No Bosses: A New Economy for a Better World (pt 2/3)

How would remuneration and the allocation of goods and services look like in a post-capitalist participatory economic system? In this second part of our discussion with Michael Albert, the author of the book, No Bosses (Zer0 Books, 2021), he talks to Greg Wilpert about the contours of an economic vision that fulfills the values of self-management, solidarity, diversity, equity, sustainability, and participation.

Greg Wilpert

Welcome to I’m Greg Wilpert. Today we’re going to take a look at a vision of what a better society might look like. This is actually a continuation of a conversation that Paul Jay started with Michael Albert. So I’m going to urge our audience to take a look at that first segment with the two of them because this one will continue where that previous conversation left off.

The book we’re going to discuss today is called No Bosses: A New Economy for a Better World by Michael Albert and published by Zero Books at the end of last year in 2021. Again, I highly recommend that people check out our first interview with Michael. As a reminder, the book outlines what a post-capitalist and classless economy would look like, one that is based on worker and consumer councils, remuneration based on duration, intensity, and onerous of socially valued labor, balanced job complexes, and participatory economic planning.

Michael is a longtime activist, author of 20 books and hundreds of articles, cofounder of ZNet and Z magazine, and also of many other media projects. Also, he’s the co-author of a vision called Participatory Economics, or Parecon for short.

Thanks for joining me today, Michael.

Michael Albert

Thank you for having me, Greg.

Greg Wilpert

So in the previous segment, when you and Paul discussed your book, he went over the issue of balanced job complexes, which is a central feature of participatory economics. I’d like to move on from there to look at other aspects of the vision. Let’s take a closer look, first at remuneration and then at participatory planning. We’ll close off with a variety of miscellaneous questions that I have. So now, just to continue basically on this vision that you outlined in No Bosses, why is the issue of remuneration so central? That is, assuming we achieve a society in which no one is rewarded simply for owning productive property, and I think most people on the Left, at least, would agree with that idea that you shouldn’t be rewarded just for owning property. What’s wrong with rewarding people or remunerating people on the basis of supply and demand market forces? How do you propose to determine remuneration or income differently?

Michael Albert

It’s a big question, especially since it takes us into allocation, and I think maybe you wanted to save that for a little bit later. So let me start off with the sort of; I suppose you could almost call it a value question. If you get rid of income for property, isn’t it sort of simple? Don’t you have to come up with something in place of it? You do have to have something in place of it, clearly. I mean, you and I are working in the economy, and we go home, and we consume stuff. Our budget or our income is what governs how much we can consume. What determines how much we earn? How much do we get from the economy, assuming that we work? If we didn’t work, then that’s a whole different story. It’s going to be some kind of generalized income for everybody. We can get to that later. Okay, so we work. And if we’re not going to get paid for our property, and we’re not going to get paid the way a market pays us, which is really for bargaining power. The way a market system works is, and everybody has experienced it; if you have more bargaining power, you can take more. If you have less bargaining power, you wind up taking less. So that’s another thing we could reward.

It’s arguably a stance we could have. Let’s reward bargaining power. Most people on the Left, and actually, I think most people, period, are going to recognize that’s despicable. I mean, that’s basically saying that we should all be thugs, try and take as much as we can, and if we’re stronger, we get more, and if we’re weaker, we get less. If you’re not going to do that, then what?

Socialists, a lot of them have historically said, well, okay, there’s an obvious and simple answer to that question. The answer is let’s have people get back in proportion to what they put in. So, in other words, if I produce a certain amount, I should get back— I mean, maybe society puts a certain amount of the social output to investment, puts a certain amount to free goods, but whatever is the amount that’s going to go to personal consumption or collective consumption, group consumption, my income for that should be a function of how much I produce. On the face of it, that sounds perfectly reasonable because, after all, if I’m getting less than that, somebody else is getting some of what I did. If I get more than that, I’m getting some of what somebody else did. So it seems fair, but it’s not. Why isn’t it?

