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Book Review

Looking Forward:
Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century

by Michael Albert, Robin Hahnel

Reviewed by:
Frank Lindenfeld

With the collapse of the so-called socialist economies in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the apologists for capitalism maintain it is now the only viable economic framework. They are wrong. For many years, anarchists have criticized the blatant deficiencies of both corporate capitalism and command socialism. Most would agree with Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel that capitalism "institutionalizes inequality, promotes poverty, wages war, and denies dignity" and that state socialist economies based on bureaucratic hierarchy and authoritarian central planning are no better.

In Looking Forward, Albert and Hahnel sketch out a convincing participatory alternative to both of these systems. The authors envision a genuinely classless society, created by reorganizing production, consumption and allocation to give priority to social solidarity, collective self management and productive diversity.

They suggest, in effect, transforming our entire society into a giant kibbutz where work is organized fairly and where all share equitably in consuming the fruits of their labor. Money would no longer be used as a medium of exchange and there would be no need for banks. No paychecks. No bank accounts. No class differences. No inheritance of wealth or of poverty.

Albert and Hahnel make a convincing case for the reorganization of work that would eliminate most hierarchy. Examples of democratic work organizations, also known as worker cooperatives, have existed within capitalist and even in command socialist economies. Such cooperatives would be the constituent units of a participatory economy with a multitude of work organizations, each governed by democratically chosen workplace councils. (To maximize participatory decision making, few organizations would have more than several hundred members). For decisions that affect only part of a workplace there would be team and shop floor councils.
A participatory economy would also incorporate job rotation, and job "complexes" or mixes of work balanced for desirability and empowerment. For example, in a book publishing company each worker would have some editorial, some production and some business responsibilities. The same person might work part of the time in two different organizations, one more and one less socially desirable. Unpleasant and rote work would be automated or eliminated where possible; otherwise it would be shared by all instead of being relegated to some underclass.

Consumption in a participatory economy would be based on the norms of equitable sharing and individuals' right to privacy in their consumption so long as they didn't take an unfairly large share. There would be a system of consumer councils beginning with neighborhood councils, extending into ward, county, regional, and national federations of councils. Certain goods, such as hospitals, parks, rail systems etc. would be collectively consumed. The consumer councils and federations would discuss first their collective needs for a share of social production, beginning at the national level and moving on down. After collective needs are taken care of, the councils would arrive at budgets for average individual and family consumption. Individuals might retain the right to opt out, becoming "one person" councils, though they would then forfeit their share of collective conveniences.

Balancing what is produced or supplied in such a participatory economy with what is consumed or demanded is done through a complex allocation and decentralized planning system based on the widespread use of computers and information feedback between workplaces and consumers, and between smaller units and larger geographical levels within which they are located. The alternative to using money and prices is a system of information kept on computer networks.

To accommodate variations in individual requirements, people would be allowed to consume more in one year than another, "borrowing" against their future work, and those who wanted to increase their share of consumption might have to agree to work more hours than others.

The heart of such a planning system would be a network of "Iteration Facilitation Boards," groups of workers who would provide information to consumer federations, workplace federations and individuals about levels of supply and demand, "indicative" prices, etc. during a number of iterations or rounds of the planning process. Initial plans would be refined during second, third, and subsequent iterations, as the planning boards share information on the consequences of proposed collective and individual production and consumption requests, and make suggestions for changes in these requests to bring supply and demand into closer harmony.

After a number of planning rounds in which individuals, and workplace and consumer councils and federations have revised their requests in the light of information provided by the planning boards, those boards might refine proposals for several alternative production/consumption targets to be voted on by members of the society and adopted for the next year.

I have only a few reservations about this excellent book. The planning process described in Looking Forward seems overly dependent on widespread access to and familiarity with computers. The process also seems unnecessarily complex - perhaps it could be simplified. Further, why try to plan (democratically or otherwise) for such a large unit as the contemporary U.S. with its 250 million people? Why not at least several smaller regions? Wouldn't some mechanisms be needed to deal with the major social inequalities that exist not only within a society like ours, but between the wealthy countries and the poorer countries? What if many of us don't want to participate in the planning process, even when it is democratically organized? Are there ways in which we might combine a system of participatory workplaces and democratic decisions about collective consumption with a market economy?

Despite these questions, I would say Looking Forward has a breadth of vision on a par with such classics as Paul and Percival Goodman's Communitas. We need such models and visions to inform and inspire our struggles to build a participatory and classless society where good work and a good life are available to all.



Looking Forward:Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century
by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel.153 pp. Boston: South End Press,1991. $10

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