Thinking Seriously About Alternatives: Introducing Parecon

It’s a common refrain today that the left doesn’t have any new ideas. I think this is why, despite the blood and thunder on however many mass demonstrations, a certain sense of futility remains. A sense that, whatever we do, the best we can hope for is some shadow of the post-war settlement, at which point we can go back to hoping we’ll one day own a house and get to move up the property ladder like our parents were supposed to.

This is why I’m so impressed by the work done by Michael Albert and co to develop models of alternatives economics. The left sometime seems reluctant to embrace utopian thinking, or take seriously abstract values – the ‘fanatical’ commitment to equality explored by authors like Toscano – in forming their goals. Parecon is an exception to this and makes us seriously consider whether Zizek is correct and “we are all Fukuyamaists today.”

Parecon is Albert’s name for the system of economics he developed alongside Robin Hahnel, and serves two important purposes in political organizing. First of all, it gives us the beginning of a genuine remedy to many of our contemporary problems. In this way it’s a bold declaration that, perhaps, Terry Eagleton is right and that materialism – that our institutions and cultures determine the world, rather than anything innate and irrevocable – is the only real antidote to despair. Secondly, it gives us tools for immanent critique. Put another way, it allows us to think critically about our existing institutions and find ways out of them, and means to judge our progress in social struggles.

The system is based on a number of quite simple ideas. Albert is a masterful writer when it comes to dealing with complex problems in an accessible, convincing manner. Founded on the values of Solidairty, Equity, Self-Management and Diversity, it imagines new schemes of economic production and trade which would not reproduce capitalism and hierarchy. In this way also, we learn to see work and production as at the centre of our problems, unleashing a number of critical possibilities.

While there have been some positive signs, like the founding of the Project for a Participatory Society – UK, there is still much work to be done to distribute the ideas surrounding Parecon and bring them up for serious discussion on the left. In my own small way, I’m hoping to help with that, so what follows is a three part guide to the basic ideas. Links for further reading and viewing are at the end, as I can’t possibly pretend to have answered or asked all the important questions here.

1. Wages in Parecon

This is the best place to start. As noted above, Parecon is about equity, and therefore equitable remuneration. This doesn’t mean identical remuneration for everyone, but it does approach the question in a radically different way to capitalism. As Albert correctly points out, the modern system of remuneration essentially rewards people for ‘what they can take’. That is to say, economic power is a manifestation of social power, with the most powerful taking the most.  For Albert, as for most people, this is unjust, whether it’s in the form on inherited wealth, overblown industries (like banks) or the inflated wealth of the super-rich. While it may be the natural outcome of a ‘market system’, Albert is a ‘market abolitionist’ arguing that, in a market, ‘shit rises’. I’m not inclined to disagree.

In Parecon, remuneration would take place on the basis of the effort, onerousness and sacrifice the work involves. This is to say, how much you have to sacrifice to do socially valuable work – working nights and in isolation from away from loved ones, working in dangerous conditions, working on tedious and difficult tasks – should be the basis of remuneration. How to measure these things would be decided collectively. This suggests that, for instance, certain care workers, teachers and long distance drivers would be remunerated considerably more than, say, merchants bankers or shareholders.

This seems pretty objectionable at first glance. What about the extensive training required to become, say, a doctor? Here, Albert’s answer is not only simple but obvious. Firstly, how much more would you have to be paid to pick garbage from trash heaps before you decided to do that rather practice medicine? Because the work is empowering, conveys social status, involves a very personally rewarding contribution, most people would be inclined to opt for being a doctor. Not because of the money, which is a manifestation of social power, but because the work is simply more appealing. What’s more, if you said to just about anyone on the planet, “Would you rather go to school for 7 years to learn medicine, as opposed to working for that 7 years in the coal mine,  even if you make the same as a doctor?” I imagine most people would choose school. So, on the assumption that people, all other things being equal, would not suddenly stop working hard to do useful and important work because it would no longer be disproportionally rewarded, I think this makes sense. In fact, given the number of people I know (including myself) who continually ponder corporate options because of the need for cash might put their talents and abilities to work doing something a little bit more useful.

2. Balanced Job Complexes

Bear with me here because, if remuneration for effort and sacrifice sounded like utopian nonsense, this one is way worse: workplaces should be self-managed, with each worker having a voice in decisions to the extent that they effect them. But what about, critics argue, the impossibility of collective ownership given the stupidity and indifference they perceive in most people?

