Interview Michael Albert – On the death of capitalism

Musab Younis Michael Albert is a renowned activist, speaker and writer who was elected President of the MIT student body during the 1960s, and expelled for his vocal and direct anti-war activism. He is the co-founder of ZNet, an independent media centre which incorporates the successful, ad-free magazine ZMag. Albert is perhaps best-known for his […]

Interviews, Profiles - Posted on Friday, January 9, 2009 4:30 - 1 Comment


Musab Younis

Michael Albert is a renowned activist, speaker and writer who was elected President of the MIT student body during the 1960s, and expelled for his vocal and direct anti-war activism. He is the co-founder of ZNet, an independent media centre which incorporates the successful, ad-free magazine ZMag. Albert is perhaps best-known for his vision (along with radical economist Robin Hahnel) of a participatory economy – or ‘parecon’ – as an alternative to market capitalism, market socialism or centrally-planned socialism. Parecon has rapidly taken primacy in the economic vision of libertarian socialism. “What parecon achieves,” says Albert, “is to facilitate each producer and consumer having a say in economic outcomes proportionate to the degree those outcomes affect him or her (self management), via social structures which promote mutual solidarity and shared interests, which advance diverse patterns of behaviour and outcome, and which attain distributional equity both of circumstances and of income.”

I am a student, it’s 8am on a Monday, and I have £10 ($20) in my pocket. What can I do, today, to get us closer to parecon?

Well, there is no one thing, rather many things, that people can do to reach most complex and large scale goals – and that is true for parecon, too. As a new type economy, involving new institutions replacing those familiar now, parecon is not something arrives in full, overnight. The hardest steps, in many respects, are the early ones. Some key facets of winning parecon, or by analogy any major social changes, are: developing a large group of informed advocates, developing instances of pareconish institutions, moving the left toward a pareconish commitment – not only rhetorical, but in our own organizations and projects – and developing changes in existing institutions that not only better people’s lives now, but also to move toward parecon and establish conditions for winning further gains on the same path.

That said, all kinds of activity are possible, though none are incredibly quick, so to speak. One can inform oneself about the main facets of the new vision, becoming ever more able to develop its contours, and, especially, to communicate about it to others, providing people an inspiring and compelling picture that leads, in turn, to their doing likewise to others. One can, having become well informed and able to communicate – whether in print, or verbally, or video, or however – spreading related insights. One can embark on creating pareconish projects and institutions, workplaces in particular. One can make a case for and seek to inspire existing left projects and institutions to adopt a pareconish make over in their structures, themselves becoming pareconish. One can create movements to win changes in any/all social arenas that elevate awareness of pareconish aims, and develop momentum for them, while bettering people’s lives, now.

Do you think the age of grand, unifying theories is over? Have we been left with thousands of little theories dealing with various aspects of the modern world?

What does that mean, grand unifying theories? I am not sure.

Take a different realm. Are our theories of biology, physics, etc. etc. grand unifying theories? If they aren’t, then there are none, anywhere and your question answers itself. If they are, and one could have them more or less by analogy for social realms, then all it means is can we have shared sets of ways of understanding and knowing and making predictions about, and, in the social realm, also having aims regarding various parts of social life? Well, put that way, sure, we can have that. It doesn’t mean no diversity, and it doesn’t mean homogenized minds, in a social context any more than it implies those bad results in the harder sciences.

I think the question arises from schools of thought that say something like this – grand unifying theories lead to myopic, sectarian, coercive projects that violate our aspirations, dull our creativity, regiment our inclinations and in time our behaviors, and thereby make winning a truly liberated world impossible.

And I think that bad outcomes like that are certainly possible, yes – so the shared ideas we seek need to be sought in ways that counter all those bad possibilities, and the shared ideas we seek need to themselves be contrary to those outcomes, too. People with a shared theory, grand or otherwise, or shared vision, or shared strategy, can be myopic, can be inflexible, can try to impose their even coercively, even on allies, even on themselves, and so on, to the worst imaginings possible. That is true, but notice, that does not say that such outcomes are inevitable. It says they are possible. It seems to me, and it seems the sciences show this, that it is also possible to pursue shared concepts, vision, and strategy, with an open and critical attitude, with a manner opposite to sectarianism, with a commitment in the shared ideas themselves and in the associated practice to pursue participation, to pursue an anti-authoritarian process and aims, etc.

I believe that efforts to transform modern societies into a much better future, transformative efforts, therefore, will be fueled by, informed by, oriented by, frameworks of comprehension of the present, shared goals for the future, and, in time, also shared strategies of change. To me that seems utterly obvious.