Well, it isn’t because what determines, let’s say, you and I are working in the economy, what determines how much we make? How much we add to the social product relative to one another? Well, it can depend on a lot of variables. It may be that you were born with certain genetic endowments, certain characteristics which are very productive. Or it may be that I am using some tools, some equipment that you don’t have access to that’s very productive. Or it may be that one of us has workmates who are more productive. It may be that just one of us is producing an item that’s more valuable. In any of these cases, you and I work, let’s say, the same number of hours. So we put in four hours of work. One of us is going to be producing a greater amount of output by value in that four hours. Okay, so the socialist who favors this might say, yeah, sure, that’s sort of warranted, and it’s not such a big deal anyway.

Well, so there are two questions. Is it warranted? Is it ethically fine? The second question is, is it a big deal? Does it make such big differences that those differences are going to matter throughout the whole society? The third question is, does it work well regarding allocation, which you want to get to eventually? So take the first two. I don’t think it’s ethically warranted. I don’t think it should be the case. These are values, so I can’t say this is the reality. I can only say this is a value that I favor. I don’t think that it ought to be the case that if I’m lucky in the genetic lottery, if I have LeBron James’s body or Adele’s voice or Chomsky’s brain, and I’m born with this stuff, I should then have, on top of that, great income. I should be showered with wealth on top of that. To me, that makes no ethical sense whatsoever. Similarly, I don’t think it makes ethical sense if I have better tools or if I have if I’m lucky. That’s basically what it is. Does it matter? Is the difference very much?

When some socialists would say that to me, I would say back, well, okay, do you think that it’s proper for, let’s say, LeBron James, Steph Curry, or whoever, the right to earn 40 or $50 million a year? They would say, no, of course not. I would say, why not? They would say, well, it’s too much, and they would have various reasons. I would say, yeah, but they’re underpaid. They’re not overpaid. They’re underpaid by your standard because your standard says, let’s remunerate, let’s provide income in proportion to the degree of the value of what they contribute to society. The public— you may not like it if you’re a socialist— the public likes watching LeBron James play basketball a whole lot, so much that he’s being underpaid because Nike is taking some of it, and the owner of his team is taking some of it.

I think that rules out that norm also. If that norm is ruled out, then we need a different one. What participatory economics proposes is that we should get income for how hard we work, for how long we work, and for the onerousness of the conditions under which we work. If the work we do is socially valuable, and that’s a norm, that applies to everybody. It applies to everybody in the same way. It doesn’t generate huge disparities, and it’s ethically sound. I also think it’s economically sound, but we can come to that when you ask about it.

Greg Wilpert

Yeah, I actually have a couple of follow-up questions on that, but I think maybe I should leave those until after we discuss the issue of allocation. Actually, I do want to have one follow-up question, which is, of course, the process by which, and this might lead to the question of allocation and planning, that is, how do you determine these kinds of very intangible factors of onerousness and intensity and things like that? Who gets to decide that? What’s the process?

Michael Albert

First off, the last phrase, who gets to decide that? The answer to that is always the same in participatory economics because participatory economics is an economy which purports to generate self-management. So if we work in the workplace, the workers’ council is the ultimate arbiter of everything. It’s the decision-making body. So the workers’ council inside of a workplace is doing that. How? That question remains, obviously. How is it doing it? Well, what did I say were the variables? How long do you work? That’s easy. I don’t think there’s a big issue with that. How hard do you work? Well, the answer to that is, (A), the people you work with know how hard you work, and (B), there is an indicator. So while you’re not remunerated for your output, that doesn’t mean your output has no bearing. Your output indicates whether or not you have worked long, hard, et cetera. As far as the onerousness of conditions, again, the workers’ council has to go along.

If you and I work in a workplace and we each put in, let’s say the work week is 30 hours, so we each put in 30 hours a week, and we’re working. I say to the group, I think I should be remunerated more, or you say you think I should be remunerated less. The workplace is responsible for how it does this. So that means that workplace one— maybe I would want to be in this workplace— says we’re going to be pretty lax about this. We’re going to have average remuneration one level above, maybe a second level above, one level below, maybe a second level below. Another workplace might decide, and it’s up to the workplace and the workers’ council that they’re going to operate somewhat differently. They’re going to operate with ten levels much more highly refined above, ten levels more highly refined below. So you can see the second one has a much more exacting task to determine where one is on that spectrum. The first workplace is pretty simple. The second workplace might favor that precision over the amount of time that is lost doing it. The first workplace prefers saving the time.