Parecon’s answer to this is the ‘balanced job complex’. This is an idea based on the analysis that, in contemporary society, there is a division not just between the ruling class and the working class but between the ‘co-ordinator class’ and the  other two. The ‘co-ordinator class’ comprise the 20% of the population who monopolize the ‘empowering’ work – work which involves analysis of information, delegation, decision-making, and creative input into the direction of the enterprise – and leave the ‘rote’ work – following orders and being obedient – to everyone else. The 20% consist of politicians, doctors, lawyers, engineers, CEOs, and other high-flyers in industry and finance. In short, those to whom capitalism needs to co-ordinate and oversee the work of the rest of society. Typically, they are treated with respect and appreciation, amply rewarded, networked and to a certain extent in control of their own lives. At the centre of this is not, as people might be quick to argue, their superior skills or abilities, but rather a superior education and a great deal of what Bordieu would call ‘cultural capital’ that stems from their upbringing.

For Albert, overcoming this initial division within the workplace is at the centre of a radical strategy because, he writes, self-management of enterprises cannot take place while there is a 20% who monopolize the empowering work. Therefore, each person should have an equal share of rote work and empowering work. This creates a ‘balanced job complexes’. By doing so, we not only create equity and, indeed, a less miserable existence for the working class, but also maximise the creative abilities of all who work. “But what about the inherent stupidity of the working class?” some might gasp. Naturally, Albert is a materialist, and believes that schooling and work do not respond to so much as create these divisions between people, there being nothing natural about them. “Imagine” he asks, “saying in the 50s that the medical profession represented the only people capable of doing that sort of work. What’s wrong with this picture?” The answer is of course the medical profession then would have been primarily male, white and from privileged backgrounds. The overcoming of these barriers in the contemporary society should make it clear that the places people end up in society has little to do with any sort of inevitable destiny.

It’s therefore encouraging that the Occupy movements have, despite some early mistakes, made a good show of trying to overcome these divisions. It also informs what we should mean when we talk about ‘wanting jobs’ within our movements:  interesting, democratically determined and challenging work directed at real problems and needs,  light years away from what Tesco mean when they say their new superstore will ‘provide jobs’.

3. But What About the Market?

Of course, no such business could survive in the modern marketplace. Democracy and equity, not to mention horizontal organization and empowerment, are all very well and good. But providing competition for Coca-Cola or IBM and their legion of obedient wage slave? The short answer is that this is obviously impossible. A longer answer, and certainly the one I understand Albert to be giving, is that an economy which allows greed, hierarchy and servitude to triumph over the values embedded in the self-managed workplace of balanced job complexes, is not an economy particularly worthy of us. In this sense too, Albert is a market abolitionist. In it’s place, he argues that we should have a system of distribution, without a top or bottom, through which workers and consumers (who, we would do well to remember are simply opposite sides of the same coin) come together to collectively make decisions about what is made, how it is priced, and so on. Innovation would be a collective process, distributed evenly throughout society, and in turn creating an incentive towards pro-social development.

Further Reading

This is a whistle stop tour, and many of the problems you might have detected or further questions you might have are generally dealt with in detail in Albert’s myriad articles, books and talks on the subject. I’ve linked to some below. However, even if Parecon isn’t the model for the future of the economy (although I would argue it’s currently the best we have) I believe that it illustrates many of the starting points we need for a properly utopian and progressive discussion. By placing work and the economy at the centre of our proposals for reform, as opposed to something archaic and inevitable to be decided by the ‘markets’, there are much greater radical possibilities than arise from debating the proper extent of our civil liberties or discussing the merits of organic food.

Parecon is also valuable because it gives us some interesting criteria to debate the success or failure of our movements. This is something Albert also writes about extensively, but what I mean here is simply that it is in establishing these alternatives, creating networks of support, and making democratic work and trade viable that we can entrench our resistance and alternatives, either through parliamentary moves (as seen in Venezuela) or alternatives ‘outside the state’ (as John Holloway might argue). Part of the challenge of the left is to make an ethical life possible and, indeed, accessible. Parecon takes up this challenge and deserves our attention for it.

