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Book Review

Thinking Forward:
Learning to Conceptualize Economic Vision

by Michael Albert

Reviewed by:
Peter Stone

Suppose you say something that isn't regurgitating conventional pieties. Suppose you say something that's the least bit unexpected or controversial. Suppose you say "The biggest international terror operations that are known are the ones that are run out of Washington." Or suppose you say, "What happened in the 1980s is the U.S. government was driven underground." "Suppose I say the United States is invading South Vietnam -- as it was."...You know, people will quite reasonably expect to know what you mean. Why did you say that? I never heard that before. If you said that you better have some evidence, and in fact you better have a lot of evidence, because that's a pretty startling comment. You can't give evidence if you're stuck with concision.

-- Noam Chomsky

Chomsky is quite right about the danger of concision, a danger that plagues any argument involving controversial claims. Make a claim that challenges the norm, and fail to back it up, and you risk sounding rather odd. This danger, unfortunately, rears its ugly head all too often in Michael Albert's latest book, Thinking Forward: Learning to Conceptualize Economic Vision.

For years, Michael Albert has worked to develop an elaborate world view to assist the activist in the quest for a better world. This world view includes a set of values to guide the formulation of economic vision; a critique of the failings of both capitalism and Marxist-Leninism (which Albert classifies as a form of "coordinatorism"); a model of an economy which would satisfy his values better than existing economies; and a theoretical system for fitting economic concerns together with concerns of race, gender, and politics. Setting forth this world view has required a great many fascinating books, each of which elaborates part of Albert's picture of the world and links it to other parts. Thinking Forward continues this project in a new direction -- teaching activists how to formulate an inspiring vision of a better society, a vision worth fighting for.

In the introduction to Thinking Forward, Albert announces the following three goals for the book:

  1. To understand the visionary economic model called participatory economics (or "parecon" for short) as well as the other contending visions called "market socialism" and "centrally planned socialism." (not to mention capitalism).
  2. To teach how to judge these systems and especially to adapt them, or to conceive entirely different economic models.
  3. To indicate how the social vision lessons of the course [the contents of the book originally consisted of lectures in an online course] apply to other domains, for example conceptualizing gender, political, or cultural goals for modern societies (p. 15).

Albert has already tackled the first of these tasks in several earlier works, most notably Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century (co-authored with Robin Hahnel, South End Press, 1991) and The Political Economy of Participatory Economics (also with Hahnel, Princeton University Press, 1991). In these two works, Albert and Hahnel lay out parecon -- an elaborate plan for an economy which allows workers and consumers to participate directly in the planning of production, consumption, and allocation -- contrast it to other systems, and provide criteria for comparing it to these alternatives. Albert thus begins Thinking Forward with most of the first task already completed to his satisfaction; the new book adds little to what has gone before. Moreover, his third task is parasitic on the second; a reader who can conceive alternative economic models can apply the same techniques to conceive of alternative models in other realms (kinship, community, politics). Thus, it is Albert's second goal -- learning how to analyze and critique visionary economic models, as well to create new models -- that forms the real raison d'etre for Thinking Forward. In short, Albert wants to teach his readers how to "conceptualize economic vision." In doing so, he hopes to make the Left more self-conscious about its goals, and thus better equipped to fight for them.

Albert uses parecon as a running example of how to create a vision of a just economic system. He walks the reader, step by step, through the creation and justification of parecon. He explains what values parecon embodies -- equity, self-management, diversity, solidarity, and of course efficiency (the economist's value of choice) -- how parecon works, how alternatives to parecon work, and why he believes parecon embodies these values better than the alternatives. A reader who wishes to create a new economic vision must also go through all of these steps; otherwise, says Albert, the reader's vision will not be well thought out.

Albert thus must make extensive use of parecon in explaining his techniques to the reader. But parecon, and Albert's argument in favor of it, relies upon a large number of supporting claims, many of them controversial -- claims about market economies, central planning, class divisions, the relationship of economics to other spheres of life and many other topics. Many of these claims receive extensive treatment in Albert's other books. But in Thinking Forward, space requires Albert to assert these claims without mustering proper evidence. As a result, the curse of concision hits Albert's reader with full force. Even a reader sympathetic to Albert will encounter bold claim after bold claim, asserted with little or no support. A more skeptical reader may start to wonder if Albert knows what the hell he is talking about. Most often Albert does know, and could prove it if asked, but that does not help a reader being introduced to parecon for the first time through this book.

For example, Albert asks the hypothetical question, "In a market economy, what determines how much product each actor gets?" He answers this question as follows: "monopolization, unionization, consciousness and organization, prior distribution of wealth and assets, race, gender, age, laws, government intervention, supply and demand, and so on. In short, bargaining power" (p. 32). Any person with minimal economic background will recognize how far this answer strays from traditional conceptions of how markets work. "Supply and demand," which most economists would list first among the factors determining allocation, merit mention by Albert almost as an afterthought. What does Albert know about the way the market works that these economists do not? Where do race and gender enter into the equation? And just what does "bargaining power" really mean? Albert has attempted to answer all of these questions in other works, but none of them receive any consideration here. Albert assumes here an explanation of how markets work -- an explanation that justifies many of his criticisms of both market capitalism and market socialism, and thus his vindication of parecon -- without providing a word of justification, not even so much as a footnote (Indeed, Albert cites no sources at all for over 150 pages. He also provides no index, making it difficult to track down other places where he discusses the same topic).

Albert's discussion of parecon might move a new reader to investigate the model further, if only to design an alternative vision of a just economy. But the inadequacies of Albert's discussion might simply intimidate that reader with its many unexplained, unjustified claims, inducing the reader to give up. To prevent this from occurring, I strongly recommend that readers unacquainted with parecon read Thinking Forward in conjunction with Looking Forward. The two books complement each other nicely. Thinking Forward shows the reader how to think about economic vision, while Looking Forward provides a clear picture of what Albert dislikes about the standard economic alternatives and of what a better economy might look like. Fortunately, obtaining both of the books together is easy. The publisher of Thinking Forward, a new radical publishing house called Arbeiter Ring, is making the book available to readers interested in forming discussion groups on economic vision at a 50 percent discount, provided five or more copies are ordered. South End Press (116 Saint Botolph ST, Boston, MA 02115) has made Looking Forward available on similar terms (The book is ordinarily $12). The truly enthusiastic may also want to check out the website at <>, which contains additional information on parecon. Members of Left on Line (an online service affiliated with South End Press and Z Magazine) can participate in more in-depth discussion on the subject at <>.

Albert's vision of a liberatory economy deserves the attention of anyone seriously committed to changing the world for the better. Unfortunately, due to problems of concision, Thinking Forward does not do justice to Albert's world view by itself. A reader exposed only to this work may fail to see the importance of the project Albert has undertaken. And that would be a genuine shame.



Thinking Forward: Learning to Conceptualize Economic Vision by Michael Albert. 210 pp. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Arbeiter Ring, 1997. $13.95 paper. (2-91 Albert Street, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada R3B 1G5)

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