No Bosses: A New Economy for a Better World (pt 1/3)

Long-time activist and author Michael Albert outlines his vision for a post-capitalist and classless economic system, known as participatory economics and based on his most recent book, No Bosses (Zer0 Books, 2021). In this first part, Paul Jay and Michael Albert talk about the importance of economic vision and the rationale behind re-organizing the workplace on the basis of self-management and a non-corporate division of labor.


Paul Jay

Hi, welcome to theAnalysis.news. I’m Paul Jay, and we’ll be back in a few seconds to talk about what a new, a different, a better society actually look like. I’m certainly one that’s convinced that to fight against the sort of distortion or depravity, as our next guest calls our current system, you also have to have a vision to fight for. So we’re going to be doing that discussion soon with Michael Albert and talk about his new book, No Bosses: A New Economy for a Better World.

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In the preface to the book No Bosses by Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky writes the following.

Excerpt

“The chapters do not provide a complete blueprint, but rather the essentials, or what Albert calls a “scaffold,” for future experience to fill out. The scaffold describes and advocates a natural and built Commons, workers’ and consumers’ self-managing councils, a division of labor that balances empowering tasks among all workers, a norm that apportions income for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, and finally, not markets or essential planning, but instead participatory planning by workers and consumers of what is produced, by what means, to what ends. It makes a compelling case that these features can be brought together in a spirit of solidarity to establish a self-managing, equitable, sustainable, participatory, new economy, with a rich artistic and intellectual culture as well.”

Paul Jay

Now join us to talk about this new book, No Bosses. Now joining us is Michael Albert. He’s a longtime activist, author of 20 books and hundreds of articles, and founder and staff at zcomm.org/znet. For our purposes today, most relevant, the co-author of a vision called Participatory Economics, sometimes Participatory Socialism, and as I said, his new book, No Bosses. Thanks for joining us, Michael.

Michael Albert

Thank you very much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Paul Jay

So, first of all, I have to admit something which most hosts, I don’t think, like to admit, but I’m going to admit it. I haven’t read the whole book yet. I’ve read, I think, significant pieces of it. I get a sense of the argument, but it’s really quite an in-depth analysis of what a new, different kind of society could look like. So we’re going to talk about some of the features of it.

Before I get you to lay out the very broad vision of what the scaffold is, why, at this point in history, did you decide this was the book you needed to write?

Michael Albert

I suppose the honest answer is I didn’t. This vision emerged at the end of the ’60s during that period of upheaval. So the impetus to talk about vision came then. I guess the easiest way to describe how that happened was that myself and Robin Hahnel, who was my partner in developing this vision, constantly ran into the question, sort of put this way, we get what you don’t like. We understand what you don’t like, but what are you for?

Oftentimes it felt like the person who was asking that, and sometimes it was true, was basically saying, if you don’t have an answer to that question, shut up. You have no right being so critical. It’s the kind of thing that a parent might say to you, but you could also run into it in organizing, and we did.

Our response was basically, you don’t have to have a full alternative to slavery in order to be an abolitionist. I don’t have to understand everything about what a new economy is going to look like to oppose capitalism. After a while, we began to feel like that was a justified answer. It was sort of an accurate, true answer, but it was strategically dumb because a lot of the people who were asking really meant it. They really meant, okay, yeah, this sucks. This is terrible, but is there anything better? What are you for? So that kicked off the experience of trying to come up with an economic vision that was viable and worthy. Then we come to the present, and it’s not the first offering on that, but it’s an attempt that I hope is more succinct, tightly argued, and maybe better over this period of time. So I wrote it now to do something better than in the past.

Paul Jay

Well, as I said in the intro, I’m a big believer that one needs a vision to fight for, not just against. In the 1930s, in the ’40s, even to some extent in the ’50s, but less so, the Soviet Union was that model for millions and millions of people. Rightly or wrongly, whether they really understood what was going on there, the state was at least a workers’ state. It certainly had full employment, health care and a very good educational system. It turned out that a lot of the accusations against it that it had become more or less a kind of centralized police state turned out to be true. A lot of people didn’t want to believe it.

