Many people, especially those with eyes open to the ravages of capitalism, know what they don’t want. Fewer know what they do want. That is understandable, given that the task of building mass movements on so many fronts is daunting. But while what is meant by the creation of a better world can’t be precisely the same for everybody, movements nonetheless have to have some basic concepts of what a better world might look like.
Providing a blueprint is impossible. Having visions is a necessity. Concrete concepts, even if only outlines, need to be part of our toolboxes if we are to overcome “There is no alternative.” There are many outlines that have been sketched, naturally of varying viability. One that has been around for three decades has been the concept of “participatory economics,” often associated with one of its leading proponents, Michael Albert.
In his latest book, No Bosses: A New Economy for a Better World, Mr. Albert has organized his decades of work on this project and presented what he terms a “scaffold” as opposed to a blueprint. At 200 pages, this scaffold is perhaps sufficiently detailed to be something beyond that, but however one wishes to classify his vision of participatory economics, No Bosses provides a stimulating contribution to the literature of a better world.
As always, judgment on a book’s merit should be on how well it encourages serious thinking and provides useful material and commentary, not on whether we fully agree with the content. On the former, it is hard to imagine anyone serious about wanting a better world not giving it high marks. The latter, of course, is a much more complicated proposition. So let’s see how viable this vision might be.
Crucially, the author does not declare his presentation a finished project. His intent is to show what is necessary, not provide a blueprint, and repeatedly says the project will need improvement. “We have no other choice,” he writes. “Alone on foot in the desert, we must walk until we reach water. To curse the sun’s heat and bemoan the sand’s seeming endlessness while standing still guarantees death.” [page 16]
Seven guiding principles in a world without capitalists
The guiding values put forth are viable self-management, equity, solidarity, diversity, sustainability, internationalism and participation for all who can participate. There would be no private ownership of productive assets, and thus no capitalists or capitalism. The author emphatically rejects both capitalist markets and central planning. Both, in his view, inevitably lead to small majorities bossing around and dictating to a working majority. Capitalism creates a “coordinator class” that monopolizes empowering tasks. Even if a workplace is democratic, if a corporate division of labor is retained, coordinators dominate, subverting self-management goals. That happened in Argentina’s recovered enterprises, Mr. Albert argues, with the “old crap,” in the words of a disappointed worker, returning in many recovered, self-managed enterprises after the old capitalist bosses were kicked out.
“They were all working class before, but some began to become coordinator class by doing empowering jobs. Those doing empowering jobs began to dominate council meetings. They had the needed information. They had the confidence to develop agendas. Attendance of others began to fall because others didn’t want to attend meetings which ran according to agendas set by the coordinators and dominated by coordinator speeches and proposals. … The coordinators had come to feel they were smarter, more responsible, and more essential. They deserved more. They paid themselves more. And the wages paid the others, the workers, as decided by the coordinator class, started to deteriorate. The upshot was that the old crap didn’t return due to an inexorable outcome of human nature or of the intrinsic requirements of complicated work. The old crap returned due to a social choice that wasn’t even consciously made. The workers had routinely, reflexively, maintained the corporate division of labor. And the corporate division of labor had in turn routinely, reflexively, subverted sought results.” [pages 49-50]
If there was a management that was making basic decisions, including those of wages, rather than all members, then such an enterprise can’t really be said to be self-managed. But even when there is a real self-management in place, the dangers of a division of labor can easily assert themselves. In communist-era Yugoslavia, enterprises were not in private hands and instead run by self-management — an assembly of all workers had to approve all decisions, including setting wages. (I wrote a chapter-length discussion of Yugoslav self-management for my forthcoming book What Do We Need Bosses For? [Autonomedia].) In this system, the workers elected a workers’ council — in effect a management board that made strategic decisions — and an enterprise was headed by a director (chief executive officer) not necessarily picked by the workers. Councilors were limited to two one-year terms and were recallable, enabling large numbers of people to sit on these councils and theoretically making them accountable. But there was a central plan that constrained what enterprises could do, and a pattern began where technicians and managers would present plans to the councils, which would simply rubber-stamp them. Holding the right to veto a plan they didn’t like, as opposed to drawing up plans themselves, was enough for many councils. That the councils were instituted in a top-down fashion, rather than being the organic product of grassroots activity, did not help.
