No Bosses by Michael Albert

By Mark Evans. Source: Common Dreams Michael Albert’s latest, and perhaps best, attempt at communicating his vision for a new and just economic system - addresses key questions around ownership, decision-making, jobs, pay and allocation in sometimes stark and strangely poetic but always accessible language. In addition to seriously tackling these central issues, this short, waffle free book also manages to explore the impact this vision for a new economy has on other areas of society and life, the strategic implications for winning this new economic system, plus a brief account of the origins, history and prospects of and for the vision. In short, No Bosses tackles most, if not all, of the major topics that concern anyone serious about economic justice with substance and efficiency. But that is not all...

Unlike many of the more pretentious offerings of leading left thinkers, Albert’s general approach to discussing economic justice has great common sense appeal. This is reflected in both the structure of the book and the language used throughout, which will come as a much needed breath of fresh air for those who, like me, are sick of the more pompous intellectual tendencies on the left. This is not to say that the book is in any way anti-intellectual. On the contrary - the book is full of great ideas! The point is that the ideas presented in No Bosses have actual application to real world problems.

For example, the first chapter deals with values, which we might think of as the ethical foundation for Albert’s model for a just economy. In this presentation, seven values are identified and defined in a straightforward manner. This, as Albert puts it, “will give us an agreed standard to organize our thoughts.” More precisely, the values will be used to guide and inform the development of new institutions and social systems that, together, constitute a desirable economic vision. Or, as Albert succinctly puts it, they will function as “key vision-orienting values”.

Chapters 2 through to 5 presents arguments for rejecting existing arrangements for ownership, decision-making, jobs and pay (respectively) whilst also presenting alternatives that are in-keeping with the values outlined in chapter 1. Resting on that ethical foundation, these new institutions might be thought of as the four main cornerstones of what Albert calls “Participatory Economics” or “Parecon” for short or “Participatory Socialism”. Characteristically, Albert seems uninterested in the superficial question of which label to use, instead focusing on the actual substance of the proposed institutions and their social logic. As Albert points out, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet—and a thorn by any other name would hurt as deep”. Adopting an open and inclusive position, Albert asks, “Rose or thorn? You decide”.

Chapters 6 and 7 focus on allocation of goods and services. As Albert points out, this economic function “typically occurs in today’s world by way of either markets or central planning or a combination of the two”. Chapter 6 addresses the question, “can our proposal for a new economy retain one or the other?” In other words, are markets and/or central planning compatible with the values presented in chapter 1 and the new institutions outlined in chapters 2 through to 5? Albert makes a strong case for the answer to be negative. Both markets and central planning are, argues Albert, incompatible with both the values and institutions that have been presented so far in No Bosses. Inevitably, this conclusion leads to the necessity to develop a new mode of allocation. This novel form of allocation - called participatory planning - is the subject of chapter 7. Participatory planning is also one of the features that makes Participatory Economics a genuine alternative form of economic organisation for the 21st century.

After spending six chapters zooming in on different key aspects of the participatory economic model, chapter 8 zooms out to explore the implications of this new economic system on “other sides of life”. These include; polity (i.e. “the key political functions of legislation, adjudication, and the implementation of collective agendas”), kinship (i.e “the ways societies accomplish key gender/sexual/familial functions including procreation, nurturance, education of the next generation, household maintenance, and diverse choices for daily life in living units”), culture / community (i.e. “the ways society accomplishes the elaboration of holidays, rituals, language, and other ethnic, racial, national, and religious relations and interrelations among communities of people”), ecology (i.e. “the ways society interacts with its natural surroundings including using ecology’s offerings and impacting ecology’s evolution.”) and even art (i.e. “what might we expect for painting, filming, writing, singing, designing, dancing, and musicianship in a better world.”). It might seem a little strange to include something as specific as art in this section of the book. The reason given for this is “because its practitioners often raise an instructive concern about participatory economics that has not been widely addressed elsewhere”. The basic message presented here is that art is different to other kinds of work but it is not special. The point is that artists should operate within the same social norms as any other workers. Artists, including those who identify as leftwing or even revolutionary, may, I suspect, find this message difficult to come to terms with.

The left is in crisis and as a result is lost and confused. More precisely, the left is suffering from a crisis of identity, a crisis over the meaning of what, historically, has been the left's official alternative to liberalism, i.e. socialism. Unless and until we address this fundamental problem, the likelihood of the left winning even minor reforms, let alone “another world”, is minimal. No Bosses attempts to rise to this historical challenge and, in doing so, makes a very important contribution to offering direction and clarity for social justice activists and organisers in the 21st century.

After reading No Bosses you will come away with a very different idea of what it means - or could mean - to be on the left. Instead of just being “anti-...” this and “anti-...” that and constantly reacting to the disastrous antics of the right/liberal establishment and being caught on our back foot, the clarity of thought that Albert presents means that we have the potential to adopt a much more pro-activist stance, putting our front foot forward and organising to win. As Albert points out, such an approach to organising allows us to plant the seeds of the future in the present. If, like me, you read this material and feel inspired to get involved in organising for the kind of economy/society that Albert discusses, then you will be very pleased to see that No Bosses finishes with a list of resources that includes some websites (including: that focus on organising for a participatory economy/society. I look forward to organising with you!