That didn’t mean that one, that vision wasn’t something to fight for, at least in a broad sense. When that vision collapsed, it left a real gaping hole in the progressive movement around the world. Okay, now, sort of what you just said, we know what we don’t like, but what are we actually fighting for? I think this is a critical question in terms of organizing and the movement. The thing, too, is people wonder what’s going on with the support for [Donald] Trump and this kind of right-wing politics because, in some ways, it’s filling a void. The traditional American narrative is espoused either by corporate Democrats, or old-styled Republicans is quite discredited, and it’s not a vision that people will fight for.

So I think it’s very important to have this debate and discussion. It’s one of the things I’ve always wanted to do with theAnalysis.news. I’m glad we’re doing it, and I’m going to do a lot more of it, and of course, there isn’t one vision of what we’re going to fight for, but it’s sort of in the same ballpark. So give us a sense of what that scaffolding is.

Michael Albert

I’ll do that in a second. Let me just say that I agree with you completely about the importance of it, and I’d even like to add an element. If you’re fighting against something that’s good, if the thing you’re fighting against is horrible as it is, how do you fight? How do you know what to do? How do you know what to reveal and what to argue for? How do you plant the seeds of the future in the present? So that’s one reason why vision matters. It’s because strategy isn’t rooted only at one end in the present. It also has to lead to where you want to go.

The other reason is the reason I think you were driving at, which is you could almost say psychological, but I think it’s more than that, which is that absent the positive, we’re entirely negative. Negativity has a kind of a tone, dynamic and culture associated with it, which is very off-putting. So we don’t attract people because they feel like, well, I’m supposed to make sacrifices, struggle and reorient myself, and you won’t even tell me what for? They also feel like, well, I’m supposed to do all those things, and the sort of vibes that you give off is so negative, and I don’t want to do it. So we need vision in order to grow now, not just because it would be nice to have it down the road when there’s something to implement.

Okay, so what’s the scaffold, you asked? Well, first of all, what’s the logic of it? It’s those things which we can say confidently now are needed, are necessary, if the future— and this is an economy we’re talking about in the book, No Bosses. Other things are also important: kinship, the political system, community, and culture, but the book is about the economy mostly.

What things can we say are needed and essential if this future economy is going to have the attributes we want it to have? Not a full blueprint for the reasons Noam gives and one more. One, we don’t know enough to do a blueprint. We’re going to learn all sorts of new things as time passes. You can’t blueprint them in advance. That’s a point that Noam makes when he makes this argument.

But there’s another reason, I think that I feel, which is not our place. It’s not our place to tell future citizens the details of how they’re going to function. The only thing that is our place to do is to try to hand them a world in which they can function the way they want to, in which they can manage their own lives, in which they do have equity, in which they do have solidarity, and so on. So the scaffold is those components of a new society which are essential and without which you’re not going to have that. 

The most obvious one is the one that has been pronounced or argued for forever, for a long time, which is that you can’t have private ownership of the means of production. You can’t have capitalists. You can’t have 1% who own everything and who therefore administer everything and determine the outcomes for everything. In place of that, participatory economics says, let’s have a Commons of productive assets.

It really sets aside ownership completely. It’s not capitalists who own it. It’s not anybody who owns it. It’s this Commons of productive assets. The question then becomes, well, how do you get to use it? How does a workplace get to use the resources and the tools and so on? The idea is productive Commons.

Paul Jay

So what you’re about to describe, the scaffolding, is a building that’s going to get erected after there’s been a transition, we don’t know for how long, from existing capitalism to essentially the abolition of private ownership to ownership by the Commons. So there’s quite a transition that’s going to have to take place, but that’s not what the book is about. The book is about what this might look like once you have had this transition. Am I right in that?

Michael Albert

Basically, yes. Over on the side here, there’s a file called Transition. It’s the next project. Yes, we now have what we have. We now have what? Private ownership, the means of production; we have what we call a corporate division of labour. That’s a division of labour in which about 20% of the workforce does empowering tasks, and 80% does disempowering tasks. We have remuneration income for property, for bargaining power, and to an extent, for output, and we have markets and or central planning. We really do have both in the United States. Amazon is essentially planned, and Amazon is as big as many economies. So we do have central planning, and we do have markets and a combination. Each of those key components annihilate things that I feel— and this is a value question— things that I feel that Robin and I felt at the beginning characterize a good economy. We characterize a good economy as people controlling their own lives. We call it self-management, diversity rather than homogenization. Solidarity, people actually being concerned with one another’s wellbeing, instead of a rat race in which you get ahead at the expense of somebody else, and instead of remuneration for power and property, remuneration for how long you work, how hard you work, and the onerousness of the conditions under which you work during socially valued labour and then participatory planning.

