Searching for the life in Albert’s “Life After Capitalism”

A review of Michael Albert, Parecon: life after capitalism (Verso, 2004).

Repetitive and heavy in rhetoric, Albert’s Parecon carries the pretensions of an authoritative blueprint yet without even the substance of an introductory text in economics. Though not without some insights, Albert’s supposedly alternative economic model shares many of the same shortcomings as mainstream economics; it is technocratic, oblivious to its own contradictions, and reactionary regarding social deviance. For instance, whereas one of the most apparent inspirations to Albert, syndicalism, proposes the elimination of the managerial class, one of the unfortunate side effects of Parecon is that it turns everyone into everyone else’s boss. In a Parecon it would be impossible to smoke cigarettes or look at pornography without announcing the activity to one’s community. Also, in a Parecon a worker is required to fulfill a menial task if one does work that one enjoys. This counter-intuitive logic is enforced so that if someone is a carpenter who enjoys making chairs, that person has to spend an equal amount of time working in some field that is as undesirable as chair-making is desirable (being a bureaucrat for instance). Albert tries to make it seem like compelled labor is a desirable improvement in society since the mandate was democratically determined. One wonders why it can’t be that in a perfect world each can pursue fulfilling work to their heart’s content and work unappealing jobs to the extent that they remunerate well. The underlying assumption in Albert’s equation is that harder work should pay better – in itself not too bad of a thing – but this assumption leads Albert to conclude thus that desirable work should not pay well. Essentially, Parecon seems to doom everyone to a technocratic world of average job prospects.

The books lacks adequate documentation of where the ideas were initially developed (there are few facts discussed, let alone cited) and where to look for additional or conflicting viewpoints. My biggest criticism of the book is that it fails to do justice to participatory economics. I have heard the concept, which isn’t exactly recent, and respect its contributions to the search for satisfying, fair, and healthy economic methods. Albert’s book does help create awareness of the Parecon project, offer answers to commonly held misconceptions about it, and provide justifications for its basic assumptions. But as the definitive text on participatory economics it is lacking. This shortcoming is evidenced by the numerous references to already published works about the subject. One wonders whether this book was totally necessary if both the concepts and the discussions contained within it are simply reprints of earlier texts. The discussion of capitalism’s “invisible foot” is one of the highlights of the book for me but even this was appropriated from somewhere else. Parecon seems to have quite a following of activists and workers behind it. I say, more power to them! For me, however, the book just served to make the whole Parecon prospect slightly less attractive.

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