Back in the 1960s, a young American activist called Michael Albert was asked, “Okay, we hear you, you don’t like capitalism. So, what DO you want?”. Like many young activists, Albert and his friends first scoffed at the question. We don’t have to produce a blueprint of an alternative future system in order to justify our rejection of inequity, divisiveness, exploitation, classism, social and environmental degradation, etc. And, to an extent, they were right. We can and must call out and reject racism when we encounter it, simply because racism is wrong according to our values. The same holds true about sexism, violence, authoritarianism, repression, or abuses of power in any form. The abolitionists did not need to offer an alternative economic system in order to be justified in, and taken seriously about, demanding an end to slavery. In fact, there was much divergence of opinion about the best alternative to the slave economy, let alone how best to transition, but that is besides the point that slavery had to end. Imagining that the abolitionists of the 1800s could have been asked, “Okay, you don’t like slavery. So, what do you want?”, sounds ridiculous to our hindsight cushioned ears. As activists, organizers, and concious humans, we must speak out against injustice, against institutions and systems that are contrary to our highest values. Okay, so you don’t like what’s going on. So, what do you want? We want to do better, and that is justification enough.
But is there something more to this question, “what do you want,” that the benefit of being on the present side of history distorts? Can we, perhaps should we, reject wrongs today while armed with a clear vision for tomorrow?
On the Left, now and often historically, there is a lack of vision. Perhaps we are merely heeding the cautions of our intellectual lamas, resisting overprescribed blueprints for future society as unknowable at best and authoritarian at worst. But perhaps, we are also using this wisdom as a crutch because we are afraid to look ahead into the void and believe that we can actually change the world, totally. So, we call out society’s wrongs, try to respond to the urgent and dire issues of now, surviving and fighting in the present. And to be fair, keeping your head above water, struggling against a rough sea of suffering, can be a task that leaves little untapped. Even those who might join the struggle for a better world often succumb to mental and emotional exhaustion before they ever lend their voice or lift a finger, let alone allow a cause to set fire to their hearts so that inaction is no longer possible. The prospect of it all can be like a lead weight. Without vision, real attainable inspiring vision, we mistake tactics for strategy, fight from one battle to the next, and too often fail to see a clear path ahead as we wither from fatigue, squabble, and generally fail to inspire massively and deeply for our cause.
Let’s once again travel back to that time of bursting progressive energy, 1960s USA, and eavesdrop on our young activists. Discovering a world in alarming need of change, nurtured by the great minds and hearts within the libraries and classrooms of Cambridge Massachusetts, and cutting his teeth in the anti-war movement, Michael Albert and his friend Robin Hahnel found themselves unable to finally dismiss the question, “So, what do you want?”. Studying all available systems, both actual and theoretical, they found them either too vague or too lacking when held up to the light of the values we ought to institutionalize. Thus began the inception of what we today call, participatory economics, a vision for life after capitalism. Over the next 40 years Albert, Hahnel, and others would flesh out, debate, experiment, expand, and refine parecon into a framework, a scaffolding if you will, for a post capitalist economy. No Bosses, A New Economy for a Better World is Albert’s most comprehensive presentation of parecon to date – it is both a call to action and a compelling vision to guide practice.
To read No Bosses is in itself an exercise in participation. The reader is urged to self manage their own opinions via the conversational tone and questions offered up for reflection and debate throughout. Written in accessible and clear language, Albert is true to his claim that, “The participatory economic vision is not trivial, but nor is it unattainably complex. Understanding participatory economics doesn’t require massive training. If the participatory economic vision is presented in plain and clear language, anyone interested in comprehending its defining properties and assessing their merits should, with some effort, be able to do so. Participatory economics is outside the box. It is not outside our reach” (132). What a refreshing and empowering depart from life under Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism where, “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”. Maybe if we can imagine participatory economics, or embrace some worthy vision at all, we won’t be left imagining the end of the world.