I don’t think honestly that— this is why I favored the first one, I guess. I don’t think that there’s a real problem here at this level. There’s a different question to ask, which then starts to be more difficult. At this level, I think we work on work teams, we have a plan for the workplace, and we’re trying to fulfill that plan. The workforce is basically dividing up the income that is allotted to the workplace. So the workplace is allotted an income, a total income, to apportion to its workers. The workforce now apportions that income. So if somebody is going to get more, somebody else is going to get less because the total is for the workplace, and the workers are then deciding whether or not somebody has worked less time or less effort. I like to sing while I work, I don’t know, something and so on.

Is it perfect? No. Of course, it’s not perfect. Nothing social is perfect. Can one do it acceptably to all the workers? Can one have a procedure that the workers agree on? Can one then enact that in a manner that the workers like, especially when the workers have chosen the procedure? I think the answer to that is yes. The question that arises, I mean if you want to ask something else first, the question that arises is, well, what determines that amount that goes to the workplace as a whole? What determines the total amount?

Greg Wilpert

Well, maybe that gets us to participatory planning, which is actually the largest chapter in your book. I think it actually opens up a whole bunch of related questions not only to the process of production of goods and services but also to the remuneration issue. So let’s focus on that, and then I have some follow-up questions on remuneration as well. How would you outline how participatory planning would work and what would make it better than markets or central planning? Now that’s a huge question and let’s see if we can—

Michael Albert

Let me start from where we were, and then maybe we can hone in on other parts if that’s okay. So we’ve got this workplace. You and I work there, and I don’t know, 100 or 1,000 other people work there. We now know, internally, we have workers’ self-management. We make decisions via the workers’ council. Sometimes it allots the decisions to a team because it mostly affects the team. Sometimes it’s the whole workplace. We have the balance jobs that we talked about earlier. That’s a big deal. That makes a difference in all of this, simplifying things. Then we’re apportioning that allotted income.

So what determines that allotted income? Why is that allotted income higher or lower? Well, participatory economics says that productive assets— that’s the thing that capitalists own, basically. Productive assets are not owned by individuals. They are part of a commons. Our workplace, let’s say we make bicycles, whatever, our workplace is basically saying to the society we would like to use a certain share, a certain part of the productive assets in the commons. That’s a part of our plan. We’re saying let us use those productive assets, and we will produce these bicycles. Let’s say that the plan is accepted. We haven’t talked about that at all but let’s say that it is. We have a socially accepted, a socially responsible amount of output to produce. That’s what we’ve agreed on. In terms of bicycles, given the equipment we have to make bicycles, the number of workers that we have who are working, and so on.

Let’s suppose, for a minute, what do we want our allocation system to do? Let’s suppose for a minute that our workforce, the 100 or 1,000 of us, or whatever it is, produces at a socially responsible average level, average duration, average intensity, average onerousness, because that’s the nature of our workplace, let’s say. So then our workplace would be allotted 100 or 1,000, the number of workers times what is allotted to be the average income. Let’s say that we don’t. Let’s say that, in fact, this is how it happens, in other words. A subset of us are working less hard. A subset of us are working less hard. So as a result, our workplace is not, in fact, producing commensurate to the productive assets that we’re utilizing. We’re producing less.

What does that mean when you look at people? It means somebody is exerting, but it’s not socially responsible, or they’re not exerting, and therefore it’s less work. So, in other words, the total duration, intensity, and onerousness that the workplace is generating, which is what’s remunerated, is less than the total number of workers times the average. Some of us are not working up to capacity. We’re not working well, or we’re literally not working for the duration, et cetera. Somehow the allocation system has to apportion the right total bundle of income to the workplace. It’s a two-step deal. The allocation system says to our workplace, here’s your income for your workforce. Then our workers’ council says, Greg, here’s your income. Michael, here’s your income to everybody in the place. The simplest solution, maybe we even decide that we all trust each other and everybody gets the same, but we don’t have to decide that. The total that’s allotted to the workplace should be the total that’s warranted. The total duration, intensity, and onerousness. That’s a high demand on the allocation system, only one of many high demands that are placed on a good allocation system as compared to markets or central planning, which just don’t— they generate results, but the results don’t correspond to any kind of positive, virtuous values that we might have. They just generate results that are distorted relative to equity and self-management.