There were many headwinds faced by Yugoslav self-management, including some unique to the country and its decentralized political structures owing to ethnic rivalries, and, ultimately, the forces of capitalism and capitalist competition, which buffeted Yugoslavia ever stronger, would eventually break down the system and tear apart the country itself, although it produced perhaps the world’s fastest growing economy for its first 20 years. The consequences of market forces — of being integrated into the world capitalist system — steadily mounted, and ultimately became unsustainable. Those consequences included debt to foreign banks and institutions, punishing austerity imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, strong sensitivity to the vicissitudes of capitalist cycles, and the discovery that competing in the world market is difficult, all the more so for a medium-sized developing country.
One lesson from here is that no better world can be reliant on market mechanisms — capitalist markets will assert themselves, and as I have often noted, capitalist markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the world’s most powerful industrialists and financiers. That a traditional division of labor was retained in the self-management system is another factor that can’t be overlooked.
Workers’ and consumers’ councils as the core
Back to No Bosses. The core institutions of participatory economics are workers’ councils and consumers’ councils. Workers’ councils in this conception are meetings of all enterprise workers that make all decisions, whether by simple majority or a specified super-majority. (Perhaps it would be better to call these “workers’ assemblies” to match generally used terminology.) These bodies of the whole make all decisions and there are no higher bodies. There are no managers or bosses, not even elected ones. Everybody participates in all decisions. Consumers’ councils are collective decision-making bodies that would democratically make decisions on public goods and services, such as “neighborhood pools, county parks, state utilities or national security,” as well as collate individual needs. Although expertise would be listened to, decisions wouldn’t be devolved to experts; rather these councils would seek to raise levels so that all could participate.
Another key conception is a system of “balanced job complexes” to break down the division of labor. Here No Bosses offers one of the most serious proposals I’ve ever encountered to break down the division of labor, an often underappreciated contributor to inequality. Simply put, if there is not a serious effort to break down the division, inequality will remain. The book conceptualizes balanced job complexes not as short-term stints in alternative circumstances but rather having a set of tasks for all jobs that would enable comparable empowerment in all jobs. Balancing would occur not only within a given workplace, but across all workplaces, to give everybody an equal chance of participating in decision-making and provide a “steady social exchange.”
The book cautions that “balancing empowerment across jobs is not the same as balancing the amount of type of intellect required for that job.” There are numerous empowering jobs in any workplace, including how to best satisfy customers, how to plan for the future or determining how best to do other jobs. Along with equalizing job circumstances would be equalizing pay. Income would be based on duration, intensity and onerousness of socially useful work — a point repeatedly stressed. Differentials from an average, however, should be small and limited given that jobs would be balanced. The only way for pay to rise would be for the average to rise — thus, the book argues, mutual aid is built into the proposed system.
How would the average be calculated? The book doesn’t offer an answer to that important question. At one point, a complicated 20-point system is put forth, whereby every task would be assigned a number from 1 to 20 based on difficulty, with jobs being cobbled together based on averaging out the numbers and special bodies assigned with calculating these numbers. But it is then admitted that something so precise is unlikely to be put into actual practice and this detail seems to be offered more as a thought experiment. Indeed, such complications are unnecessary. There could simply be a standard wage and everybody paid it, and if an enterprise elects to allow differentiations, these should be minor (no more than, say, 20 percent) and within parameters established by law or consensus. However an average wage would be determined, having everybody make it or very close to it would uphold the ideals of solidarity and equality, as expressed thusly:
“[I]n a good economy, there should be no way to improve one’s consumption or one’s work life at the expense of others. There should be no opposed classes, nor even opposed individuals, at least in any damaging, persistent, structural sense. This can’t be achieved by market allocation where everybody buys cheap and sells dear and nice guys finish last. This also cannot be achieved by central planning where we do what others decide we must do. Equitable remuneration and solidarity instead point toward needing a new approach to allocation. It will turn out to be that we cooperatively negotiate outcomes to enjoy gains and endure losses together, even as we also seek work and consumption that is best suited to our personal fulfillment.” [pages 94-95]
If something can’t allocate products and services, it doesn’t work
And how would products and services be allocated? The seventh chapter of No Bosses, by far the longest chapter in the book, step by step builds a picture of how participatory economics would work. This is where the vision has to cohere into a workable model. Again, not a model in the sense of “this is how it will be or should be” but rather in the sense of useful ideas that can be seriously debated as we sketch out the basics of a better world. A series of “takes” provide successively more detail. “A new means of allocation that will sustain classlessness” and “foster solidarity/empathy” is the goal.