Those are the scaffold things. So the scaffold isn’t the whole building. The whole building is even longer in the future. You describe transition and then a situation where you’re creating the new society or creating the new economy and other elements of the society. Okay, the scaffold is really the key component that you have to get so that that thing that you’re creating, that whole new society, is going to have the attributes you want it to have. In the case of the economy, it’s going to be classless, and it’s going to be self-managing, et cetera.

Paul Jay

Well, if it’s classless, then in terms of [Karl] Marx, Engelism, essentially what does communism look like? What Marx and [Friedrich] Engels envisioned after this period of socialism, where you still have classes, a state, and you still have laws and cops and armies, you’re envisioning, what does it look like after that?

Michael Albert

Well, yeah, but you just lined up a bunch of things, cops and state and so on, and those are additional discussions. I don’t think that a good society doesn’t have a political system. If you don’t want to call that a state because the word state implies fierce hierarchy, okay, but a political system I think it does have.

I even think it’s probably not something good to go off on, but in a good economy, planes would fly, let’s say, let’s assume that’s the case. You wouldn’t have random people as pilots. You would have the people who are piloting the plane have to be trained and able to pilot the plane. Well, now there’s more that you would have in a good economy. They would be remunerated like everybody else, and they would have a balanced job. They would do disempowering as well as empowering work. But part of what they would do is fly the plane. You wouldn’t say, well, the pilot has a lot of power while flying, which is true. The pilot has the lives of 500 people in his hands or her hands.

Paul Jay

Yeah, I hope they’re not going to have a big discussion about how to fly the plane while they’re 3,000 ft up in the air.

Michael Albert

No, so you want a good pilot who’s capable of—

Paul Jay

I don’t know about participatory—

Michael Albert

No, the participatory part will get to, but it’s not that, clearly, and it shouldn’t be that about policing either. That is to say, the idea that everybody is going to deal with the kinds of violations that occur. We don’t assume all of a sudden that everybody is Mother Teresa. People are still people. There will still be drunkenness. There will still be abuse. There will still be less of everything, but it doesn’t disappear. So, if it doesn’t disappear, the way that society deals with it has to be skilled, it has to be learned, it has to be capable, and it has to be under control.

So lots of things that exist now, for example, there are some people who would say, look, factories pollute. They are undignified in what they do, so let’s get rid of them. Okay, that’s just silly, I think. You’re going to have workplaces. You’re going to have places where people come together and do work. What you want to do is make it humane, self-managed and all the other things.

So back to the pilot. The pilot in a participatory economy pilots, does it well, is trained and is capable, but also does, at other points in time while not piloting other activities. Let’s say tending to the people on the plane, going up and down the aisles and helping people out or maybe tending to cleaning up the airport. I don’t know, but a mixed combination of tasks.

Why? Well, one of the key themes of participatory economics is that between labor and capital, there’s another class, a coordinator class. People who, by virtue of their circumstances in the economy— so in that sense, it’s a sort of a Marxist argument— by virtue of the circumstances in the economy have more empowering work. Their work gives them a degree of knowledge, awareness, confidence, connections to other people, and access to decision-making levers, and 80% are the opposite. Their work deadens, exhausts, reduces skills, and disconnects. So you get a situation where the 20% become a new ruling class over the 80%.

The solution to that in participatory economics, or part of the solution to that, is that you don’t give 20% of the workforce all the empowering work. You instead define jobs. This is the new division of labour. Define jobs in such a way that everybody has a mix of responsibilities and tasks which are comparably empowering. So everybody is prepared to participate in the workers’ Council and also in the consumers’ Council in a self-managing way, rather than 80% being so exhausted, deadened, devoid of information about what’s going on and lacking confidence that they don’t want to participate and after a while don’t. Twenty percent who set the agendas, do the debating, the arguing and make all the decisions and rules. That’s a piece of participatory economics which is connected to and motivated by the desire to get rid of not just an owning class on top but to get rid of a class of empowered employees on top by having that empowerment spread out. So that’s one of the key scaffolding features. 

The argument is if you don’t do that, if you keep the old corporate division of labor, no matter what people’s will is, no matter what people’s inclinations and their heartfelt desires are, that’s not the issue. The structure will impose a class division and class rule. So you need to change the corporate division of labour to balance job complexes.

