No Bosses: hope for the future, inspiration for today

By Alex

What kind of world should we strive for? Can we arrange society in ways that incentivize solidarity between individuals? Can we conceive of structures under which millions of strangers operate in mutual ways? What form would those structures take and how would they work? Can we ensure that everyone is involved in meaningful work while benefits are shared fairly and the environment is treated responsibly? These are the questions that Michael Albert tackles in his new book No Bosses, in which he presents a novel economic system called participatory economics, or parecon for short.

Chapter by chapter Albert builds up a scaffolding of institutions for a better society, investigating topics like who makes the decisions in such a society, how workplaces are structured, how people are remunerated, what ownership of property entails, and what place is there for artistic expression, while dispelling misconceptions — some common and some esoteric — in the process. To illustrate a point about social arrangements No Bosses is talking about, I have to bring up something about myself. I live in Russia and I’m just old enough to never have lived in the Soviet Union. When older people talk to you about their life, you’re almost guaranteed to hear “Oh, we had socialism. And we have lost it”. What do they mean when they say ‘socialism’? What do they miss about the Soviet Union? When you ask and listen further, you find out that those things are zero rents, essentially free utilities, medicine and region-wide public transportation, very cheap country-wide transportation, abundance of social programs (like free daycare, free healthy meals for children, publicly subsidized recreational activities), and comfortable material wealth in general. Some people add that when they were young, unlike today, they felt their work mattered. These are the things older people of Russia miss. What they never miss, however, is the presence of a curious group of people who have more say at the matters of most other people’s daily activities. People who you receive work quotas from and send reports to. People whose orders you take and have to comply. And those people, coincidentally, receive more benefits than you, and more often than not, better pay. In the USSR those were apparatchiks, functionaries, that is, those who were called nomenkulatura, and, to a lesser extent, all kinds of lower-level administrative staff. And their modern counterparts, which are much more numerous (and, at least in the public opinion, much more conceited), are called chinovniki, a universally used word to signify officials and bureaucrats of all levels. Together with all kinds of administrators, accountants and managers of private workplaces, they form what Michael Albert calls the ‘coordinator class’, a group of people whose job positions give them disproportionate amount of influence over what’s going on in a workplace and other people’s economic lives. That is a key insight of participatory economics: that to eliminate and prevent this crucial disparity, to make the promise of soviets (councils) real, we need to implement what Albert calls ‘balanced job complexes’ that combine tasks in our workplaces in such a way so that everyone is informed enough and skilful enough to participate in collective decision-making. No Bosses invites you to consider better ways of doing things as a society. If the current state of the world seems bleak, you find your imagination expanded for the better, in similar ways to positive science fiction like solarpunk. However, unlike science fiction, while reading No Bosses you encounter ideas that are not only inspirational but deeply practical. And exactly this is a highlight of the later chapters of the book: after a series of helpful takes on such a complex matter as allocation of goods and labour and an overview of spheres of life besides economy such as political arrangements, kinship and artistic and cultural expressions, you are presented with a discussion about strategy and examples of how to proceed in the world of today. To me, however, the most important thing about participatory economics, just as about Michael Albert’s work in general, is that it brings you hope and ambition: in the world where everything seems to be on the brink of collapse, you discover a future to work for, a hopeful vision to strive for. And I hope No Bosses will inspire readers to participate in helping all of us to get to a better world.