a future we desire? We can’t, so we need a flexible, compelling shared vision for hope, orientation, a sense of unity, and direction.
Primc: You argue that changing merely the economy is insufficient and indeed the concept of Participatory economics (Parecon) is accompanied by Participatory polity, Participatory kinship and Participatory community. While other authors have done work on those spheres of society you argue that societal change needs to happen in all four spheres lest the changes in just one of the spheres be reverted. Can you elaborate?
Albert: I think each of these dimensions or spheres of life has profound impact on human circumstances and possibilities. More, I think each exudes what we might loosely call a field of influence that extends throughout society. Each impacts the others and can in many situations and places reproduce the others. Ignoring one, leaving one corrupted and oppressive leaves its influence in society, including its potential to restore old ways in the others. There is another reason as well, why movements, in sum, need to address all four. Each of these spheres of life impacts huge numbers of people, pushing a few to dominate, and the rest to obey along the particular axes it defines—gender, sexual, racial, national, authority, and class hierarchies. To win fundamental change, to institute new liberated relations throughout society requires uniting all the affected constituencies. I even think it needs each constituency to seek not only change where it most feels oppressed, but change where others feel most oppressed as well.
Primc: Let us return to the sphere of economics where the bulk of your work is centered. Can you define Participatory economy for us? What institutional changes would it entail?
Albert: Participatory economy is a proposed alternative to capitalism as well as to what has sometimes been called twentieth century socialism. It basically proposes what key economic institutions we need to replace with what new institutions, for the new economy to deliver to people control over their lives, equitable incomes and circumstances, diverse social relations, solidarity with others, ecological sustainability, and dignified participation.
The key institutions participatory economics claims we need to replace are:
- Private ownership of the means of production because this intrinsically and inexorably elevates owners to dominant power and to continually growing wealth.
- Authoritarian decision making inside workplaces which relegates workers to subordinate obedience.
- A corporate division of labor which empowers some while disempowering many, creating a class of empowered employees between labor and capital.
- Remuneration for property, power, or output.
- Markets and/or central planning for allocation, because these distort motives, abet enrichment of the few, and elevate the few above all others.
The key replacements participatory economics proposes to institute in place of what it rejects
- To treat productive assets as a Commons and thus not to have workplaces, tools, resources, etc., privately owned.
- To have workers and consumers exercise self managing say over economic choices via their own institutions, which we call workers and consumers councils, where they work and where they live.
- To have a new way of organizing work that replaces what we call the corporate division of labor in which about one fifth of employees are empowered by their daily involvements and about four fifths are disempowered, so the former rule over the latter. We call the new way of organizing work balanced job complexes and the idea is that all who work should have economic circumstances that prepare them, by the mix of empowering and disempowering tasks that they do, to participate fully and equally as everyone else in decision making.
- To have a new approach to income in which people receive remuneration for how long, how hard, and how onerous the conditions are of their socially valued labor, and not for property, power, or even output.
- And finally to replace markets and central planning with a new approach to allocation in which workers and consumers councils collectively, efficiently, and democratically negotiate what is produced and what is consumed, compatibly with the other favored institutions.
Together we propose that these institutions provide a kind of scaffold on which lots of contingent features are then added based on experience and on the will of participants, and such that the whole multi-faceted economy has the many virtues we seek.
Primc: And those virtues are?
All people collectively self managing their own lives. People receiving a fair share of the benefits and helping with a fair share of the burdens of economic life. People enjoying diverse conditions and relations. People being part of a human community wherein each member benefits from the advance of all other members and vice versa, so solidarity and mutual aid flourish. Poverty vanishes and only equity persists. Dignity and respect replace commodification and denigration. But can we arrange our economic lives, indeed our lives in all respects, in ways that further these and related ends. Vision is about making the case that we can and clarifying the key steps essential to doing so.
