Co-founder of Z Communications and Z Magazine and author of several books which discuss his economic alternative to capitalism, including Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty-First Century (1990, with Robin Hahnel) and, most recently, Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism, A Memoir (2007), Michael Albert is one of the world’s most prolific anti-capitalist scholars and activists. The Imagineer chatted with Albert about the American economy and his proposal for a more effective economic alternative.
Imagineer: What were the general causes of the current economic crisis?
Albert: The economic system that we have is organized in such a way and has structures that guarantee individuals will function as individuals, without concern for or even knowledge of the implications of what they are doing for others. This is true not only for individuals but also for institutions—major corporations which are sometimes as big as small nations or even middle-sized ones. The result is that every so often the behavior of these institutions barrels down a track leading to a disruption, which creates a situation in which there is insufficient desire for outputs, insufficient means to purchase outputs, or insufficient resources among producers to invest or pursue more avenues. You get a kind of disturbance, a pause in activity.
The trouble is that pauses in activity can be self-fulfilling. It can cause others to pause, and if enough start to pause, the whole thing starts to slow down dramatically. In other words, if a bunch of people get fired, that set of people is not going to be purchasing as much as they were purchasing before. In due course, the firms from which this set of people would have been purchasing from are getting less revenue and subsequently they might have to fire more people. So you get dynamic unfoldments of events in which a disruption multiplies and builds upon itself.
Honestly, it does not matter a whole lot what the causes of these crises are. What really matters is that the entire system is prone to these kinds of disruptions on a periodic basis, not on any schedule but rather unpredictably. What I think is much more consequential is the difference between normal operations, when most of the commentators and pundits would say things are going along just fine, and periods like right now, when those same commentators will say that it is a disastrous situation, a horrible economic crisis.
Well, what is the difference between going along fine and a horrible economic crisis? Partly it is what I just said. The disruption is percolating through the economy, and it is leading to cutbacks and so forth. But the key point is that in what is called a crisis, the people who are wealthy and powerful are feeling some of the pain—not most of it; most of it is still felt by the weak and the poor. But some of the pain is felt by the rich and the powerful, so they call it a crisis.
So for instance, two year ago, things are going along smoothly, and the commentators are still saying that everything is fine, and yet most of the planet is poor. Most on the planet lack conditions which would allow them to fulfill themselves. Literally millions of people starve to death. People do not have water. People do not have dignity. Well, that apparently does not count as a crisis. That just counts as “business as usual.” That is the normal situation of the economy. So in the United States even, if we define it here, there are thirty million people who live below the poverty line all the time. But that is not a crisis. It is not a crisis that people are unemployed. It is not a crisis that people who work have no dignity, are insubordinate, and are pushed around. That does not count as a crisis.
What counts as a crisis is only when one of those disturbances I described reaches a point at which the people who own companies and the people who have high incomes and lots of power are affected. That is the most important thing about understanding crises, because the very fact of calling this a crisis and not calling the normal operation of the system a crisis is grotesquely immoral. It is like saying that a concentration camp is in a crisis when the electricity goes out, but it is not in a crisis the rest of the time. It does not make any sense. The only reason you call it a crisis when the electricity goes out is because the lights go out, and the officers cannot see when they are in the warden’s office. If you could see there and it was just that the prisoners could not see, it would not be called a crisis. So that is the kind of warped thinking that goes on around a “crisis,” sometimes even by people who are well-meaning and just trying to get a grip on what is happening.
Imagineer: It is my understanding that your economic system, as introduced in several of your books, is essentially democracy taking form in economics. Can you explain what Participatory Economics is and how this could be a viable solution for our future?
Albert: Well, democracy is certainly part of it, but I am not sure I want to use that specific word. That word is very confusing to people. Does it mean people decide their own lives? The United States is a democracy, that is for sure, but does it mean people decide their own lives, the circumstances, the situations? No. For the most part, we do not even know what decisions are being made. Decisions are being made by distant, small groups of people who have situations and interests entirely different than those of the people who are actually affected by the decisions. I like to talk about self-management instead, in which the people who are affected by the decisions are the ones who participate in making them and in which the people get a say that is in proportion to the degree they are affected.
So you ask, “What is Participatory Economics?” The simple answer, which would not be the whole of it but would be a very big part of it, would be that Participatory Economics is about giving workers and consumers control over economic decisions to the degree that they are affected by them and taking away the gargantuan, disproportionate level of power which currently rests in the hands of relatively few people, so that those people wind up with the same level of control in the decision-making process as others.
So then you ask, “O.K., well how do you do that?” Well, there are a lot of steps and things to think about, but a particularly large one is this: if you say people can vote but you do not allow people to have the information, the competence, and the circumstances to vote in an informed way, it is not worth much. So for instance, if in the United States you say that people can choose between Exxon and BP, two kinds of fuel that are produced in a way which violates ecology, it is true that people can make that choice—you can go from one pump to another pump—but you cannot choose clean propulsion or another alternative.
So if you can choose between two political candidates who are in turn chosen by small groups of elites and who spend ridiculous sums of money trying to distort people’s perceptions of what their actual positions are, then the choice does not mean a lot when you get finished with it all. You did not even know what their real positions were, and you did not have the option to actually pick and choose what you desire, because the prior choices were all made independently of you.