Albert outlining Parecon at Strathclyde University, Scotland, part 1 of 5:

Albert introducing Parecon at the ‘Real Utopia’ event in NYC

Interesting video of Albert discussing organizing in the 60s:

Parecon Q&A

Parecon Tutorial:

Parecon Reading List:

Parecon Today by Michael Albert:

Parecon by Michael Albert on Amazon

  1. #1 by assman on February 18, 2012 - 3:43 pm

    Parecon is horrible. I can never the appeal to crazy lefties. But then progressives are naturally insane and good at basically creating societies that result in mass starvation and death. So maybe I shouldn’t wonder.

    Why is parecon bad?

    1) Wages based on onerousness, effort and sacrifice. Ewwwwwwwwwww. Incentives MATTER. This has been demonstrated again and again and again and again. Humans respond to even perverse incentives. There is massive evidence this is true. So what happens if you REWARD onerousness, effort and sacrifice. All work becomes onerous, requires a large effort and a large sacrifice EVEN if it doesn’t have to. EVIL. BTW, there is nothing new about what Michael is talking about. Humans are already pre-disposed to value sacrifice, hard work and onerousness EVEN WITHOUT ANY INCENTIVES. The results is of this horrendously evil, evil evil (did I mention evil) tendency is that human beings will work hard, do onerous things even when they don’t have good results just to show others that they are hard workers. There are whole countries like Japan and South Korea where this evil tendency is very much present. Workers in Japan will stay very late, are generally highly inefficient and have no home life. All of this in an effort to show other workers how unselfishly they are working. The result of this are things like death by overwork. South Korea has the same problem. Even America has this problem although to a far far lessor extent. Much of the “hard work” that goes on is completely unnecessary. Luckily the capitalistic system actively militates against this trend indirectly by destroying stupid corporations. And we have people like those in ROWE that are working on better more capitalistic result oriented workplaces. Parecon is this sense is horrible. It actually incentivizes this human stupidity which doesn’t even need to be incentivized because humans do it anyways without incentives. Its like incentivizing racism or eating sugar. WHY WHY WHY would you do that. There is nothing in the logic of capitalism that incentivizes hard work. Capitalism incentivizes money making. Not onerousness, not sacrifice, not effort but results. Even with this however humans have and evil tendency thinking input is more important that output. Its just wrong.

    2) Balanced job complexes and the coordinator class – ahhh bullshit. The coordinator class has monopolized the empowering work…Huh? That is the sum total of his analysis of why Socialism failed. So the coordinator class produced mass starvation and death. And where is the evidence. The incredible amount of evidence needed to back Albert’s thesis. Oh ya….NOTHING. We are just supposed to accept what Michael says. OKKKKAAYYY.

    Balanced job complexes. Ever hear of learning curves? People become better at a task the more they do it. A world class surgeon becomes really great by doing lots of surgery. This is also true of the BRAIN. The brain is an organ capable of incredible things but its ability to specialize for specific tasks is the most incredible thing. In a society this implies that you can reliably create geniuses simply by getting people to specialize heavily in one particular area. The human brain literally changes its structure in response to learning. A surgeon’s brain is different than a janitor’s brain. Taking a surgeon and making him a janitor is monumentally STUPID. Even doing it for 5 minutes is stupid. Capitalism is largely successful due to a single factor….human specialization. Its the reason for almost all advances in society. Taking this away is HUGELY stupid, evil and wrong. And it marks Michael Albert as an idiot.

    And why are we going to make the surgeon into a janitor? Because the coordinator class is Michael Albert’s proposed reason why communism failed. Yes surgeons not being janitors somehow magically led to mass starvation and death. IDIOT. IDIOT. ERRRGGGHH.

    3) Abolish the market. And replace it with what…wait for it…keep waiting….production and consumption councils arranged hierarchically. But of course we tried this except without the consumption councils. And would did it result in. The GREAT LEAP FORWARD which resulted in mass starvation and death. Why didn’t the councils work? Because in their urge to outdo the peer production councils would make unrealistic promise they could not deliver. Planning with councils never worked. Does Michael understand this. Does he have an idea of why. Has he for instance read Mao’s Great Famine. Has he read about Deng Xiaoping. Has he read about how Cuba’s economy works. No no no. Michael sees no evil and hears no evil. But he is good at pulling shit out of his ass. Deng didn’t get rid of collectivization for no reason. He looked at what worked and what didn’t. We have a massive experience of why these political councils fail. The problem is that
    Michael just never cared to examine any of the existing literature. I assume this because he never ever cites anything.

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