ZMag, April 09, 2004

Reply To Democracy And Nature Comments*

Michael Albert

Having been kindly invited to contribute to an upcoming issue of Democracy & Nature, I was sent some back issues, including No. 9. In it I found Takis Fotopoulis's "Outline for an Economic Model" and in that I found a number of references to an economic vision that Robin Hahnel and I have offered, called Participatory Economics (or parecon for short). These were a bit troubling so I thought I would reply, giving D&N readers another take on the matter.
Fotopoulis first suggests that parecon's approach to allocation is likely infeasible for a reason that "concerns any kind of democratic planning that is not market-based"--that is, that it "has to involve an arbitrary and ineffective way of finding out what future needs will be." Next, he claims that parecon is undesirable because it is "bureaucratic" and "involves a serious restriction of individual autonomy in general and freedom of choice in particular." This then escalates to a fear that parecon's concern that consumption has collective implications leads to "maoist totalitarianism." Fotopoulis then sees "creeping totalitarianism" in that in parecon in his words "each citizen's consumption, production, and workload has, ultimately, to conform to the ‘average'." Later, after quoting us favorably about "job complexes," Fotopoulis rejects that we "impose" job rotation "as an obligatory rule" "on all citizens." 
As we were dealt with a bit summarily, to give readers a different take to consider let me just say that participatory economics or parecon is a system built around council democracy, balanced job complexes, remuneration according to effort and sacrifice, and participatory planning for allocation (rather than markets, central planning, or any combination of the two). Of these four pillars of parecon, the first, council democracy, is familiar, both for workplaces and consumer units. The second, balanced job complexes, is, however, innovative and controversial. As in any economy, each parecon actor enjoys a mix of tasks altogether constituting a job. But in parecon, each job's tasks are overall alike to the tasks composing other jobs in respect to their empowerment and quality of life impact on workers. We each have different jobs with different mixtures of tasks, of course, but our jobs are nonetheless alike in having overall comparable quality of life and empowerment implications for us in our work days. Thus, parecon does not have some people having jobs more pleasant or empowering than others and other people with jobs less pleasant and empowering than others - nor does parecon have a class division between conceptual administrative workers on the one hand, and executionary workers doing the elite's bidding, on the other. Note also, most jobs will be far more diverse than now, having components at many levels regarding quality of life and empowerment effects, rather than being homogeneous combinations of tasks all at one high or low level, for example. The third defining feature of parecon, remuneration according to effort and sacrifice, means just what it sounds like. We don't reward output much less property. This too is an unusual stance, even on the left. Parecon doesn't remunerate genius, or strength, or dexterity, or even accumulated skill or knowledge (much less property) - but only effort and sacrifice put to valued purposes. And finally, fourth, parecon's mode of allocation, participatory planning, is a carefully developed and described institutional structure for horizontal rather than top down planning that takes into account true and complete social costs and benefits and manifests the wills of actors in outcomes in proportion as the actors are affected by those outcomes. These four defining aspects are together quite different from those of more familiar post capitalist models and are chosen/designed with the purpose of both getting the economic tasks of production, consumption, and allocation done well, and also furthering various preferred values: equity of income and circumstance, solidarity, diversity, and participatory self-management.
Of course tat's too brief a description for anyone to jump on board parecon. But, readers of Democracy and Nature, if your interest is perked, the thing to do would be to check our longer presentations and discussions, perhaps Looking Forward (South End Press), The Political Economy of Participatory Economics (Princeton University Press) or Thinking Forward (Arbeiter Ring Press). On the other hand, if you have Internet access, you might try where you will find a "Parecon Watch" section with lots of articles, a forum for discussion, etc. But before investing any more time, you might wonder what about Fotopoulis's problems with parecon? Don't they indicate that parecon isn't worth further examination?
Well, yes, they might that for you, if they were accurate. So let's take them in turn. Fotopoulis is correct that our approach to allocation is "not market based"—or even market tinged, for that matter. In fact, in our view that is one of its chief virtues. But his claim that due to being "not market based" participatory planning therefore involves "an arbitrary and ineffective way of finding out what future needs will be" is very curious. In the first place, one of the things virtually everyone agrees markets are notoriously bad at is anything to do with the future, whether future needs or otherwise, imposing, as markets do, a very narrow time horizon on actors. Second, and more damning, our own study of markets (Quiet Revolution in Welfare Economics, Princeton University Press) shows rather conclusively, I think, that not only don't markets accurately discern and account for actors' future preferences, they instead systematically bias actor's future preferences away from their natural trajectories in anti-social directions. To emulate markets on this score, therefore, would consign an economic vision to worthlessness. Finally, third, Fotopoulis's claim looks rather like an impossibility theorem and one that isn't proved but merely stated, despite that it closes the door on precisely a paramount task we face - figuring out how to have an economy that works really well, but which also fosters human well being and development for all, which, of course, markets can't do. It is quite like Alec Nove saying that developed economies must opt for markets or central planning, there being no third (or fourth or fifth) way possible. But this is mere assertion. In Nove, there is no supporting argument other than repetition. In Fotopoulis, there isn't even repetition. In Albert and Hahnel, however, there is a refutation of this impossibility theorem in the form of participatory planning. Surely we should all hope Albert and Hahnel are right and (Nove and Fotopoulis wrong) that we don't have to utilize markets, even peripherally, in a better future economy. Look for yourself to decide.