In the United States, workplaces are typically what are called corporations. Corporations are entities owned by relatively few people, in which some people administrate—manage and other things like that—and some people just carry out tasks. Corporations in the United States are not democratic; they are dictatorial and really even totalitarian. So for instance, at his worst, Josef Stalin or any dictator who you care to name would never dream of saying to his population, “O.K., you are not allowed to go to the bathroom except during this twenty minute period between 3:10 and 3:30,” or, “You cannot talk in public. You have to petition and request it,” or something like that. But that is routinely done in corporations. It is routinely decided when you can and cannot go to the bathroom, when you can and cannot talk, at what pace you have to function, or what you can and cannot wear. These are things that no dictator would dream of imposing on an electorate, and yet owners can impose them on a workforce. If you extrapolate through the whole workforce, you have all working people subordinate in that way within the economy. Well, that is not democracy. That does not even come close to democracy.
Some people would say that we should keep the workplace like it is now. It would look the same way and have the same jobs in it, but we will let all the workers have one vote and will let them vote for someone to run the workplace, for managers, and for some policies. In a sense, we will replicate voting inside the United States. Is that good or bad? Well, it is certainly better than totalitarianism, just like the United States’ electoral system is better than dictatorship. In that sense, it would be a step forward, but is that what we really want? I think the answer to that is no, it is not. The reason it is not is because all those people in the workplace who are doing tedious, redundant, and repetitive work; who are bored all day long; who are denied access to any information; and who are made to feel passive, incompetent, and subordinate are not in a position to participate in decision making in an informed fashion and with confidence. If they just cast a ballot for Joe or Sue as boss, it is not that different from just casting a ballot for Joe or Sue as President of the United States, where Joe and Sue as candidates have just been picked by elites, and that is just what would happen in the workplace.
What you want instead is something that we call self-management. That is a situation in which not only does the workplace have a workers’ council structure that is the repository of power which makes the decisions, but each worker inside the workplace does a fair share of empowering and non-empowering work each day. In other words, you as a worker inside the workplace do not do only rote, repetitive, subordinate work—taking orders and having no conceptual involvement in what is going on—but instead, while you do some rote and repetitive work because there is a lot that has to get done, you share this work fairly among everybody and also do some conceptual, empowering work that gives you social skills and confidence.
As a result, when everybody gets together to decide policy, you are capable of participating, having your own views, offering them, debating the possibilities, and voting intelligently for what should be done. Then you get real self-management instead of some kind of phony, false democracy. That is the task. Equalizing of the power at work is called balanced job complexes. The decision making apparatus taking place instead of the hierarchical one that we have today is called self-management; it is kind of like advanced democracy. Those are two key features of Participatory Economics, not the whole of it, but certainly two key features.
Imagineer: One might argue that socialism did not work in the twentieth century. Communism did not work in the twentieth century. So why would our society stray towards that end of the spectrum now when it seems to have already been proven ineffective?
Albert: Well, what does that mean “did not work?” I did not like them when they were ascendant, when they were in big systems like in the Soviet Union and so on. I was just as opposed to them then as I am opposed to the system that we call capitalism now. But we have to be careful when we say “did not work.” Those systems in some respects did work and in other respects did not. They were beaten up. Many instances of them dissolved, disappeared, or fell apart. Some others still exist.
But let us look at capitalism. What about saying that it does not work? What does “work” mean? Does it just mean that it roles along? Well, by that standard, Pharaonic Egypt, the Egypt of the Pharaohs and giant troops of slaves building pyramids, “worked.” That lasted for about three thousand years. Was that a system that was desirable because it lasted three thousand years? Is that the definition of working, that is persists? No. What we ought to have in mind, if we are not deceived by mainstream media, pundits, and so forth, is that a working system will meet people’s needs, develop people’s potentials, and advance the finest possibilities for humanity. If that is the standard, then what can we say about capitalism? We can say it is absolutely abhorrent. It is abysmal. It is a system which routinely subordinates about five-sevenths of the planet. It yields huge levels of starvation to the point of death and death due to preventable diseases. Every so often, it falls apart in paroxysms of “crises.” It right now is making such a mess of the environment and the climate that it threatens all of humanity.
I think that the old systems that went under the names of communism or socialism were horribly flawed and inadequate, but I also think that capitalism is horribly flawed and inadequate. If the old systems that were labeled socialism did not work, why would that cause us to think that we should stick with what we have? Does that really follow in any significant way? During the times of feudalism, fledgling capitalist systems often failed. Does that constitute a reason to stick with feudalism? No, of course not. During the times of slavery, attempts to free slaves sometimes failed. Was that a reason to keep slavery? Of course not.
In other words, the failing or inadequacy of the systems called socialism and communism, which really were class-divided systems in which there were no longer private owners who owned the whole economy despite there being other people who ruled the show, does not tell us that the other system is somehow worthy or desirable. All we have to do is look at the other system. It is so far from being humane or worthy or desirable that we ought to seriously consider the possibility of finding something better, and that is what advocates for Participatory Economics do.
Next: Yaron Brook
k im done here, i dont agree with much anything said but it was interesting, good read