Reviewed by Gary Roth
Realizing Hope is a thought experiment, an attempt to re-think society by assuming that employee councils have replaced the prevailing political and economic systems. There’s no revolution in this book, no period of turmoil, chaos, and streetfighting, no stolen elections, no factory occupations or large demonstrations, no deaths, repression, or transition. It’s as if someone had simply plunked down a new scheme of governance that was thoroughly democratic and embraced the entire population. Brief descriptions of this new system of participatory economics (Parecon, in Michael Albert’s terminology) lead to extended discussions of the ripple effects that this system would have in other spheres of society.
What is Parecon? At heart, it’s an elemental and humane system for organizing social life that’s based on four principal values: solidarity, diversity, equity, and self-management: “Parecon dictates only that there will be workers’ councils, self-managed decision-making, and remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning” (114). Albert envisions councils with a maximum of 20-25 members each in order to keep discussions and decision-making manageable. He’s calculated that a system of councils of this size with five levels of representation could govern 19 million people. Add a sixth level and 500 million could be accommodated (the United States today lies in between). Each layer would be deliberative and not beholden to the dictates that emanate from further down the chain of councils.
Already from this brief description, we see the limitations of Albert’s decision to present a single alternative model. Take, for example, his assertion that employees will be compensated through a highly regulated system that rewards the length, intensity, and onerousness of one’s work. This seems fair enough, but why not imagine a period of great experimentation and diversity? While some workplace councils might opt for remuneration based on length, intensity, and onerousness, other councils might reward all efforts above a certain minimum with additional free time. Still others might opt for absolute equality among the collective members, regardless of how hard each worked. Notwithstanding disclaimers to the contrary towards the end of the book, Albert assumes a uniformity that applies everywhere.
Tiered councils, with multiple layers and differential decision-making powers, aren’t inevitable either. If the higher levels of councils need not adhere to the decisions, mandates, and directives that come from below, won’t this weaken the self-managed basis of the economy? Furthermore, how does this system of tiered councils differ from the current system of elections and representative politics? That lobbyists and special interests won’t influence decisions is true in both schemes, since they’ll disappear in any social system that abolishes private property everywhere except in the realm of immediate personal consumption. Albert’s aim is to lay bare the essentials of a democratically-based, non-exploitive society, “the minimum needed to attain maximal liberation” (xii). But are tiered councils even necessary if communications between councils can be direct and overlapping? Wouldn’t an expanded system of horizontal coordination better preserve the democratic inclinations that councils strive for?
The further Albert delves into the future, the more this future resembles the present. The highest council in Albert’s scheme has an entire government bureaucracy at its service, including departments such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control. These, too, have their own workplace councils, yet “executive agencies act with political authority that permits them to investigate and sanction others where typical economic units would have no such rights and responsibilities” (27). What happens to self-management when workplace councils are ‘investigated and sanctioned’ from above? This particular discussion contradicts what Albert has explained just a few pages earlier, that “politics should facilitate actors having influence on decisions in proportion as those decisions impact on their lives” (25). This seems to gesture in terms of a quite complicated system of differential decision-making, although Albert does not pursue this insight.
It’s hard to imagine a society that wouldn’t be thoroughly transformed alongside the implementation of a system of councils and self-management. In Albert’s Parecon, however, equitable compensation exists alongside lawyers, courts and criminals, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. To be sure, these arenas will be humanized, a discussion that occupies the bulk of Realizing Hope, with discrete chapters on community, ecology, science and technology, education, art, journalism, and athletics. There is nonetheless an air of unreality throughout, as if the slightest touch is all that’s necessary to rehabilitate each area.
Realizing Hope was originally published in 2006, and Albert has added a Preface for this reprinting. He acknowledges that “sadly, Realizing Hope didn’t engender the hoped-for widespread discussion of what we want and how to get it. No one seriously addressed its claims…. For the most part, there was public silence” (xiii). It doesn’t help that he refers to other people’s ideas as “complete nonsense,” that certain views leave him “incredulous,” that “only a psychopath” or “a perverse individual” could harbor differing opinions (xii-xiii, 3-4). We hear much about Albert’s views: “I doubt,” “I think,” “I feel,” “I don’t want,” “I do want,” a tendency that leaves him in no position to judge other people’s motives (3). Despite the “public silence,” Albert nonetheless scolds these imaginary critics (referred to as “everybody,” “many people,” “they”) (xi). He infers that “people want a participatory movement but, seemingly, without people participating in a wide and deep discussion of its vision and methods,” all because they don’t engage with him (xiii).
About his project, Albert explains that “the flow of materials about what is wrong with society is always a torrent. The flow of visionary institutional proposals is always a trickle,” with himself counted in the latter (xi). It doesn’t take much vision, however, to situate the discussion of women’s equality and feminism in the chapter on kinship. He mentions two books from the late 1970s, as if nothing of importance on these topics had been written since. His discussion of children, parenting, women’s equality, hetero- and homosexual relationships, unrequited love, living arrangements, and other matters related to interpersonal relations mirrors initiatives that are popular within liberal sectors of the population for whom a strengthening of the electoral system is the goal, not a wholesale replacement of core economic and political institutions.
Albert’s economics are rooted in the understanding of capitalism first proposed by Adam Smith, albeit in a critical sense. He views competition as the root evil within the capitalist system, yet he also endorses “indicative prices” as a means to manage consumption choices within a planned economy (17). His objections to capitalism are largely moral: “capitalism is a thug’s economy, a heartless economy, a base and vile and largely boring economy. It is the antithesis of human fulfillment and development. It mocks equity and justice. It enshrines greed. It does not serve humanity” (2). Sophisticated analysis is not his forte. Not only do “nice guys finish last,” but “garbage rises” (3). He never explains why capitalism can’t be reformed, and why his drastic solutions are necessary. Albert’s Parecon becomes a set of “diverse rules that we can all abide by,” a collection of “traffic signals” that makes “civilized existence” possible and saves us from “chaos” (22). Such a system, he tells us, can be enacted piecemeal by means of “non-reformist reform struggles” that serve as bridges to the future (138). The “revolutionary bloc” he envisions is one “whose members all are aware of and refine its collective aims and methods,” a ‘non-vanguard vanguard’ in so many words (xiii, 32). And what if people aren’t fully aware? What does he propose for them?
It is unlikely that a calm, uneventful transition to an alternate mode of existence could ever take place in the manner contemplated by Albert. His focus is the reform and humanization of existing institutions, not their wholesale transformation into something else. The frequent repetitive passages and dull prose don’t help his argument, no matter how assuredly it is asserted. Some of the best of the utopian theorists have resorted to fiction as a means to think one’s way into the future. But they also combine trenchant criticisms with an in-depth knowledge that allows them to portray concrete situations with realistic people making plausible decisions. Albert’s text would benefit from this sort of thing. The ability to dream remains, as has always been the case, a function of the skill to anticipate the actual.
15 August 2014