Voyou Désœuvré

The utopia, doctrinaire socialism, subordinates the total movement to one of its elements, substitutes for common social reproduction the brainwork of individual pedants and, above all, in its fantasy dispenses with the revolutionary struggle of classes by means of small conjuring tricks or great sentimentality; fundamentally it only idealizes the existing society, takes a picture of it free of shadows and aspires to assert its ideal picture against the reality of this society. (Karl Marx, The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850)

This passage sums up what I think is Marx’s most interesting criticism of utopianism: that utopias, far from being too fanciful, are, as products of the existing society, far too conventional. This is certainly true of Michael Albert’s Parecon, which a friend of mine described as being like a Sorelian myth in reverse, a concerted delibidinization of socialism. We discussed Parecon a while back at the local Marxism reading group, and I’m indebted to the other participants for giving a pretty good reason as to why Albert engages in this delibidinization: the purpose of Parecon is to answer the charge that “There Is No Alternative”; hence all potential objections from liberals must be defeated. The problem is that this leads Albert into what Marx calls “pedantry”; the attempt to make Parecon bulletproof also abstracts it from any consideration of change, both in the sense of where a society might go after Parecon, and of how we might get to a Parecon

So this leads Albert to not recognize how much he’s reinventing things that have already existed under capitalism. Not only is his utopia much less imaginative than the much more concrete proposals put forward by post-war social democracy,  his discussion of planning as a deliberation between workers’ councils and consumers councils sounds a lot like European corporatism; a proposed post-capitalist future which is less radical than an actually exising form of capital is, surely, no utopia. Albert also suggests a complicated system of shadow prices in the planning system, which appears to be a complicated mechanism to simulate a market economy, leading me to wonder why you wouldn’t just use an actual market for the purpose; the irony here is that a market economy is itself a complicated mechanism for simulating a planned economy (planned by Walras’s imaginary auctioneer).

This lack of imagination is an instance of the strange economism of Parecon. Albert imagines a totally changed economic system which involves no significant social change at all. His participatory planning system begins with “individuals mak[ing] proposals for private goods such as clothing, food, toys etc.”; but why would any of these things remain private in a post-capitalist system? Albert oddly assumes that the capitalist mode of consumption would outlive capitalism. These private (alongside other public) consumption demands then feed into a planning process, the output of which is a production plan. Albert again assumes a capitalist division between production and consumption surviving beyond capitalism, with the consequent alienation of labor. This alienation persists in the workplace; though Albert’s proposed “balanced job complexes” are doubtless preferable to the sorts of jobs provided by capitalism, they don’t envision any significant reorganization of the labor process which would actually end the division of labor, and thus end class society.

Parecon, then, “takes a picture of [capitalism] free of shadows and aspires to assert its ideal picture against the reality of this society.” Albert stipulates that Parecon is not a class society, but lays out an economy that retains the features of capitalism (private property, division between production and consumption, alienated labor) that make it a class society. Hopefully we can do better in imagining a future society.


  1. Jasper, 9:16 am, April 8, 2009

    Hey Voyou,

    Good to see you revisiting these themes. I agree with much of the gist here, though to be fair, it seems that workers and consumers in Albert’s Parecon have a great deal more influence/say, through direct democracy, on what gets produced or consumed than in European corporatism (at least the Mussolini kind, no?). But his reliance upon the household as the fundamental unit is problematic. I’m not sure whether personal (as opposed to private) property of some kind is incommensurate with socialized property, in the end. But there should be more emphasis on socialization–beyond households–of wealth. I’m also not sure ultimately that this is a market economy, because there is this feedback from the consumer that doesn’t entirely depend upon pure numericality (as with the price-system). I don’t think the market could do what he wants Parecon to do, but the problem of competition between collectives under the abstraction of this particular value form is key.

    The most important point here, though, has to do with production/consumption. Perhaps this is merely a semantic point but in my view his problem, and it’s a big one, is not that he keeps p. and c. separate but that he doesn’t satisfactorily separate them completely. I can only imagine their union in a system in which every producer makes what he or she needs to consume, some kind of anarcho-primitivism, then, or a kind of Thoreauvian libertarianism. Instead, communism and socialism in my book should completely separate production and consumption such that one’s contribution as worker has no bearing on one’s rights to social wealth. “From each according to their abilities and to each according to their needs” but with no linking of needs to abilities whatsoever. This could only happen in the event of massive surplusses, I suppose, but it should be the goal.

    I take your point, too, about div. of labor. He could have imagined a world in which not only were the existing jobs apportioned differently but the actual jobs themselves were transformed. I’m still unsure about what degree of specialization a communist society would require. It’s clear that not every person could do every single thing. But certainly instead of keeping the division doctors/nurses/orderlies, one could imagine hospitals and clinics, where health professionals did all of these tasks. . .

  2. voyou, 12:42 am, April 9, 2009

    Albert stipulates that people have more say in a parecon, but I wonder if that’s true; after all, post-war France was formally a democracy (most of the time), but I assume we’d both not be satisfied with its mere formal democracy, and I wonder if the kind of substantive democracy Albert clearly wants is actually possible given the economic arrangements he recommends. Although the direct democratic elements of parecon probably do make a difference here.

    Good point about the separation of production and consumption. I do agree with you that a system where everyone produces exactly what they consume isn’t a very attractive conception of socialism. I guess what I was thinking of by aboliting the distinction between production and consumption is something like Marx’s “realm of freedom,” where we don’t carry out productive activities in order to produce something else, which is then, in some separate activity, consumed; rather, activity, whether it produces some output or consumes some resource, is done for its own sake. So it’s not so much that productive and consuming activities should be combined, but that the distinction should be rendered irrelevant. I can certainly see how it might make sense to think about that in terms of an absolute separation of the means-end relationship between production and consumption.

    And I’m actually a bit unfair to Albert about the balanced job complexes; I think he does talk about how this might lead to developing different roles, as well as combining currently existing roles in new ways. But the reorganization of production does seem to me to be the much more important part.

  3. Jasper, 11:21 pm, April 9, 2009

    Yeah, that’s what I mean by a separation of production and consumption, the “realm of freedom,” or production for its own sake, where work becomes expressive activity, play-like or art-like, apart from the demands of the value-form. That’s the good stuff, and that’s what I want from a future society. But how could we be sure that those activities would satisfy social needs? I can only conceive of it occurring in a state of profound abundance, of profound development of the productive forces, in which most of the basic needs were being met by machines, and work became entirely voluntary. Perhaps the productive forces are already so developed. But you could also conceive of a situation in which they weren’t, and in which, for some period of transition, information about what needs existed had to get communicated to the sites of production.

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