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There is an alternative: participatory economics

  • April 21, 2012

Commons & Cooperation

In this interview, Michael Albert — co-founder of Znet — reflects on the vision of participatory economics, and how it could take us beyond capitalism.

This interview is part of a conversation between ROAR founder Jerome and Michael Albert — co-founder of the alternative media organization Zcommunications and author of Parecon: Life after Capitalism. Below, Michael reponds to a number of our questions about Znet, participatory economics and anti-capitalist practice and ideology more generally. You can find Jerome’s interview on Znet (here).

ROAR: Michael, you are one of the original founders of ZCommunications, arguably the main intellectual hub for libertarian socialist thought and reflection. What were your initial motivations for founding ZMagazine and ZNet, and how has your initiative evolved since then?

Michael Albert: Actually it all began with the publishing house, South End Press. After about ten years spent helping start and stabilize that, Lydia Sargent and I moved on to start Z Magazine. Then, I also worked on online activity in various forms, culminating in ZNet. We, along with various others working on the projects, also started a summer school called Z Media Institute which has helped train many new people in media skills as well as political concepts.

When we started, we were trying to create an additional media operation that would, however, achieve some new ends. Unlike book publishing, the magazine was monthly, and would have regular readers. We hoped that it could lead to a kind of community of people able to sustain and generate other activities.

The editorial substance was like it had been with South End Press, what we called a holist or totalist political approach, emphasizing race, gender, class, and power and, as you say, rooted in libertarian and anarchist socialist thought and reflections. But with the magazine, we hoped for a greater degree of social ties with a hopefully growing audience.

When having the magazine did that somewhat, but not as much as we would have liked, we added online activities. We had something called zbbs, an old bulletin board system, and then we had left online,a fledgling web system, and finally, after a few incarnations, we had and still have ZNet. This diversification into online communications increased the extent of our connection with an audience, and also vastly enlarged our audience, but still, we hoped for more.

The next step is in process right now, and very nearly ready for live activity. It is called ZSocial and is basically a social networking system that will provide our constituencies with really excellent means to socialize and intercommunicate, without, however, being subject to the norms of or contributing to the development of commercial operations like Facebook. Those operations are okay — albeit certainly, as corporations, not optimal — for reaching out to long lost friends and for otherwise trying to reach new people, but they are not okay for engaging in political organizing, in developing new ties and relations, in exploring new ideas, and for developing politically insightful and committed communities.

How do you explain the success of your initiatives, and did you expect things to evolve this way when you founded Z Magazine back in 1987?

I think the main reason for our level of success, which is, I think, not really as great as many think, was simply that the editorial content we favored was and remains dear to many people, and that we developed the online side of the operation very early, which led to a substantial base of online users and supporters from the outset.

When we started we didn’t know precisely what the online component would become, of course, but we knew it would be very important, so basically, things have gone roughly as anticipated.

That said, the scale and the degree of community we have attained are still far less than we hoped. The idea, after all, is to contribute to winning change not simply establish a lasting institution. So we are moving on to ZSocial — which will be social networking without sale of users to corporations (advertising), without collection of data for surveillance and government interference, without state and corporate censorship, and less dramatically, but as important, we think, without a bias toward what I call nuggetized communication.

You also spearheaded, together with Robin Hahnel, the idea of ‘participatory economics‘. Could you explain in layman’s terms what participatory economics is about?

Participatory economics, or parecon, is a proposal for a new way of doing economics to replace capitalism such as we have in the U.S., but also to replace what has previously gone under the name twentieth century socialism, such as they had in the Soviet Union and China

Parecon takes a minimalist approach to visionary description by settling only on broad attributes of just four aspects of economy. It takes a maximalist approach, however, about the benefits sought by  describing the core institutions essential for and able to generate and sustain economic life that is classless and self-managed by workers and consumers, that generates solidarity and diversity, and that cares for the ecology.

In other words, Parecon vision tries not to go beyond what we can know and also not to go beyond what it is our responsibility to address. It is not for us to bias much less to now make choices future people should be free to make as they desire. Our task is instead only to provide future people the institutions which will empower them to make those choices.