Paul Jay

Well, they kind of route this in where we are and might be. The world you’re describing only comes into being if there’s, as I said before, a kind of transition from a primarily privately owned economy to a socially owned economy, whatever form that might take. To some extent, it’s a different discussion because you still have classes, and you still have probably a mix of public ownership and private ownership.

To get where you’re at, and I don’t know if, in the book, I’m not sure it goes there, but assuming humanity survives our current circumstances of the climate threat and nuclear threat and so on, you’re at a whole other stage of human society. At this point, aren’t you into artificial intelligence and robotics? The whole nature of work is going to have changed. I don’t know if there are any brain-dead menial jobs anymore.

Michael Albert

Yeah, I have to admit, I’m not too impressed with that kind of formulation. But let’s go 20 years into the past.

Paul Jay

No, what do you mean you’re not impressed with that? What aren’t you impressed by?

Michael Albert

I am not impressed with what’s attributed to artificial intelligence and what it’s going to be able to do. I’m not impressed with the notion that there’ll be no onerous work. There will be, and it will have to be shared. But if there isn’t, great. Let me go 20 years into the past because I think what we’re talking about here is relevant now.

In Argentina, when there was an economic crisis and tons of factories were taken over by the workforce, they actually weren’t taken over by the workforce in the way we think of it. What happened was the capitalist punted. The capitalist decided this thing was no longer working for me, and they left. The coordinator class inside those workplaces said to themselves it was already failing without the owner, it sure as hell going to fail, I’m going too. They left also.

So you had all these workplaces of diverse kinds that were void of their ownership sector and void of their coordinator class sector, but the workers couldn’t go anyplace, so they took over. That was a remarkable kind of situation. When the workers took over, interestingly, they formed workers assemblies or workers councils, I like to call them, and instituted a kind of democratic decision-making voting. Not exactly what we call self-management in participatory economics, but effectively a long ways toward it. They also pretty much levelled the wages. So they went a long ways toward equitable incomes. They even, in some cases, took into account people’s personal circumstances. So they did that, too.

I was in a room with about 50 representatives from around Argentina, from occupied workplaces, and I’ve told this story before because, to me, it’s so powerful. Before the sort of formal section, I was there to speak. Before the formal section, people are just chatting and talking with each other, and it was very light and upbeat. People from across the country are meeting other people, and they are all members of this small group of people who have taken over factories.

We start, and I say, let’s go around the room, and we start doing that with a little bit of reporting on their circumstances. By the time the 7th person, and it was literally the 7th person, they’re making this brief report, not only was the room no longer upbeat, but it was maudlin, and some people were crying. They literally have tears in their eyes. The 7th person said this, I would never have thought. I could never imagine that I would say maybe Margaret Thatcher was right. We took over the workplace, we instituted democracy, we made our wages fair, and we began to work and not only that, we made the workplace succeed. We got it back on track, but now all the old crap is coming back. And that’s what one through seven said, also in various ways.

At that point, I interrupted and said when you took over, what did you do about the various jobs? What did you do to deal with the fact that the engineers and the finance people had left? They said, well, obviously we had to do the jobs. So people took responsibility for doing the jobs. So I said, so you had a new person who was, for example, doing the accounting and the financial officer. They said yes. They didn’t really understand the question because it seemed like it was the only possible thing you could do. Then I argued, and I think it’s the case that what happened was not what they thought, and they admitted that what they thought was human nature was destroying their experiment, that human nature was at fault for bringing back all the alienation and bringing back the hierarchy against their desires.

I argued that, no, that’s not what happened. What happened was you maintained the old division of labor, and even though you populated those jobs with working people whose backgrounds were the same as everybody else’s backgrounds, nonetheless, over time and not very long, those people filling those jobs by virtue of what they were doing and the responsibility that they saw themselves as having begun to see themselves as more worthy, as deserving, more. They also came to the meetings with more information and knowledge, and confidence. They started doing the agendas, and they just kept nodding. Then they said, yeah, that’s exactly it. I don’t even go to the meeting anymore, one of them said, and that’s an institution at work.

That’s what it means to talk about an institution mattering. This institution, the corporate division of labor, was overthrowing the will of the workplace. They really wanted justice. They really wanted equity. They really wanted their experiment to be different, and all the old crap was coming back. So participatory economics mattered right then. In other words, what would they have done differently? Is that what you’re going to ask?

