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Parecon: Life After Capitalism by Michael…

Parecon: Life After Capitalism

by Michael Albert

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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 have very mixed feelings about this book. There are many critiques of capitalism out there, but very few authors offer alternative visions. So Michael Albert is to be applauded for formulating such a vision and attempting to present it to a wider audience. The problem is that, as the previous reviewer pointed out, this is a very poorly written and edited book. I typically enjoy reading this sort of stuff, but I had a hard time getting through this book, even though I am sympathetic to the author's aims and arguments. ( )
1 vote sbnicar | Oct 10, 2007 |
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 vote Daedalus | Feb 9, 2006 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Albert, Michaelprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Yli-Juonikas, JaakkoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 184467505X, Paperback)

An answer to the constant economic query put to economic and globalization activists.

'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 the book.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:38 -0400)

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