Primc: The institutions you propose to do so warrant further interrogation. Some of these proposed institutions, such as common ownership of the means of production or self-management have been tried before, as you know, in Yugoslav market socialism, which many of us lived in and have some experience with and yet Yugoslavia fell apart and many doubt that a repeat of such institutions would usher in a better society. How do you explain it? why did the Yugoslav experiment collapse? Why your set of institutions would prevent a repeat of that?
Albert: Setting aside the impact of unchanged features in other dimensions of life, even if we just consider economy per se, if you put up a half a bridge, even four fifths of a bridge, and you try to go across, you drown. I would not pretend to lecture about Yugoslavia other than to suggest that I believe it put up half a bridge. It retained the corporate division of labor and markets even as it got rid of private ownership and celebrated democratic participation. It was in many respects a valiant, informative effort but still, half a bridge will not get you across. Having not eliminated the corporate division division of labor, what I call the Yugoslav coordinator class became steadily more powerful and simultaneously steadily more divorced from and disdainful toward the Yugoslav working class. In the current capitalist dominated would, the Yugoslav elite saw that reverting to capitalism would allow it to accrue to itself still greater power and wealth and simultaneously felt that they deserved all they could get. So, while it is true that participatory economics favors what we call a productive commons, which is a variant on Yugoslav social ownership; and it favors councils, which are a variant on the Yugoslav version of same, participatory economy’s differences from the Yugoslav path are significant and much more telling. That is, participatory economy rejects markets and the corporate division of labor and thereby removes the features which subverted the aspirations of the best Yugoslav visionaries. I think this is in some ways not dissimilar to explaining the Soviet debacle. They too pledged allegiance to classlessness. Their constitution also elevated workers to ostensible power, and so on. But they had central planning and they retained the old corporate division of labor, so even if they hadn’t implemented the authoritarian political relations that they imposed further corrupting their results, still their economic effort was fated to engender class rule. It is the same idea for Yugoslavia, again the old division of labor was retained, but in the Yugoslav case accompanied by markets, not central planning. This subverted attaining desired aims even against the will of most of the populace.
The idea is that to get rid of owners, to favor democracy and participation, and even to seek equity and make many related policy changes, is not enough. It turns out to be half a bridge. If you make those changes but also retain the old division of labor and either markets or central planning for allocation, then those latter structures will subvert positive aspirations for classlessness, equity, and so on, even against desires of participants.
Primc: Is the common ownership of the means of production an institution created to facilitate moving the productive resources of society into the field of democratic decision making? What difference would that make?
Albert: What I call a productive commons has two main aspects. The first is to remove the incredible power and wealth plus the pressure to self aggrandize that private ownership gives to owners, the capitalists. And the second is to treat productive assets in a way that basically says to anyone wanting to use them, okay, you propose to use so many tools, resources, workplaces, workers, etc., to produce some output, say cars, violins, or whatever. You say to society, let us use that stuff from the Commons and we will deliver worthy results. That is, we will use what we get from society’s Commons responsibly. People will want and benefit from our product, We will not waste productive assets on the road to providing our product. Society then says, okay. So far, so good. Production for use, for human development and well being. But having a productive commons as a feature of our new participatory economy implies that other actors than before have to address decisions (since the capitalists are gone) and that we have to have some method to determine if production plans are responsible (albeit a method that does not dictate or otherwise interfere with self management, equity, and our other aims). For this, participatory economy proposes participatory planning.
Primc: Okay, let us turn to Participatory planning. Why would you abolish markets? They are an institution that is used in every country in the world and the major alternative institution, central planning, has failed. Why do you think they need replacing?
Albert: Once upon a time slavery was widespread.. Being widespread isn’t itself evidence of worth much less of necessity. To my eyes, not only are markets widespread but so are the outcomes of using markets widespread. Look around and we see, everywhere, the commercialization of virtually all sides of life, the atomization of people into anti-social competitors rather than caring comrades, class division with about a fifth of employees who I call the (empowered) coordinator class dominating about four fifths who I call the (disempowered) working class, the alienation of outcomes from human well being and development to, instead, profit making and maintaining class hierarchy, and the dissolution of the fabric of existence via ecological nightmares. Markets inexorably create all this by their operations. These ills are not markets failing to work. They are markets working well. Yes, markets also get some semblance of economic life accomplished. But the cost, we might even say the collateral damage, is such that I believe we must do better.
