An interview with Michael Albert on participatory economics and the state of Z Communications.
A traditional code for community organizers has been to connect with others through values, rather than policies. The latter is often polarizing, while shared values, such as social compassion or general progressivism, can more easily become the basis for sustainable relationships. However, the inherent flaw with this strategy is that a shared vision either becomes blurred, or remains entirely absent from an organization.
Michael Albert, an activist and the founder of Z Communications whose career dates back to his involvement in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), took to solving this problem by developing a comprehensive vision for a future society. A brief view of this theory reveals how true it is to its title, “Participatory Economics”, as it relies on democratic organization built for the modern society and its needs.
After reading his latest book that details Participatory Economics, Parecon, and closely examining some of the critiques and praise of this kind of system, I realized that this vision is far more intricate than one book can fully detail. Parecon draws from almost every sphere of political philosophy, with strands running from anarcho-syndicalism and left-Marxism to Richard Cobden’s 19th century conservative philosophy. It’s a non-pretentious guide to what a future society ought to look like, but without the needless commitment to a disempowering ideology.
As a former community organizer myself, Parecon left a satisfying residue of “Man, a community organizer could have written this!” A rare (and populist) feeling, given the state of affairs presented by a media narrative with unremitting support for an elite status quo. The commitment by Albert to remain independent from consuming creeds of utopianism and idealism is evident in his work and his tone. Regardless of your opinion on the many nuances of Participatory Economics as a proposal, the ability shown by the author to remain principled in the face of incredibly challenging problems facing modern society is profound and unique.
It is my pleasure and I thank you for being interested and giving me a forum.
By the end of Parecon, the notion of democratic participation in a modern economy sounds entirely realistic, but in the beginning it sounds like a utopian concept. Is it a success of the private media system that natural inclinations toward compassion and democracy sound utopian, or is the world just really far away from achieving participatory economics?
I think you are right on both counts. On the one hand, all kinds of media convey images and messages that undercut sentiments for solidarity and participation. On the other hand, however, I think actually far more powerfully, our daily experiences have that effect, as well. Virtually all that we do, and certainly what we do competing within the economy, cements in us attitudes, habits, and beliefs consistent with class rule and alienated options. As a result, when we hear about something that would operate humanely, equitably, with solidarity, much less in a self managing way – it at first seems like absurdity. It must violate nature and social realities It appears foreign and impossible. Then, with more attention and some patience, the unfamiliar starts to make sense. It isn’t difficult. It is just contrary to our habits and prior learning.
-The ‘old guard’ of the left – former SDS members and civil rights activists – rarely mention community organizer Saul Alinsky. He is often attributed to shaping the ‘pragmatist’ politics of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Wikipedia describes him as a champion of the “non-socialist left.” What are your thoughts on Alinsky and his reformist teachings?
Honestly, I haven’t paid all that much attention. My guess is he was a sensible guy who came up with a few very nearly self evident insights about trying to win support for social demands, and then the key thing is he and others acted on those ideas, with some discipline and continuity among them, and thus with some successes.
My concern or issue with them, would be – are the methods such as to not only win sought demands, but also develop means and desires to win much more. Do they try to unleash a kind of trajectory of ever widening awareness and desire? Or do they seek an end, and then terminate on winning it, or failing to win it. If they have the onward orientation, great. It certainly didn’t happen for the folks you mention – it probably did happen for others. So it isn’t inevitably that a radical or a liberal outcome arises. It can likely be one or the other, at least with some effort, and I think probably the interesting issue is what features, added to those Alinsky advocated, can make the approach non reformist in the sense of becoming part of a project aimed at winning a whole new system, and what features, in contrast, added to those Alinsky advocated, or among them, make the approach reformist in the sense of winning some desirable gains but then basically going home.
I’ve argued that pragmatism is only useful when used as a strategic tactic, rather than your only strategy. The Chicago politicians tend to believe it’s the “pragmatic” liberal leaders that push social change, and everyone else is just a nuisance. The Obama White House has been a good example of reprimanding (or altogether ignoring) the “professional left.” Are the Chicago politicians and their philosophy helpful in the short term?
I don’t know who in particular you have in mind either as Chicago politicians or the professional left – but perhaps even before that, I wonder what the word pragmatism means, here? It all hinges on that.
