Sunday, July 30, 2006

Book Review: Parecon, Life After Capitalism



     A few weeks ago I finished reading the book Parecon, Life After Capitalism by Michael Albert. Albert analyzes the parecon system in comparison to other economic systems, namely capitalism, market socialism, centrally planned socialism, and so-called green bioregionalism. He looks at their productive capabilities, as well as four other "economic values" that he thinks are important, these being equity, self-management, diversity, and solidarity.

     First I'll start off with what I didn't like. One of the biggest problems I had with the way it was written was that it was almost unbearably repetitive. Whether it was the mind-blowingly dull discussions of what day-to-day life would look like in a parecon or the fact that he always lists all of his economic values after discussing a certain aspect of a parecon, I found myself many times looking toward the end of the chapter wondering "how many pages do I have left?".

     Having said that, I'll take a look at the ideas of Parecon. Some of the core ideas, such as councils for the producers and decentralized planning, have been out there in the form of anarcho-syndicalism and council communism, so they certainly aren't new. In Parecon Albert lays out a very specific framework with how the different councils will interact with each other, with his iterative planning process, which he spends a good deal of time going into. While this perhaps is useful for the skeptic who might want to know an example of how it would work, Albert also admits that the process could be quite different for different societies. And I believe that he's correct in this, which is why it was hard for me to read his indepth discussion of how it would work when in reality the processes are likely to come about organically from the people. So this whole detailed process just seemed like mental masturbation to me.

    That brings me to another point-whether or not he's actually serious. At times I got the impression that he was trying to sell parecon too hard, because he would make some pretty outrageous claims. He claimed that a parecon economy could probably exist inside a country which was otherwise capitalist, but then also has said that it would be necessary to take private economic infrastructure and incorporate it into the participatory economy. What capitalist government is going to allow that to happen? Also, central to the Parecon idea and which isn't included in other council-based economies, is the idea of balanced job complexes. A balanced job complex is where all workers have the same amount of rewarding work and interesting work as they do dull, more manual work. The point of this is to let people learn the skills and gain the confidence necessary for them to participate constructively in their organizations and not simply waste their formal decision making power because they don't feel prepared enough to make decisions. While in a society with an extreme material abundance this might be something that might be worthwhile to pursue, it seems completely impractical for any time period even decades after a revolution (not to mention a parecon existing in a capitalist country!!). Again, it just doesn't seem like he's really that serious here.

     However, the book does have some virtues. He gives a good discussion on how people should be compensated for their economic activity, i.e. whether to reward property, effort, contribution, etc. It's critique of capitalism is also good, although there are better out there. Also, as I mentioned earlier, giving very specific examples how it could work might bring peace of mind to someone who believes that capitalism is the only way to go.

    All in all, I wasn't that impressed. It certainly doesn't compare with a couple of the other books that I've read this summer that have been absolutely great, A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn and Anarcho-Syndicalism by Rudolf Rocker.

4 comments:

SH said...

He claimed that a parecon economy could probably exist inside a country which was otherwise capitalist, but then also has said that it would be necessary to take private economic infrastructure and incorporate it into the participatory economy. What capitalist government is going to allow that to happen?

Perhaps, he meant that you have to "factor it in" the Parecon in some way, not necessarily to literally "incorporate" it... Just guessing...

I did not read the book and am only familiar with Parecon from little that I've read over the net. However, it does seem like the idea of job complexes, as well as some other ideas advanced by Parecon are unlikely to work in the real world.

For example, I would think that no matter how fair and detailed people will get in designing the job complexes, some will inevitably feel that they've got cheated, thus giving rise to dissatisfaction, conflicts, favoritism and ultimately to corruption.

Thank you for the review.

John K. Fitzpatrick said...

The point of this is to let people learn the skills and gain the confidence necessary for them to participate constructively in their organizations and not simply waste their formal decision making power because they don't feel prepared enough to make decisions. While in a society with an extreme material abundance this might be something that might be worthwhile to pursue, it seems completely impractical for any time period even decades after a revolution (not to mention a parecon existing in a capitalist country!!). Again, it just doesn't seem like he's really that serious here.

I don't follow your reasoning, why would superabundance be required to balance tasks? The same number of people working the same number of hours would get roughly the same amount of work done.

sh said: For example, I would think that no matter how fair and detailed people will get in designing the job complexes, some will inevitably feel that they've got cheated, thus giving rise to dissatisfaction, conflicts, favoritism and ultimately to corruption.

Some dissatisfaction and conflict, sure, but I think less than is currently experienced by the working poor, and you'd need to show how that *could* give rise to favoritism and corruption in a parecon.

I don't think the balancing would be all that difficult - we would be balancing *tasks* to create a 'job complex'... not balancing jobs.

- John

Delta said...

sh,

Perhaps, he meant that you have to "factor it in" the Parecon in some way, not necessarily to literally "incorporate" it... Just guessing...

The quote that I was referring to is actually from a different book of his, but the full quote is "Creating a parecon means, among many other things, that the private holdings of economic infrastructure of the rich are taken from them...against their wills, no doubt, in most cases".

Thanks for the comments SH =)

john,

Hi, I was hoping you would come back and give your thoughts on this.

why would superabundance be required to balance tasks?

Balancing jobs within a single industry would probably be able to be done without a superabundance, but what I think is unlikely is being able to balance across industries as Albert says must be done because of course some industries will be more pleasant to work in than others. I think that there could be real problems in travel time between jobs at different industries, and this would cut back productivity. If I have to leave a science lab every day to go out to the farm and help harvest, that could take an hour of travel each day to do. Of course, I could do different jobs on different days, but then I wouldn't be at each job everday and perhaps work on a project might be delayed if it has to wait on me. Or maybe my work involves working with a specific team, and it's hard for us to all agree on which days to show up to this particular job. See what I'm saying?


I think that a post-revolutionary world is likely to be very chaotic at first and there would be a great deal of work that needed to be done to repair damage done to existing infrastructure, to feed and clothe those who in today's world aren't taken care of, and to develop their own infrastructure so that they can take care of themselves. Education will desperately need to be done. Counter-revolutions will have to be dealt with. Pre-existing political structures will have to be dealt with. Proposed new political structures will have to be decided on (assuming any). I just don't think that with all this going on people are going to worry too much about balanced job complexes. Once things have calmed down, then debate on the subject might be good.

Some dissatisfaction and conflict, sure, but I think less than is currently experienced by the working poor

Oh, definitely not more than currently experienced. A Parecon would be vastly superior to a capitalist economy. If in the parecon the algorithms for determining job complex ratings were publicly available (which they surely would be) then people would not feel cheated by others, but would strive to change the algorithms if they thought them unfair.

pgdo said...

Congratulations for the excellent review!! Here the author doesn't let himself / herself fall into the old condescending pit, which consists of praising the efforts, the good intentions, the research and so forth of Albert and bad writers like him. The review discusses the book itself. And, as far as the book solely is concerned - let us speak as frankly as possible -, Parecon doesn't have much to offer in terms of ideas. A few good insights, all very badly developed (some of the old moral arguments that have proved useless in economics again and again), repetitions to make the book longer, a tedious style etc. We cannot count on Albert's book to overcome capitalism. Definitely. Unfortunately. Maybe Antonio Negri has better things to offer. Although I also doubt... In my opinion we are still in need of a powerful vision of what life might be after capitalism, and how to get there...