Paul Jay

Well, first of all, let’s parse this out for a second. This kind of worker’s ownership, worker’s collective in this day and age, it happens. You have an enormous one in Spain called Mondragon, and there are smaller experiments, but they’re still operating within essentially a capitalist world, and they don’t change the nature of that. Even though Mondragon in Spain is enormous, it’s one of the larger companies, I think, in Spain. It has not changed the fundamental character of Spanish capitalism. Although that being said, it’s far more democratic for the workers. They’re much more careful if they have layoffs. They keep paying people and so on. So it’s better, but it’s not where your book is at by any means.

Now, that being said, whether it’s now or later, how do you deal with the fact that someone’s going to have to keep the books and know something about bookkeeping? So what are you going to change about the division of labor?

Michael Albert

So it’s true that somebody has to know something about bookkeeping, but it’s not true that somebody has to do only bookkeeping and somebody else has to do only cleaning the floors. It could be the case that we essentially, it’s what we did at South End press years and years and years ago. It could be the case that the workforce says, here are our tasks. These tasks all have to get done, that’s true. Here’s how we’re going to divide them up. We’re going to divide them up in such a way that each person has a mix of tasks and responsibilities such that their work conveys to them comparable empowerment to the other workers. You can look at it in their case or in a hospital. It means, okay, the surgeon no longer does only surgery. I mean, it’s clear what it means. It’s sort of contrary to our expectations that people should do a mix of things, and some of them are empowering, and some of them are not. Some of them are disempowering even.

Paul Jay

Yeah, but hang on here. A surgeon can go clean floors. I don’t think it’s a particularly good use of all those years of training, but somebody who has been trained to clean floors can’t go do surgery.

Michael Albert

Correct, so that’s your transition. I want to address both of those things. Is it a good use of the surgeon’s time to do something other than surgery? If you look at just the surgeon and you look at just the patience of that one surgeon, the answer is no. It’s idiotic. I agree with you. But if you look at the whole economic system, no, it is a good use of time.

Why? Because the surgeon, and that is to say, everybody who does empowered work, also doing disempowering work means that the 80% of the population whose upbringing, circumstances, schooling and situation at work deny their capacity to do anything empowering and thus gets no empowering work out of them is undone, and we unleash the capabilities of those people.

Paul Jay

The society you’re talking about, anyone with the skill and inclination to go to medical school can go. You’re not going to have the barriers to medical school we have now.

Michael Albert

What you’re not going to have is, you go to medical school, and you become a doctor, but you’re not just a doctor. You’re also a nurse or custodian or whatever. You’re doing a mix of things. You say to yourself— I’ll let you off the hook for being the foil here. Margaret Thatcher would say, Michael, you’re crazy.

The doctor, let’s say the surgeon is doing 40 hours of surgery, and you’re telling me it makes sense to have a situation in which that talented individual, instead of doing 40 hours of surgery, does, let’s make it simple, 20 hours and does 20 hours of nursing, cleaning and whatever else. I say back, yes, and she says to me, but we lose half of our surgery, and I say back, yeah. You’d be right if the reason why the people who aren’t doing empowering work aren’t doing it is that they are genetically incapable of doing it, which is what you think, Margaret, but that’s not the case.

To make this argument in front of, say, an audience speaking or something, I say, think back 50 years and put all the surgeons in a stadium. It’s a big stadium. Put all the surgeons in the stadium and look around. What do you see? Right away, somebody says, well, they’re almost all white men. I say, yes, why do those surgeons say that they are in the stadium and the rest of us aren’t? The women aren’t in particular, and the Blacks aren’t, Latinos aren’t. What do they give as their answer? They say it’s because we’re good at it, and they’re not. We’re capable of it, and they’re not. Of course, that was nonsense. It’s nonsense now that the coordinator class is good at empowering tasks and capable of empowering tasks, and the working class isn’t. The working class is downtrodden and prevented in the same way that women and Blacks were, of different dynamics, but to the same degree as women and Blacks were before.

Let me just say one last story.

Paul Jay

I think you’re mixing up time periods here.

Michael Albert

Well, I certainly am. I’m comparing now and then.

