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Parecon: Life after Capitalism

de Michael Albert

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289478,253 (3.16)Cap
'What do you want?' is a constant query put to economic and globalization activists decrying current poverty, alienation, and degradation. In this highly praised new work, destined to attract worldwide attention and support, Michael Albert provides an answer: participatory economics, 'parecon' for short ? a new economy, an alternative to capitalism, built on familiar values including solidarity, equity, diversity, and people democratically controlling their own lives, but utilizing original institutions fully described and defended in this book.… (més)
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I have had this book for five years without reading it. I bought it because there was an economics major who briefly had a stint in my university organizing group CCLeft. I don't think he got more than a couple of chapters in. He also never came back to our meetings.

For the first half of the book, I was able to trudge through the stale writing and the miserably boring concepts because I thought of it as an economics textbook, whereby I was able to criticise capitalism and central planning based on their central values. And it succeeded in that and several other ways.

I think to the extent at which Albert synthesized the rewards of past struggle from below and to the left into a coherent theory of economics (whether from anarcho-syndicalist Spain, or horizontal planning in Porto Alegre), this book (and the concept of parecon itself) was a success. It is when Albert begins straying from broad vision and into tiny things that are uniquely "Albertian," that is when he gets into a fastidiousness that is annoying to me. He uses the defense of "don't get caught up in the tiny details, this is merely a vision that has yet to be implemented" in one paragraph (a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with) and in the next, he is documenting, in the most tedious way, how a swimming pool might be collectively purchased with participatory economics.

During the "demonstrations" of ParEcon, I found myself wishing that Albert had coauthored this book with a sci-fi writer. Ursula K LeGuin, for example described a unique economy in a unique world, and showed daily life within those contexts, in her book, The Dispossessed. Albert, as gifted a thinker as he is, is not a sci-fi writer. Life within participatory economics seemed almost consumed by participatory economics, and therefore it was difficult to imagine what, for example, my life would be like in a society with participatory economics.

Albert also has a tendency to, understandably, compare his vision with capitalism, and shows how criticisms of participatory economics are more valid criticisms of the current economic order. However, once I agreed with Albert that participatory economics would be better than capitalism (not hard to do to an anti-capitalist who is perfectly willing to throw capitalism to the wind for almost any reason), those criticisms remained almost un-addressed. Furthermore, some of the more persistent arguments were made into straw-men and burnt. Like the concern about vision dominating and becoming dogmatism, a concern I had throughout the book. The person he described with that concern was like a funhouse mirror version of myself, which he then proceeded to criticize with, leaving me with my criticism nearly unaddressed.

A criticism that remains completely unaddressed is whether ParEcon is behaviorist. Can we reward people for social acts and punish them for antisocial acts, and come out with social people in a social society? How do I reconcile this with the much more progressive thought (in comparison to economics) going on in pedagogy and education that says otherwise?

In summary, I don't disagree with ParEcon. I'm just not excited about it. It sounds far-off and difficult, and I am not convinced it's the way. In terms of creating dual power, I think there are stronger strategies out there (dual-power unionism, married with popular neighborhood assemblies, and caucusing for oppression, for example). If I were to start an enterprise, I would probably use parts of parecon (for example, balanced job complexes), and parts of other theories. So I don't see where it fits, as a whole concept, into my life.

2020 edit: As I'm rereading my review here, I'm struck by the fact that even at that time I was put off by the desire to distill a life into constituent parts, and a separate manner of organizing each. So we have the awkward words ParEcon, ParPolity, ParKinship, etc. etc.
See also: ( )
  magonistarevolt | Apr 24, 2020 |
Reviewed in the February 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard:
  Impossibilist | Feb 14, 2018 |
This is not the most interesting book I have read lately, but it is one of the most important. It deals with the topics so often left vague in left-wing literature: the nitty-gritty of how a non-capitalist economy would actually allocate goods and services, balance supply and demand, avoid gluts or shortages, invest in infrastructure, reward work, manage workplaces, etc. Essentially trying to create a non-capitalist economic theory.

I have to admit that it was a struggle to keep reading sometimes. The talk of iterative planning, facilitation boards, nested councils, balanced job complexes, etc., is very nitty and very gritty. But it’s necessary. There are lots of slogans, lots of vague and inspiring essays about how things should be. I even wrote one myself a while back, and won a prize for it. That stuff is important, but we also need to take the next step. Capitalism is a horrifically unjust system: that much is obvious, even to many of its supporters. What makes it so hard to replace is that people don’t believe another system is possible. The fact that “Another world is possible” became a radical slogan is an indication of quite how much we have swallowed the lie that capitalism is the only possible way that human beings could ever hope to organise themselves.

