Michael Albert is a leading critic on political economy, U.S. foreign policy, and the mass media. A veteran writer and activist, he currently works with Z Magazine and the website Znet, both of which he co-founded. Here he talks about the environmental crisis, prospects for economic democracy, and the new International Organization for a Participatory Society (IOPS).
D.J. Buschini: The current economic model dominating the world poses a direct threat to the biosphere, scientists routinely warn us. It needs to be fundamentally transformed to operate on clean, sustainable energy –– as soon as possible. Do you agree?
Michael Albert: Yes, and more. I think it is hard to deny that if societies endlessly continue operations in the capitalist mode we now have it will lead to unimaginably painful results and perhaps even Armageddon.
But you know, the odd thing is, the same is true for the continued stockpiling of nuclear weapons. And whereas most elites probably disagree about the need to really disarm, I suspect they are coming to slowly agree, at least personally, about the need for sustainable economic choices.
The trouble is, what elites or even the broad public desire is one thing, but what institutions propel elites and the broad public to do can be dramatically at odds with their desires.
Our current institutional arrangements, allowed to persist as they are and just augmented by more and more people wanting to see sustainable activity – will not get us sustainable activity. The institutions people function in provide too many incentives for ecological infamy and too many disincentives for ecological sanity. Overall they push way too hard for unsustainable choices and curtail even the possibility of ecologically sound behavior.
This is just like lots of people wanting to be nice and caring and to serve public ends when they start off into their jobs, but — due to operating in corporations and markets — later failing to be nice and caring and instead working to advance private ends. The institutions militate too strongly for nasty outcomes.
So, suppose scientists’ and citizens’ calls for sustainable choices keep growing, but we don’t have strong movements challenging the most basic institutions. And imagine things simultaneously get environmentally worse, with warming and storms and droughts, so the pressure for change to avoid ecological calamity, including pressure from elites, becomes overwhelming.
I can then imagine massive, even gigantic state interventions that outlaw some activities and enforce other activities, all to reverse the destructive trends — without changing the basic economic and social structures of society, other than by imposing roughly the equivalent of war-time government intervention and imposition of preferred outcomes.
Of course, if this happened, and if it were environmentally successful, we would no longer be accumulating full-speed into oblivion. Many current market dictates would have been checked by coercive state intervention. We would no longer be wasting all that we waste, no longer spewing all that we spew, and so on.
Windmills and solar panels as well as conservation would be ubiquitous. But all this would have been achieved by way of elite authoritarian impositions, not by way of publicly overseen decisions – and it would have been achieved by mitigating some market failings and some types of profit-seeking (like taxes or labor laws or minimum-wage laws do, but much more aggressively) but without eliminating profit-seeking, markets, class division, and class rule.
I could also envision elites thinking that while elites certainly need to protect themselves and their assets from environmental harm by coercive state intervention, they can do it with protected gated communities writ large, not by opening the gates ––their attitude being, ‘to hell with the rest of the world.’ They would impose restrictions, very strong ones, on economic activity, but they would also be sure that those restrictions left their privilege and power intact, or even enhanced, whatever the cost to others.
Consider, again by analogy, that the economic calamity, made up of the ongoing financial meltdowns around the world, is also incredibly harmful — indeed, at the moment way more obviously and immediately destructive to people’s life options than current environmental failings.
Elites don’t say, in response: what do we need to do to get everyone out of harm’s way? No. They say: how do we, ourselves, escape harm? In fact, how can we come out better than before, no matter what suffering that imposes on others? Their approach, without powerful pressure from movements, is and will remain similar for the ecological as for the economic crisis. That is what society’s institutions force them to do. Try to right the ship – but while still commanding it.
So I would agree that becoming sustainable while maintaining property and power relations, or even while worsening the latter, is unlikely to work fully even for elites, and certainly won’t work for everyone other than elites, at least in the long run.
Indeed, there may be no solution for the environment in the long run without literally replacing private ownership, markets, central planning, and so on. But I am not entirely sure of that – and I don’t see how anyone could be entirely sure of that.
On the other hand, I am entirely sure that one solution to environmental degradation and dissolution, and to ultimate catastrophe, is to transform our social structures fundamentally – by which I mean alter not just what resources we use or we don’t use, or where investments are incentivized and where they are dis-incentivized, but the actual social relations of our major institutions that lie behind all such choices. And I am sure if we care about environmental sanity but also about justice, we should favor that solution, because it is also the solution that would bring dignity, self-management, and solidarity to humanity.
D.J. Buschini: But it seems to me that to rationally and morally address ecological dangers would be to obviate the enormous petroleum war and fraud industry, and perhaps to usher in a major wave of democracy all over many parts of the world, like the Middle East.
Michael Albert: I am no expert in all the steps needed to be ecologically sustainable. I would not be surprised if there was an authoritarian regime that was doing much better at it, though, than most or even all “democratic” regimes.
Yes, more participation and self-management, as well as institutional settings that don’t push inexorably toward environmental disaster, but instead take into account environmental impact, are certainly the best routes to environmental improvement.