Paul Jay

No, but in imagining this future, it would be more like if you’re talking would stay within hospitals and doctors, it’d be more like what the Cubans have done where you have way more doctors and way more accessibility to medical school. In fact, being a doctor is practically an ordinary job because it’s so easy to get a medical education. You don’t need to tell those doctors to go wash some floors. You open up the doors of the medical school, so anyone that has the inclination and ability becomes a doctor. It doesn’t have to be a special privilege job.

Michael Albert

That last step there was if everybody. Not everybody has the capacity. I couldn’t be a doctor. Not everybody can be a doctor.

Paul Jay

I don’t want to be a doctor. Nor could I. I’m terrible at math.

Michael Albert

But there’s 80% of the population that’s not doing empowering work, and there’s 20% that is. If it’s the case, as I think it is, that in the 80%, I don’t know what to call it, the spectrum, the spread, the distribution of capacities is marginally different from the distribution of capacities in the 20%. Then if you open the doors to them doing the empowering tasks they’re capable of, there is nobody available to do disempowering work.

Paul Jay

Well, we don’t have too much time in this segment. We are going to do more segments because we’re going to keep talking and even increasingly fighting, I hope. What do you mean by empowering work? What does that mean? Like I used to work on the railroad, I worked on the railroad for five years. I fixed freight cars. Is that empowering work? Fixing a freight car?

Michael Albert

I don’t know. Here’s the answer, though.

Paul Jay

Because I loved it. I loved doing it, but I don’t know what’s empowering about it.

Michael Albert

Well, here’s the answer.

Paul Jay

I’ll tell you one thing it was because we had a union and because we fought for our rights.

Michael Albert

It was better than if you didn’t.

Paul Jay

It was dignified because we made it so.

Michael Albert

If we have a workplace and we have a whole lot of tasks that have to get done, the empowering tasks are the ones that convey to the person doing it, attributes which contribute to being able to express their will and their desire, argue for it, participate and have the inclination to do so. The disempowered tasks have the opposite implications for the people doing them.

So in the Argentine example, I gave you, the subset of the workforce and the workers were from the same backgrounds. The subset of the workforce doing those empowering tasks became elevated. It began to dominate the meetings. It set the agendas. It was the one doing the talking, and the disempowered workers were the ones who basically had to choose among them who they would support or something. It sounds a little like U.S. elections. Then they would stop doing it, they would back off, and the empowered workers would start paying themselves more.

Coordinated class consciousness and working-class consciousness are maybe important to talk about. You brought up one other thing that I just want to address for a second because a lot of people might feel like, come on, Michael. You’re saying here that everybody can do a set of empowering tasks efficiently to have an overall balanced job. Isn’t that a big assumption?

Back to Argentina. I’m talking to a woman in a glass factory. Remember, they kept the old division of labour. She was now essentially the Chief Financial Officer. She was doing the accounting, and she was keeping the books. So I asked her what she had been doing before, and she had been functioning at this glass furnace, and she showed it to me. I would have lasted maybe one day, probably two hours. Incredible heat, just ridiculous. Doing the same motions over and over again. Then the owner left. The accountants left. The engineers left, and she became the accountant.

How did you do that? I asked, what was the hardest thing to learn? It was your question in a very narrow time frame and in a very precise case. I said, what was the hardest thing to learn? She didn’t want to tell me. She didn’t want to talk about that. So I said, well, was it learning accounting concepts? No. Was it learning how to use the computer? No. Was it learning how to use a spreadsheet? No. Well, was it learning how to present the case? No. So I said, well, please tell me. So she said, first, I had to learn to read.

So this person went from being a working-class person doing the same rote movements over and over in front of a furnace, which is probably taking years off her life, to being the person who was doing the accounting, the books and reporting on it in a period of a few months while having to learn to read on the way.

Now, I admit it was much for me to believe, but it was there. The capacity of people is a lot greater than we let on. You and I couldn’t be a doctor or surgeons for a lot of reasons. Not wanting to, probably not having the dexterity, not having the, whatever, but everybody can do empowering tasks. Everybody can do empowering tasks. The number of people who work on assembly lines—

Paul Jay

I think you’re putting too much onus, too much emphasis on the job as opposed to the relationship to power in the enterprise.

Michael Albert

That’s just because it’s what we’re talking about.

Paul Jay

Well, no, maybe you are, but I wasn’t. I’m saying that you could be the person in charge of picking up garbage cans, but you could also be a member of the management committee. At the same time, you could be a member of the HR committee.