So it’s not that it gets technical, but it gets detailed. So the allocation system has to sort of ascertain well, in the case of a workplace, is it living up to its proposal or is it falling short regarding the social responsibility aspect? Obviously, it pays attention to output to do that. You’re not remunerating for output, but that doesn’t mean output doesn’t matter. Output matters. It’s just that you don’t get income for it. You get income for this other thing, but output matters to determining whether or not you’re doing socially valued labor, whether or not you’re using the equipment and using your own talents and your capacities consistent with getting an average income or more than an average income.

Greg Wilpert

So how would the participatory planning aspect work? Who gets to decide whether or not how many assets are allocated or remunerated to the workplace?

Michael Albert

Participatory planning says something like this. It says the workplace has a workers’ council. The neighborhood has a consumer council. So the consumer council is basically all the people who consume in the neighborhood, and it does partly collective consumption and partly individual consumption.

What is allocation? Allocation is a process by which what people are consuming and what people are producing are brought into proximity of each other. If they’re not in proximity, if much more is being produced than consumed, you got all this waste. It’s not being done. If you are short, well, then the consumers are being inadequately fulfilled, I suppose you could say. So you want these things to be in proximity to each other. You don’t want waste, you don’t want surplus, and you don’t want shortage. So that’s part of what allocation does, and you can accomplish that.

One way to accomplish that is with central planning. Ostensibly very smart or well-equipped people decide the outcome and instruct people what to do. That’s the essence of it. So that’s one option.

Another option is markets in which this can have many sorts of wrinkles, but in which the consumers and the producers are competing and which they’re all trying to get the best that they can. They try to arrive at outcomes that they prefer by applying the power that they have at their disposal. So, that’s another option. 

So participatory economics says there is a third option. There’s a way to do this which is cooperative, not competitive, and which has no top and no bottom, no center, no elite imposing its will upon the process. So what’s the process? The process is the consumer councils are making proposals. What are they proposing? They’re proposing collective consumption and individual consumption, the sum of it. All told, they’re proposing what society wants to consume, but each individual is proposing for its constituency, and the producer councils are proposing what society wants to produce in light of the productive assets that are available. Each workplace is proposing that, and you sum it all up in an industry, and you get the proposal for all total bicycles, not just our workplaces bicycles, and then for the whole economy.

If you just did that, they wouldn’t match. So that’s the allocation problem. There’s no particular reason to think that the sum total of what everybody was proposing to produce and everybody’s proposing to consume would be in proximity of each other. Why should that be? It wouldn’t be. So what you have to have is a process that brings them into proximity.

The process is that there are what the economists call iterations. There are rounds of planning. So the workers’ councils make a proposal, and the consumers’ councils make a proposal. What are they making it based upon? Well, they’re making it based upon prices. If I’m a consumer, I know that ultimately I can consume consistent with my budget. In other words, my income in light of prices. If I was only consuming bicycles, I could consume 47 bicycles or $400— because it sums up to my income. I know what my income is. This is not unfamiliar. This is true in any economy. I know what my income is, or I know what it’s likely to be at the end of the planning process. I know what prices are or are likely to be at the end of the planning process. So we’ll come to how I know them in a minute. So I make a proposal based upon that. On the producers’ side, it’s rather similar. I know what my workplace is utilizing, I know again what the costs are, and I know what the price of my output is.

Now it’s a little different than being within my budget on the consumer side. On the producer side, I have to have the value of my product commensurate to the cost of everything that I’m putting into it. That’s what’s socially responsible. It’s not socially responsible for me as a workplace to be using lots of equipment and have lots of workers and produce nothing. That’s socially irresponsible in the same way as it would be socially irresponsible for me as a consumer to consume a ton and not have done anything to warrant it.

The planning process has a second component. It has workers councils and consumers councils, and now it has something that’s called an iteration facilitation board. What’s that? That’s a bunch of people, or it could be a bunch of equipment that looks at prior activity and proposes a guess; that’s what it is. It’s called indicative prices. It proposes a guess as to what prices are going to wind up. So when we make our first proposal, when I sit down to say, to make my first consumption proposal, I know what I did last year, I know what my expected income is, I know what my expected prices are, and I make a proposal. At the workers’ council side, it’s pretty much the same thing. I know what prices are, I know what costs are, I know what I did last year. I have all these sorts of— so I make a proposal for what to do this year. My workers’ council makes a proposal. They don’t match. 

