13 September 2006 **** Front Page

Imagining the future

By Tapani Lausti

Michael Albert, Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism. Zed Books 2006.

A short piece in a Finnish magazine recently dismissed Noam Chomsky's pamphlet Government in the Future (which has now been published in Finnish) as a lot of noise without any idea of a plausible alternative to capitalism. The disdainful tone is typical of comfortably living journalists who love to sneer at anything they see as radical dissent. They react with incomprehension to the kind of sentiments echoed in Chomsky's statement that "the problem of how to organize industrial society on truly democratic lines, with democratic control in the workplace as well as in the community, should become the dominant intellectual issue for those who are alive to the problems of contemporary society". (Government in the Future, Seven Stories Press 2005, p. 30)

As far as alternatives are concerned, these journalists are completely unaware of work which explores alternatives. One of the thinkers who have inspired debate is the American Michael Albert who has written several books about a democratic way to organise modern industrial society. Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism is the latest. There is now a wide-ranging international debate going on about what Albert calls "parecon" — participatory economics. (See Parecon web site and International Project for a Participatory Society.)

Albert's idea of trying to describe the outlines of a future society seems to go against a long-standing leftist tradition which is hostile to such attempts because — as the argument goes — only a living social movement can experiment in creating a libertarian society. Albert is thoroughly aware of this tradition and addresses it head-on. He denies that he is offering a blue print of future society: "In future economies, people will do what they want to do. But avoiding over-reaching into excessive detail should not prevent our addressing main features that can help inform and motivate efforts to move forward." (p. 132)

On a personal note, I am currently writing a new book (in Finnish) in which I aim to explore alternative social visions starting with William Morris's News from Nowhere and ending with Albert's thoughts. I was pleased, then, to read in Realizing Hope that Albert seeks "to extend the insights of William Morris, the noted nineteenth century artist and wordsmith, who noted that in a better future we would not be able to have the same division of labor as now". (p. 12)

Albert's book can have the same effect as Morris's. Nothing in either book should be taken as the final word on any future aspect of social living. Instead, the texts should be used as a source of inspiration for individual imagination and collective argument. Morris's fictional utopia was read enthusiastically by members of the British working class. Morris's biographer Fiona MacCarthy writes: "Harold Laski, visiting Nothumberland miners in the Great Slump of the 1930s, found copies of A Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere 'in house after house', even when most of the furniture had been sold." (William Morris: A Life for Our Time. Faber and Faber 1994, p. 548).

Albert's book is a drier reading experience than Morris's fascinating and dreamy story. Yet, the urgency of dismantling the power structures of today's destructive global system compels all dreamers of a better future to try and introduce into their social movements elements of future society. This alone, in my view, makes Albert's contribution so important.

The author sums up parecon as follows: 1) Democratic workplace and consumer councils for equitable participation; 2) Diverse decision-making procedures seeking proportionate say for those affected by decisions; 3) Balanced job complexes creating just distribution of empowering and disempowering circumstances; 4) Renumeration for effort and sacrifice in accord with admirable moral and efficient incentive logic; 5) Participatory planning, in tune with economics serving human well-being and development. (p. 64) I hasten to add that the details are more exciting than this dry list might suggest.

Realizing Hope explores in a thoughtful way most aspects of everyday life from gender relations and community building to international politics and environmental problems. Members of many professions will find their field of work analised, including scientists, artists, journalists and athletes. For example, in parecon, journalism would be free of the harmful pressure of today's power elites: "The difference in a parecon isn't that conflict disappears, or subjectivity, for that matter, far from it, but that their roots are in honestly different perceptions and values, not in structural biases imposed by massive centers of power and wealth." (p. 112)


Visit the archive: Michael Albert, Society and social thinking


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