Alperovitz and Albert on Economic Visions

The following exchange on economic visions and practice occurred via Skype, later transcribed by John Duda, to be jointly published wherever Gar and Michael saw fit – Published on ZNet, by Michael Albert and Gar Alperovitz, March 7, 2014.

What Must Be Done?


  • I don’t claim to have a sophisticated view of how transitions might take place in the specific conditions facing other countries, but I do think a lot about the United States. Here, we need to develop community-wide structures of democratic ownership, we need to work out cooperative development, we need to work out participatory management, we need new ecological strategies developed at the local city, state, regional level. We need to go forward in nationalizing several large corporations: I think that’s possible, we nationalized General Motors, we nationalized several of the big banks, de facto, we nationalized Chrysler, we nationalized AIG. I think there will be more crises, and at some point rather than being bailed out by the government, the public may keep the corporations it has to rescue.  
  • We’re talking about democratizing the ownership of wealth, or socializing in some form. I think that needs to be a pre-condition in any of the systems we’re talking about. The model that I call the pluralist commonwealth incorporates a variety of these strategies, not simply worker ownership—though I do put a great deal of emphasis on worker-ownership and workplace democracy. But that’s only one form of democratizing ownership. There are also, for instance, city-wide models. In Colorado, we just had the takeover (“municipalizing”) of the electrical utility. That’s city-wide, geographic ownership of the means of production, it’s democratic ownership. There are 2,000 public utilities which could become the basis of a whole municipal scheme or strategy. Several hundred cities own hospitals. A number of the states already are moving toward ownership of state banks; many already own chunks of other businesses. Most people are simply unaware of these developments, or of models like this where we already can see expanding public ownership through municipal and state ownership. These are geographic ownership structures, that point for larger scale entities towards regional or national forms of public ownership.
  • The Pluralist Commonwealth model aims at steadily beginning to develop the institutional substructure necessary for future larger changes, but also that begins at the level of an ordinary community re-orienting itself. I think the appropriate near term trajectory of change we’re working with is 30 years, that’s a timeframe that’s reasonable for developing participation to the degree possible, ecological sustainability, reconstruction of community, laying groundwork for a reconstruction of a non-growth system over time. Beyond that timeframe other things may be possible…


  • You mention nationalizing, and it could be a good thing or a bad thing. It can be a good thing if it’s moving us in a good direction and a bad thing if it’s moving us in a bad direction. That seems pretty obvious. But if we look at it over time, we have lots and lots of instances that are not good, that don’t move us in a positive direction.
  • What characterizes positive direction? What characterizes it is more and more people having a more and more appropriate level of say over their own lives. What characterizes it is more and more people getting a fairer and fairer share of a social product and getting a fairer set of burdens they have to fulfill to be a part of society. If we can agree about that, we can make demands. Right now in the present, we can demand changes in the minimum wage, changes in the wage structure in a particular firm, we can demand new budget items in our national or local budget. But to do these things and much more in a way that moves us forward, our approaches now have to create an infrastructure that will stay with us and aid us rather than be corrupted and hurt us in the future. And they will have to develop more and more movement, and more and more activism because people are liking them.
  • There’s a resistance, it seems to me, about saying something about what we want, as if doing so would cause us to trample real and desirable options. If we say we don’t want a division of labor that would put 20% above 80%, somehow that’s going to cause a problem. If it doesn’t cause a problem to agree on that, and agree that it ought to be part of what we are seeking, let’s just say it and move on. If we say that we don’t want people to own the means of production and who get their income in the form of profit, if we don’t want that because that makes class division, crushes solidarity, demolishes dignity, and creates skewed income distribution, then we should just say it. That isn’t going too far. It’s not extrapolating so far into the future or into details that it somehow restricts us. On the contrary, it can help orient us.
  • We have to think about how to make demands and how to build structures that are part of the trajectory of change that takes us where we want to go. But that means we need to know something about where we want to go, as well as where we are at and what’s possible right now.


