An abridged version of the following conversation with Michael Albert, developer with Robin Hahnel of the participatory economics model or “Parecon” appeared on Truthout.
MICHAEL ALBERT: Participatory economics proposes a small set of institutions that define the heart of a new type of economy. These institutions are conceived to further various values: self-management, solidarity, diversity, ecological sanity. The idea is that as you carry out economic activities—in other words, as you produce and you allocate and consume—you simultaneously accomplish not only those functions, but by virtue of what the institutions require of us as we operate, you also advance those values.
The basic institutions that are meant to accomplish this are few. There are worker and consumer self-managing councils; where self-management means that people should have a say in decisions proportionate to the degree they are affected by them. There is equitable remuneration—referring to the share we get in the economy in the form of income, our claim on the social product. Under participatory economy these are in proportion to how long we work, how hard we work, and the onerousness of the conditions under which we work. There is also what’s called balanced job complexes, which is a way of organizing the tasks that we do, so that our work lives, our economic activity and production, has a comparably empowering effect on us all. Finally, there is an allocative system to apportion work, labor and effort—the goods and services we produce—that isn’t a market or central planning but is something we call participatory planning. So in a nutshell, that’s participatory economics (http://zcomm.org/category/topic/parecon/).
GAR ALPEROVITZ: Even though I disagree with many aspects of Michael’s model, what I like about it its rigor and clarity. Parecon is a very tough-minded economic vision and model and it sets a standard for us to look at.
One place to start (with my own work) is that—given the specific historical conditions we face in the United State—I’m primarily interested in the question of how we begin to move in the direction of a model that realizes the kinds of values that Michael just laid out though is different in structure. I am interested in the political economy of institutional power relationships in transition. The question is one of “reconstructive” communities as a cultural, as well as a political fact: how geographic communities are structured to move in the direction of the next vision, along with the question of how a larger system—given the power and cultural relationships—can move towards managing the connections between the developing communities. There are many, many hard questions here—including, obviously, ones related to ecological sustainability and climate change.
I’ve called the model for what this might plausibly look like in practice “the pluralist commonwealth”: commonwealth because it seeks transitionally to restructure political reality by democratizing the ownership of wealth, pluralist because it embraces a variety of institutional approaches towards that end. The model includes some planning, a great deal of decommodification, and partial use of markets in certain areas. It adheres to the principle of subsidiarity, meaning we decentralize as far as possible to the local level where direct democracy is truly possible, but we are also not afraid to look towards institutional forms like regional or national public ownership when the problems are best solved at those scales…