Part of the reason for that is that so few people have set out a detailed description of how an alternative society would work. Contrary to popular belief, Marx never did. His analysis was of capitalism, and his references to a post-capitalist society were as vague as anyone else’s. What became associated with Marxism, socialism and anything else left-wing was the central planning installed by the Bolsheviks when they found themselves in power in Russia after 1917 and perpetuated thereafter in Soviet-influenced countries around the world and, to a lesser extent, by “democratic” socialist parties in capitalist countries. So Labour came to stand for more nationalisation and government control, and the Conservatives for the free market, and similar dichotomies arose in many other countries.

Unfortunately, both models have now failed.

Markets, by their nature, perpetuate injustice: those with accumulated wealth are at a huge advantage in any market interaction, and so achieve a favourable outcome, and so accumulate more wealth. In theory, when a sweatshop worker in Thailand decides to stitch shirts for a huge multinational corporation, they are entering into a free and fair contract. But the huge differential in power ensures that the deal heavily favours the multinational corporation. The company makes a huge profit on the shirts and accumulates yet more wealth; the worker goes nowhere if they’re lucky, downward if they’re not. Unions help to mitigate this effect by organising workers into bigger groups with more collective power, but they can only slow down the inevitable. The recent credit crunch shows more than ever the stupidity of relying on a system of individual greed to provide the best results for society as a whole.

Central planning, on the other hand, leads to the development of a coordinator class (”Party members”) who monopolise the decision-making and gain unjust advantages. Plans are developed centrally, with little input from workers or consumers, and enforced using state power. Party members, just like capitalist elites, need to protect their power and wealth from the rest of society, and because they are the state, they have direct control over the police, army, secret police, etc. It’s not hard to see how a police state would evolve in this scenario. Relying on the experts to do the right thing might sound good in theory, but in practice it’s no different from the medieval reliance on having a good king. It might happen, but if it doesn’t, society goes to hell. You need something else, to safeguard against abuse of power.

This book proposes a new way: participatory planning. I can’t go into the whole thing here - it needs a book. But these are some of the main principles:

Remuneration according to effort and sacrifice. The premise is that it’s only fair to reward people for what they can control. Nobody can control how much wealth they were born with, how much physical or mental ability they were born with, how much each person can produce, etc. What everyone can control is how much effort they make, and how much sacrifice (in terms of time spent at work, in training, etc.) they make. So this is rewarded.

Balanced job complexes. In a “parecon” society, everyone will be expected to take part in political and economic decision-making. Not just once every four years, but all the time, from a local level up to the regional and national level. But this will never work if some people, by working in empowering jobs all the time, become experts in decision-making, while others, by working in mundane jobs, become incapable of participating effectively. So everyone should have a “balanced job complex”. This means that in any workplace, tasks are shared around. You might be the manager on one project, and the note-taker on another. And if you work in a comparatively empowering place, that has to be balanced out by doing some mundane tasks somewhere else (e.g. collecting garbage once a month). Similarly, people who work in a steel mill will be able to balance out their comparatively unpleasant workplace by doing a few hours a week of empowering work.

Individual planning. Instead of relying on markets to set prices, each person makes a plan of how much they want to work and what they want to spend. This is all tallied up, indicative prices are set, and several rounds of planning are done to even up supply and demand.

Nested councils. Decision-making is bottom-up, not top-down. Decisions that affect only local people are made only at a local level. Neighbourhood councils then feed into local councils, regional councils, national councils, etc.

This is only a very brief sketch, and does not do justice to it. Because we are so used to how things are, the initial reaction to many of these ideas, especially when presented so briefly, may be to laugh at them. They may sound naive or unrealistic or impossible. But Michael Albert sets out a compelling vision and goes into a LOT of detail to explain it all. He doesn’t talk at all about how to get from A to B, and that for me is the biggest problem. But I guess that is addressed in other books - his main concern here is to provide an example of how we could organise society differently. There is no rhetoric, no calls to arms. It is very sober, very boring in places, but very necessary. If we don’t actively engage in the dull science of economics, it will be left in the hands of people like Milton Friedman, and the world will end in a fireball of lunacy. ( )
  AndrewBlackman | Nov 22, 2008 |
I bought this book hoping to be blown away (rave reviews, my own attitudes toward Capitalism, etc.). I left the reading thoroughly underwhelmed. Albert, normally a decent writer, is a bad-to-moderate writer at best with this effort. And if Chomsky is right, that this "is the most serious effort I know to provide a very detailed possible answer to some of these questions, crucial ones, based on serious thought and careful analysis" (these questions being "what alternative form of social organization can be imagined that might overcome the grave flaws -- often real crimes -- of contemporary society in more far-reaching ways than short-term reform"), then we have a long, long way to go.

I don't know if you can understand how much I wanted to be wowed by this book. ( )
1 vota Daedalus | Feb 9, 2006 |
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'What do you want?' is a constant query put to economic and globalization activists decrying current poverty, alienation, and degradation. In this highly praised new work, destined to attract worldwide attention and support, Michael Albert provides an answer: participatory economics, 'parecon' for short ? a new economy, an alternative to capitalism, built on familiar values including solidarity, equity, diversity, and people democratically controlling their own lives, but utilizing original institutions fully described and defended in this book.

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