In the first iteration, we don’t have a plan; we have some information. That’s what we have. I get some information that the thing I’m producing is in undersupply. People want more of it, let’s say. I get a new set of prices for the second iteration. For the second round of planning, I get updated prices and guesses at what the final price is going to be. Same thing on the consumer side. This goes on for a number of rounds, not 200, ballpark seven-six in about there, and we arrive at a plan.

Now, why is this any good? Well, if the prices are drastically weird and wrong then it’s not good. If the prices are a reflection of what we could call full social costs and benefits, personal, collective, and ecological, so it takes into account what are called externalities. If the prices do that and if the producers are arriving at a responsible proposal, they’re properly utilizing their assets to provide what’s socially desired, and the consumers are arriving at a socially responsible proposal, a proper level of consumption, then we have a good plan.

In fact, economists have various ways of figuring out whether something is desirable or not. Honestly, mostly I’m not particularly partisan to those things. If you use those approaches, then this does as well as the idealized market system, except much better because the prices are actually real. Now, this would introduce new problems. How do you get that ecological thing in there? We still have this question of where in this came the determination of the amount of income that each workplace gets.

Greg Wilpert

Well, I wanted to follow up on the question of how this is actually different from markets. Aren’t markets an iteration process between supply and demand? How is what you’re proposing actually different? Of course, you end up with a plan, but that’s kind of like you could say, well, the company that’s making the widgets has a plan for making x number of widgets based on the information they got from the market.

There’s a sense in which— one way to extrapolate from that question is to say what do we have to do to markets to make them an acceptable mechanism process, allocation mechanism for getting consumption and production to be in proximity to each other and to fulfill our values. Remember what our values were? Self-management, solidarity, diversity, equity, and so on.

Well, you’d have to do quite a lot to markets. In fact, I think you’d have to turn it into participatory planning. That’s what would wind up happening if God could come down and, step by step, tinker with markets and make them fairer and fairer and fairer. Why? Well, this gets us into markets, but I guess you want to do that. What’s wrong with markets is multiple things. So one thing that’s wrong with markets is that they are a system in which my benefit is your loss and vice versa. When I’m selling or buying, I’m trying to— what is it? Sell cheap and buy dear. In other words, each participant is trying to do the best they can for themselves in a manner, so it produces a kind of individuality. It’s producing a kind of competitiveness.

Now, that might sound abstract, and who cares? But look around, look at society and ask yourself, this is a big deal. This is a fundamentally important institution in society, causing people to be narrow, to be individualist, to not give a damn about the other person. Not because they’re evil, but because that’s the way the system works. That’s the way markets work. They don’t work if you behave otherwise. Nice guys finish last, basically. So that’s one feature.

Another feature in markets is that markets don’t— in markets, there’s a buyer and a seller. The buyer and the seller are entering into the transaction. The will of the buyer and the will of the seller are entering into the transaction. So one problem is that they’re out for themselves in a narrow, individualist way, but that’s not the only problem. Another problem is that it’s not the case that the buyer and the seller are the only people who are affected by a transaction. When we do a transaction, and I don’t know, you get a car, okay, so you’re affected, and you get the car. The producers are affected; they sell the car. Everybody who breathes the pollution that your car spits out is also affected. That is not the only way people are affected. They’re also affected because, for instance, the steel that went into the car didn’t go into something else. So now, let’s assume that we collectively consume guided missiles. The guided-missile steel didn’t go into building transit or whatever. It’s partly external, what are called externalities, implications for those beyond the immediate transaction. It’s partly that, even more than that, every transaction in some sense affects everyone. In any transaction, in any producing and then consuming stuff is being used. It’s put to a certain purpose, and it’s not put to another purpose. So everybody is sort of impacted by this choice. We want self-management. So we want people to have a say in decisions in proportion to the degree they’re affected. Again, an outrageously, seemingly too demanding demand to put on the institution. We believe in it.

So what we’re saying is that the process of these workers and consumers councils making proposals; you’re proposing your consumption, you’re proposing your production. I’m not dictating it. Nobody is. Then mediating that and refining that in light of information that returns is, in fact, taking into account other people’s inclinations and other people’s desires. It’s not arriving at it by the amount of power that you have. It’s not arriving at it by ignoring the environmental effects. It’s taking all this stuff into account, and it’s all sort of playing back into your choice as you modify your choice.