But the same is true for improvement in every other important way – especially if coupled with transformations of political relations, family relations, and cultural relations.
So the just and equitable and caring route forward doesn’t have to be the only conceivable environmentally not-disastrous route for it to be the route we favor.
I would go further. To get the scale of changes that are needed, it is critical to realize that massive popular desire and militancy is very likely to be needed. However that will be far more likely to emerge and persist if it is seeking a non-elitist path that benefits everyone than to emerge and persist in pursuit of the more typical types of outcomes which would sacrifice nearly everyone to preserve the advantages of a few.
D.J. Buschini: We either transform to sustainable energy or we face unavoidable environmental, social, and political catastrophe. I think this puts people in motion, and thus opens the opportunity for unprecedented democracy and justice –– within the workplace and institutions. Do you agree?
Michael Albert: Again, just shifting to environmentally more sustainable energy use, etc., could conceivably be accomplished with authoritarian measures that leave basic institutions in place.
But I agree that it would be very unlikely. If we require that we not only protect against environmental suicide, but we do it in a way benefiting most of humanity rather than solely elites –– for example, in a way that treats millions upon millions currently dying unnecessary deaths from preventable diseases and socially imposed starvation as being just as important as people dying from carcinogens or global warming –– then, yes, it calls for dramatic social changes. But not just for different resource use, energy patterns, etc.
And, yes, I agree this opens remarkable prospects for unprecedented democracy and justice throughout society’s institutions.
D.J. Buschini: Talk about “parecon,” your economic model, and the idea of liberty & justice for all.
Michael Albert: Participatory economics, “parecon,” is a vision of some defining economic institutions, which claims to deliver worthy outcomes and therefore to deserve support to replace not only capitalism, but what has been called twentieth-century socialism. Its components are
• workers’ and consumers’ self-managing councils as the vehicles of decision-making
• equitable remuneration for how long we work, how hard we work, the onerousness of conditions under which we work –– all at socially useful jobs
• what are called “balanced job complexes,” which is a new way of establishing a division of labor that gives each actor comparably empowering conditions and roles
• participatory planning, which is a way of arriving at the allocation of inputs and outputs throughout the economy through cooperative collective negotiation.
The argument for “parecon” is that these very few features — spelled out a bit more, of course — provide a context for economic production and consumption that delivers solidarity and diversity, plus self-managing say for all actors; equitable remuneration for all participants; an end to class-rule, whether by owners or by what parecon calls a “coordinator class” that monopolizes empowering circumstances and influence over outcomes; and allocation that accounts for the true social and ecological implications of choices, so that affected populations decide, rather than just elites who are insulated from the harm others suffer.
Parecon, its advocates claim, is a system that has no bias against sustainability, no drive to accumulate other than when people choose production to meet needs, and no blindness to ecology, which is then trampled in pursuit of profit. Indeed, it is a system that no longer has profit at all as a factor in life, and that takes into account the true social and ecological costs and benefits of economic choices.
You could arrive at the minimalist features of parecon listed briefly above by lots of routes. For instance, the one you mentioned earlier — which is that we want an economy that pays proper attention to ecological impact while serving all actors, not some tiny elite.
Or the one you mention now, that we want liberty and justice for all — or, what in the economy is basically the same thing, the time-honored but repeatedly abused desire for a classless economy. Or that we want an economy in which everyone has a fair say in the decisions that impact them. Or perhaps we start by requiring an economy in which people operate in the context of, and in ways enhancing, solidarity and mutual aid.
From any of these angles, if you ask what minimal structures do we have to have in our future institutions (where the rest is worked out in practice and decided by future people), so that those institutions allow and indeed facilitate the aims we have in mind – ecological sanity, or classlessness, or self management for all, or economic solidarity and mutual aid — and you pursue the implications of those desires for economic institutions, I think you come up with a list of what is needed:
• a venue for participatory and inclusive economic decision-making in place of owner or coordinator-class rule, which obliterate ecological sanity, impose class rule, deny self management, and destroy solidarity. Such a venue is found in parecon’s self-managing workers’ and consumers’ councils.
• a norm for equitable distribution of society’s products in place of reward for property, power, or output, each of which also obliterate prospects for sustainability, classlessness, self management, and solidarity. Such a norm would be available in parecon’s remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor — or, if a person can’t work, average remuneration adapted in accord with need.
• a new logic and practice of workplace organization to replace corporate divisions of labor that obliterate prospects for sustainability, classlessness, self management, and solidarity. Such a logic occurs in parecon’s “balanced job complexes,” which convey a fair share of empowering and disempowering work to all actors, so that none are, by virtue of their work-day, persistently in charge of others, but, instead, all are prepared to fully participate.
• a new approach to allocation, to replace markets and also central planning, each of which are literally the antithesis of ecological sanity, classlessness, self management, and solidarity. Such an appraoch informs the cooperative negotiation of inputs and outputs by workers and consumers in self-managing councils, which is called participatory planning.