A new means of allocation would be necessary as the model rejects capitalist markets and central planning. Workers’ and consumers’ councils and federations (councils at the enterprise or neighborhood level would feed up into bodies successively representing larger territories up to the national level) would meet and preliminarily determine productive capacity and consumer needs; a national facilitation board tallies information and supplies information to the negotiators representing the councils and federations. Talks would continue until equilibrium is reached. Presumably that would necessitate multiple rounds. Plans would be done yearly.
The facilitation board would tally mismatches between worker and consumer proposals. Neighborhood consumer councils would make requests for collective goods (such as public pools, an image that repeatedly crops up; Mr. Albert perhaps likes to swim). As part of the negotiation, the facilitation board would adjust prices to reflect supply/demand mismatches to help negotiators reach agreement; the two sides would presumably adjust their proposals based in part on such price changes. There would be strict budgets — to consume more than your budget allows, the consumer council would have to approve, and if a workplace underutilizes its assets, a higher-level workers’ council would intervene and lower the workplace’s payroll. The idea is for enterprises to use their productive capacities fully and efficiently while meeting demand.
Numeric prices are presumed to “generate sufficiently accurate estimates” of costs and benefits of inputs and outputs, as well as account for environmental or other social costs. No Bosses argues that this kind of pricing would be superior to prices obtained in markets or central planning because they would be derived from cooperative social proposals that can be checked, and because aggregate social needs would be built into the system.
How would individuals meet their individual and family needs? Everybody would make a request for the coming plan year to their neighborhood council, with aggregate requests going up to higher consumer councils. Once all consumer requests and productive plans are aggregated, negotiations begin, with the previous plan’s totals as a reference point and using the information supplied by the facilitation board, including preliminary estimates of the coming plan year’s pricing changes. Rounds of talks would continue until a plan is reached; the plan would presumably be “loose” rather than “taut” so that adjustments can be made within the plan year.
A different sort of calculation problem
But here we come to a significant weakness of participatory economics. The plan would require everybody to know exactly what they will need for the coming year — shirts, automobiles, appliances, books, meals at restaurants, even theater tickets. This is impossible! Nobody knows, or can know, all they will consume for the next year, including how many movies they see in theaters. Most of the books I buy are on impulse when I see something interesting in a bookstore; how can I know what I will find ahead of time? Participatory economics presumes that if there are changes, these would cancel each other out and all would be fine in the end. But, note that we saw earlier that people had to stay within a strict budget. Despite the author’s insistence that this system would be freer than capitalist markets or central planning, neither capitalist nor Soviet-style governments constrained consumption into such a straitjacket. Sorry, you said you’d go to three theatrical performances; the neighborhood council doesn’t have excess theater tickets. Better luck next year.
These levels of negotiations would be enormously, and needlessly, complicated. Negotiations would have to begin months before the current plan year ended, so full information would not be available. Talks would have to conclude at the end of the year so it could go into effect at the start of the new plan year; this would be no simple task. There is no reason that a yearly plan couldn’t be worked out and be in place for a new plan year, but with such a complicated negotiation requiring vast sums of information, this simply isn’t realistic. The weakness of Soviet-style central planning shouldn’t be glossed over; one problem was that no group of officials, no matter how dedicated or sincere, could possibly possess all the knowledge necessary to make proper plans.
