Building up an economic alternative creates necessarily a set of problems, says Albert. That could be seen in Argentina. Hundreds of firms were taken over by workers in the wake of the economic downturn in 2001. Albert talks about encounters with a number of workers in Argentina who took over bankrupt firms abandoned by their owners and the coordinator class. While workers managed to get the plants back to work the take overs did not end up with a real alternative. In only a few years hierarchies and alienations showed up again, workers complain. But the reason for this development has nothing to do with human nature, says Albert. The problem was instead: The firms kept to the old division of labor and markets. A new class of coordinators took over and created again hierarchies while markets increased inequalities. These old institution have to be dismantled, too, and replaced by alternatives. Participatory endeavors should also be connected and focused on a shared goal to make them sustainable in creating an economy for the future.
Michael Albert: US writer, activist and economist, co-founder of ZMag and t ZNet, author of "Realizing Hope. Life Beyond Capitalism" and "Parecon" ("Participatory Economics")
David Goessmann: In a certainly limited form the principles of a participatory economy already exist in our societies. We have cooperatives, worker owned and worker managed facilities in Latin America, Europe and also the US. There is Mondrogan in Spain. Which experiences were made there?
Michael Albert: One of the problems is, suppose you create an institution, so, it might be a small publishing house, it might be a big institution, let’s say it is an auto plant, and the owners who were there before leave and it is done from scratch on. So in Argentina that happened in many many work places. Basically economy goes down, the owners decide that they are going to get out. When they go, interestingly enough, the coordinator class, the engineers and the managers they go also. Because they think, oh this is going to fall apart. So they leave also. So now the workers are left and they want to keep their jobs. So they take over the work place and that happened all over Argentina. Not in all of it but in many many firms, hundreds. In Argentina, and or it could happen elsewhere, the same outcome but different roots, it could happen by people just getting together and forming a workers club. Or by workers perhaps buying a work place and putting it under the control of the whole work force. So it is a good thing and it is moving in a kind of direction, I think you are right, that is participatory or pareconish, let’s call it, but there are dangers. So for instance, you can do that and you can keep the old division of labor. And in keeping the old division of labor you can wind up with something that is, that is not capitalist in a way it used to be because the owners were gone. But is horrible in the way that East Germany was, or the Soviet Union was. So in other words you can set up institutions that do not have owners but they do have 20 per cent ruling over 80 per cent. And in fact it is hard to avoid. If you are operating within a market system, if you are dealing with banks, if you are dealing with all kinds of institutions and cultural assumptions in a society, which take for granted that there will be a few leaders, that there will be some people who are responsible and other people who are obedient, that there will be huge disparities in income, and so on and so forth. So, if you think of something like a non-profit, the Ford foundation or some non-profit institution. It is not owned, it is not privately owned, but it can look marginally different from a privately owned institution. And that is because it retains that. So, my answer is yes, I think that the existence of a huge number of co-ops particularly in the United States, actually there is a huge number in the United States, a large number of co-ops, a large number of non-profits, a large number of institutions that are attempting to be alternative in some way or another, is a wonderful thing. But it becomes powerful if they do not operate only independently but have some degree of unity, and if the unity comes from an understanding of what they are trying to achieve. And what they are trying to achieve has to be real classlessness, not just the elevation of the 20 percent. Once that understanding is in place, then you really have something. In Argentina I was in a glass factory, visiting. And I am talking to some of the people and I ask who is doing the finances now, because in the glass factory the owners left, the engineers left, the accountants left, the 20 per cent left, it was not just the owners who left but it was the 20 percent of the coordinator class that had left and what you had, what remained was the people who are doing the work labor. And it was about 80 per cent of the work force with very very little education and with very little confidence and with very little knowledge of the characteristics of the firm. And yet they had to keep it going. Well, they did keep it going. And in fact they made it even more successful than before. And so I asked, but how are you doing the books, how are you doing the accounting, how are you doing that stuff and they pointed to this women and said, she is doing it. It was not that big a firm but it was not tiny but, she was doing it. So, I said to her so what was your prior job? And she said: Well I was working furnace and she showed me the furnace and she was working at this furnace in front of this open fire all day long. I couldn’t stand it ten minutes. So it was an incredibly horrible kind of labor to be doing all day long. And certainly a job where you are not able to have a thought, or to have a bit of energy at the end of the day. Anyways, she became the person who is going to do the books. I knew she probably did not have a lot of education. So I said: what was the hardest thing to learn? And she said … she did not want to answer, she