So what are parecon’s core features?

First, parecon has workers and consumers self-managing councils. Self-managing means participants have a say in decisions essentially in proportion to the degree they are affected. Sometimes this will mean majority rules, other times consensus, sometimes a different algorithm for tallying preferences. Sometimes it will mean extended debate and lengthy cogitation, other times more quick assessment and decision. The aim isn’t some particular way of counting or discussing, it is that the way of counting and discussing chosen in each case does a fine job of delivering self-managing say plus information flow and deliberation sufficient for wise decisions to emerge.

Second, parecon has remuneration for the duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor. You can’t produce what people don’t want and be remunerated for that. For what is desired and for what does meet needs and develop potentials, however, you work and you are remunerated such that if you work longer, you work harder, or you work under worse conditions, you make more.

This approach turns out to not only be fair, but also to properly incentivize activity and, as well, to properly discern and communicate levels of desire for economic inputs and outputs needed for purposes of decision making. The parecon approach contrasts with remunerating property, power, or output — none of which occur in a parecon and all of which generate unjust income differentials, distorted information, and perverted motivations.

Third, parecon has what are called balanced job complexes. Each worker in any economy always has various responsibilities and tasks which together comprise his or her job. In participatory economics, however, each person’s job is meant to convey, comparable empowerment effects via the experience of doing it, as every other person’s job. There is a division of labor in parecon — some do x, others do y, and so on. But, there is not a hierarchical division of labor conveying to some (who I call the coordinator class) greater empowerment and income, and to others (the working class) less power and income.

In the traditional corporate approach, which is common both to capitalism and to twentieth century socialism, about 20 percent of the workforce monopolizes the empowering tasks. In other words, they do jobs which are largely composed of tasks and responsibilities that empower those doing them — giving them overarching information, skills, knowledge, social ties, energy and initiative, and access to levers of control. Here we are talking about engineers, managers, accountants, CEOs, lawyers, doctors, high-level professors, and so on. The other 80 percent of the workforce is left doing jobs composed of tasks and responsibilities that disempower those doing them by diminishing their skills, knowledge, social ties, energy and initiative, and separating them from all means of control.

The former empowered group, called the coordinator class, operates above the latter disempowered group, called the working class. Their situations give these two classes contrary interests and give great power to the coordinators. In capitalism, the coordinators are between labor and capital, often carrying out the will of the owners, but also, to a degree, advancing their own interests in conflict with workers below and with owners above. In twentieth-century socialism, while owners no longer exist, the coordinator class not only still exists; it becomes the new ruling class. For this reason, advocates of parecon tend to call twentieth-century socialism coordinatorism.

Think of workers councils. With the old corporate division of labor preserved, even if they have a commitment to self-management, that commitment will be trumped and destroyed by the institutional implications of the corporate division of labor. Twenty percent will dominate discussion, agenda setting, debate. A counsel meeting might formally welcome all members of a workplace to participate, but because a fifth of those members are highly empowered, and four fifths of them are disempowered, the former group will dominate the latter.

In time, even if initially there was a sincere commitment to democracy or even to self management, that commitment will be swamped by the daily reality of exhausted workers obeying commands that emerge from enervated coordinators. The corporate division of labor inexorably structurally subverts the gains of self-managed councils, and similarly, those of equitable remuneration, which the coordinators soon enough eliminate, raising their own incomes. Thus as one of the minimal features a new classless economy must have, it requires a new way to apportion labor.

Balanced job complexes are that new way, in a parecon. Each worker has a similar job situation vis-à-vis empowerment effects. In other words, each worker does some empowering tasks, and some disempowering tasks, where the combination into the whole job complex, on average, is similar in its overall empowerment effects as each other person’s job complex. As a result, there is no structural pressure producing a more empowered coordinator class above a disempowered working class. There are just economic actors, all comparably empowered, together engaged in self managing economic life.

Fourth, parecon also needs a means of allocation. The problem to overcome is that both markets and central planning, the two familiar options, are inadequate to allocating consistently with classlessness and self-management. They each by their dictates for behavior and motives, undercut the benefits and even the lasting presence of workers and consumers self-managing councils, equitable remuneration, and balanced job complexes. If we accept that it is so, for a minute, we are left with a problem. How does participatory economics arrive at inputs and outputs of economic activity that is consistent with self management and doesn’t introduce class division?

