Review of Michael Albert’s No Bosses

By Will Froberg

Source The Detroit Socialist

Detroit Democratic Socialists of America



In his new book, No Bosses: A New Economy for a Better World, Michael Albert lays out a concrete vision for a new economy called participatory economics (parecon). The system was originally created by Albert and Robin Hahnel, with its first formal presentation in 1991 in the books Looking Forward (free online version here) and The Political Economy of Participatory Economics (free online version here). This vision deserves to be widely recognized as an equitable, liberatory, and practical alternative to capitalism, and in No Bosses, Albert cogently and captivatingly explains why.

So what does a participatory economy entail? After two encouraging prefaces by Noam Chomsky and Yanis Varoufakis, Albert starts answering this question by laying out some values that should be incorporated into any worthy economic system. One is self-management: the idea that people should have a say in decisions in proportion to the degree those decisions affect them.

Albert points out that upon initial reflection, a fair mechanism for making decisions seems to be one person, one vote majority rule — and while this should be used in circumstances in which everyone voting is affected approximately equally, it has flaws for other situations. He says, for example, “Suppose you and ten others work together as a team in a workplace where 190 others also work. You propose something new for your nine workmates and you. Should 200 vote?” Or suppose a workplace is hiring, should those who will work with the new hire have more say than others? Should someone who hates the person have more say than others who don’t know the person?

Another value concerns how many benefits each person should get back from an economic system. Albert criticizes how under capitalism, one of the main ways income is received is from simply owning property (e.g. stocks, real estate, etc.), giving rise to the adage “it takes money to make money.”

Albert also criticizes power as being a determining factor of income. This power can take many forms. For example, if you own a lot of property, you can push your agenda in the political sphere, to enrich yourself.

He also argues that one’s output should not determine income, a point which is laid out in more detail later in the book. But the idea is quite simple: why should someone get more income because of luck — either genetic or circumstantial? A more moral and reasonable approach is to determine income based on effort and sacrifice, which includes how long, how hard, and under what conditions you work.

Other values offered in the opening chapter of No Bosses are solidarity, diversity, respect for the environment, peaceful international relations, and participation. Next, No Bosses considers the question “Who Owns What?” Albert’s proposal is that in a participatory society the means of production (i.e. the tools, natural resources, etc. that go into production) would not be owned by anyone, and would be called the Commons. Why assume someone has to own the means of production? Albert writes:

“All these productive assets are either gifts of nature, like warmth from the sun and resources from beneath the ground, or they are products of a long history of human creative activity, like technology, knowledge, and skills. They are parts of a natural and a built Commons which should together be respected and used responsibly for the benefit of all society. To misuse or waste them is a sin against nature and our own history that diminishes our future.”

Another question the book tackles early on is “Who Does What?” Albert criticizes the corporate division of labor, which he shows leads to what he calls a coordinator class of people who are not capitalists but who enjoy an overwhelming majority of empowering tasks in their workplaces. They include doctors, managers, accountants, and in the case of centrally planned economies (e.g. the former Soviet Union), the economic planners. Albert estimates that this class makes up about 20 percent of workers in most capitalist economies, while the other 80 percent do primarily “rote and repetitive tasks that exhaust, deaden, deskill, isolate, and un-inform to the point where they neither prepare nor incline people to participate in decision-making.” No Bosses shows how if this issue is not resolved, it will subvert otherwise well-founded plans to institute self-management:

“…even without owners present, and regardless of contrary hopes, the 20 percent coordinator class will dominate the 80 percent working class. Even with self- managing intentions, the trajectory of change will become out with the old boss, in with the new boss.”

To prevent this, Albert introduces the concept of balanced job complexes. This would mean that every worker would have a balance of empowering and disempowering tasks, in a mix that is broadly like that of all other jobs: “No one would only dig resources from a mine or only schedule the mine’s operations.” No Bosses argues in considerable detail how balanced jobs would release new productive potentials even as they also make classlessness possible.

Next, after offering some keen criticisms of both markets and central planning, Albert turns to what he calls the nervous system of any economy: the allocation process. Allocation concerns how an economy apportions resources to its members. For example, an economy has to have a mechanism for determining how much income individuals receive and how prices of goods and services are determined. Participatory planning involves neither markets nor central planning. Instead, it proposes a form of decentralized, democratic planning.

The details of the allocation process, called participatory planning, require an explanation that is beyond the scope of this review. However, in No Bosses, Albert describes it quite thoroughly.

Put very simply, workplaces would create proposals for what and how much they would like to produce during the following year, consumers would create proposals for what and how much they would like to consume during the following year, and a group called the Iteration Facilitation Board (IFB) would adjust prices based on the information it received from these proposals. The IFB would use an algorithm to increase prices if supply is less than demand, and decrease prices if supply is higher than demand. Workers and consumers would then use the new prices to create a second round of proposals. This process would repeat until a feasible plan for the year is reached (meaning supply and demand are sufficiently matched up).

There is much more to participatory planning. For example, Albert explains how the annual plan could be continually updated throughout the year, the mechanism by which workplaces would be incentivized to reduce negative external consequences of their production process (e.g. pollution), how people who cannot work would still receive a sufficient income, and how collective consumption and investment (e.g. a neighborhood pool, public transit, etc.) would be incorporated into the annual allocation plan. Unlike many works on economics, No Bosses also argues that a participatory economy on its own is not enough. The political system, community/culture, and kinship are also important aspects of any society. Albert does not put economics above these other sides of life, and explains why all four of these areas need to be actively worked on if a truly desirable society is to be achieved.

The last chapter of No Bosses gives answers to 15 questions about participatory economics. Albert does not shy away from asking the hard questions and answers them in depth.

One question asks why we should bother thinking about a vision for a new economy since we cannot replace capitalism any time soon. One of Albert’s answers is that having participatory economics as a shared vision would orient our short-term goals in positive ways. For example, with parecon as our shared vision, we would likely push for remuneration based on effort and sacrifice.

Similarly, our organizations would likely move toward self-management and balanced job complexes. He says, “It is very important that the way we choose [to create change] doesn’t lead us in a circle back to where we started, or take us to a new system that is still a dungeon. Vision matters for where we wind up.”

Overall, No Bosses does an excellent job of answering the questions: “If you don’t like capitalism, what would you replace it with? Why would your postcapitalism be worthy? Why would it work?” Activists have struggled with these questions, and No Bosses provides robust, concrete answers worth fighting for.

Detroit DSA has a parecon group that advocates for the system and is in the initial steps of forming a project based around creating a transitional parecon system in Detroit. For the latter project, we are looking for possible participants in the system. Are you a member of a co-op? Are you self-employed? Or do you create products as a hobby at home? Email Travis Froberg at travis.w.froberg@gmail.com to learn how you could be involved! You do not need to be a member of DSA or even have leftist politics to participate.

The parecon group meets biweekly on Sundays at 2 pm. Our meetings are posted in Detroit DSA’s Slack in the announcements channel, but you can also get the meeting Zoom link by emailing travis.w.froberg@gmail.com.

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The Detroit SocialistThe newspaper of the Detroit chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America