In sum, markets and central planning need replacing because they each intrinsically, by their very logic and practice, obstruct and even trample aspirations to be equitable, deliver self management, generate sociality, husband the environment, and be classless. You are absolutely right that markets are everywhere. But so is the human and environmental damage they do.
Primc: How then would Participatory planning work differently than markets and why would it be better?
Albert: Participatory planning is a process by which workers and consumers councils make proposals for their own activities, receive a report of others’ proposals, refine and make new proposals, receive others’ new proposals, and continue in this iterative manner until arriving at a mutually decided and agreed plan. Methods then also exist for the plan to be amended as the year unfolds due to new or unforeseen circumstances or changed tastes.
Primc: How would companies operate? If they would not compete in the market how would we select for companies worth keeping and companies that need discontinuing? Would they still need to generate surplus, even if it is not going to the owner? Would they even have to produce a surplus?
Albert: Companies would participate in the planning process. The resulting plan would say to companies, okay, you propose to do such and such, with so and so inputs, and the social planning process has indeed found your proposal to be socially responsible. You are putting parts of society’s productive commons to use to generate outputs people want and to do it in a manner that doesn’t waste or underutilize inputs. So the workplace then has their production agenda, albeit one that may get updated based on unfolding circumstances as the year proceeds. It is a long story that we are horribly summarizing here but the fact that the income of workers depends on just that kind of social responsibility means that firms don’t have an incentive, or even a reason, to try to trick consumers into buying, or to use defective materials, or to pollute and dump, or to overwork employees, and so on. What is best for each economic participant is actually what is best for all and vice versa. Society certainly benefits when the same inputs combine and generate more outputs—but inputs include people and so the effects of work on people doing the work count, likewise pollution counts, and so on. With participatory planning neither competition nor coercion exist. What elicits and rewards responsible behavior is collective involvement in decision making and the absence of ways to self aggrandize and the presence of shared rather than opposed motives. If a firm cannot propose an acceptable set of activities to be part of society’s plan, it has to try again, or perhaps close.
Primc: But if I understand correctly, the approach means that trade between private persons would be prohibited. So I would not be allowed to sell my old car directly to another person, or offer math lessons for pay?
Albert: In a participatory economy work using productive assets would be done by way of workers who are members of workers councils in federations of workers councils arriving at plans via the participatory planning process. Consumption would occur in accord with income earned equitably from work within one’s council-run workplace, or income for those who couldn’t work, of course. I can imagine a participatory economy, in a participatory society, in which transferrable means of purchase exist and in which such activities as you mention are allowed. For myself, however, I doubt there would be any reason for allowing such activities, and some downside for doing so. There could certainly be places for turning in and redistributing mistaken purchases, for example, or workplaces that offer tutoring, say, each of which I think would prove better all around than individualist approaches, but I guess we will see. On the other hand, if you mean can Novak Djokovic sell tennis lessons to gain income not for how long he works, or for how hard he works, or for the onerousness of the conditions under which he works, but, instead, because people want access to his admittedly special talent, then I would say no, that would be a slippery slope in a young participatory economy, though down the road a ways, in an established participatory economy and society, I don’t think it would be a slope at all. For one thing, where does Novak get courts on which to teach, balls to use, and so on. More, if he does make a whole lot of income, if he consumes based on it in a manner others can see, it will be obvious he is cheating on society’s values. There can be no seriously higher level of consumption by anyone who isn’t cheating. So even if he cares only for himself, would it make any sense for Novak to become antisocial, to behave in an antisocial manner, for such negligible gains? I am suggesting that in the short run before it has attained equity, for example, and while old attitudes persist, a newly emerging participatory economy may well need to forbid such antisocial paths, but in a well established participatory economy even without explicit rules the very structure of relations and the established culture of involvement and conditions of equity would likely prevent such such choices.