was hemming and hauling, she was embarrassed a little bit, but I kept pushing and she still did not want to answer and so I said, “Well, was it learning how to do the accounting, tasks, was it learning accounting”? She said, “No”. And I said, “Was it learning the computer and the software?” She said “No”. I said, “Well was it learning how to interact with the other people who are make decisions?” She said, “No”. I said, “Well I do not get it, what was the hardest thing?” She said, “First I had to learn to read”. So, the idea that people cannot have..., you know, working people are incapable of doing the empowered tasks, the tasks that involve concepts , that involve thinking and that involve engaging with others and so on and so forth, and working people cannot do that and all they can do is simple labor is totally nonsense, it is totally nonsense. It is just as much nonsense as it was nonsense 50 years ago, 60 years ago to say women could not do that kind of labor. Women could not be doctors, women could not … That is what everybody thought, it was the case. That was nonsense, so is it nonsense that workers cannot do other work. Okay, so here you have a work place in which that nonsense is dealt with to a certain degree. But if you look closely you discover, wait, there is a problem. She is the new accountant. In other words, there is somebody working at that furnace where she was working, doing the same job she was doing before. And now she is the account. And for a while she is going to be a wonderful and humane person. But over time the fact that she is not doing any onerous work and that she is doing this more relaxed labor in an environment that is more comfortable, where the gap between everyone else and her in terms of the knowledge she has over the disposal in the democratic assembly means she is going to have more and more say and they are going to have less and less say, and slowly but surely she is going to get tired to deal with them because she knows everything and along with the others who are in those positions. And slowly but surely the position creates a new person. She is not genetically any different than she was, but she is ... It is like getting a job as a prison guard. The nicest person in the world gets a job as a prison guard and two years later that person is probably a different person because of all the pressure and because of all the constrains, and because of how you have to behave, and so on and so forth. It is just unavoidable. So, same thing here. So the point of this story is that when we take over a work place or when we start a work place from scratch or we are trying to create something that will be exemplary and something that can provide a model and something that can even melt into a better future, we have to not only get rid of ownership, but we have to get rid of that division of labor. Because that will corrupt us. And it will undo everything and the same thing is true for markets. So we have to deal with those self- consciously and being aware of it. We have to just offset the ills rather than celebrating them. Another quick story: On that same trip to Argentina I am sitting in a room with about fifty representatives of these factories around Argentina. And they want to talk about participatory economics, that is what it is been called for and if you are not familiar with that lets have some reports about what you are doing and where you are. So we start to go along and we start with the reports. And at first everybody is very lively and upbeat because they meet people across whole Argentina who are doing thinks like they are doing, occupying a factory, trying to create something more just and humane. But after a while it starts to get pretty depressed. And then people start crying. And the reason was because people were very honest. It was a context in which people were with like-minded people and in which they could be honest. And they started telling the truth. A man who spoke put it this ways, he said, “You know, I never believed that I would say anything like this, but I am afraid, maybe Margaret Thatcher was right. The British Prime Minister who said there is no alternative. We took over the work place, we equalized the wages, we instituted a democratic assembly to make decisions, we were incredibly energetic and exited, we made it work. But now two years later all the old crap seems to be coming back. It is beginning to feel the way it felt before. None of any owners but the alienation and differences and hostility and class kind of dynamics are coming back. And it just seems to be built into who we are. So after a while then I talked about balanced job complexes and I talked about markets and said, “Look, what I think happened here is that not human nature is overcoming your desires. Rather what is overcoming your desires is that you hung on with an old institution, the old corporate division of labor. And you hung on with markets and those two old institutions are swamping your operations and are undoing what you accomplished. And it does not say that it is impossible, it just says that if you want to create a new work place, if you want to create a new kind of productive environment which is classless you have to get rid of those old institutions or pressures. And you have to create an alternative to that, too.” I think that it is very, very good that all kinds of experiments are being done from co-ops to participatory budgeting, a kind of tiny aspect of participatory planning, also other things. But to unite them with a clear coherent understanding of what the alternative that they are moving toward is so that they can keep moving toward it and that they can come beyond all the obstacles that come along their way is a crucial ingredient to being sustainable when they are going forward.
David Goessmann: This was Kontext TV with Michael Albert. Thanks for watching and listening. You can get more information on Kontext on www.kontext-tv.de. My name is David Goessman with Fabian Scheidler.