If you say a market is just people producing stuff and getting stuff with a budget and with attention to impact, then every allocation system is a market. That’s what people in society say to us. So it removes the issue of are markets good or bad. Can we do better than markets? Well, there’s no such thing. If that’s what a market is, then every economy is going to have that. A market is not that. A market is buyers and sellers competing, trying to get ahead at the expense of the other, all based on short-term valuations, all based on prices that are a product of bargaining power. As a result, it has various negative effects, which we can see all around us.

Does participatory planning do better? Well, that’s an open question, I suppose until maybe it exists. Its advocates argue that, yes, participatory planning manages to create an allocation process that’s consistent with the other institutions.

Let me just go on one second more to give an example of what it means for an allocation process to not be consistent. In the earlier session that was done, we talked about balanced jobs. The purpose of that was to get rid of a class division between those who monopolize empowering circumstances and those who are doing the opposite. They’re in work roles that are disempowering. The claim is that that’s not just any old class division, but it can become a fundamental class division, where one class, the empowered classes, is the ruling class, and the other class, disempowered classes, subordinate class, let’s say 20 over 80. Okay, so we don’t want that, so we have balanced job complexes so that our activity in the economy does not distinguish us into two groups, one that’s empowered and one that isn’t empowered. It instead leaves us all comparably empowered.

Let’s say on top of that we put central planning or we put markets. If we put these kinds of allocation on top of balanced job complexes, there’s a contradiction. This is not compatible. Why not? Well, with central planning, it’s sort of obvious. The central planners don’t want to negotiate with the workforce. They want to impose on the workforce. The whole logic of the thing is that the central planners are authorities and that they want authorities inside the workplace to negotiate with because they sure as hell don’t want to negotiate with a whole workers council. They’re sending instructions, and they want the instructions to be met.

So we know historically that’s sort of what happens. The more interesting one is the market. Why would markets be inconsistent with balanced job complexes? I think it goes something like this. If you have markets, then you have competition. If we produce bicycles and somebody else produces bicycles, we’re competing for market share. We’re competing to become the larger bicycle firm, the firm that can generate more income. Remember, income with markets is a function not of duration, intensity, and onerousness but basically of what you can take. If the bicycle firm can engineer its way into getting more gross revenues and essentially surplus, then it does better. So its workforce wants to do that.

How do you do that? Well, a workplace across town is producing bicycles, and your workplace is producing bicycles. You do things that let you get ahead. What kind of thing lets you get ahead? Dumping your waste on your neighborhood, speeding up, not having child care, not having air conditioning for anybody except maybe a few, and so on. I’m not sure everybody agrees with me about this, but I think that what happens in this kind of circumstance is that the workplace— let’s say we even have workers councils. So we have markets and workers councils and balanced job complexes. Still in all, my workplace has to compete because of its markets. So it has to make these sort of horrible decisions, decisions that hurt the workforce.

Well, who’s going to make those decisions? Who’s good at making those decisions, and who’s going to make them? If we don’t make them and somebody else does, we get screwed. If we do make them, we screw ourselves. I think what happens is we have to find people who are well adjusted and who are poorly adjusted, I suppose I should say, who are of a mindset and of a skill set to make those kinds of choices, to cut costs, to increase output regardless of the impact on the workforce.

So we hire people like that. So we go to the—nowadays, we would go to the Wharton School or the Harvard Business School or something, and we hire somebody who has been socialized into not caring about fucking other people over. We hire them, we put them in offices, and we say, okay, screw us because it’s in our interest. Screw us at work to get us more income and to keep us alive and competing with other firms, so we don’t go under. The logic of markets disrupts the equity of income, but it also disrupts the classlessness of self-management. That’s how an allocation system can screw up your aspirations.

Greg Wilpert

Let me get back to the question of how you incorporate values at this point because I could imagine a situation where, let’s say, you’re a bicycle factory or whatever. You mentioned earlier that you wouldn’t want them to dump their waste in the community. Obviously, the community has an interest in preventing that. In the process of coming up with a plan, presumably, they would take that into account. What if, let’s say, that factory just dumps it in a different community, shifts it abroad or who knows? How do you then take the ecological value, for example, into account?