But then, in a country with, say, 100 million adult citizens, if we take that observation just one step further – and it is of course only a guess, we don’t know – it seems to me it suggests that a movement to create a truly participatory future, not one dominated by new elites, would require about 30 million of those 100 million people to be self consciously committed to and, more, highly informed and aware about, the aims of a mass movement. For informed participation and self management, there must be – well – informed participation and self management – and that means members seeking change who understand the goal, who are themselves the leaders people often seem to be waiting for. Then, yes, there would be many millions more, supporting, but not so deeply enmeshed in the project. Now if that is true, or even very roughly true, as in you think it would take twice as many people, or maybe only half as many, deeply and self consciously involved, then in any case, and any remotely plausible picture, we are talking about, before fully winning a new society in which there is real self management, having incredibly large and insightful collections of committed people on the move, seeking broadly the same future.

So I don’t know what a grand unifying theory is – but I think movements to overcome modern industrialized mass societies and attain what we might call a new type of participatory society, in my view including participatory economies, will certainly have unifying shared concepts, unifying shared vision, and unifying shared strategy. The trick is to have all this with participation, without new elite domination, and without sectarianism.

Noam Chomsky has influenced a generation, but especially, it seems, many of those who have known him personally for a long time. Can you tell us what the difference or divergence of views is between you and Chomsky?

Noam and I have been close friends for 40 years. There aren’t a lot of big differences, mostly only that we occupy ourselves in different ways and he is, well, Noam, which makes him different than pretty much everyone in various respects. He focuses mostly on international relations and, also, the domestic institutions at their roots, and then he branches out to domestic institutions in general, as well – in both cases overwhelmingly trying to reveal causes of injustice and explain plausible immediate possibilities, and to motivate rejection of injustice. I do that too, to a degree, but I tend to focus more on trying to myself formulate and also to inspire and help others to formulate vision – meaning institutional goals – and associated strategy as well. I do it more in the economics domain, but elsewhere as well.

As to significant differences with Noam, in Noam’s earlier years, say back in the sixties and early seventies, which is also when I was his student, he was quite strong about the need for shared vision to galvanize and orient effective opposition, even urging work in that direction. In fact, I think I was probably influenced by his calls for that sort of creativity. Later, he became somewhat skeptical, I think it is fair to say, of that effort feeling despite its potential benefits, too often such attempts tend to extend into silly blueprints, sectarian inflexibility, conjecture without basis if not sophomoric conjecture, etc. Most recently, however, I think it is also fair to say that he is moving back toward his prior views – knowing all the ill results that are possible, but now as the more predominant sentiment realizing also that shared viewpoints, including vision, is critically important and needs development and widespread involvement. This probably explains why his support for parecon has grown steadily over the years.

Will it make any difference if Barack Obama is elected President of the U.S., and if so, does that make it worth voting (for him)?

It is not Obama or nobody, it is Obama or McCain. So, what if you asked your question this way. Would it make a difference if the American people voted in larger numbers for McCain or for Obama. Yes, put that way I hope you agree that it obviously makes a big difference because it reveals the population is in a better place, maybe a lot better, maybe only a little better, then if McCain were more supported.

More, McCain and his base of support are, well, horrific even beyond the norm, and would be horrendous for humanity, even beyond the norm, until restrained, and the depression induced by his election would curtail early energy for restraint, I suspect. Obama, by contrast, we don’t know a lot about, personally, and I doubt there is much there to get excited about, unless you are excited about charisma without visible substance, with one caveat I will return to below.

On the other hand, Obama’s support is being elicited and then propelled based on the rubric of change and this has two very large upsides. It says change is possible, change is worth fighting for, and it aligns millions at least for the moment, for change, raising the question – how much change, and change to what? Also, you and I know that Obama isn’t going to deliver much without mass pressure on him to do so. He isn’t going to run for president, get the nomination, and then be president, if that happens, because he isn’t like others who have done so, but because he is like others who have done so. The idea he is some kind of stealth leftist is ludicrous. So, at the outset of his administration if he wins, he won’t deliver much change – just, I think, in some broad social programs and especially health care. He will let people down, as usual, in many respects, and particular regarding the war. Now what will be the popular reply. If Obama gets elected, this will be the critical deciding factor in whether it is just broadly more of the same, a little nicer (which means a lot to many people worldwide and therefore should not be dismissed as irrelevant) or the beginning of something new.

It could be something new, not due to Obama being some kind of tribune of change – he isn’t – but due to his constituencies deciding, on seeing that he isn’t, that they don’t care firstly about him per se, they care firstly about change per se, and they are going to keep seeking it, even against Obama’s administration. That is what we have to hope for and seek.

Now the caveat. There is one sense in which election of Obama, even without anything else occurring, would itself be historic and positive, again as a reflection of positive developments in the American population, but also as a spur to more. That is, of course, a black person becoming president, being voted for as president and day after day demonstrating the absurdity of racism on a very, very large stage. Anyone who says that wouldn’t be a wonderful step forward, though certainly not a final step in any respect, has a very strange understanding, in my view. And actually, the same holds but now around gender not just if Clinton had become president, but even just for her getting so close to that end. These are major indicators of a huge and even stupendous, but not yet complete, shift in consciousness and to a degree also social relations in the U.S. and they are also, themselves, events that add to that process. I know they are not irrevocable, I know they do not in themselves end racism or sexism, but they are real and substantial gains for what they say about progress to date, for the mindsets they will impact positively in the future, nonetheless, and are good, very good, in that respect. And this is so even if, as I believe to be the case, both Clinton and Obama are just more candidates of the same intellectual and moral sort as we always see.

