heard the stats being thrown around. The top 1% of
Americans has greater personal net worth than the
bottom 95% combined, says NYU economist Edward Wolff
in a 1999 report. One out of three non-elderly Americans
doesn't have health insurance, says a recent Robert
Wood Johnson Foundation report. One in six children
lives in poverty, says the U.S. Census. The majority
of Americans work hard day in, day out, just to keep
their heads above water, and many don't make it.
Washington and in statehouses across the country,
Democrats and Republicans tweak the edges of the economy
with innovations such as earned income tax credits,
welfare reform and child-care subsidies, but things
don't seem to change all that much. In fact, over
recent decades, inequality has gotten worse. The concern
is so great that in a recent poll by Zogby International,
two-thirds of Americans agreed that "the income
gap between the wealthy and other Americans has become
so great that something needs to be done about it."
Albert thinks we should start over.
with the help of others, has spent much of his life
designing a new economy from the ground up. His latest
book, "Parecon: Life After Capitalism"
(Verso), shot from No. 2,423,754 on the Amazon bestseller
list to No. 13 in just a few days after some online
promotion. It now hovers in the 400s and will hit
bookshelves later this month.
(pronounced par-E-con, the title is short for "participatory
economics") is already being translated into
more than 20 languages. So why is there so much interest
in what seems like such a quixotic undertaking?
55, points to popular culture as evidence there is
widespread agreement about the evils of contemporary
capitalism. "Go into the store and buy the 10
top-selling novels and read them. You'll be flabbergasted
at the number of them that include a clear-cut condemnation
-- although it's not the authors' purpose -- of one
sector or another of modern society and the institutions
identifies four key values that any economy must address:
equity (how much should people get and why?); self-management
(what kind of say over their conditions should people
have?); diversity (is more variety better than less?);
and solidarity (should people cooperate or compete?).
participatory economy would redefine existing divisions
of labor through the idea of "balanced job complexes,"
whereby each job would contain a balanced share of
tasks -- some creative and empowering, some rote and
unfulfilling -- required in each workplace. There
would be no managers whose primary responsibility
is making decisions, just as there would be no janitors
whose main job is cleaning up. Each worker would have
an equal share of the gravy train and the dirty work,
which Albert thinks will contribute to eliminating
hierarchy and class.
percent of people have their talents and skills crushed
out of them ... because we educate people to obey
orders and to endure boredom because that's what they're
going to face in life," he said.
economics, which Albert developed with American University
economics professor Robin Hahnel, places shared values
at the forefront of economic relations. "If humanity
should not aspire to create an elite minority joyfully
dancing atop a suffocating mountainous majority,"
Albert writes, "what should we aspire to?"
his economic system, there would be no private ownership
of productive capital, such as commercial property;
instead, such assets would be publicly held and run.
He points out, however, that he's not talking about
a socialist or communist society such as the old Soviet
Union, which despite its stated goal of classlessness,
did, in fact, produce a class of economic planners
whose interests often were opposed to those of workers.
His system tries to safeguard against such divisions
by using a non-hierarchical, democratic planning process
to match the economy's production to people's consumption
also wants a balanced division of labor, wages according
to people's effort and sacrifice, and input into workplace
decisions based on how much one is affected by them.
example, if someone wants to listen to music at work,
only co-workers within earshot would be consulted.
A hiring decision might be weighed by everyone who
will work with the new employee, with those working
closest having more say. Depending on the issue at
hand, some company decisions could be made by majority
rule, some by consensus and, perhaps, others by fiat,
as long as a balance that respects each person's right
to "self-manage" is achieved over time.
of gargantuan inequity, there would be equity,"
Albert said. "Instead of 'nice guys finishing
last' or 'garbage rising,' there would be solidarity,
and social relations would be positive. Instead of
class rule, there would be self-management. People
would have a say over their own lives."
task of replacing capitalism is comparable to amassing
widespread support for ending slavery or women's suffrage,
he continued. The institutions of capitalism "fall
short in the same way that the plantation slave model
fell short or that patriarchy falls short," he
said. "The hard part is not getting people to
support the goal but getting them to believe it's
participatory economics hasn't yet entered mainstream
economic debate, several realities may undercut Albert's
assumptions. One is that the system relies on benevolent
individuals to function effectively and people in
the real world aren't always so kind to one another.