Michael Albert

Why is the fact that—

Greg Wilpert

 Presumably to offer a lower price and to perhaps get more income?

Michael Albert


Greg Wilpert

Because everybody wants to have more stuff.

Michael Albert

But they’re not going to get more stuff. This is one of the peculiarities, I suppose you could say, of participatory planning or of participatory economics. There are these two things. There’s your productivity, and there’s your duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor. They’re not the same. So let’s say that you have a balance job complex, but a part of that is, I don’t know, doing brain surgery. I have a balanced job complex, and a part of it is, I don’t know, inside of a workplace, being involved in planning the allocation of stuff during the workday or making something that is empowering but in no way as socially valuable as brain surgery. So you’re going to get, in some systems, you’re going to get a higher income because your brain surgery is so valuable, and I’m going to get a lower income because the violins that I’m working on are less valuable. In participatory economics, that isn’t the case. I’m going to get income for the duration, intensity, and onerous. You’re going to get income for the duration, intensity, and onerous.

Greg Wilpert

Wait, isn’t that allocated by the workplace? In other words, depending on how much income that workplace generates, on the whole, isn’t it?

Michael Albert

That was the thing in the last little section that we did, and I left for last. There is no such thing as me getting twice as much for the similar duration, intensity, and onerousness, or at least that’s the claim. In other words, there’s no way to aggrandize self. There’s no way to enlarge one’s income beyond the norm that is stipulated.

Now, you’re right. If society misallocates to a workplace, if society were to allocate— I’m in one bicycle factory, and you’re in another bicycle factory. So your bicycle factory dumps its crap on the neighborhood, or maybe it takes it around the corner and dumps it, and mine doesn’t. The idea here is your factory is in a position to get a greater income allotment from the allocation system than mine is. The answer is no. First of all, this gets us to another step, but we probably shouldn’t have used dumping. In any case, in the guise of dumping, you get charged for the dumping. So, in other words, that’s part of your cost. In the same way, you use some input steel. So your workplace is charged for the steel that you use that you get from someplace else. Your workplace generates some pollution. Your workplace is charged for that also. It’s not like a product where you’re benefiting from the product. It’s a product of pollution. The product is a negative thing, and you’re charged for that. Indeed, the income goes to the people who are suffering the pollution. It’s a little bit difficult. The idea is the planning process arrives at— let’s look at it now as a whole. So the planning process arrives at a plan. That means it’s arrived at essentially an average income. It now has to apportion, say to the bicycle industry as compared to some other industries. Well, if everything is just level, then the bicycle industry gets the total number of people in the bicycle industry times the average income, and so does the violin industry. If it’s not level, let’s say the bicycle industry is more onerous than you’d get an added element to your income, to your industry income. Or let’s say that during the course of the year, the bicycle industry fails to fulfill its plan. So it’s not doing the socially valued amount of labor that was the average; it’s doing less. So then it gets less again. It’s not that you, Greg, did less; it’s the whole damn industry that did less. So now the industry, so the society is basically, in a sense, you could say the planned society is apportioning to industries income allotment. That has to all add up to the total for the whole society.

Michael Albert

Now, inside your industry, there’s an industry federation of councils. Inside your industry, again, there’s an apportionment. To what? To all the factories in the industry. Once again, now the industry has a certain amount that’s allotted to it. And let’s just, for the sake of discussion, say it’s average or whatever. It’s a total amount. Now, the industry is allotting to every factory inside the industry or every workplace inside the industry. Again, if some workplaces are under producing, are under utilizing the productive assets of the social commons, then they’re going to get less income on the grounds that they’re not fully doing socially valued labor. They’re either not working or they’re working poorly, one or the other. So they would get less.

Then the next step is— it’s a similar kind of step at the total level, there’s an apportionment to industries, and the total level has to have some notion. None of this is perfect, but it can’t be. The total level has some notion if some of the industries are more onerous or less onerous.

Now, at the industry level, there might be that too. Maybe there’s a bicycle factory in, I don’t know, Alabama where the temperature is really hot, and there’s a bicycle factory in Ohio where the temperature isn’t that hot, and maybe that’s a real issue. The one is more onerous than the other. Anyway, the industry has to apportion among workplaces, and then the workplace apportions among its workforce. At every step, it’s the same criteria: remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor.