Parecon’s answer is called participatory planning. The heart of this approach is pretty simple, almost too simple, at first hearing, to seem viable. Workers and consumers councils via their nested relations propose their desires for consumption and production. They assess the proposals of others and moderate their own, in accord with new rounds of information. In essence, they cooperatively negotiate inputs and outputs in light of needs and potentials and in accord with equitable remuneration. Indeed, the parecon claim is that this is not only possible, but truly efficient at meeting needs and developing potentials, and that it conveys self-managing say, as well.

And that’s all of it. As a vision, Parecon is workers and consumers self-managing councils, equitable remuneration, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning. Of course each instance of this type of economy will have a tremendous array of detailed additional features, and of refinements of those that are most basic, as well, often varying somewhat from case to case, country to country — even workplace to workplace. But the claim is that attaining these four features is key to attaining classlessness, self-management, solidarity, diversity.

How do you believe this vision could contribute to the creation of a different society?

Well, how does any vision help with attaining a desired future? And then, we can ask, as well, does parecon help in any special ways? The first part is easy enough. A vision should help us understand the present, and the roots of its ills, by contrast to a better future. A vision should motivate activism. Indeed, an obstacle, arguably the biggest current obstacle, to massive, uncompromising, unrelenting, opposition to injustice is a fatalistic belief that there is no alternative and injustice is just a part of life, so one must put up with it and make do. A vision should inform belief in an alternative, and overthrow fatalism.

A vision should orient us so we are able to move in the direction we desire to go, rather than moving other than where we desire. This may seem trite, but, if we look at history, it isn’t. In case after case, movements have wound up other than where they intended, or at least, other than where the great mass of their members hoped. A vision should help us frame short, medium, and long-term goals and help us act consistently with reaching those goals, help us construct what is needed, etc.

Similarly, a vision should help us incorporate the seeds of the future in the present. How would you do that, not knowing anything about a desirable future?

Okay, so about parecon in particular? Is it a useful  vision?

Well, following the above general flow, first, I need to note that parecon doesn’t stand alone, but is, instead, part of a way of looking at things which says right off that economics isn’t everything. Economics isn’t even alone a prime thing. Rather, economics is very important, but so is kinship, culture, and politics — and thus vision bearing on those spheres of social life is prime, just as economics is prime. But, for purposes here, if we aspire to a participatory economy, how can that help us actually move forward, from the present?

Well, parecon can help us understand the roots of economic hierarchies and class division, of income differentials, of social and movement agendas, issues of budgets, and so on — all in the present, by the contrast between what we have now and our envisioned, very different future. Parecon can motivate us, by revealing the possibility of liberated life after capitalism and showing that the ills of current economic life are not inevitable but are social. It shows how different social arrangements would eliminate current ills.

Of parecon’s many implications for the direction forward we need to take to arrive where we wish to go, perhaps one in particular stands out. There are two kinds of life after capitalism. One kind occurs in a coordinator-dominated economy with inequitable income distribution, production for surplus, and authoritarian subjugation of workers. This is what we call coordinatorism or twentieth-century socialism. The other kind occurs in a classless economy with equitable income distribution, production for meeting needs and developing potentials, and self-management by workers and consumers.

This is what we call participatory economics. In this light a critical thing that the parecon vision does is to alert us to and focus us on and even help us comprehend how to build movements, fight struggles, and construct infrastructure all leading to classlessness, not leading to more class division.

Regarding planting the seeds of the future in the present, what parecon does is to point us toward prioritizing building councils, incorporating self-management into our decision-making, trying for balanced job complexes in our own projects and, when we have budgets, trying for equitable remuneration, and even, when we develop elements of economic exchange, trying for participatory planning.

It also, in accord with the points above, pushes us to fight for changes throughout existing institutions that move toward these sought attributes. In other words, we plant these seeds in institutions we build, meant to be suitable for a new economy, but also by winning changes in existing institutions, pushing them in directions toward the new economy. These are not small matters but instead go a long way toward helping to define what a revolutionary project and movement and organizations ought to look like.

