Michael Albert. Parecon: Life After Capitalism. London/New York: Verso, 2003.
Reviewed by T. Hatch
Michael Albert, founder of Znet and an acolyte of Noam Chomsky, has imagined a new economic system. In the parecon (i.e. participatory economics) councils of workers and consumers replace corporations. Instead of a system of buyers and sellers in a perpetual effort to fleece one another, where the means of production and output are hegemonic, the ethic of remuneration is altered to reward those who put forth the most effort and sacrifice. Essentially it is an anarchistic vision of the world's economic system that scraps the social contract rationale for earning on property that maintains itself because of unbalanced circumstances.
The values that the parecon holds dear are solidarity, diversity, equity, and participatory self-management. Markets as we know them would cease to exist. “Naked self-interest and callous cash payment” would take a back seat to cooperation and real bottom up participatory democracy. No longer would an anti-social agenda hold sway rewarding the most ruthless amongst us. Albert's effort is aimed at trying to create a world free of markets which he sees as “a no confidence vote on the social capabilities of the human species.”
He is critical of any system that maintains markets. This includes both the central planning and market coordinationist versions of Socialism as well as the fetish for localism that is embodied in Green Bioregionalism. “Economics is conducted by and for workers and consumers. Workers create the social product. Consumers enjoy the social product.” Accordingly, the watch word would be “to each according to effort.”
As laudable as the ethics of intention in economics might be those with a background in economics will have difficulty in swallowing Albert's prescriptions whole. Although the last section of the book is given over to a defense against possible criticisms of his parecon model of economy it is hardly comprehensive.
In a three hundred page treatise on an alternative economic system money is only mentioned once in passing; this only in relation to possible black market activity which would fizzle out because of the lack of possible reward. Forget about money aggregates and even the concepts of money as a store of value and a means of accounting. Beyond this if Albert is eliminating money as a medium of exchange he has not indicated how this might come about.
The parecon as advanced in the book is a global system. How would this come about? Would there be parecon in one country or would it require a international effort to accomplish? Would parecon start in the most advanced capitalist countries first or would there be a corollary on Trotsky's theory of combined and uneven development?
The most stunning part of Albert's work is his naïve belief in equilibrium which surpasses even that of an Alfred Marshall. Even conceding that human nature is not static and that markets are irrational and exploit large portions of humanity it is fanciful to see councils of consumers communicating to producers their needs in advance for a year at a time and having this come off smoothly. That Weberian cage is indeed constructed of iron.