  • For 40 years, my argument has been that democratizing ownership of wealth has been the key to egalitarian society and the goals of egalitarian society. That’s what I’ve been writing about, that’s what I’ve been experimenting with, that’s what I’ve been developing, and that’s what the vision of pluralist commonwealth is all about. But you start at the local level, both at the workplace, community and other institutions and you reconstruct the egalitarian democratized structure as well as participatory structure. That is where the learning takes place. You learn to do it in one community and it may be possible to spread to another community if you have achieved anything of significance. And as this happens, we learn more how to move towards the vision that is much larger than just the community level. That’s the whole strategy of what we’re doing in the current phase of development. Beyond this, if the work is done well, further things may be possible.
  • That doesn’t mean there isn’t an absence of fear that bad dynamics are going to emerge. For instance, worker-owned co-ops, on their own, floating in the market, tend to replicate the behavior of worker-owned capitalists in some circumstances. They sometimes develop positive participatory schemes, sometimes not. But we know from the studies of worker-owned plywood companies in the US, they can tend to develop conservative attitudes, not socialist attitudes. So there’s a whole question about the role of worker-owned companies, and even though I’m an advocate of further democratization of the workplace, we also need to be building larger structures.
  • This is what’s happening, for instance, in cities like Cleveland: the notion is a community-wide ownership structure that encompasses partially independent worker-owned companies. And these businesses are partly supported by the purchasing power of non-profit institutions like universities and hospitals that depend on lots of public money, and this arrangement then begins to give stability to the whole geographic community, articulating a vision and politics that builds for the entire community. It’s a mixed model that is being tested.
  • My argument is that the planning model can be managed partly by economic participatory economic planning, partly by market, but critically, when you get to the point where you can do that kind of planning, the model becomes less and less significant because it’s constrained and encompassed in a larger framework. I think the question that most critics of your model, Michael, have raised is important: the notion of each person laying down what he or she plans to buy or needs against a production schedule, that is, what they’ll actually contribute, becomes an extremely difficult path to envision as realistic. Somebody pointed out recently in an article in Jacobin that if you look at just the kitchen goods for sale on Amazon, there are millions of items. Now that’s not the society we want, obviously, but it points to the magnitude of the issue: the planning problem becomes extremely difficult if you don’t use some forms of market to adjudicate purchases and production.
  • I think we need to move experimentally with planning and markets, as well as with community development forms that don’t include either one. I’m very interested in how we democratize and socialize, at different levels, the ownership of productive wealth. And then moving steadily from models we learned from up from community to region to nation, always following the principle of subsidiarity: keeping it as low as possible.