Of course there is much more to say about all this, and to explore and learn. Indeed, at the moment, people are close to putting up a website for an International Organization for Participatory Society — advocating parecon plus new visions for the other spheres of life as well. This organization’s interim structure and program emerge from participatory society aims and values. Indeed, there is a real sense in which this hopes to be the culmination of the initial desires — when starting Z Magazine and then Z Communications — to have a community of like-minded folks working together. Quite a few branches and chapters are already being built, and when the site makes it all visible, hopefully there will be much much more.

Can ‘participatory economics’ lead us out of the current crisis — and if so, what are the pathways through which we can bring it about?

Well, it depends what crisis we are talking about. Let’s go back five years, ten, however many you like. In my eyes, there was then, too, a crisis — because then too there were gargantuan numbers of people who were hungry, poor, denied dignity, denied education, lacking a say in their lives, raped, shot, used, abused, starved, and so on. The current crisis is called a crisis in the mainstream not because it hurts the overwhelming bulk of humanity, but because it hurts or threatens to hurt the rich and powerful. That is the only time the mainstream looks out at society and sees a “crisis.” The rest of the time, the pain and suffering  that are just as evident, and vile, aren’t crisis, they are just business as usual.

Okay, so can participatory economics help lead us out of the crisis that I see, the one always there, the one that derives from capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and authoritarianism? That is, the one that derives from the presence of economic, kinship, cultural, and political institutions that pervert human potentials? Yes, it can, broadly as described above.

Can it help us out of the current “crisis” as in the real one plus the current disruption for elites and additional pain for everyone else? Well — that is not so clear. If we mean can it help us out of this mess in a way that gets us back not to business as usual, but, rather, on a path toward real and lasting change, yes — it can help with that, but we have to do a lot of work for that to occur. Can it help us back to business as usual? No.

So what pathways would it involve? Well, there are so many things we could talk about. But, as just a few examples — it could inspire and enlighten us to seek full employment with shorter workday and workweek. It could inspire and enlighten us to seek massive, even gigantic, cuts in military spending, alongside major enlargements of social spending. It could inspire and enlighten us to promote massive allotments to education for all, to health care for all. It could inspire and enlighten us to promote changes toward participation within firms, and in broader macro-economic life. And that’s just the beginning, and only for the economy. Vision for politics, culture, and kinship could inform changes in those spheres as well.

The past year has seen numerous interesting developments in the social, economic and political domains. As the crisis of capitalism deepened, popular uprisings rocked the world from Cairo to Athens and from Santiago to New York. How would you explain these developments from the perspective of ‘participatory socialism’, and how do you think the Occupy movement ties in with your thought? Is this ‘participatory socialism’ in practice?

You are using the term participatory socialism now to cover, I think, participatory economy, polity, culture, and community, for which I sometimes use that term and sometimes use the term participatory society. If so, I would say the developments are what they appear. Some people — still all too small a number, yet growing and substantial — are thoroughly pissed off at the gigantic injustices we all see all around us. And, for various reasons, and prodded by various events, they are beginning to lash out in struggle.

Sometimes this is highly ill informed, in my opinion, and can be quite reactionary — as in the Tea Party trend in the US. But at its best, as in the Occupy projects, I think these developments tie closely into pareconish and parsocish thought in many ways. For example, they tend to address all sides of life without prioritizing any one over the rest. They tend to desire real equity and have an emerging understanding of it that is moving toward parecon’s own equitable remuneration conceptions. They tend to be militantly suspicious of and hostile to authoritarian trends and choices, and even to favor real democracy and even self-management. And they tend to be hostile, as well, to market competition, and of course top down command, and so naturally inclined toward, I think and hope, participatory planning.

That said, there is a also a serious problem. Movements have, at their base, and in their broadest desires, often had these admirable aspirations — including going all the way back to Russian revolutionary movements, for example. Yet, just as often, despite the desires of their members, movements have often arrive at outcomes horribly different than what their mass aspirations would have wanted. This has a lot to do, I think, with their having had structures, and thus leadership, that was, in fact, never seeking institutions consistent with the members’ libertarian aspirations, but, instead, seeking coordinatorish outcomes.