Michael Albert

That’s a balanced job complex.

Paul Jay

That’s what?

Michael Albert

In other words, what participatory economics is saying is that—

Paul Jay

I don’t have to be a part-time accountant. I need to be on a decision-making body that has power, and I can still have my job picking up garbage cans.

Michael Albert

Fine, absolutely, just like the doctor can be a surgeon and pick up garbage cans, agreed?

Paul Jay

No, I’m not saying that. The surgeon should be a surgeon, but the cleaner should also be on the management committee, not just picking up garbage cans. I’d frankly be quite happy if the surgeon just kept doing surgery.

Michael Albert

Yeah, most of the nurses wouldn’t be happy. Did you notice the strikes that are going on right now in the hospitals? One of the most notable things is that doctors—

Paul Jay

It’s not collectively owned. The power starts from the ownership and then the structure of how that ownership is managed and that powers executed.

Michael Albert

This is our dispute.

Paul Jay

Not the nature of the job description.

Michael Albert

This is our dispute. Our dispute seems to be— correct me if I’m wrong. On the one hand, power flows from ownership, explicit control, et cetera, which is true in existing firms. It’s not true in, say, Soviet factories under the prior system; there was no owner. So it didn’t flow from ownership; it flowed from something else. I’m saying it flowed from the distribution of circumstances, and we’re talking about this entirely. There’s also the allocation system to talk about, and there’s also the fact that there is no ownership anymore. There are also self-managed decision-making procedures by the Council inside the workplace.

All I’m saying is that all that can be subverted by private ownership. You’re saying that, and I’m agreeing with you. I’m saying it can additionally be subverted by a distribution of tasks, a division of labour, which causes some people to be in a position to make decisions, inclined to make decisions and have the information to make decisions, and other people not. You’re saying back to me, okay, wait a second. If somebody is doing some rote task, a repetitive task and picking up garbage, whatever it is, they could be on the decision-making board or whatever. You had a name for it. I forget what you called it.

Paul Jay

A management committee, leadership committee, whatever you want to call it.

Michael Albert

So they could be on the leadership committee. Alright, so here’s the problem with that, I think. On the one hand, you’re saying the same thing as me. If the person has a mix of responsibilities that caused them to be prepared to participate and make good decisions and make them well, or at least to participate in making good decisions, they’re not [Joesph] Stalin, to participate in making good decisions well, then that’s a balanced job complex, but what you’re describing, I don’t think, does that.

First of all, it has this management committee, which apparently has a lot of power over everybody else but second of all, it has somebody who is doing this rote stuff all the time, then making decisions about the workplace. They have to have information about the whole workplace. They have to have the confidence to access that information, et cetera, et cetera. If you just take somebody and you invite them to a meeting at which there are 14 lawyers and 14 engineers and accountants and so on, and then there’s somebody sitting there who spends all day doing stuff that gives them no particular knowledge relevant to the decision making, and you say, okay, you can attend. It does nothing.

Paul Jay

Actually, I don’t agree with that. We’re getting long here now. You should watch these interviews I did with Jane McAlevey on how she does bargaining now, not in the future. Where when she meets with the employer, and she’s either advising or in the leadership of the negotiations on behalf of the union, she invites the entire workplace.

Michael Albert

Which is fine. I would, too.

Paul Jay

In the end, there are representatives to get elected, and they do choose who’s going to speak. There is going to be a certain level of practicality where you need some kind of decision-making that isn’t going to involve everybody.

Michael Albert

Well, wait a minute. What do you mean decision-making isn’t going to involve everybody?

Paul Jay

Well, let’s say should we hire so and so. You’re not going to have a factory of 5,000 people where 5,000 people meet to decide if you’re going to hire somebody.

Michael Albert

Exactly right, and who would hire? The people who are most affected would be the ones who would be most involved in that decision. For instance, we’re hiring to be on a team that you and I are on. Well, then you and I are going to have a lot of say because if we don’t like that guy, the team is going to pop.

Paul Jay

Of course, but you also have to have an overview of the entire enterprise. So you’re going to have to have an elected body that has an overview of the whole enterprise.