  • You mention that markets will corrupt a worker cooperative because it’ll create a context in which—and I agree with you—there’s a tremendous incentive to essentially, maximize, not just profits for owners, but surplus among that workforce. And so you begin to see the same kinds of behavior, say colluding, not cleaning up the environment, speed ups exploiting workers who are weaker, and so on and so forth. Okay, agreed. The solution you bring up is that we can have some community-wide participation that puts restraints upon the way those pressures and incentives play out. Well, I don’t disagree with that as part of an answer. That’s certainly plausible.
  • But another way you can try to proceed is by understanding that the problem is the impact of the market. Or understanding, that a corporate division that divides the work classes into two classes of labor, one above and one below, corrupts what you’re doing. If we understand these two sources of corruption or subversion of our aims, then we can talk about them, and we can build a movement where the people who are participating are aware that over the long haul, we have to solve the problem of the division of labor and the problem of allocation, because if we don’t, the old corporate and market structures will corrupt what we’re doing.
  • It’s certainly true that if you have millions of goods, and you ask, can Joe look at all those millions of goods, evaluate them, and ask how much of each he wants—that’s absurd. Joe can’t do it, and he’s also not remotely interested in doing it. But even now, of course, neither Joe nor you nor I evaluate all possible options, but we still find options that suit us. So in a participatory economy, the consumer and the producer basically have to indicate their desires for different categories of clothing or food or housing, or various kinds of luxury goods or enjoyable goods. That doesn’t mean you have to itemize down to the color or the size. Many things are statistically totally determinable once you have the overall inclinations of people.
  • In Venezuela right now, there are diverse experiments going on, trying to experiment locally with alternatives that move towards a more egalitarian society, in which wealth and power are democratized—they’re trying to do at least elements of what we’re talking about. And in these experiments, two things come up pretty often, not just as long-term issues, but as immediate short-term issues: the division of labor in the workplace, and the impact markets in corrupting possibilities.
  • So for instance, in the countryside they have consumer co-ops, that is to say, communities which are trying to find a way to determine their overall consumption and trying to share it among the various members of the commune in a fair way. And then nearby, there are producer communes that are producing, for instance, the agricultural goods that the neighbors are going to consume. So what they have begun to do is to negotiate allocation. Instead of having a market determine how this transaction between the people who are farming and the people who are eating in the countryside will occur, they meet together and negotiate cooperatively what they think is just and fair and right. That’s potentially a beginning for participatory planning.
  • You mentioned the case of workers in the factory that didn’t want to be the ones particularly running the show, so they would go out and hire a manager. I understand that. It’s a perfectly understandable dynamic and even predictable. What happened in Yugoslavia is instructive: they made a revolution, got rid of the capitalists, instituted market socialism, and initially had workplaces where everybody was treating everyone equally, everyone calling everybody comrade and so on. But over time, because of what you described earlier, the competitive pressure of markets, these Yugoslav workplaces have to cut costs, make alienated decisions, to pollute, and on and on. If they previously met together in councils and decided they wanted things like daycare, air-conditioning for everybody, and clean air in the workplace and wanted to clean up for the community and so on. Then, nonetheless, under the pressure of competition, they had to start going back on those decisions. And because most people didn’t want anything to do with going back on those decisions, and certainly didn’t want to be the ones to make such degrading choices, they went out and hired managers and got them from business schools from capitalist countries to a large extent.
  • This wasn’t a healthy process, and this is what we’re talking about when we talk about changing the division of labor in the workplace so that everyone’s doing their fair share of empowering and disempowering work. It doesn’t mean that management pe se disappears. It means that managing, and conceptualizing and organizing and doing agendas, and all sorts of various empowering tasks, as well as the rote tasks, are handled in a way which doesn’t elevate some people to dominating others.