If being pragmatic means taking into account real existing relationships in trying to accomplish your aims, then anyone who isn’t pragmatic is a fool. If it means accepting that real existing relationships are essentially permanent, so you should accept them and then only tinker around at the edges, then anyone who is pragmatic is, in fact, a supporter of existing relations. In the second case I believe it is also true that anyone who is pragmatic meaning accepting of existing relations, is deluded – particularly if they think that such efforts are going to change life very substantially.
So what do we need to do? We need to seek real changes that better peoples lives in significant ways, and then more such changes, and more – always paying attention to real relations even as we are trying to alter them. However, accepting current relations as permanent is obscene, honestly.
This is all perhaps easiest to understand if we look at some other times and places, which is often a useful trick, as a way to understand the heart of a situation without being bent out of shape by bad habits.
So, suppose someone said to an abolitionist, “be pragmatic.” Or to a suffragist, “be pragmatic.” If it meant, accept that slavery and male domination are permanent, and within that assumption, mitigate some of the pain, it would have been both morally obscene and also strategically horrible advice. If it meant, recognize that slavery and male domination exist, understand their dynamics, and conceive workable programs for short, medium, and finally fundamental changes taking into account real relations you confront, then it would be good advice – though very obvious. The same thing holds now. Out of some mouths “be pragmatic” means give up. Out of other mouths “be pragmatic” means struggle harder, clearer, more effectively.
On a related topic, what are your thoughts on the ‘Super Congress,’ and the negotiated debt deal? Were you surprised by the outcome?
I have to admit I haven’t followed all the details really closely. I just didn’t have time and, in any case, the real and simple truth is, in the absence of powerful public pressure, one can reliably predict that outcomes will protect, benefit, and perhaps even greatly advance the interests of wealthy and powerful sectors, at the expense of the poor and weak. That is how our social institutions work – unless pressure compels better results. There was some pressure, but not too much, so we get what we got – so far.
Had President Obama used his chance to nationalize major industries, would the path to constructing Pannekoek-style workers’ councils been more achievable than through the private sector? The same top-down hierarchy would be dismally present in both models, as you noted in Parecon’s debunking of the ‘command or market economy’ dilemma.
We have to be careful, here. Such a scenario is cloud cockoo land, we used to call it when I was much younger – in that there is zero evidence to suggest any such possibility from Obama – but still we can say what out attitude would be if it were to happen. So the question might be put, what if Obama really was some kind of tribune of the poor and weak,? Well, in that case, his election would have been rather like when Chavez won his first presidency. The media and pundits and power brokers in Venezuela all thought Chavez’s campaign rhetoric would be jettisoned and he would toe the proverbial line. However, he didn’t. He said to them, instead – no, I was serious, I mean to improve the lot of society’s worst off. He wasn’t a socialist, but he cared about the poor and meant his promises – and of course the power elites, the owners and politicians, went ballistic. And the struggle goes on, with Chavez, as president, trying to use the office to propel and promote wide participation in a revolutionary attempt to alter society’s defining institutions, and elites trying to limit change, and get rid of him and any movements with similar desires.
Okay, suppose Obama had been similar. Suppose he got into office, and he started pursuing policies that actually did mean to benefit the weak and poor. Full employment. Much higher minimum wage. Organizing grass roots popular movements and organizations to challenge local governments and corporations. U.S. owners and other elite sectors would have gone ballistic. But suppose they could’t get him out, and he moved, in reaction, like Chavez did, steadily further left. Would this be good or bad for prospects for winning better conditions, and then a whole new system in the U.S.? Well, I think it would be incredibly good for such prospects, even though it would also be fraught with dangers, just as in Venezuela now.
Late philosopher Murray Bookchin vigorously disagreed with the idea that the public simply doesn’t want the responsibility of participating in public affairs in ways recommended by Parecon, libertarian socialism and other economic models. In your life, what has your experience been in regards to understanding this conception?