Parecon is a “minimalist-maximalist” economic vision. It is minimalist in having a tiny set of defining features that don’t exceed what we can now know and don’t trample the rights of future citizens to decide their own lives, but instead, ensures that future citizens can exercise those rights in light of full knowledge and with appropriate say. And it is maximalist because it seeks nothing less than classlessness, self-management, mutual aid, etc.
D.J. Buschini: What about sex, ethnicity, and gender?
Michael Albert: A society is not merely economic. We don’t just eat, work, and sleep. Functions having to do with the next generation such as nurturance and socialization, and functions having to do with our cultural identities, such as language and celebration, and for some, worship, and the functions having to do with making our collective existences compatible each with the rest, such as legislation, adjudication, and collective solving of diverse problems — all also play central roles in who we are and what we can do with our lives.
So these areas too, and not solely the economy, need transformation, so that core defining institutions yield desirable outcomes rather than sexism and heterosexism, racism and ethnocentrism, authoritarianism and exclusion, and so on. For example if we seek ecological sanity but without attention to political implications, we could wind up with even more authoritarian political arrangements than we now suffer, which would not only be horrid themselves, but would also, in time, likely undo the ecological gains attained.
A truly enlightened approach to social change is going to seek ecological sanity and internationalist peace, but it will also seek to transform family and sex life, cultural relations, polity, and economy so these realms too become liberating and so they are compatible with one another. Such an approach might highlight some aspect of life in a particular campaign, of course, but overall it will compatibly and comparably address all the intersecting and mutually enforcing central institutions by seeking replacements in accord with such aims as solidarity, diversity, equity, justice, self management, sustainability, and peace.
D.J. Buschini: How can the new International Organization for a Participatory Society, or IOPS, help give coherent structure to the global movement for real democracy, which has been famously visible of late in places like Egypt, Spain, Quebec, and Wall St.?
Michael Albert: IOPS is just a few months old. For the moment, I think IOPS can have only very modest impact on current struggles and trends. But let’s say, for the sake of answering your question not just for today but as it might evolve in the near future, that IOPS grows from its current 2400 members who have joined in three months, to 10,000 or 50,000 or more members in a year or two, around the world. And suppose it develops local chapters in cities, federating into national branches in countries, federated into the whole international organization. Let’s also suppose it develops in accord with its visionary and organizational commitments, as stated, for example, in its defining documents visible on its site.
In that case its 10,000 to 50,000 members will have a shared commitment to collectively addressing all sides of social life, not one or another side as more important than the rest. They will have guiding vision bearing on institutions in all the areas and will have a shared program. They will also have organizational structures that facilitate, in accord with IOPS aims for all of society, self-management, equitable allocation of tasks and benefits, and a very high premium on respect for, and exploration of, the views of dissenters.
Now supposing that all this comes into being, how could it matter to current struggles? Well, IOPS members would be involved in all kinds of pursuits in society including those associated with Occupy, or with next incarnations of Occupy, of course, and many more as well – for example antiwar work, or immigration work, or anti-nuke organizing, women’s rights work, and so on.
So one impact would be the presence of confident and informed people in all these pursuits who have a patient demeanor, and who convey by their words and deeds a steadfast way of thinking and acting that is multi-focused, self-management oriented, linked up internationally, etc.
Another way, however, is that IOPS could have campaigns and projects of its own creation, and just as IOPS would often lend its labor and resources to efforts generated by others (such as Occupy), perhaps others would lend some of their energy to the IOPS campaigns.
Imagine, for example, a campaign initiated and pursued by IOPS activists in 100 countries for a shorter work week, with no reduction in income except for those having incomes way above the social average. Or imagine a campaign against drones, or a campaign against austerity with specific demands — and so on.
So I think the point is that a larger and more established IOPS could affect social activism just like anyone can. IOPS members could offer their talents and energy and ideas to ongoing efforts of all kinds, generated outside IOPS. And IOPS could, itself, have campaigns it sponsors, to which others from outside offer their talents, energy, and ideas.
So, in time does IOPS matter? It depends on whether IOPS stays true to its commitments and embodies, as it aims to, the seeds of the future in its present structure and practice.
If it does, then does the growing and diversifying activism spreading worldwide, in this scenario, move steadily closer to the IOPS-advocated visionary and programmatic and structural commitments? If yes, then clearly IOPS matters and is in effect merging into and welcoming in the whole Left. If no, then eventually IOPS is so peripheral and un-entwined with movements that IOPS doesn’t much matter.
Ultimately, it all rests, first, on the commitments of the organization and, second, on people’s reactions to them. Are the commitments worthy? Will they resonate? Will IOPS remain true to them?
Click here to learn more about the IOPS: http://www.iopsociety.org/mission and here to read a letter from the IOPS interim decision body, which includes human rights activists Noam Chomsky and Vandana Shiva, and John Pilger: http://www.zcommunications.org/open-letter-from-chomsky-shiva-santos-pilger-and-40-more-by-iops-supporters.