Primc: That seems a large imposition on the individual options. Doesn’t it impede free initiative which we could facilitate by having the private choices possible. Why is it important that this does not happen?
Albert: Every rule or law impedes free initiative unless and until free initiative would never violate the rule or law. You can’t own a slave violates the free initiative of those who wish to own slaves, even as it liberates those who would wind up owned. But once there is no inclination to own a slave the law becomes moot. So I am suggesting that while I think the inclination toward this particular type of free initiative will disappear as a participatory economy matures, at the outset the explicit restraint will likely be important because the logic of operating outside the economy is to do that which the economy doesn’t respect. Under capitalism or for that matter twentieth century socialism that can be a good thing since much that those economies didn’t permit should have been valued, and much that they did permit should not have been. Restraints are needed. But under participatory economics I suspect trying to earn income without being part of a workplace with a workers council and abiding planning and so on would mostly have as its motivation to have unbalanced jobs, to have inequitable income, to dump pollution, etc. etc. While it might seem sort of innocuous, it does embody an anti-social aspect. So I would say the participatory economy, among the countless features to be added on top of the scaffold of five core institutions earlier noted, would likely add ways for people to conveniently accomplish the perfectly reasonable kinds of pursuit – like getting something back for no longer wanting something you own – that the five features don’t address, but not the unreasonable kinds – like accruing inequitable income or operating socially irresponsibly.
Primc: Let us speak about your class analysis. Contrary to Marxist thought, you posit that there is another important class that Marxists missed, the coordinator class. What do you mean by coordinator class? Can you define it? What is the problem with it?
Albert: Marxists say that ownership relations can by their intrinsic operations divide an owning class, capitalists, from a non owning class, workers, where the former seek profit and control, and the latter apply for work to get by. And this Marxist perception is true. And participatory economics says, okay, that certainly happens, and that is why we favor a productive commons, not private ownership of productive assets, but we see that in the economy, economic roles can have another powerful group-defining effect. They can assign to some employees, in their jobs, mostly tasks that convey information and skills, provide access and allow social connections, and elicit activity that uplifts and empowers them. And they can assign to other employees mostly tasks that de-skill, hide information, isolate and reduces social connections, and elicit activity that exhausts and disempowers them. In that case, in capitalism we not only have in the economy two key classes, but instead we have three. We have owners and workers, yes, but between them we have what I call a coordinator class. More, if movements overcome ownership as a basis of class division by getting rid of private ownership of means of production so there is no longer a capitalist class on top, two possibilities exist. Perhaps the result is classlessness, Or perhaps the result is a new boss on top, the coordinator class.
If we have owners above and others below, outcomes will reflect the will of owners. Outcomes will aggrandize owners. Outcomes will seek to keep those below, down, and so on. Okay, so suppose we get rid of owners, but maintain that some employees have a monopoly on empowering tasks and circumstances. We again have a new class on top, now typically about a fifth of the workforce. Outcomes will reflect the will of these coordinators. Outcomes will aggrandize these coordinators. Outcomes will seek to keep those below, down, and so on. What emerges is recognition that we can get beyond capitalism by two paths. One elevates a new boss in place of the old boss, The other path attains no bosses, classlessness. Participatory economy favors the latter path.
Primc: And the idea behind balanced job complexes is to prevent the rule of the coordinator class?
Albert: Yes, exactly. If we want a classless economy in which everyone self manages instead of having a few dominate the many, then we can’t opt for an institution which intrinsically separates the overall workforce into a few who are empowered and many who are disempowered. What participatory economy calls balanced job complexes seeks to get rid of the corporate division of labor, because the corporate division of labor produces that unwanted class division, and seeks to replace it with jobs that comparably empower folks, and that in that way prepare everyone in the workforce to participate with confidence, energy, and information in council decision making.