For the Occupy movements, and for other projects and movements which are rousing and continuing all around the world, to all together merge into a massive project that is truly oriented to engender a classless, feminist, intercommunalist, participatory future — I think their membership will have to be in command, not some elite at the helm. And I think those memberships will have to know the broad defining attributes of where they are trying to go, so they use tactics and strategies consistent with getting there. My own belief is that parecon and parsoc can provide a lot of insight, perhaps a lot of social glue, for just such a trend.

The indignados and Occupy movement have helped to draw attention to the excesses of financial capitalism and the growing inequalities at the heart of Western society. As the public debate is shifting away from a narrow focus on the budget deficit, more and more people are starting to talk about a wholesale restructuring of the financial sector. Here at ROAR, we have often invoked the idea of cooperative banks and/or credit unions as a pathway out of the modern bankocracy. What is your view on credit unions and cooperative ownership more generally? Does this tie in with your vision of participatory economics?

Yes and no. If one talks about fixing the financial sector — probably not. In that case, the underlying supposition is that ownership relations, division of labor, etc., persist as now. If so, then all that is really being discussed is ultimately how to escape the crisis hurting those above, not how to escape the structures hurting all the rest. Whatever form finances take, if the basic class relations of an economy deliver more wealth and power to a few, structurally, then the result will be their advancement at the expense of others. Of course, one can have a better or worse version of this — and a more or less stable to shocks, version of it, and so on. And some of those changes would indeed improve people’s lives, even at the bottom of society. But that is not about liberation. It is about reform while maintaining basic defining relations in tact.

On the other hand, as with addressing corporate structures inside firm, or national budget issues, or anything else, including banking, mortgages, etc., there is a way to do it, seeking changes now — by definition reforms — which is not reformist, meaning it is not about simply fixing the oppressive system. This approach fights for changes to better the lot of the worst off, including escaping giant shocks to the economy, etc., but always in ways trying to raise consciousness of the need to continue the struggle further, toward winning a whole new economy — and always in ways aiming to establish new levels of organization and power, as well as awareness, that will keep fighting and will do so from improved conditions.

Okay, in that light, fighting for reforms of the financial sector can be done in ways that expand allegiance to values and even specific institutional aims that are anti-capitalist and — I would say, pareconish. It can be done in ways that seek to create lasting organization to pursue further advances. It can demand changes that not only overcome the current chaos, but also provide new improved conditions and greater power to working people. I don’t know that the financial sector is ideal for this type approach, but it can certainly be done in ways more, or less, suited to continued and continually deepening struggle. Ideally though, it should be very connected to struggle that addresses basic relations — for example, for full employment and shorter hours, more progressive taxation, more empowering social spending, and so on.

ROAR: It seems to me that your vision of participatory economics is quite close to the main ideas in libertarian Marxist thought (particularly the work of Rosa Luxemburg and the Council Communism of Anton Pannekoek), as well as the main principles of anarcho-syndicalism and the communitarian ethos of traditional movements like the Kibbutzim and the Quakers. To what extent does your vision differ from these intellectual traditions and practices, and where do you see an overlap? Were you inspired by any particular philosophies when you set out to develop your ideas?

I have to admit I am not particularly familiar with the Kibbutzim and the Quakers. But, yes, I and many folks I have worked with were quite influenced by Luxemburg and Pannekoek, in particular, and by Kropotkin, Bakunin, and various other anarchists, as well. I think parecon is an extension of that very broad heritage, and I think participatory society is too, though that is a larger leap given the relative economism in the past.

The idea of councils is consistent, clearly, with past priorities of this broad trend. I think parecon spells out self-management more carefully than many others have, but nonetheless, my guess is they would have no problem with it. The ideas of equitable remuneration shouldn’t cause any of them any difficulty, I think — were they here to let us know — but these ideas are again, spelled out more carefully and I hope more clearly in the parecon literature.