Moving, on, as to parecon being bureaucratic, I'm unsure how to respond since it depends what Fotopoulis means by "bureaucratic." Parecon has institutions within and via which power is entirely dispersed to those affected by decisions. So if we mean by bureaucracies entities that have disproportionate say over outcomes affecting others, or even just themselves, parecon has no bureaucracy. You'd have to check for yourself, of course, to verify this one way or the other, but you can see how the comments Fotopoulis offers aren't evidence of anything, or even indicative, but merely assertion.
Next, says Fotopoulis, parecon restricts choice. This is in fact true. But then so does any institution or society and any economy restrict choice, of course, in some ways. Parecon rules out certain options but in ways that promote solidarity, diversity, equity, and self-management while being consistent with getting economic tasks done well. For example, pareconers can't consume more than their income warrants and their incomes will vary above or below average only due their working longer or less long than average, or more or less hard than average—remuneration being according to effort and sacrifice. Pareconers can't employ wage slaves, nor, more controversially, can they work at jobs with disproportionate shares of onerous or disempowering tasks (because these type jobs don't exist in parecon). In other words, people will work at jobs that are "average" in the precise sense of being not class segmented and having a balance of tasks vis-a-vis empowerment and quality of life impact, and they will do so because these are the only kinds of jobs the economy incorporates, that being the way tasks are combined into jobs in parecon. This is a limitation, I certainly agree, just as not being able to own slaves or employ wage slaves is a limitation, and on the same trajectory toward a much better future.
Fotopoulis is concerned, however, that parecon will restrict consumers' freedom of choice, even to the point of "creeping totalitarianism." What bothers him, I think—he doesn't say enough to know for sure—is that parecon recognizes that acts of consumption sometimes have social implications that go beyond the person doing the consuming and recognizes that fellow members of living complexes, or neighborhoods, or other units need to therefore have some rights vis-ŕ-vis one another's choices. Actually, this is not controversial, I would have thought. It means that if someone is entering a request for an Uzi, neighbors can say, hold on, and similarly for other purchases which might have adverse social effects on them. At the same time, parecon does incorporate means to preserve privacy and also freedom of choice for the consumer (this is what Fotopoulis is referring to, I think, when he mentions that we make "an obvious attempt to disperse any impression of maoist totalitarianism," though the content of our structures of course goes unstated), even while also granting those who might be affected a proper level of impact on the outcome. This is apparently, even obviously for Fotopoulis "creeping Maoism" despite their being no class differences among actors, no unwarranted income differences (with such differences as exist being quite modest), no public accountability for private choices, and so on. Again, I suggest that if interested you look for yourself.  Finally, as to the last point, we not only don't require job rotation on principle but instead dispense with it as an often useless red herring re justice and equity, the real issue being all people having proper (balanced) jobs in the first place, rather than those who monopolize excessively desirable jobs merely slumming in a bad one a few days a month.
The most ironic thing about Fotopoulis's comments, and perhaps why I was moved to reply in this letter, is his allusion to Maoism, totalitarianism, etc. I have to say, I was astounded by this. Parecon is disliked by many folks, so the fact that Fotopoulis might dislike it too is no big surprise. But no one has as yet, to my knowledge, seriously argued that parecon doesn't work as an economy. Nor has anyone before this ever seen in it creeping totalitarianism. Instead, most of parecon's critics have said things like: I don't want to live in it because I couldn't have my job as it is currently defined, or because it has too many meetings, and such. At any rate, perhaps there is some lesser meaning for Fotopoulis's comments than what they seem to convey regarding his view of parecon, and therefore perhaps some benign reason for bandying about such derogatory terms as "totalitarian" with so little supporting commentary - but it eludes me just what it might be. If Fotopoulis read the book he referenced he will surely know that its authors are highly anti-Leninist and thus anti-Maoist. He will know that they reject what is traditionally termed socialism as, instead, a type of economy (which comes in a market and centrally planned version) that elevates a class of intellectual/decision making actors (who we call the coordinator class) to ruling status above workers. Indeed, he will know that parecon is largely conceived in the context of trying to accomplish society's economic functions in a classless way, with a just distribution of circumstances, incomes, and power, promoting diversity and solidarity. Given that he presumably knew all that, then, the use of terms like totalitarian took me by surprise and I thought I would offer D&N readers another take on the model. I thank you for providing space in your Dialogue Section for me to do so.
Michael Albert

* This is an exact reproduction of a reply by Michael Albert to what he calls "D&N Comments", but in reality it constitutes an answer only to T. Fotopoulos' very short critique of Parecon in his book Towards an Inclusive Democracy, and not to the extended and well-documented (and known to Albert) critique by Fotopoulos and Inclusive Democracy that was published in Democracy & Nature, Vol.9, No.3 ("Inclusive Democracy and Participatory Economics" at and with later additions, in the International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, Vol.1, No.2 ("Participatory Economics (Parecon) and Inclusive Democracy" at

Albert' s Reply was initially published in this web page: but this link to Znet (along with many others) now seem to unwillingly redirect the reader to a fundraising "Help Us" web page with the title: "Emergency Appeal - Please, We Urgently Need Your Help Now!" at

The Editorial Committee of the International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, October, 26 2009.