Daniel's Reviews > Parecon: Life After Capitalism

Parecon by Michael Albert
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's review
Jun 24, 2008

it was ok
bookshelves: non-fiction
Read in March, 2008

I have had this book for five years without reading it. I bought it because there was an economics major who briefly had a stint in my university organizing group CCLeft. I don't think he got more than a couple of chapters in. He also never came back to our meetings.

For the first half of the book, I was able to trudge through the stale writing and the miserably boring concepts because I thought of it as an economics textbook, whereby I was able to criticise capitalism and central planning based on their central values. And it succeeded in that and several other ways.

I think to the extent at which Albert synthesized the rewards of past struggle from below and to the left into a coherent theory of economics (whether from anarcho-syndicalist Spain, or horizontal planning in Porto Alegre), this book (and the concept of parecon itself) was a success. It is when Albert begins straying from broad vision and into tiny things that are uniquely "Albertian," that is when he gets into a fastidiousness that is annoying to me. He uses the defense of "don't get caught up in the tiny details, this is merely a vision that has yet to be implemented" in one paragraph (a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with) and in the next, he is documenting, in the most tedious way, how a swimming pool might be collectively purchased with participatory economics.

During the "demonstrations" of ParEcon, I found myself wishing that Albert had coauthored this book with a sci-fi writer. Ursula K LeGuin, for example described a unique economy in a unique world, and showed daily life within those contexts, in her book, The Dispossessed. Albert, as gifted a thinker as he is, is not a sci-fi writer. Life within participatory economics seemed almost consumed by participatory economics, and therefore it was difficult to imagine what, for example, my life would be like in a society with participatory economics.

Albert also has a tendency to, understandably, compare his vision with capitalism, and shows how criticisms of participatory economics are more valid criticisms of the current economic order. However, once I agreed with Albert that participatory economics would be better than capitalism (not hard to do to an anti-capitalist who is perfectly willing to throw capitalism to the wind for almost any reason), those criticisms remained almost un-addressed. Furthermore, some of the more persistent arguments were made into straw-men and burnt. Like the concern about vision dominating and becoming dogmatism, a concern I had throughout the book. The person he described with that concern was like a funhouse mirror version of myself, which he then proceeded to criticize with, leaving me with my criticism nearly unaddressed.

A criticism that remains completely unaddressed is whether ParEcon is behaviorist. Can we reward people for social acts and punish them for antisocial acts, and come out with social people in a social society? How do I reconcile this with the much more progressive thought (in comparison to economics) going on in pedagogy and education that says otherwise?

In summary, I don't disagree with ParEcon. I'm just not excited about it. It sounds far-off and difficult, and I am not convinced it's the way. In terms of creating dual power, I think there are stronger strategies out there (dual-power unionism, married with popular neighborhood assemblies, and caucusing for oppression, for example). If I were to start an enterprise, I would probably use parts of parecon (for example, balanced job complexes), and parts of other theories. So I don't see where it fits, as a whole concept, into my life.
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