Between Rocks and Hard Places

By Martin Parker

‘Is proposing a new economy an academic exercise or can our proposed vision inspire, orient and inform current activism?’ (Albert, 2021: 187)

‘There are two problems (. . .) The first is that we need to convince people that there is a better alternative that is perfectly feasible. And you can’t do that if you don’t formulate concrete proposals. The second is that until there are concrete proposals on the table, it is impossible to evaluate the pros and cons of different options.’ (Hahnel, 2021: 207)

Readers who have been interested in alternative economics will doubtless be familiar with Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s work on participatory economics, or ‘parecon’. Over the last 30 years they have both written a lot, both together and apart. Albert is more of a political theorist and has tended to write books that are more polemical, and for radical publishers. Hahnel is the economist, with more scholarly publications, often for academic publishers (see, e.g. Albert, 2004; Albert and Hahnel, 1990; Hahnel, 2005). It’s a tremendously impressive body of thought, one that attempts to systematically work through the idea that an economy can be planned from the bottom up, by the people, for the people. For readers of Organization, one might have thought that such ideas would be of interest, but I can think of no serious engagement with parecon by critical organization theorists, hence this review.

‘Planning’ has been through a difficult time over the last 50 years, somehow associated with brutalist underpasses in post-war cities and stories about Soviet shoe factories. This is top-down planning of course, based on the idea that someone in an office somewhere in London could decide whether I would be likely to want a new pair of flip flops this year. Parecon starts from the assumption that planning could be a bottom-up affair, and that democratically controlled workplaces could make their own plans about how many hours they want to work and get paid, who does which jobs, what they make and what they use. Then the plans of all these workplaces, and of the communities that they are part of, could be aggregated into larger plans, based on the idea that those affected by any decision have the right to comment on it. The result, Albert and Hahnel assert, would be an economy which produces what we need, within natural limits, and rewards everyone more equally.

No Bosses, with prefaces by allies Noam Chomsky and Yanis Varoufakis, is a book designed to persuade. It begins with a statement of values and then gently, but relentlessly, builds a future around them. Always being careful to stress that this is not a blueprint, but a scaffold (p. 17), Albert works through just how equality and self-management might be embedded into economic decision making. It’s an exercise in saying ‘if you believe in this particular value, then this is the sort of economy that we should work towards’. Firmly pushing back against the idea of needing a ‘coordinator class’ or a ‘corporate division of labour’ Albert shows how a system of job balancing, consumer councils and a board for keeping tallies of who makes what and who wants what (unfortunately titled an ‘Iteration Facilitation Board’) can address most of the functions that we might imagine to be necessary to produce a sophisticated worker-controlled economy. The administration might look daunting, but as he says ‘This is not introducing unnecessary complexity. It is addressing actual complexity responsibly’ (p. 156).

Hahnel’s book, with some chapters cowritten with various colleagues, is a more detailed attempt to work through the economics of parecon. Indeed, the ‘readers guide’ suggests that some ‘technical’ sections can be skipped by readers without the training to understand them. It’s a cooler and more scholarly presentation of the ideas that underpin ideas about democratic planning, largely aimed at convincing the sceptical academic reader. Textually, this means lots of subheadings, maxims, ground clearing ‘preliminaries’, theorems, appendices and quite a few pages of equations. Intellectually, the pivot is the ‘socialist calculation debate’, and there is a lot of detail about who argued what, particularly around the role of states and markets. There is also quite a lot of refutation of misunderstandings, and evidence (from both simulations and economic modelling) that parecon really could work and is not, as one hostile academic said, ‘nonsense on stilts’ (p. 171). As is clear, most of the critics just haven’t really bothered to read the work, even to the extent of assuming that parecon is really about state central planning. It isn’t. For this reviewer, Hahnel was at his best when presenting the central ideas, such as the lucid overview in chapter five, or the really important similarities and differences between parecon and community economy or post-capitalist versions of a future economy (306 passim).

