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.