For those of us who are interested in organising for an economy that values self-management, cooperation and solidarity; a fair criteria for remuneration, that fosters diversity and efficiency; and of course is compatible with ecological sustainability, maximising our chances of transitioning to such a system without violating these values is of utmost importance. In principle, this can be achieved in a number of ways, including simplifying our vision and/ or increasing our options for possible system features (otherwise referred to as institutions).
An example of an economic system, as described above, is Michael Albert and Robin Hahenl’s participatory economics. According to advocates of their model, balanced job complexes (sometimes simplified to balanced jobs or abbreviated to BJC’s) are an essential component of the vision. Without BJC’s the corporate division of labour (CDoL) will remain in place and with it the coordinator class rule over workers. According to advocates of Albert and Hahnel’s model, no other option is available.
In this paper I explore a different way of understanding the “coordinator class” and present an alternative approach to dismantling the CDoL and in-so-doing question the legitimacy of the argument that BJC’s are necessary for a functioning participatory economy. Furthermore, this alternative analysis and approach not only represent aspects of a different vision for a participatory economy that remains compatible with the values (stated above) but also a simpler vision that increases our strategic options. The essence of what is being suggested below, therefore, is that adopting these alternatives would increase our chances of transitioning to a participatory economy.
All of this, of course, is in-keeping with the non-dogmatic spirit of organising for a participatory economy, as Albert and Hahnel have stated:
“We should never give up on developing a viable vision, but should always be open to improving or even replacing any vision we advocate.” 
“[Participatory economics] is offered […] as a work in progress and the beginnings of a conversation you can take part in.” 
The Logic of BJC’s
With those preliminary comments out of the way, let’s jump straight in and explore the logic that informs the argument for BJC’s. As we shall see, to really appreciate the argument for BJC’s we will need to understand Albert and Hahnel’s broader view of both capitalist and 20th century socialist economics and their central interest in classlessness. But, for now, let’s start with a definition of BJC’s:
“A collection of tasks within a workplace that is comparable in its burdens and benefits and in its impact on the worker’s ability to participate in decision making to all other job complexes in that workplace […] and often for additional tasks outside to balance their overall work responsibilities with those of other workers in society.” 
As we can see, there are two important issues that BJC’s are designed to address. The first has to do with equally sharing out the burdens and benefits of any work that needs to be done. The second has to do with making sure everyone can participate in decision making within the workplace / broader economy. In short, BJC’s are about fairness and empowerment.
It should be noted, however, that another feature of Albert and Hahnel’s model (i.e. remuneration for effort and sacrifice) can also be used to address unfair discrepancies in the distribution of burdens and benefits throughout the workplace / economy. In other words, in a participatory economy, those who take on more burdens get paid more, which off-sets any concerns regarding unfairness. This means that the argument for BJC’s is mostly about empowering workers to participate in decision making (i.e. self-management).
As with all of the components that make up the participatory economics model proposed by Albert and Hahnel, BJC’s are designed to replace key features of capitalist (as well as some socialist) economics. The specific feature that BJC’s are designed to replace are referred to by Albert and Hahnel as the corporate division of labour (CDoL), which can be understood as a division of labour based on an uneven distribution of empowering tasks. In Albert and Hahnel formulation, this roughly gives rise to a 20% / 80% split of empowering / disempowering jobs (respectively). Furthermore, this 20% / 80% split has been shown to give rise to a class division. As Albert has put it:
“Corporate divisions of labour will ensure that a few would give orders and most obey, and these are not conducive to all participating equally.” 
From the perspective of Albert and Hahnel’s analysis, the CDoL facilitates the rise of what they call the “coordinator class”, which they define as:
“Planners, administrators, technocrats, and other conceptual workers who monopolise the information and decision-making authority necessary to determine economic outcomes.” 
It should now be clear that, even when only considering abstract concepts, if we want self-management we cannot have economic elites who monopolise the information and decision-making authority necessary to determine economic outcomes. Common sense logic dictates that the CDoL has to go. However, the full significance of their analysis only becomes apparent when it is applied historically.
For Albert and Hahnel the coordinator class cannot only rise to powerful positions within the workplace but can and have risen to a dominant position within whole economies. This is precisely what they think happened during the 20th century. What many (on both the right and the left) refer to as examples of socialist economies (for example the former Soviet Union, China, Yugoslavia) Albert and Hahnel argue are better understood as examples of a “coordinator economy”:
“An economy in which a class of experts / technocrats / managers / conceptual workers monopolise decision-making authority whilst traditional workers carry out their orders.” 
In other words, in a capitalist economy the coordinator class sits between capitalists and workers but in a “socialist” economy the coordinator class outlaw private ownership of the means of production (and with it removes the capitalist class) whilst maintaining their position of dominance over the working class.
We can now fully appreciate why Albert and Hahnel included BJC’s as a key and essential component of their economic vision. From their point of view, both capitalism and 20th century socialism (i.e. coordinatorism) are class systems that violate the values of self-management, solidarity, diversity, etc. There does, however, appear to be a number of assumptions underlying Albert and Hahnel’s points of view. One is that the CDoL is the only source of economic power for a third class that sits between owners and workers. A second assumption seems to be that empowering / disempowering tasks are expressions of objective facts and not ideological positions. Let us now take a closer look at these assumptions.
Is the CDoL the Only Source of Socio-economic Power for the Third Class?
As we have seen, according to Albert and Hahnel’s thinking, it is the institution called the CDoL that facilitates the monopoly of ”information and decision-making authority necessary to determine economic outcomes” by what they refer to as the coordinator class. Clearly, this situation violates the values that inform participatory economics and it is because of this that they propose BJC’s as an alternative institution to the CDoL. In short, the CDoL is the source of economic power for the coordinator class. Remove the source of power and we remove the coordinator class. There are, however, a number of related questions that can be raised about the way Albert and Hahnel think about this third class.