Planning is necessary to replace markets, but it should be acknowledged that Gosplan (the Soviet planning agency) proved to not be a substitute for markets, although of course central control and the decades-long emphasis (unchecked because of a lack of democratic control) on producer goods with consumer goods getting perpetually short-changed can’t be avoided as significant factors. Democratic, bottom-up planning would inevitably be a central component of any egalitarian future economy designed to meet social and individual needs and enable everybody to reach their potential. (Activists organizing workers’ councils in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring envisioned a democratic planning without Soviet-style hard numeric totals and held a national conference to begin codifying a new system based on workers’ control before the effort was shut down.)
I would argue that planning based on negotiations, and that it be bottom-up and not top-down, is a necessity. On that basic concept, I am in agreement with No Bosses. But it would make more sense, and be more efficient, for producers to get together and make plans, plans that would have input from consumer representatives. Put it this way: If 1.2 million shoes were produced and there was a small shortage, representatives from shoe factories (with possible participation and if not that then meaningful input from consumer representatives) could make an informed judgment and declare they need to produce 1.3 million shoes to meet projected demand. It is not as if sales figures are unavailable, and reports of shortages certainly could be collected easily. Replicating this across all industries would enable the assembly of a plan for the coming year. It would be important to know how many shoes would be needed overall; it is not necessary and not possible for hundreds of millions of people to each know precisely how many shoes or theater tickets they will need.
Moreover, one important factor is missing. How do we ensure that there is no discrimination, and that environmental, health and safety standards are upheld? Presumably, advocates of participatory economics would argue that the system would generate such high levels of egalitarianism and solidarity, and provide full employment so that nobody is stuck in a bad job, that such standards would automatically be upheld universally. Perhaps. But might it make sense to have boards that enforce standards, with real penalties for non-compliance. Participatory economics would reward cooperation rather than greed and anti-social behavior as capitalism does, but it might not hurt to have a bit of insurance.
Public goods and public detriments
Finally, the long seventh chapter circles back to collective goods. How would parks, infrastructure, recreation facilities, etc. be funded? A few ideas are kicked around. One example is if a public pool were requested by a neighborhood consumer council. A higher body would have to okay it, with the cost spread among all the areas that might benefit. If a project had a negative impact, such as causing pollution, then the affected areas would have a say in the project and if approved those affected would be compensated. This is an area of participatory economics that hasn’t been worked out, and in fairness it must be admitted that devising formulae to determine the cost of pollution or other harms would be extraordinarily difficult.
In reading this part of No Bosses, my own admittedly loose thoughts were that the average or aggregate health care costs of everyone who lives or works a specified distance, say 30 miles, downwind from a coal plant, plus the cost of sick days, be calculated against a regional or national average, and charge the plant that differential. But there is an immediate objection: How could multiple pollution sources be disentangled and quantified? So perhaps my loose idea would not be workable. No Bosses offers no plan due to the complexity and difficulty of such calculations. But it does firmly insist, properly, that environmental and health costs must be accounted for, including in pricing. That is something that would have to be worked out much closer to the arrival of a new economic system.
We can’t ask for perfection, and participatory economics is supposed to be a scaffold, not a blueprint. It would be useless to reproach it for not having all possibilities thought out, a task plainly impossible nor even desirable. Maintaining his optimism and enthusiasm, Mr. Albert concludes No Bosses with a series of answers to commonly asked questions. He rejects anarchism, social democracy and Marxism (although a cartoon version of Marxism) while offering participatory economics as “an approach … consistent with the human potential I can imagine.” I think we should employ some caution before simply dismissing all that has come before, however flawed — a tabula rasa is impossible. Nonetheless, what is proposed here certainly is imaginative. “Having vision matters for where we wind up,” he concludes. “Having vision matters for winning a new economy for a better world.”
However much we might quibble with this or that detail, having vision does matter. How could we believe a better world is possible, much less struggle for one, without vision? To restate what was written at the beginning of this review, the judgment to be made isn’t whether we agree with all details, it is whether it has made a needed contribution. No Bosses is a marvelous contribution to the growing and needed literature on the contours of a better world, of what we believe it should do. That participatory economics, or any other currently proposed system, is unlikely to actually come into being isn’t the point; what is is that we think concretely about the future and are prepared to discuss, dream and formulate serious ideas. And put them into action.