You don’t have a situation where as an individual— now let’s look at the individual level. You want to aggrandize yourself. So how do you do that? Well, you can claim to do stuff that you didn’t do. So you can cheat. Try and cheat somehow, or you can do a whole lot. Well, you can’t do a whole lot unless your workmates agree because it affects them. You can’t take on all the work in the workplace. You can’t do that. You have to get an agreement. You can’t cheat because your workplace is going to know. Maybe you can cheat a little bit, I don’t know, but the workplace is going to know if you’re just exaggerating. You’re saying, I did 60 hours, you all did 30 hours, and everybody can see you didn’t do 60 hours. Not only that, even if you did do 60 hours, you didn’t generate double the output of everybody else.

So there are a lot of indicators that preclude, and this presumes that just solidarity wouldn’t preclude it, which I think it would. These kinds of behaviors, it’s a little like it’s a whole different thing. What if you’re a tennis player and you’re as good as Roger Federer? So you look around, and you say to yourself, well, this is nice, but let’s get real. I’m special, and I want more income, so I’m going to set up a black market. I’m going to sell my tennis capacity on the side, and I’m going to try and aggrandize myself.

Well, what happens in a participatory economy? First of all, you have to have tennis courts, you have to have tennis balls, you have to have, et cetera, not so simple because all work is done in a workers council. You’re going to do it on the side, on the sly. The next thing that’s the problem is how do you get this income? Where is it coming from? Notice income was coming from the plan. It’s not coming from a bunch of people who are coming and paying you. So you say to a bunch of people, pay me, and you can play with me. There are a lot of people who want to play, and they want to play with Roger Federer because you’re so damn good. So they’re willing to give you stuff. So they give you chickens and whatever.

Greg Wilpert

But don’t they also have their own money that they get?

Michael Albert

Not particularly, not in the modern version. In other words, they have an income. Everybody has an income. So I have an income, let’s call it 100, and I can spend my 100 on stuff, and I’ve planned on what to spend on. Another feature is that that changes over the course of the year. So the system has to be able to accommodate that, but it does. So I have that amount of spending capacity, but it’s probably just on a computer. It’s not like a credit card. So I can’t pay you with a credit card, but it doesn’t really matter, even if I can transfer to you, which I don’t think I’d be able to, but let’s say I can transfer to you a piece of my bargaining, I mean, a piece of my income. So now you, Roger, have a big income. You don’t have Roger’s capitalist world income, but let’s say you have twice what you would have had, or three times what you would have had even. Now, what do you do?

Well, in our current society, being rich is no big deal. That is to say, you can do whatever you want with that income because when you drive around in your Ferrari or whatever it is that you’re doing, it’s no big deal. Lots of people do that. In a participatory economy, that’s not true. If you spend a really high income publicly, everybody knows you cheated. Everybody knows you did something wrong. I don’t even think you could get to that point. If you got to that point, it’s still hard. You have to enjoy it in your basement because it’s clearly a violation. So there are things like that. For instance, we didn’t put that in participatory economics. We just discovered that after we had this picture of what this thing was in our head, we discovered this peculiar and interesting attribute. It sort of makes it hard to cheat. It isn’t just that it’s oriented against that. It isn’t just that it sort of tries to create social relations and solidarity. Contrary to that, it even makes it hard to do. It’s true inside the workplace also. So you and your fellow workers, I mean, if you’re going to be an asshole, how do you get away with that? It’s not obvious. These are all minuscule— just as a sidebar— these are all small negatives compared to what’s normal and commonplace in existing allocation systems and economies. Even these small negatives are very hard to implement and have—

Greg Wilpert

I want to ask a whole bunch of follow-up questions, but we’ve gone on for pretty long now. So I want to conclude this part, and we’ll do another segment where we cover the follow-up questions that I have. So, first of all, I just want to remind people to take a look at the first part that was done with Paul Jay. This is part two. We’re going to conclude that now. I’m speaking to Michael Albert, author of the book No Bosses: A New Economy for a Better World. Thanks again, Michael, for having joined me today. I urge you to tune in, everybody, for the third part, which is going to follow right after this one.

Michael Albert

Thank you.

Greg Wilpert

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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.” theme music

written by Slim Williams for Paul Jay’s documentary film “Never-Endum-Referendum“.  

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