Searching for alternatives to the pure capitalist model

“Parecon: Life after Capitalism» by Michael Albert was released earlier this year to much praise from various left-wing thinkers and theorists in the US such as Noam Chomsky. Albert is also founder of the independent political, social and economic monthly «Z magazine.» «Parecon» has just been published in Greek and Albert spoke to Kathimerini English Edition while he was in Athens to promote his work. Could you explain briefly what Parecon – short for participatory economics – is all about? It’s an economic vision or model – a different way of doing economics – production, consumption and allocation to replace capitalism. So, it is not just a different set of values, although it is that, but a different set of institutions, to replace those we are familiar with in order to get different kinds of outcomes. Could you give an example of where Parecon can improve on capitalism? The specific institutions that constitute participatory economics are a different way of dividing up labor so as to create classlessness. So as to remove the large-scale distinctions between elders and workers and also between managers, doctors, lawyers, engineers and workers and create an environment instead in which every actor in the economy has comfortably empowering work, has income that is governed by the same norms. We get remunerated for the intensity of our work and the harshness of our work, so variations depend on that, not on other variables. How would that manifest itself in a particular situation? Imagine we have a workplace. In a capitalist environment, the key defining features of that workplace are that someone owns the materials and the tools and the space and the technologies with which we produce outputs. That person accrues a profit. Secondly, there is another set of people who monopolize the empowering tasks. Oddly, those with the most pleasant and the most powerful circumstances get the most income. Those with the least pleasant get the least income. In participatory economics, things are dramatically changed. Remuneration is for effort and sacrifice, not for output or property. Those variables disappear. There is no longer somebody who owns the workplace. There is also no longer 20 percent who monopolize the empowering work; instead the empowering of the workplace is divided among everybody. Greece From the little you have seen from Greece, can you think of any particular ways Parecon could be applied here, to the Greek economy? We can imagine a step in the right direction being local or national governments incorporating the population in the determination on how taxes will be spent on the federal budget or the national or local budget. Some cities have begun to experiment with that under pressure of constituencies and popular participation. Greece spent somewhere between 7 and 12 billion euros to host the Olympics during the summer. Do you consider this money well spent? When you try to assess a particular allocation of income within the world that we occupy, it is hard. Suppose for a minute that the money Greece spends on the military wasn’t being spent on the military. Suppose that the money Greece spends on maintaining the power and wealth of the relatively few in Greece to own property would not be spent in that fashion. Suppose that the Greek economy was oriented to meet needs and develop potentials. Then, we can ask the question. In those circumstances would it make sense to have large and pleasant stadiums for athletics? My answer is yes. I don’t see any problem with that. Would you describe yourself as an anti-capitalist? Yes, absolutely. I am most certainly an anti-capitalist. I am a market evolutionist, in the sense that a slave evolutionist might have at a particular point in time realized slavery was going to go on for a while but nonetheless believes that it was so horrific that it needed to be replaced. The movement against capitalism has been going on for some time now. Do you believe that capitalism will actually be replaced as the world’s dominant economic system during your lifetime? I definitely believe that it will be replaced. I don’t know when but it is distinctly possible it would be in my lifetime and I am not exactly a young man. It could also take a much longer time. When social movements begin to understand that capitalism isn’t like gravity or ageing, that it’s not a fact of life but a social structure, a set of institutions, we can choose to have different institutions. As an independent publisher, do you ever feel like a rowboat in the middle of a sea full of ocean liners? Yes, all the time. The US media scene is very strange; it is hard to explain to Europeans just how vacuous mainstream media in the US is. Social critics here find European media to be wanting, but there really isn’t any comparison; it is much worse in the United States. So, if you do alternative media and you are seriously concerned with attempting to tell the truth and attempting to uncover information and ideas that can actually impact social life, you are doing something that is very much against the grain but you keep on struggling and work hard to change the situation. What has been your impression of the level of journalism in Europe and in Greece? When I go to Britain and read the newspapers, I am flabbergasted. I find them to be incredibly better than American papers. There are all kinds of journalists in Britain who could not get a job in the US. If Robert Fisk or George Monbiot or others applied for a job in the US, the interviewer would wonder how such a human being could possibly have gotten into their office. They wouldn’t even be able to understand the language of this journalist because they are actually concerned with looking at reality and honestly conveying important information about it and this is not what America media does. I don’t know Greek media but I see the interviews with me appearing in Greek media, and that is impossible in the US. In the mainstream media in the United States, voices like mine aren’t heard. Even voices that are much more famous and much more permanent than my own, say Chomsky, aren’t heard in the mainstream media, but whenever we go some place else we get considerable coverage and visibility. Much has been made of the fact that in the US the majority of the mainstream media is controlled by just a handful of companies. What effect do you think this has on the quality of journalism? I don’t think that is the defining feature at all. American media was less centrally controlled, that is it had more owners, in 1960 or 1955 than it has now, but in some respect it was not any better, it was actually worse. I think it is other things like the fact that media is owned by corporate owners, by capitalists, by people who have a set of interests that is very narrow and self-serving – that’s a big issue. The fact that the media has to try and maximize market share, to reach the largest audience possible, even if that means diluting focus to a broad common denominator. American media is a business and the business is selling audience, selling listeners, selling readers to advertisers. The product is the people. The fact that the US is the most powerful country in the world, it is the country whose military and foreign policy is organized around maintaining the hierarchies that exist in the world, mean that it is of great importance that the American media do nothing to upset that whole array of agendas. The US is in many respects a very free country so if the population of the US were to become knowledgeable, were to understand how the world works and what is going on, it would be dangerous for the American elite. Big theory Some people have suggested that the death of Jacques Derrida signalled the end of the era of big theory. Do you agree? To be honest, I couldn’t understand a word that he ever wrote. I don’t understand much of what is written by the postmodernists and I don’t think it has anything to do with theory, much less big theory. I don’t think there is an end to theory. If by theory we mean looking at reality, naming aspects of it as concepts, trying to understand the relations among those aspects in order to be able to figure out how our actions would impact ongoing relations, of course theory will persist. To say that theory in that sense will not persist, is the same as saying that we are going no longer to think, no longer be rational in our choices. I think there is a place for honest theory – honest attempts to look at the world and understand it. For honest vision to look and see what we want in the place of capitalism and in the place of patriarchy and in the place of racism. But it all has to be in the most clear and straightforward and unpretentious language possible, so that normal people who have full lives, who cannot spend 10 years in the library trying to discover what something means, and only to discover that it probably doesn’t mean much of anything, can take a theory and a vision of strategy and make it part of the process of change. ‘Contrary to reality’ Michael Albert holds strong views on the role of the media. As he told Kathimerini English Edition: «It is very important that American people are afraid, from the American elite’s point of view. It is very important that average people in the United States actually believe that Saddam Hussein is a serious threat to their surviving into the next week. It is important that people in the US think that the largest expenditures of the American budget are for welfare and for social programs, not for the military. Many Americans do believe that, though it is completely contrary to reality. That’s because of American media.»