Another is that people have varied natural abilities,
so assuming everybody can share all tasks is, perhaps,
asking too much.
waves off the criticisms, saying new institutions
will encourage people to behave better and perform
well. Despite the apparent enormousness of his goal
and constantly having to defend his vision from criticism,
Albert never seems less than confident that change
not optimistic that we're going to win tomorrow or
next week or next year, but I am optimistic that as
people become aware of viable and worthy alternatives
they'll strive to attain them," he said. In the
meantime, people should organize to struggle for shorter-term
goals, such as winning a 30-hour workweek (at current
pay) and gaining more decision-making power, he said.
to alleviate poverty and inequity have never been
greater in many parts of the world, especially Latin
America, where economic growth in the last two decades
has stagnated alongside the adoption of economic policies
largely dictated by the International Monetary Fund
of capitalism is not so radical an idea there, said
Mark Weisbrot, an economist at the Center for Economic
Policy Research, a liberal Washington think tank.
"Anyplace where the majority of people are poor,
you have a whole different attitude to the system
of property rights and allocation of income and wealth."
Latin America, the trend of recent decades toward
privatization is coming to a halt and in some cases
is being replaced by one of state ownership. "You
have this whole experiment in neoliberalism that is
being reversed," said Weisbrot.
could such perceptions cause change in the U.S. economy?
Peters, a writer, activist and teacher in the "worker
education program" at SEIU Local 285, a union
of building service workers in Boston, says she worked
in such an environment at South End Press, a small
Boston-based book publisher that Albert helped found
25 years ago. South End is a nonprofit collective,
whose authors include Noam Chomsky and bell hooks,
that works on participatory economics principles.
who worked there for 13 years, said that South End
never functioned with managers or used a hierarchy,
and that it made a conscious effort to share skills
and knowledge among staff. "In order to make
it a democratic organization," she said, "you
can't allow any monopolies of expertise or power to
to Peters, it wasn't especially difficult to accomplish.
"The hard part was that people are used to having
bosses, so you have to break yourself of the habit
of having a boss and become a self-manager,"
she said. "But once you do that we actually found
that we were more efficient than other publishing
End publishes 10 to 12 titles per year with just five
employees who rotate the regular work requirements,
from the more creative and conceptual tasks to cleaning
toilets. "A lot of what managers do is justify
their own position," Peters said. At South End,
everyone gets paid the same, but in "Parecon"
Albert recommends that people earn more (or less)
if they put in more (or less) effort.
became politically radicalized while he was a promising
physics student at MIT in the late 1960s. He says
he would have been a physicist "in a better world,"
but the impact of the civil rights movement and the
Vietnam War drove him from his "natural calling"
as a particle or theoretical physicist. His newfound
commitment to social change drew him to studying the
still reads physics and other hard sciences, watches
TV and goes kayaking in his spare time, of which there's
not much. He logs 70 hours a week between writing,
speaking and running the online political web site
he think those in power would willingly give up their
profit-making property and decision-making control?
"No, of course not," Albert said. The top
1% or 2% who are wealthy owners "will be opposed
to this change to the last day."
next 17% or 18% of the population "will be quite
split," Albert contends. "Some of them will
look at their circumstances, their relative wealth,
their income and their power and will bemoan the fact
that it will diminish greatly as a result of this
process. But others will look at how long they work
-- the 60- and the 80-hour workweeks -- they will
look at the alienated character of their relations
with other people, and they will also look at the
poverty and the degradation of others and they will
agree that, on balance, this change is not only worth
it but it is desirable.
the real issue is the 80% who have a tremendous amount
has compared replacing capitalism to ending apartheid
in South Africa, a revolutionary change in the dynamics
of that society. He is always argumentative and at
times cantankerous, and has an absolute conviction
that he is right that is ever evident. "Michael
never gives up," said Peters. "He's the
visionary and he's the bulldog. I don't think I know
anybody more tenacious."
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