Primc: How would balanced job complexes work then? Does it mean everyone has to do every type of work and we would have no more specialists?
Albert: Imagine a workplace. Think of all the tasks that have to occur. We have to combine subsets of all those tasks into jobs that people do. What occurs now in capitalism, and also in what has been called twentieth century socialism, is to take all the tasks that convey knowledge of the work process, that involve communication with others, that give access to decision making and associated skills, and that otherwise empower the person doing the tasks and combine subsets of them into empowering jobs. Then take the remaining tasks that don’t empower and that even disempower, and combine them into disempowering jobs.
When we do that it turns out there will be empowering jobs for about a fifth of the workforce and disempowering jobs for about four fifths. The former folks will come to council meetings with agendas they conceive, with information bearing on decision making, with connections to others, and with confidence and not exhausted, and so on. The latter folks will come to council meetings and have to listen, listen, listen or fall asleep, having little to contribute. In time they even sensibly stop coming. In time the empowered participants elevate their own salaries and conditions, and otherwise reward themselves for being what they see as superior, more responsible, etc. If you make a revolution, and you start out new workplaces with all the good will and high aspirations imaginable, plus you institute democracy and fair incomes, and so on, but you retain the corporate division of labor—before too long passes those with the empowering work will dominate those with disempowering work. The empowered employees will become a ruling class and this is so even if, before the transformation, many of them were workers by their prior roles and upbringing. But their rise is even more so, and quicker, if they were coordinators earlier.
Okay, so what is the alternative?
Well, it can’t be to have everyone do a little bit of everything. That is impossible and even draconian. And it can’t be that we have no more specialists. That would so diminish output and quality that even if we attained classlessness, it would be an impoverished classlessness. So, no, participatory economy says the solution is actually conceptually simple and obvious, albeit unfamiliar. When the ruling class got its power from a monopoly on productive assets, we knew we had to eliminate that. The coordinator class gets its power from a monopoly on empowering tasks. So we have to eliminate that. Not the tasks. But the monopoly.
So, back to the drawing board. In our workplace, with our list of tasks that have to be done, all we have to do is apportion them among all the workers so that each worker gets a mix of empowering and disempowering tasks such that the worklife of each employee is comparably empowering to each others employee’s worklife. We don’t have a division of labor that causes some to dominate one others to obey but, instead, we have a division of labor that causes all to participate.
Primc: Is this achievable? Do you believe that everyone is actually able to do these empowering tasks? Would everyone even want to do them?
Albert: There are lots of things I couldn’t do, for sure. But could I do a mix of some empowering and some disempowering things. Of course. What makes us think people wouldn’t be able to? Well, we look around, and we see that about eighty percent aren’t doing empowering tasks. And every message in culture, in education, says it is because there is an internal obstacle to their doing so. They are unable. But it is nonsense.
Once the same explanation was given for why each oppressed race didn’t have people doing empowering things and for why the female gender didn’t have people doing empowering things. But of course everyone now knows it was a lie. Absence of doing empowering tasks didn’t arise from absence of capacity to do empowering tasks. It instead arose from suffering inequitable, unjust, derogatory circumstances and then being allowed to only do disempowering tasks. Well, the same goes for working class people confined to doing disempowering tasks. It reflects the social constraints they endure, not some falsely imagined personal inadequacy at birth. To think women or blacks in the U.S., say, were incapable of doing doctoring or engineering was sexist or racist even when just a sign of ignorance. To now think that twenty percent of the population is born in the saddle, to ride, and eighty percent of the population is born to wear the saddle and be ridden, is classist.
Will everyone, once there are equitable circumstances, ample training, conditions of confidence, and so on, want to do a mix including empowering tasks rather than only do disempowering, rote, and obedient tasks? Yes, I think so. Querying folks now, given current socializations, social education, social expectations, and mostly distrust of anything different as likely to be a trick to further oppress, I think many might answer no, they would rather work to rule and go home. But when work is finally socially responsible, self managed, and equitably remunerated, and people have inspiring and informative circumstances, I think most everyone will want to do their share of empowering tasks. And, honestly, if there are a few who don’t want to do any empowering tasks, well, that’s too bad for them. Because only balanced jobs are available because that is what classlessness needs and what is socially responsible.