How do you manage to fit everything in?

The truth is, my life is – at least when I am not traveling – at least structurally infinitely less stressful and more fulfilling and flexible than is the situation of people with wage slave jobs. There is no sacrifice involved, or little, day to day. This is another reason to try to incorporate the seeds of future relations in current practice. It makes existence more fulfilling. When I am traveling, things are different, ironically. The long trips in particular I find to be less pleasant and manageable. I’m not sure if others feel similarly or not, I haven’t really talked about this with others in similar situations.

Is there a certain amount of futility involved in describing in detail a utopic ideal unless one explains in similar detail how to achieve it?

First off, there is futility, and ignorance, in seeking detail in vision in any case. We can’t know, nor should we much care about, I think, or waste time even on hypothesizing about even possible detail, much less supposedly accurate detail. What matters is broad clarity about defining structures. What matters is being able to envision the defining relations of some domain – the economy in my case, most often, or the culture, or kinship, or the polity, etc. What one wants is to know those aspects that need to be communicated to inspire hope and advocacy and to inform activism so it leads where we desire. You don’t need fine details for that, but, to give an example, you do need to know, say, that we have to replace the current typical division of labor that prevails throughout society. If you don’t know you want a new division of labor, you replicate the current division of labor in your own movements and you forego any chance of winning the changes you hope for.

That said, I agree that even presenting what is worth presenting, a broad strokes picture of defining relations of sought institutions, is made far more valuable if one can also present a broad strokes picture of at least broadly how to attain the vision, thereby fueling and informing not only rational informed belief that a better world is abstractly possible, but also rational, informed belief that the abstractly possible better world is practically attainable, and efforts in that direction.

But I think it is a two step process, and while it isn’t entirely one step after the other, there are elements of that involved. You can’t have a compelling broad strategy (and strategy is even less susceptible to useful detail than is vision) until you broadly know where you are going. Example, if you don’t know where you are going, or you would be happy arriving somewhere that still has class division and class rule, you are likely to settle for a strategy that is ignorant about or even propels the interests of what I call the coordinator class above workers. But if you favor parecon, and you understand that possibility, and you instead favor classlessness, you will advocate a very different broad strategy, because you will understand that being anticapitalist doesn’t by itself imply being for classlessness.

So, in my mind at least, the project we face is to arrive at shared vision, and also to begin to expand its base of supporters, for lots of domains of social life, and then to also move on, with collectives of advocates and then organizations, to matters of program and strategy. Hopefully we are nearing the time for pursuing the latter project even while continuing to work on vision, as well.

What does the current economic crisis tell us about the advantages of parecon?

Honestly, I think not much more than we already knew.

Suppose you lived in a dictatorship that was, of course, rotten to the core, all the time. Suddenly something unexpected occurs and life under the dictatorship gets even worse, and the crisis afflicts wider constituencies, as well. Well its devolution does tell us that a relatively stable rotten dictatorship can hit a bump and become even worse, sure, which is another strike against it. But the dictatorship had already, even before the crisis, obviously and unquestionably a decrepit means of decision making and government, that was rejected not for its worst moments, but for its best moments.

The same holds for capitalism. At its best capitalism is horrific. At its worst, capitalism’s horror increases somewhat and spreads also, touching more folks, and even some who have advantage. This is not really much more of a debit compared to the constant debit of exploitation and alienation and subordination that is capitalism’s optimal norm.

That said, when the system starts to literally unravel it does create a different and dangerous context. If there are massive movements with high consciousness about the system’s faults and explicit desires for a better system, then dissolution may elevate those inclinations, pushing society toward new possibilities. But if that forward looking consciousness and organization is absent, then system failure can instead evoke in people a desire to return to stability by any means offered, including right wing regimentation. The latter possibility, not just the former hope, is a serious threat, now.
There is a sense, therefore, in which the U.S. election, even though it is between two candidates both of whom represent the interests of empire and capital, is likely to become at least a partial indicator of the population’s inclinations – do people want to make popular and even participatory changes away from business as usual (even if the candidates, themselves, in fact, are not really about serious change), or do people want to hand over all power to a narrow elite to impose order from above? These two possible desires, even if not the candidates, are very serious, I think, and while the election won’t be definitive, it has gone up in importance in light of the crisis.


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benson bear
Jan 21, 2009 23:41

What does Michael Albert do for a *living*? That is, how does he add, really, to the mass pile of goods and services that he takes from in order to fulfill his needs (housing, clothing, food, tvs, computers, cars, travel, medical needs, etc?) The stuff that is provided for by those in “wage slave” jobs in other words.

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