Like any vision worth pursuing, we need to know which guiding values will provide the foundation. No Bosses opens with a discussion about where we want to go, why we want to get there, and how we might find a path: “what values can inform a long walk to a new world?
+ That all people share responsibilities and benefits fairly.
+ That people collectively self manage their own situations.
+ That social options and outcomes express the full diversity of human potentials.
+ That people feel solidarity and even empathy toward all.
+ That across the world, what’s good for one is warranted for all.
+ That the planet enjoys sustainability and stewardship” (7).
Presented as such, you’d be hard pressed to find much dissent at this point, among most humans. Albert further clarifies parecon’s values by examining what we might reject and what we might strive for:
+ “Reject current reality’s debilitating racism, sexism, authoritarianism, and classism. Preserve what remains.
+ Reject past visions’ debilitating authoritarianism and narrowness. Extend what remains.
+ Proclaim positive values we want a better world to actualize. Describe new institutions to implement those values. Celebrate what emerges” (10).
I think we’re all still onboard. Albert continues laying bricks one by one, inviting the reader to ask why at every opportunity before offering ideas and arguments. The result is an inductive learning process, which may at first frustrate the impatient reader (such as myself), who just wants to know the whole idea at once. However, it becomes apparent that (as you already knew deep down, patience is a virtue) stopping to ask fundamental questions, in earnest, about our current reality, about everyday accepted occurrences, and even about our notions of how things work and why, is essential to examining what we reject and defining what we want. It is the work that brings clarity and worth to vision, and then keeps us on a good path as we push ahead.
Parecon’s guiding values turn out to be not only well founded, but logical and simple – it is an economic system that institutionalizes self management, equity, solidarity, diversity, sustainability, and internationalism for all. As participatory economics relates specifically to the economic sphere, it can be thought of as part of a wider participatory society with shared values across all spheres of life including polity, kinship, culture/community, ecology, etc. Albert briefly addresses these other sides of life in Chapter 8, acknowledging that a participatory society will become the best iteration of itself when all areas of life are transformed. In fact, in order to transition to a better world, we will have to work on all aspects of life simultaneously to support and promote these values.
So how do we translate these values into the realm of economics? Economies must achieve production, allocation, and consumption. From there, we must discuss ownership of productive assets, decision making, job structures, and remuneration. Chapters 2-7 take on this translation of values into an economic framework and couldn’t be labeled more clearly: “Who Owns What, Who Decides What, Who Does What, Who Earns What, Who Does Markets and Central Planning, and Who Does Participatory Planning”. No Bosses is intentionally laid out in this accessible format, like a manual. Hold on dear reader, you’re not off the hook just yet. Manuals are made for helping you to help yourself. Albert does not just hand over the phone number of the mechanic, you’ve got learn for yourself what is broken and how to fix it, along with him. Luckily, it’s less complicated than you think.
The meat of No Bosses lays out “what is parecon”, always keeping up the tradition of encouraging the reader to build up the ideas for themselves, with ample opportunity to “question everything”, sage advice once received from Chomsky. Simply put, participatory economics has 6 core features: a Commons of productive assets, participatory self management, workers and consumers councils, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort/sacrifice of socially valued work, and participatory planning. Some of these features will sound familiar, yet most are originally nuanced to reject the ills of previous systems while keeping the benefits. Where necessary, as in allocation via participatory planning, parecon invents a completely new system, since Albert determines that all previous systems must be rejected as contrary to guiding values. Margaret Thatcher’s constantly reinvoked “there is no alternative” is turned on its head. The ideas are certainly “outside the box”. Personally, I think our current box stinks, and am thrilled to have found this book outside of it.