On the ground: … //



  • I was in Argentina in a room with about 50 people that were there from different occupied factories and I’d been asked to come and speak. We started around the room and the first person who spoke described their situations and concerns, and by the time we got to the 7th person, and this really happened, a lot of people in the room were crying. This person spoke and put it very eloquently and said: I never thought I could possibly ever be saying anything like this—he, too, was tearing up. He said that we took over the workplace, the owners and the upper management were gone, because they didn’t want to be a part of a workplace that they thought was going to fail. And we took it over and made it work. But now he had to say, I’m afraid Margaret Thatcher was right, there is no alternative. This is why they were crying.
  • He said: we took it over, we were so excited, we made our wages equal. We instituted democracy. We had a workers’ council. We made our decisions democratically, and after a period of time, all the old crap came back. All the old alienation came back, and now it just feels the way it used to feel. And they were all saying it, person after person was saying it. I talked to a woman in one of those workplaces who had been working in a glass factory, in front of an open furnace all day long. Then they take over the factory and they go around the room and ask who wants to do the finances and keep the books, and nobody would do it, and she volunteered to do it. She’s just a worker, the same as everybody else in the place, she hasn’t gone to school or anything. I asked her “what was the hardest thing to learn?” She wouldn’t tell me. So I asked again and she didn’t want to tell me. “Was it to do the financial books?” No. “Was it to operate the computer?” No. “Was it to do accounting?” No. What was it? I was at a loss. She says “Well, first I had to learn to read.”
  • And four months later, she is doing the accounting and the bookkeeping for this glass firm which is now functioning at a surplus, whereas the capitalists have been running it into the ground and losing money. But the downside was that she, as the accountant, was becoming a member of a class of people in that factory, about 20%, who were highly empowered and who appeared far more pivotal to the functioning of the factory. And who, over time, were bringing back the old alienation, even though she was just a wonderful person.
  • So I tried to describe the idea of balanced job complexes. When they took over, and the manager who was doing the accounting left, somebody volunteered because not many people wanted to do it. And I said: well, pretty soon what happened is that you had one-fifth of your workforce doing work that’s really empowering, and after a while they’re governing, and after a while they’re paying themselves more because they think that they deserve more, and the rest of the people aren’t even at the meeting where this gets decided.
  • And they agreed with this; it helped them see that there was a reason for this: it wasn’t human nature. Thatcher wasn’t right. It wasn’t inevitable. They could’ve done things a little bit differently and could have had significantly better results. But one told me: we did a lot of that, and we still had problems. We were trying to reapportion tasks and so on, and it still went bad. So then we talked about the market and the pressure that it put on them to compete, and the way that pressure slowly but surely re-introduced the old division of labor. So my experience is somewhat different from yours: I find that it’s easy to talk to working people about, say, balanced job complexes—I have more trouble talking to perhaps half the young radicals nowadays, and much more trouble talking to left academics. With the latter, it’s almost impossible!


  • I don’t think there’s a difference in the value structure here. We may have some different experiences. I think there are some places where people will in fact pick up on those themes and try to develop rotations and accept the inefficiencies that they will experience in the short run. But all of this takes a lot of energy and a lot of time, and some people just don’t want to do it. In some places, people will. And I think the question of experience, given the stage of history of the real world, where we are really at, will help us understand how to what extent we can push these developments in different areas. I regard this as a question of testing the real world. Not whether or not these principles about planning and markets are correct in the abstract: these questions are testable, and we should test them wherever we can. But I am cautious about imposing or trying to impose a vision on people who don’t want to hear the vision. The critical thing is whether or not the communities in which we are engaged wish to do an experiment with and test the models that intellectuals, and radicals, the left, and theorists, and so on come in with. And the answer is, in many cases, no. And for reasons that are good reasons, for instance, in some places, they are frightened to death that it will blow up the current structure of work and they’ll lose their jobs. People will understand what you’re talking about, but they are going to find the solutions, the mix of principles and problems that works for them, in their situation. And that mix is by no means obvious: by no means is theory a reliable guide to the way this comes out in the real world. So for instance at Isthmus: they understand the dynamics of power and management, but they don’t want to share those responsibilities: for them, the solution is to recognize that those are positions that nobody wants to do, and you hire someone to do them that you can control democratically or even fire, if you don’t like what they are doing. The values you’re talking about, I don’t disagree with at all. What we’re talking about is where we are in this stage of history with specific communities, all with different skills, levels of support, income, and training and all ultimately exposed to the markets whether they like it or not. This is the reality where we need to move and advance these different ideas. And to do so effectively, it seems to me to be a matter of testing as we go, on the one hand—and projecting a larger possible longer-term vision, on the other. I suspect that to the degree we actually keep testing and developing in the real world, there is likely to be convergence on several levels between many of the Parecon and the Pluralist Commonwealth models.

(full long, long text).


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Links in german:

Der Traum vom Reiten: Sport mit Verantwortung, nicht nur für Mädchen, auf Kanne, 4.März 2014: Beim Thema Pferde und Reiten gerät fast jedes Mädchen ins Schwärmen. Tatsächlich gibt es keinen anderen Sport, der den kindlichen Bewegungsdrang so spielerisch mit dem Übernehmen von Verantwortung vereint. Valentina Kurscheid hat Tipps für Reit-Einsteiger;

Die Pferdeflüsterin:

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