These are great books, inspiring and based on years of thought and activism. I suspect most readers of this journal would agree that the market fundamentalism of the last 50 years has increased inequality, weakened regulation, increased corporate power and damaged attempts to combat climate change. But would you also agree that markets have no place in an economy that seeks to be kinder to people and planet? Rejecting market socialism, as Albert does in his chapter six and Hahnel in his chapter two, seems to mean that bottom-up planning will never have recourse to markets, and neither I (or Varoufakis, in his preface) are entirely convinced that all markets are bad all of the time. Neither am convinced that consumers should be capable of deciding how many theatre tickets they propose to consume over the next year (Albert 146). Or that the use of the term ‘self-management’ would not be more helpfully phrased as ‘self-organization’ (see Klikauer, 2021). Neither am I convinced that we can get to parecon without first developing social democracy, which does mean thinking about the state as an intermediate institution, shadowed by Engels’ hopeful promise that it would gradually wither away, something that Hahnel seems to acknowledge.

It’s easy to try and pick holes, and that’s often what reviewers are supposed to do, but I want to gesture towards something bigger here. There is something oddly old fashioned about these books, but perhaps that’s all to the good. They take very seriously the project of building a new world, which shouldn’t be old fashioned, but requires patient and detailed work of the kind that is rarely encompassed by ‘critique’, and is more common in pre-twentieth century utopian writing. Contemporary critical writers often finish their jeremiads with the equivalent of a self-righteous ‘something ought to be done!’, but just what should be done is rarely specified, or who should do it. Intellectuals, as is so often the case, are happiest when complaining from the comfort of their desk. Or, as Albert puts it, most books don’t ‘propose’, they ‘declare’ (p. 17). I haven’t got space here to unfold their arguments about reproductive labour, the environment, education and international trade, but its enough to say that they have really thought this stuff through, and have built a very impressive vision of a social order I wouldn’t mind living in. (Which is not something I would say about most utopias.)

But perhaps the most thought-provoking aspect of these two books is just how different they are in style and imagined audience. Hahnel, as his uncompromising title clearly indicates, is writing for the academic crowd. The price and language of his book is not meant for the unschooled reader, and his wager is clearly that by changing the way that students and academics think, this will filter through to policy makers and politicians. In other words, he is assuming that what academics write gets read, and perhaps even, some way down the line, has some influence. Albert’s book is more populist, in language and price, and he comments on Hahnel’s strategy, gently, at the end of his book. No Bosses is a question and demand that he works through, debating with an imaginary interlocutor as if he were a communist Socrates trying to persuade the reader of the moral and practical power of his arguments. Where Hahnel uses equations and references, Albert uses rhetoric and imaginary examples, and a really beautiful discussion of political strategy towards the end of the book.

So which is the most effective way of thinking about political writing? (Assuming that effectiveness is measured in actually getting things done.) Books like The Wretched of the Earth, Silent Spring, One Dimensional Man, The Female Eunuch, No Logo have certainly sold a lot of copies, but the collective work of the Mont Pelerin Society has had more of an influence on how our world is organized since the 1970s. This isn’t to say that books have no influence, but rather that it seems that more work is needed to get those ideas to travel in the world. Albert certainly understands this, and he has been heavily involved in promoting radical ideas through the various elements of his Z Communications media project (with Lydia Sargent until her death) since 1987. Indeed, I’m not sure he has had an academic position since being kicked out of MIT as a student in 1970. Hahnel spent his career as an academic, always connecting with various radical causes, but staying within the university system and trying to persuade with the force of the better argument. Parts of his book read very much as if he is puzzled that, with so many publications and no really convincing counter-arguments, the world hasn’t changed in the direction he proposes. The books argue for the same things, but in rather different ways.

In his wonderful chapter nine ‘Winning a New Economy: Between a Rock and a Hard Place’, Albert considers the trade-off between ‘vision’ and ‘organization’, by which he means something like ‘purism’ and ‘pragmatism’ and uses some dilemmas in his own Z project as the example. But what role do books like these play in this set-up? As I said in my admiring review of Klein’s No Logo 20 years ago (Parker, 2002), books need to be beautifully written, well marketed and distributed and timely in order to provide inspiration for a movement, and many movements don’t need books at all. Albert nudges up against this question when he asks, towards the end of No Bosses, about different audiences for writing on parecon – left activists or professional economists (p. 206). He wonders why, given the paucity of reasoned critical response to their ideas, parecon is not more widely discussed in sympathetic circles (p. 212). This a great question, and its one that should resonate with any critical academic who writes in the hope of changing the world. For myself, I think this takes us into the domain of political strategy, which is only loosely related to the sort of ‘debates’ that academics invest so much in. I wonder if there is any necessary relationship between the quality of critical thought and writing, and effective political change? It would be nice to think so, but the story of parecon so far suggests otherwise.