May 15, 2003

Unpublished review of "Parecon: Life After Capitalism"

I once saw a protest sign which read: "Communism is dead. Is capitalism next?" Perhaps so. After all, there are hints that the patient is seriously ill or in the intensive care unit: Seattle, Genoa, Enron, Argentina. If the answer to that protest sign is "yes and soon" then The Question remains, how might we best organize our economic affairs in an equitable manner in a world of more than six billion people?

Parecon: Life After Capitalism by Michael Albert offers an answer: a system of PARticipatory ECONomics whose intent is an improvement in human relations and global sustainability by means of a number of integrated institutions. The author of Parecon, Michael Albert, is an author and system operator of Z Magazine's huge website ZNet. Parecon, a hybrid of manifesto and instruction book, represents Albert's latest attempt to articulate, synthesize, and defend the ideas behind participatory economics.

To his credit, Albert doesn't make any presumptions about his audience. His writing takes nothing for granted, and Parecon can be read by everyone from political neophytes to hardened activists. Even before he explains the basics behind what a system of participatory economics is, Albert starts by addressing some fundamental questions about economics: What is an economy? What values are, or should be, important in judging economies? What are some examples of past and present economies and how well do they measure by the values we accord?

With his answers to these questions and with the values he thinks are important, Albert assembles a "scorecard" and weighs the merits of various economies according to those values. Here he consistently tips over sacred economic cows across the political spectrum. He irks right-wingers by complaining that markets, among other problems, ignore important externalities and mandate commercialization of everything. He'll probably irk a few leftists with his potshots against central planning (degenerates to dictatorships), bioregionalism (too vague), and various historical examples of socialism (they use some amalgam of central planning and markets).

Albert details parecon's proposed institutions in the book, which includes (1) employment through a balance of empowering and disempowering tasks, termed "balanced job complexes", (2) decision making by means of council democracy of producers and consumers, (3) compensation based on one's effort and sacrifice, and (4) allocation through a mutually-agreed-upon plan arrived at by a series of negotiations, termed "participatory planning". This last component ("parti-plan"?) is the most difficult parecon institution to understand and articulate, but Parecon presents what may be the best articulation of the idea to date.

Albert then devotes the last third of the book to addressing the most realistic criticisms and critical questions against parecon. Is there no privacy in parecon? Is it indeed participatory or just another mishmosh of markets and central planning? Can't parecon be allowed to have some limited markets? How well does parecon fit with other social institutions? Is parecon an attainable or realistic goal?

Even though these big bad wolves huff and puff and try to blow his parecon house down, Albert shows that his brick house holds up. It's in this final third of the book when it becomes clear that, even though there are no wide- scale parecon examples to point to, the ideas that power Parecon have been around the block. Indeed, Parecon culminates twelve years of writing and thought about parecon since the model was first described in the 1991 book "Looking Forward" (co-written with economist Robin Hahnel). Since Looking Forward, Albert has rearticulated the parecon vision, either alone or with Hahnel, in a handful of books he has written since then.

It would be a shame if Albert continues his near-monopoly on articulating participatory economics. Parecon sets a noteworthy example in articulating a vision for other people to explore, particularly since no one has to date successfully poked a theoretical hole in the workings of participatory economics. Perhaps more importantly Albert implicitly encourages people to forge a vision (be it parecon or something else), experiment with it, and see how well it meshes with other visions and with reality, and give something worth fighting for.

Albert can be technical when the need calls for it, but he isn't afraid to shy away from a tunnel vision towards economics even though the book is devoted to theoretical economics. Curiously enough, he writes without a pretense of winning you over or trying to convert you into a pareconista. This might be the book's greatest success: Albert lets the nitty-gritty details and the strength of the model speak for itself, and in so doing may have gone farther in winning converts than any high-minded platitudes. Will the damn thing actually work? As Albert himself says, "The only proof is to succeed."

Reading Parecon, I was curiously reminded of Milton Friedman's pro-market manifesto Capitalism and Freedom, even though the two books are politically light-years apart and Parecon is much easier to read. Friedman's book fanned the flames of the global scourge of neoliberalism (i.e., let markets run rampant and let the rich run the world). Parecon may fan the flames of a global anti-neoliberal backlash--indeed, Parecon is already slated for publication in at least 18 languages with more on the way. As the global economy continues to unravel and people grow hungrier for genuine alternatives, Parecon might be mandatory reading for the coming decades and beyond.