Michael Albert

Maybe everybody should have a significant overview of the whole enterprise. Let’s say we’re going to have a decision about the hours of work. What time work starts, what times it ends, how the workplace, et cetera, et cetera. Some decisions affect overwhelmingly just everybody. Those are the kinds of decisions that everybody is involved in. Those are big policies. Then there are decisions that affect a relatively small; this is self-management. There are decisions that affect overwhelmingly a smaller group subject to those prior decisions. So they’re working within those globally made decisions, and they’re making decisions that affect themselves much more. So they do that, that’s fine. The point is—

Paul Jay

Before we get more granular about this, because it’s a little bit of one foot in today and one foot in tomorrow, as part of the argument here, we’re going to do another segment about this because we are going to have a fight about how you have a modern economy without some kind of planning. I know you’re saying you don’t need—

Michael Albert

It’s called participatory planning. Absolutely you do need planning.

Paul Jay

Okay, well, let’s find out in the next segment what that’s going to look like.

Michael Albert

Okay.

Paul Jay

Anyway, write in, send us your questions and comments, and pick up Michael’s book. It’s called No Bosses. And where do they get your book?

Michael Albert

As far as I’m aware, I’m so isolated because of COVID. It’s in stores, and it’s online, on Amazon, all the various online purchase places. It’s available everywhere. I know what you’re pointing to. Let me point them to one thing. There’s a site called nobossesbook.com, and all the reviews are there that have come out so far. The book has only been out two months, basically, exactly. There are, I think, about 15-16 reviews there. There are a lot of interviews. There are all sorts of stuff there. So people could look there and get a feeling for, well, do I really want to read this book or not? Then if you do, you get it, and if you don’t, you don’t.

Paul Jay

Okay, cool. Alright, thanks, Michael. Thank you for joining us on theAnalysis.news.

Michael Albert

Thank you. 


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“Michael Albert is an American economist, speaker, writer, and political critic. Since the late 1970s, he has published books, articles, and other contributions on a wide array of subjects. He has also set up his own media outfits, magazines, and podcasts.”

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One Comment

  1. Rather depressing and self-defeating arguments being had here. Both make good points quickly followed by bad points, or vice versa. I also think that it should have been established at the start that Michael Albert describes himself as an anarchist, whereas Paul Jay sees himself as a socialist. There’s a long back story to this quibble (all the way to the 1st International), a destructive and totally unnecessary ‘split’ in the working class revolutionary movement (neither faction can claim the moral or theoretical high ground out of this sordid affray), and that had profound and sometimes tragic consequences later on – making it still responsible for a lot of silly internal bickering on the revolutionary Left today.

    The coordinator class is a product of anarchist thinking, and it is relevant, but not to the exclusion of Marxian focus on ownership of the means of production. These approaches should be seen as complementary, just in the same way as Marx’s materialist analysis should have been the perfect complement to Bakuninist workplace organising skills, not its enemy. Unfortunately Albert and Jay are here still fighting out these old battles, rushing to accusatory offence/defence positions for their respective ‘side’ and arguing over each other speaking too, which just adds to the awkward feeling engendered among those who see themselves as ‘not involved’, as though they’ve wandered in on a private domestic dispute between estranged partners.

    Albert is correct when he states that monopoly over ’empowering work’ enables a structure of potential power abuse, but incorrect when he states rather foolishly that surgeons should spend 80% of their time doing other tasks simply because somebody (presumably surgeons) see these other tasks as ‘beneath them’. Jay is correct for example when he questions this comment, proposes other less valued work in terms of human fulfilment that Albert ignores – and makes an effective counter-argument, but then waxes ideological when he states that ‘the Soviet Union’ was seen ‘until 1990’ as the ‘shining city on a hill’ in terms of its alleged socialist transformation. The problem with this last point is that it’s not based on a materialist analysis of the phenomenon of capital, wage labour and class struggle in the USSR (see Neil Fernandez’ 1992 book on the subject if you want this), but on the ideological ‘dream’ that the state claimed to embody. This is a bit like US apologists who still tread reverentially around ‘the American dream’ – no, the reality is both ‘dreams’ are/were alienated ideological concepts. Albert could have made such a point eloquently and comradely in response but failed to do so, yet it was clearly obvious from his expression that Jay’s bland, assumptive statement on this had (rightly!) annoyed him… I mean, if you want to wind up an anarchist, this is a good place to start.

    So the two wings of the revolutionary Left are still at each other’s throats over issues that should have been mutually settled a long time ago, arguing over the fine points of stuff they actually on some level nowadays agree on, and then they wonder why the working class doesn’t take them seriously.

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