Consider a prison. Imagine they decide to hold an election for the next warden. Two guys, chosen by the owners of the prison, or the governor, or whatever, are running. One is called Hang em High Jones. The other is called Drown em Deep James. You are an inmate. Do you vote? Well, you might think HH is a little better than DD, or vice versa, and vote. Or you might feel like voting is you ratifying the system and would be disgusting, and abstain. Now add that the two candidates talk a lot, but they say nothing you have any reason to believe. Well, you might vote for the one who seems more folksy or looks nicer to you, figuring you have to endure him being around daily for many years, or, again, you might abstain.
Okay, so it is easy to understand why people don’t want to participate in oppressing themselves. What about participating in liberating themselves? Well, another thought experiment might help.
Now there is an election between Moneybags Obama and, I don’t know, let’s say, Friend of Liberty Chomsky. And God comes down – just to round out the fancifulness of the picture – and says, wait a minute. This is interesting. I am going to play a role. I guarantee that if either one of these candidates lies at any time in the campaign, I will turn him into a cockroach. Also, however, once the campaign is done, I guarantee that the preferred programs will be enacted, so long as they are socially and materially possible. I won’t let anyone sabotage the efforts. More, we are going to have a one year campaign and during that time both candidates will have as much opportunity to be heard as they need. They will debate as much as either desires, and so on. What would happen?
Well, if you think people don’t give a damn about participating in public affairs, or don’t want the responsibility, or whatever, then you would predict that the voter turnout would be about iike now, say – perhaps a bit under or just a bit over 50%. You would also predict that only a very few people would become highly active in campaigning, etc. But I would bet that the turnout would be over 100%, with people thought dead coming out of exile to vote along with everyone else. And I also think the campaign teams would be huge. Finally, I think, with all the serious discussion and debate, and honesty, Friend of Liberty would beat Moneybags 80 to 20, and maybe even more than that.
One of the many things that your publication, Z Magazine, has managed to do is stay relevant and popular over time. At a time when most people get breaking news online, has the media shifted and almost ‘crowded out’ any room that was left for the standard political journals of the past?
It is a serious trend and has its good and bad aspects. Online allows very timely coverage and much less expensive production – two good things. But it also tends to wipe out avenues of revenue for more permanent and careful media, other than advertising, and that is a very bad effect. Is print disappearing? Well, I think it is certainly declining, and beyond that, I don’t know. Is online communications growing? Certainly it is, but how much is also unclear. Online systems, however, are also highly dominated by a very few providers, so that in that realm the left has a real need to do more, just as it does in print, video, and so on.
Could you tell us about the new social network that Z Communications is developing? What was the inspiration for such a project, besides offering a version of Facebook that won’t give my private information to corporations?
Facebook is a vehicle people can use to engage with one another. For some things Facebook is very good – such as finding and keeping in touch with old friends about broad personal matters – though not too personal – or even family who are distant. But it also has very grave problems. On the one hand, it makes a mockery of privacy, keeping everything people do while logged in for sale or conveyance to others – both corporations and governments. This is big brother on steroids and incredibly people think it is unintrusive.
On the other hand, since pursuing profits is in command of policy, there is attention only to amassing more and more users, and to very cleverly marshaling data about their habits and preferences to get them to buy commodities. Facebook’s huge resources and programming talents are not applied to expand tools for pubic participation, for debate and exploration, for critical assessment, and so on. Rather they are applied to get people in the mood to react positively to ads, and stay aboard.
Another serious issue is that Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the internet more generally, are, I think, having a serious, and perhaps even very very serious impact on the attention spans of users, particularly young people, but I think all users. This is no small issue. To have a technology go viral which deadens our capacities for focus even as it locks us steadily more highly into using it, is not that different, in some respects, than having a drug go viral which is addictive and deadly to our capacities. The difference is the mob pushes the latter. Big business and amazingly a large part of the populace, push the former.
Okay, so the impetus for ZSocial was the recognition that there is something profoundly depressing, debilitating, and potentially deadly to our interests in having left online organizing pretty much all flow though giant corporate run operations who retain records of everything we do, channel our efforts into commercial results, bias, over time, toward only nugget-like and gossipy communications rather than deep exchange, etc.
When will the network be available in a public beta, and will there be a separation between private ‘human’ profiles and public ‘Pages’?
My best guess is an open beta will appear between mid September and mid October. People will be able to have public and private contacts, posts and comments that are public or private to limited eyes, etc.
Michael Albert, thanks so much for taking the time to give us this interview.