Nowadays eighty percent of the population has their capacities stifled and unutilized and their wills subordinated because that is what eighty percent of jobs do to people. Twenty percent get to manifest their wills, but have to keep down the eighty percent and thus give up elements of their sociality and humanity in the process. In a participatory economic future all who work will do a fair mix of empowering and disempowering work. Everyone’s capacities will be free to be nurtured rather than stifled and will be utilized rather than repressed. This is what classlessness means.
Primc: Let us turn finally to your proposed norms for remuneration. You propose that workers are paid according to duration, effort and sacrifice, while performing socially useful labor, with the proviso that those who can not work receive renumeration as well. How would we decide what is socially useful labor?
The planning process decides. Which is to say, the workers and consumers councils decide. What people want, if it is produced without wasting assets, is produced by socially useful labor. Such labor provides things people want even in light of the personal, social, end ecological implications and, does so without waste. If I dig holes, and fill them, and I set a hose to shoot myself with water the whole time, I may be working hard, long, and under very harsh conditions, but I won’t get income for it, because it isn’t wanted as part of the social product. The same thing if I play tennis, say. No one wants to watch that, so my playing tennis hard and long doesn’t get remuneration. Nadal can get remuneration for that, but not me. Similarly if my workplace produces something that people want, but does so with half assed effort, or while spewing pollution, and so on, that matters. Not all the labor expended is socially useful. The allocation system reveals all this.
Primc: Returning to remuneration norms. Duration of work seems to be one of the main factors that influences your pay today and on the other hand, effort and sacrifice are hard to measure, subjective even. Why do you argue for those specific norms? What norms are you actually replacing?
Actually, for many people nowadays, duration plays a role, as you say, but it is because they get income per hour, and what determines the amount per hour they get is typically, in a market context, their bargaining power, which in turn can reflect many variables. We say getting income for how long you work, for how hard you work, and for the onerousness of the conditions under which you work, assuming your work is socially responsible, is equitable. The norm applies the same to everyone. It provides proper incentives, to work well, hard, doing things that are wanted. This replaces getting income for private property, called profits. It replaces getting income for bargaining power, because you are strong enough to take it. And it even replaces getting income for how much you, by your efforts, produce. The last is interesting, but first, what is going on here when we choose between our equity norm, and getting income for property, power, or output?
There is no abstract norm written in some book of truths we have to abide. A norm isn’t true or false. Rather we think which norm yields results we like, results we want, and which norms do the opposite? Participatory economy says its equity norm yields outcomes everyone can and would deem fair, outcomes that are consistent with classlessness, that are consistent with solidarity, and so on. It says rewarding property, power, and even output violates such aspirations.
Primc: But that would mean a garbage collector, would earn more, per hour, than the manager organizing the garbage collection as one of them works in unsanitary and difficult conditions and the other in an air conditioned office. But the manager went through a long education process to be able to actually do his job. Does that count for nothing?
Supposing there was much more education needed for one than the other, it would be paid for, and even remunerated. But remember jobs are balanced. Education no longer exists to divide us into those expecting to rule and those expecting to be ruled. Instead, in a participatory society education exists to help each of us become who we wish to be, to help us do what we wish and are able to do. You are right that by our equity norm, if someone was doing more onerous work, and someone else doing less onerous work, the former would get more pay and the later less pay. Of course what happens now, in capitalism, is the opposite. The reason a person nowadays has less onerous work is they have coordinator class privilege and power, which is also why they get more pay. But in a participatory economy, with balanced jobs, these differences in onerousness would be much less and occur less often, but yes, the norm says such work would receive more income. It also says we should not get rewarded for being born with some great talent or capacity, which is to say for our luck in the genetic lottery. It really is saying we should get income for how long, how hard, and under how onerous conditions we do work which the planning process reveals to be socially responsible, and not for property, power, or even output per se.
