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.