Balanced job complexes is new but only in its execution. I think that that idea or aspiration was there, however fuzzily, as well. The basic perception of a class residing between labor and capital goes back to Bakunin, though I think identifying twentieth century socialist economics as coordinatorist is arguably new, as is the very explicit formulation of balanced job complexes. Finally, I think participatory planning is largely new.

ROAR: Finally, you have written a number of books on Marxism and socialism more generally. Is Marx still relevant today? And how does your own vision differ from orthodox Marxist thought?

I am never sure what people mean when they ask this sort of question. Is Marx relevant? The person? Like any other person, we can read and learn from his life experiences. If one wants to look at his life, great. If not, no problem.

The question means, instead, sometimes, and I assume with you, are Marx’s writing relevant? This is different, but still befuddles me quite a bit, I admit. His writings contain many ideas. Are many of those still relevant? Yes, of course, as with most any other writers of great merit. Of course, in this case, relevance means relevance not only for understanding but for changing the world, and, as a result, while one can read Marx for the ideas, there ought to be, and I think are, many others one can read who have employed and refined the ideas usefully.

The last part of the question I get. Very briefly, I would say orthodox Marxism is about economics and everything else only derivatively to its relation to economics. It has a view of history that is based on economic dynamics and contradictions and their implications for classes and their struggles. It identifies as centrally important owners — capitalists — and workers, and analyzes much about the system called capitalism in light of the ownership relations by which it defines those classes. There are many Marxists who are orthodox, in the above broad senses, and among them there is in many parts of the world a further set of allegiances — to Leninist conceptions of change, organization, etc.

Pareconish and parsocish thought differs very substantially from just about all of that. First, it continues to consider economics critically important, but it adds matters of gender and kinship, culture and community, power and politics, at that same high level of importance. It no longer sees history as built on economics and as some unfolding pattern of inevitable contradictions and resolutions, but has a much more diverse view. It retains most of the Marxist understanding of the dynamics between labor and capital — which was incredibly insightful — but it adds the coordinator class, in between, due to broadening attention away from just ownership to the full array of relations that profoundly impact motives and conditions of participants in the economy.

I don’t want to go on too long. But here is the most controversial claim. When Marx examined a body of thought he would ask, what does it include, what does it leave out, and in its inclusions and exclusions, whose interests is it serving? He wanted the inclusions and exclusions of his views to be such that they would serve the oppressed.

When I look at orthodox Marxism and see the exclusion of rich feminist, nationalist, and anti-authoritarian (anarchist) insights, it says to me — following the logic of Marx himself — that the body of thought is serving the interest of the groups at the top of those hierarchies. Many Marxists have understood this, I think, and have begun augmenting Marxist thought and ideas to include those insights. This is what, actually, the emergence of things like feminist Marxism, socialist feminism, nationalist Marxism, anarcho-Marxism, were all about four decades ago.

But, regarding the economy, there is also an exclusion — awareness of, conceptualization of, attention to, the coordinator class. I believe if Marx were around today and looked at orthodox Marxism, and looked at the history of post-capitalist efforts such as in the Soviet Union, etc., he would notice that exclusion and in a disciplined application of his own advisories, decide that Marxism had become, against his desires, not an ideology of the working class, but an ideology of the coordinator class.

Like bourgeois thought doesn’t highlight the full profiteering logic and activity of its beneficiary class, owners — orthodox Marxist thought, and indeed most Marxist thought, does not highlight the full surplus controlling logic and activity of its beneficiary class, coordinators. Indeed, orthodox marxism — and Leninism, the strategy of that class — doesn’t even acknowledge their existence, which is a pretty impressive degree of not highlighting.

Does it matter if I am right about how Marx the person would react, reborn today? Not a whit. What matters is whether, if we look more carefully and fully, the above makes sense. If it does, than all those socialists who currently pledge themselves to various Leninist and otherwise coordinator hiding approaches — which is a great many particularly in less developed countries — would be well advised to consider if their aspirations wouldn’t be better met by being aligned with participatory economics and participatory society movements. I think so. Perhaps others will too.

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Jerome Roos

Jerome Roos is the founder and editor of ROAR Magazine, and a postdoctoral researcher in political economy at the University of Cambridge. For more on his research and writings, visit

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