Primc: Could cooperative enterprises be the seed, or one of the seeds, from which a new economy would sprout. Cooperatives are in fact run by a members council and as such could set whatever norms they choose for renumeration or distribution of work tasks. Obviously they would still have to operate in a market system so there are limits of how much of Parecon values they could embody, but there are a number of enterprises that attempt it. After all South End Press which you founded was run along such principles as well. Initiative for city wide assembly (IMZ) in Slovenia runs on very similar principles as well, even though it is not an enterprise.
One of the slogans, I suppose you might call it, of anti-capitalist practice is “plant the seeds of the future in the present.” And so yes, I think cooperatives can be part of doing precisely that. You are of course right that they can’t step outside the market system, but they can be aware of its ills and in some cases try to behave more in accord with participatory values even when engaged in buying and selling. Beyond that, though, they are certainly able to disperse the income they have available as they choose, and to combine tasks into jobs as they choose, so they can opt for what we call equitable remuneration and for balanced job complexes. Doing so not only experiments with the possibilities while learning from experience, it also provides a model that others can be inspired by or learn from. And it isn’t only a matter of other potential co-ops. Instead a “seeds of the future” project can communicate outward to folks in more mainstream situations and organizations about the benefits they are enjoying and about the possibilities they evidence to perhaps inform campaigns and demands in those other venues. It isn’t easy, partly due to seeming at times to be completely out of step with existing patterns—because in fact you may well be, depending how much future you implement in the present. But it is also partly due to hostility and incomprehension that you may encounter, for example, from banks, or even taxation agencies, etc. South End Press incorporated about as much as could be done, and encountered such impediments, as did Z and other projects. Are there benefits, nonetheless? Yes for those involved who get to self manage and enjoy camaraderie, etc. And yes for the spin off impact. But the truth is, if you set the success bar where I do, which is literally at winning a new society, then as Rosa Luxembourg said, by that standard you lose, you lose, you lose, you win. But the thing is, every loss has, if you go about the efforts smartly, lessons and, well, seeds, that finally contribute to the win. So it is really you accomplish some, you accomplish some, you accomplish some, and you win.
Primc: Suppose we agree that capitalism is a failed economic system and we need to replace it. Suppose we agree Parecon is the system we would like to replace it with, as well as achieve changes in the other three spheres that together encompass Participatory society. How would we begin putting it into place?
I don’t think such changes happen in some magical surge, spontaneously, and all at once. I think, instead, social change, even such revolutionary change as we are talking about, or actually, especially such revolutionary change as we are talking about, takes time and involves many steps based on tireless organizing and struggle. I guess putting it very succinctly, I would just say to achieve the needed changes in the economy, and in polity, kinship, and community/culture, we would fight to win immediate changes, reforms, to ameliorate the various defining injustices in our society, but we would do in ways seeking to develop desire for, personal dispositions to seek, and organizational means to win still more gains beyond the immediately sought reforms adding up to a trajectory of changes that builds toward attaining a new society that we collectively envision the defining features of in advance, and whose features inform and are informed by our each step forward.
Primc: How would our readers find out more about Participatory society?
I guess is depends where they are, what languages they read and speak, and so on. But in any event, there is a lot of materials, books, articles, interviews like this one – and I thank you for doing it – as well as debates, videos, and so on. Much about modern societies simultaneously offers us survival and even some pleasure with one hand while taking away from us dignity and potential and even our lives with the other. Google is like that. It is in many respects a vile institution. But hey, look up participatory economics on Google and you will find an avalanche of materials. And for participatory society, try ZNet, or RealUtopia.com say. And I guess, if you like my way of talking about it, I do a podcast titled RevolutionZ, and there are over 200 episodes and quite a few of them deal with matters related to what we have been talking about and vision and strategy more broadly.
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