You've heard the stats being thrown around. The top 1% of Americans has greater personal net worth than the bottom 95% combined, says NYU economist Edward Wolff in a 1999 report. One out of three non-elderly Americans doesn't have health insurance, says a recent Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report. One in six children lives in poverty, says the U.S. Census. The majority of Americans work hard day in, day out, just to keep their heads above water, and many don't make it.
In Washington and in statehouses across the country, Democrats and Republicans tweak the edges of the economy with innovations such as earned income tax credits, welfare reform and child-care subsidies, but things don't seem to change all that much. The concern is so great that in a recent poll by Zogby International, two-thirds of Americans agreed that "the income gap between the wealthy and other Americans has become so great that something needs to be done about it."
Michael Albert thinks we should start over.
Albert, with the help of others, has spent much of his life designing a new economy from the ground up. His latest book, "Parecon: Life After Capitalism" (Verso), shot from No. 2,423,754 on the Amazon bestseller list to No. 13 in just a few days after some online promotion. It now hovers in the 400s and will hit bookshelves later this month.
"Parecon" (pronounced par-E-con, the title is short for "participatory economics") is already being translated into more than 20 languages. So why is there so much interest in what seems like such a quixotic undertaking?
Albert, 55, points to popular culture as evidence there is widespread agreement about the evils of contemporary capitalism. "Go into the store and buy the 10 top-selling novels and read them. You'll be flabbergasted at the number of them that include a clear-cut condemnation -- although it's not the authors' purpose -- of one sector or another of modern society and the institutions in it."
He identifies four key values that any economy must address: equity (how much should people get and why?); self-management (what kind of say over their conditions should people have?); diversity (is more variety better than less?); and solidarity (should people cooperate or compete?).
A participatory economy would redefine existing divisions of labor through the idea of "balanced job complexes," whereby each job would contain a balanced share of tasks -- some creative and empowering, some rote and unfulfilling -- required in each workplace. There would be no managers whose primary responsibility is making decisions, just as there would be no janitors whose main job is cleaning up. Each worker would have an equal share of the gravy train and the dirty work, which Albert thinks will contribute to eliminating hierarchy and class.
"Eighty percent of people have their talents and skills crushed out of them ... because we educate people to obey orders and to endure boredom because that's what they're going to face in life," he said.
Participatory economics, which Albert developed with American University economics professor Robin Hahnel, places shared values at the forefront of economic relations. "If humanity should not aspire to create an elite minority joyfully dancing atop a suffocating mountainous majority," Albert writes, "what should we aspire to?"
With his economic system, there would be no private ownership of productive capital, such as commercial property; instead, such assets would be publicly held and run. He points out, however, that he's not talking about a socialist or communist society such as the old Soviet Union, which despite its stated goal of classlessness, did, in fact, produce a class of economic planners whose interests often were opposed to those of workers. His system tries to safeguard against such divisions by using a non-hierarchical, democratic planning process to match the economy's production to people's consumption each year.
Albert also wants a balanced division of labor, wages according to people's effort and sacrifice, and input into workplace decisions based on how much one is affected by them.
For example, if someone wants to listen to music at work, only co-workers within earshot would be consulted. A hiring decision might be weighed by everyone who will work with the new employee. Depending on the issue at hand, some company decisions could be made by majority rule, some by consensus and, perhaps, others by fiat, as long as a balance that respects each person's right to "self-manage" is achieved over time.
"Instead of gargantuan inequity, there would be equity," Albert said. "Instead of 'nice guys finishing last' or 'garbage rising,' there would be solidarity, and social relations would be positive. Instead of class rule, there would be self-management. People would have a say over their own lives."
The task of replacing capitalism is comparable to amassing widespread support for ending slavery or women's suffrage, he continued. The institutions of capitalism "fall short in the same way that the plantation slave model fell short or that patriarchy falls short," he said. "The hard part is not getting people to support the goal but getting them to believe it's possible."
Dismissing the critiques
ALTHOUGH participatory economics hasn't yet entered mainstream economic debate, several realities may undercut Albert's assumptions. One is that the system relies on benevolent individuals to function effectively and people in the real world aren't always so kind to one another. Another is that people have varied natural abilities, so assuming everybody can share all tasks is, perhaps, asking too much.
Albert waves off the criticisms, saying new institutions will encourage people to behave better and perform well. Despite the apparent enormousness of his goal and constantly having to defend his vision from criticism, Albert never seems less than confident that change is possible.
"I'm not optimistic that we're going to win tomorrow or next week or next year, but I am optimistic that as people become aware of viable and worthy alternatives they'll strive to attain them," he said. In the meantime, people should organize to struggle for shorter-term goals, such as winning a 30-hour workweek (at current pay) and gaining more decision-making power, he said.
Pressures to alleviate poverty and inequity have never been greater in many parts of the world, especially Latin America, where economic growth in the last two decades has stagnated alongside the adoption of economic policies largely dictated by the International Monetary Fund and Washington.
Criticism of capitalism is not so radical an idea there, said Mark Weisbrot, an economist at the Center for Economic Policy Research, a liberal Washington think tank. "Anyplace where the majority of people are poor, you have a whole different attitude to the system of property rights and allocation of income and wealth."
But could such perceptions cause change in the U.S. economy?
Cynthia Peters, a writer, activist and teacher in the "worker education program" at SEIU Local 285, a union of building service workers in Boston, says she worked in such an environment at South End Press, a small Boston-based book publisher that Albert helped found 25 years ago. South End is a nonprofit collective, whose authors include Noam Chomsky and bell hooks, that works on participatory economics principles.
Peters, who worked there for 13 years, said that South End never functioned with managers or used a hierarchy, and that it made a conscious effort to share skills and knowledge among staff. "In order to make it a democratic organization," she said, "you can't allow any monopolies of expertise."
South End publishes 10 to 12 titles per year with just five employees who rotate the regular work requirements, from the more creative and conceptual tasks to cleaning toilets. At South End, everyone gets paid the same, but in "Parecon" Albert recommends that people earn more (or less) if they put in more (or less) effort.
Albert became politically radicalized while he was a promising physics student at MIT in the late 1960s. He says he would have been a physicist "in a better world," but the impact of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War drove him from his "natural calling" as a particle or theoretical physicist. His newfound commitment to social change drew him to studying the economy.
He still reads physics and other hard sciences, watches TV and goes kayaking in his spare time, of which there's not much. He logs 70 hours a week between writing, speaking and running the online political Web site ZNet (www.zmag.org).
Opposition and support
Does he think those in power would willingly give up their profit-making property and decision-making control? "No, of course not," Albert said. The top 1% or 2% who are wealthy owners "will be opposed to this change to the last day."
The next 17% or 18% of the population "will be quite split," Albert contends. "Some of them will look at their circumstances, their relative wealth, their income and their power and will bemoan the fact that it will diminish greatly as a result of this process. But others will look at how long they work -- the 60- and the 80-hour workweeks -- they will look at the alienated character of their relations with other people, and they will also look at the poverty and the degradation of others and they will agree that, on balance, this change is not only worth it but it is desirable.
"Meanwhile, the real issue is the 80% who have a tremendous amount to gain."
Albert has compared replacing capitalism to ending apartheid in South Africa, a revolutionary change in the dynamics of that society. He is always argumentative and at times cantankerous, and has an absolute conviction that he is right that is ever evident. "Michael never gives up," said Peters. "He's the visionary and he's the bulldog. I don't think I know anybody more tenacious."