First of all, we may wonder, are we talking about the coordinator class (as Albert and Hahnel see it) or is this third class better understood as the managerial class? After all, those who tend to monopolise the information and decision-making authority necessary to determine economic outcomes are typically referred to by most people, within the economic context, as managers. Furthermore, managers do not gain their economic power via the CDoL. Rather, they acquire the rights to monopolise the information and decision-making authority necessary to determine economic outcomes primarily via their training in the ideology of managerialism.
Another interesting point to explore has to do with how monopolising empowering tasks in general results in the more specific knowledge required to make decisions that determine economic outcomes, as Albert and Hahnel’s argument seems to suggest. Clearly, having the knowledge and skill set of a doctor or engineer (both examples, in Albert and Hahnel’s view, of coordinator class jobs) has very little, if any, overlap with the knowledge and skill set required to make workplace / economic decisions about the production of goods and services.
It is also important to note that, because a participatory economy would have self-managed worker councils as the basis for the production of goods and services, part of the transition away from capitalism would include a transition from the practice of managerialism to self-management. This means that everybody in a functioning participatory society would be socialised (via the education system, etc.) to be able to fully engage in council meetings.
If these three points are valid then this seems to undermine the logic of Albert and Hahnel’s argument around the coordinator class and the necessity for BJC’s. Despite this, however, it could still be argued that we still need to dismantle the CDoL because it violates the values that underpin participatory economics. This brings us to our second assumption.
Are Empowering / Disempowering Tasks Objective Facts?
As we have also seen, an important part of Albert and Hahnel’s argument for BJC’s is their claim that there exists empowering and disempowering tasks. Furthermore, the way they talk about empowering and disempowering tasks is as if they are objective facts. What I mean by this is that Albert and Hahnel’s view seems to be that an empowering / disempowering task will be empowering / disempowering in any economic system. After all, if tasks weren’t objectively empowering or disempowering then why would we need to assess all tasks for empowerment and then reformulate existing jobs into BJC’s as part of the transition towards a participatory economy. But is this true?
Let’s consider an alternative perspective using hospital workers as an example. Brain surgeons and cleaners are sometimes used by advocates of participatory economics (as conceived by Albert and Hahnel) to illustrate the need to dismantle the CDoL and replace it with BJC’s. From their perspective, brain surgeons are members of the coordinator class and cleaners are members of the working class. Furthermore, because brain surgery is understood as an inherently empowering job and cleaning an inherently disempowering job, failing to institute BJC’s would lead to surgeons (and other coordinator class workers) dominating council meetings. This, so the logic goes, would lead to the cleaners (and other working class workers) feeling alienated by and from the proceedings. Once again, however, there are a number of related issues that can be raised in response to this line of thinking.
As already noted above, it is not clear at all how having a specialised knowledge and skill set in brain surgery empowers this particular subset of the coordinator class to monopolise the information and decision-making authority necessary to determine economic outcomes. Again, it is managers who monopolise this authority and they do it via the ideology of managerialism. Also, in a functioning participatory society everyone would be trained in the knowledge and skill set necessary to participate in a meaningful way in council meetings. This is regardless of what job individuals do. Applying this important point to our example above, both surgeons and cleaners would be equally prepared to engage in self-management at council meetings.
All that said, it is without doubt that within the capitalist system surgeons are looked up to and cleaners looked down on. Also, these disparities in social status are compounded and reinforced by the fact that surgeons get paid a lot more money for their work than cleaners. This, however, is not because the tasks that make up the job of a doctor are inherently empowering and the tasks that make up the job of being a cleaner are inherently disempowering. Rather, these views are based on liberal myths about work that basically say that some work is very important and can only be done by a relatively small group of professionals whilst other work is not so important and can be done by almost anybody.
But what if, as part of the transition towards a participatory economy / society these myths are challenged and undermined. And what if, in conjunction with the rejection of liberal myths about work, there is also a reevaluation of existing jobs. For example, if we reevaluated surgery and cleaning and concluded that, in fact, they are both equally important jobs that deserve equal levels of respect, remuneration and investment then wouldn’t this establish an egalitarian division of labour that, by definition, systematically dismantled the CDoL? Doesn’t exposing liberal myths about work in conjunction with the reevaluation of existing jobs represent not only an alternative to BJC’s but also an easier strategic path to a participatory economy?
Two main points have been made. However, these two points have additional implications for both vision and strategy for a participatory economy. The first main point is that the class that sits between owners and workers derives its power from an ideology called managerialism and not from an institution called the CDoL. One additional implication of this is that it therefore makes sense to refer to this class as the managerial class not the coordinator class. A second main point is that empowering / disempowering tasks are ideological views not objective facts. A major implication of this insight is that we can dismantle the CDoL by exposing liberal myths about work alongside the reevaluation of existing jobs. The logic of this argument shows that BJC’s are not necessary for a functioning participatory economy. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, this alternative to BJC’s not only increases our visionary options for a participatory economy, it also arguably represents an easier strategic option for transitioning to a participatory economy.
- Michael Albert, Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism (p191). 2. Robin Hahnel, Of the People, By the People (p11).
- From the Glossary of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century (p151-153). 4. Michael Albert in ParEcon: Life After Capitalism (p46).
- From the Glossary of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century (p151-153).
- Michael Albert in ParEcon: Life After Capitalism (p46).
- From the Glossary of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s Looking Forward:
Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century (p151-153).
- From the Glossary of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s Looking Forward:
Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century (p151-153).
Read a response from Michael Albert: Parecon Without Jobs Balanced for Empowerment?
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