The Story of Michael Albert
and Participatory Economics
Written by Sean Michael Wilson
Drawn by Carl Thompson
Seven Stories Press 2106
Nice to know that with the floundering and dumbing down of the Big Two that there is still magic to be had in other parts of the comics world, especially in my favorite genre of ‘graphic literature,’ like PARECOMIC: The Story of Michael Albert and Participatory Economics by Seven Stories Press.
PARECOMIC is basically a ‘Michael Albert For Beginners’ graphic novel and the one quibble with an otherwise fascinating read is the title, which is a play on Albert’s term ‘parecon’, which itself is a little confusing and short for ‘participatory economics,’ which we don’t really get to until parts 4 and 5, though the lead up to it is, if not necessary, helpful, giving us a Albert’s biography, who I’ve now learned is, and has been for decades, a strong critic of capitalism.
If, like me, you didn’t know who Albert was, or is, but are interested in critiques of capitalism (and, look around, shouldn’t everybody be?) PARECOMIC is the best starting point I can recommend, starting from about his college days in the 60s, when all kinds of political upheavals were happening, including the civil and women’s rights movements, but most importantly to Albert, the Vietnam War, and the protests against it, which showed to protesters one, that the US government was blatantly lying about its motivations there, all of which showed that change was possible.
The story is ‘told’ in the first person, by Albert, with drawings (by Carl Thompson) sometimes depicting him in the situations he describes, but other times showing Albert on a more personal level, just sitting and talking directly to us, in informal language, as if in conversation with us. Writer Sean Michael Wilson in this sense is choosing how Albert’s ‘story’ unfolds, though there is one section written in a more fantastical style, with anonymous everyday people engaging with Karl Marx in a critique of Marxism.
All of which demonstrates the power of comics in their accessibility. You could read some of Albert’s many books or essays, or even check out the ZNet online community, which he helped found, but if you didn’t know who he was ahead of time (as I didn’t) you wouldn’t even know how, since his writings are all (surprise!) published outside of the mainstream publishing world.
Because, of course, what Albert is espousing is an alternative to capitalism. Fear not though, because neither is he a virulent Marxist—he has plenty to critique there too—nor an anarchist, though he has read and learned much about, and from, these -isms throughout his life, as well as economics in general which, I’m happy to report, he concludes is mostly a lot of hokum.
And though he shies away from the term socialism, his ‘participatory economics’ is mostly about worker control of business, with an added critique of what he calls “Coordinatorism,” based on an idea by Barbara Ehrenreich (of later Nickle and Dimed fame) that in addition to the workers and the owners, there is a middle group (not the middle class, necessarily, though related) of ‘coordinators,’ like middle management, managers, but including engineers, lawyers, doctors (and I’d even put in techies here) who, even though they’re technically workers as well, and earning a wage in exchange for their capital to the rich, because they’re in supervisory positions, and/or in positions of prestige and esteem, they end up having power over their fellow workers. Like, say, the Editor-in-Chief of a comics company, even though the writers and artists do the hands-on work.
Albert’s big critique of Marxism (and Leninism, or Marxism-Leninism) is that these coordinators are the ones who end up assuming control (like with ‘central committees’) even if the workers in theory are also the owners. No surprise that these coordinators end up being as bad as the former owners, or as The Who put it, “Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.”
Note too that the coordinators don’t even need a revolution necessarily, they hold a good amount of power even in the current capitalist system. i.e. they might not even want change.
The key, according to participatory economics, is that workers should all share varied responsibilities, from management to production line, at the same time, and that people should be paid based on “duration, intensity, and onerousness” (176) And if that sounds pie-in-the-sky-ish, well, Albert and a group of other liberal radicals founded and ran an independent publishing company, South End Press, based on those principles, with fair success.
So is a participatory economy just socialism? Depends on what you think socialism is. Here’s Albert:
For most people, “socialism” is primarily an economic label that leaves culture, kinship, and politics to reflect economic dictates. A state operates above the the populace and “owns” the economy in which about 20% of the workforce does empowering work and 80% obeys dictates from above.
In this sense of the word “socialism,” [parecon] is antisocialist because [it] specifically seeks explicit cultural, kin, and political, as well as economic transformations, and because it rejects class division and political domination.
For some people, however, “socialism” means a society in which all citizens control their won lives, enjoy a fair share of social benefits, carry a fair share of social responsibilities, and operate without hierarchies of wealth, power, and status conveying advantages to some and debits to other.
In this second sense, [parecon] is socialist because [it] seeks institutions that really deliver all these benefits and more.
Since my definition of socialism goes with that in the third paragraph of the quote, I wouldn’t have a problem with calling ‘parecon’ socialism (and I still don’t like the term parecon, or some of the others Albert has invented—too confusing for people who aren’t already in the know) but, as Albert points out, not everyone agrees with that definition of socialism, and it’s very easy for any kind of socialism to devolved into a few having power over the many.
But, I also don’t understand how anyone could disagree with that third paragraph, I’m naïve that way, unless they really just had to admit to themselves they were holding out for the potential that they could become rich and powerful someday, somehow, at the exploitation of others. But, if after my measly explanation of Michael Albert’s ideas you still have questions and concerns, Wilson and Thompson provide, in Part Five, a series of “imagined conversations” between Albert and other, both sympathetic and opposed, including Barbara Ehrenreich and Noam Chomsky, based in part on real interviews and articles. It’s again an example of the graphic novel to condense info into an accessible but still relevant text.
Order PARECON:The Story of Michael Albert
and Participatory Economics direct from Seven Stories Press:
Parecomic: Michael Albert and the Story of Participatory Economics
For more info:
Check out ZNet, founded by Michael Albert, and the largest online community devoted to alternatives to capitalism: zcomm.org
Also, The International Organization for a Participatory Society (I.O.P.S.):