Aside from participatory planning, another interesting feature you may not yet have come across is the balanced job complex. This feature is inspired by the Ehrenreichs’ idea that there is a third class, the coordinator, between labor and capital. Balanced job complexes address the division of labor and class by overhauling hierarchical job complexes, or as Albert calls it, the corporate division of labor, to balance all jobs on the basis of empowerment. Why is this important? Let’s consider history, or better yet, our own experiences with egalitarian inspired institutions that failed or struggle. Have you ever been part of a group, council, co-op, firm, whatever where even though there was no “owner”, no hierarchy of power, all the old problems started creeping back in? For example, imagine we start a worker owned business to produce furniture. We have carpenters of various specialties and skills, people who source materials, accountants, sales people, custodians, administrators, and so on. Everyone is paid equally, we even equally share profits, and we self manage our firm based on agreed upon voting structures for decision making. Essentially, we’ve gotten rid of the capitalist and hope that we have achieved classlessness within our firm, and specifically: equity, solidarity, diversity, and self management. But soon all the old trends reappear, about 20% of our members start to dominate in meetings while the remaining 80% seem either uninterested in or unable to contribute significantly to decision making. Soon enough, divides emerge and interests begin to conflict. Equity, solidarity, and diversity fade, and self management dissolves into hierarchy. We’ve just replaced the old boss with new bosses, aka coordinatorism. It was and is a recurring outcome of socialism.
We’ve all experienced this phenomenon – even in a simple jury group or book club, dominant participants emerge and submissive participants emerge, both out of deference to more confident people or out of lack of interest in a process they feel excludes them somehow. What went wrong? Is hierarchy just a fact of human nature? Is humanity really made up of 20% cream and 80% a weak plebeian milk? Albert says, of course not. The problem is that we balanced “who gets what” but we forgot to balance “who does what”, which means that there is an imbalance of empowerment (confidence, information, training, etc) for “who decides what”. If there is a monopoly on empowering work, there will follow a monopoly of empowered people who will emerge as the coordinator class. The solution is a re-thinking and re-organizing of how we structure work – balanced job complexes.
No Bosses is concise, so this review need not delve into further explanation of all the features of parecon, lest the reader be robbed of their right to the inductive process. Instead, I would like to bring up one last point that bears consideration – though this book could be thought of as a culmination of decades of progressive, radical thinking and strategic activism, it is most certainly also a fresh start, a beginning. The vision, framework, and strategy offered are a sorely needed jolt of clarity and vigor, perhaps even a galvanizing force among all who would seek a better world. Albert offers not only his presentation of parecon, but also tangible ways of continued engagement via further readings, podcasts, an online education platform, and even his own email address, to all who become curious or inspired by his book. No Bosses is meant to empower each reader to activate on their own terms.
In the spirit of beginnings, the imagination runs wild after deeply and seriously considering life after capitalism. Though Albert does not explicitly elaborate all the potential ramifications of participatory economics, they are vast. Imagine the effect on the environment (and our survival as a species) if our economic system easily allowed producers and consumers to take environmental costs and benefits into account in decision making, and did not pressure for constant accumulation beyond need or want. Imagine if you and I and all had an economic voice on all matters proportional to how much they affect us, instead of proportional to how much money or power we wield. Imagine a society where things are not intentionally produced in order to dissatisfy or fail so that demand is kept high. Imagine no more mass waste. Imagine no more predatory finance, no more predatory advertising. Innovation that improves the lives of all. Imagine no more unemployment, no more exploitation, no more hierarchy, no more oppression. No more mass incarceration, no more war, no more shanty towns in the shadows of palaces, no more blind obedience. Classlessness. Imagine, “incorporat[ing] a non instrumental and an expressive moment into all work, and [incorporating] a social moment into all remunerated art, [making] all work into art and all art into work” (118). Imagine that this society is not made up of perfect people, willing to always behave altruistically, but it is made up of you and me and all the others. This society instead has institutions and systems that make it automatic, instead of impossible, for us to consider ourselves, each other, the environment, and all the other externalities. It promotes and rewards equity, solidarity, self management, diversity, and sustainability. We will make mistakes and continue to be human, but just imagine if we were no longer set up to fail. Imagine No Bosses.