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October 2004   

Interview: The Last Bastian
AMWU state secretary Paul Bastian has been at the centre of the three year battle to bring James Hardie to account.

Unions: High and Dry
Jim Marr unpacks the recent High Court Electrolux decision to test whether the ruling matches the media hype.

Security: Liquid Borders
The Howard Government loves to trumpet its national security credentials but a close look at its record in shipping sinks the myth argues MUA’s Zoe Reynolds.

Industrial: No Bully For You
Phil Doyle reports on how bringing dignity and respect to the workplace is undermining bullies.

History: Radical Brisbane
Radical Brisbane extends the 'Radical City' series into the Red North. Two experienced activists, academics and writers turn South East Queensland history on its head.

International: No Vacancies
More than 1400 hotel union workers, members of UNITE HERE Local 2, are on strike at four major hotels in San Francisco, California, writes Andrew Casey.

Economics: Life After Capitalism
A situation that all anarchists dream of? Michael Albert has been more than dreaming., writes Neale Towart

Technology: Cyber Winners
Labourstart's Eric Lee looks at a good news story of global online campaigning that has delivered a victory.

Poetry: Do It Yourself Poetry
Teaser: Wondering why the polls are all over the place? Ask our resident bard and psephologist.

Review: Hard Labo(u)r
The Voice of Southern Labor highlights the role music played in the 1930's US textile strikes, but more than that it provides a lucid insight into the roots of modern capitalism and some truly organic organising, writes Tara de Boehmler.


True Lies
Labor Council secretary John Robertson argues It’s Time – for an IR reality check.

The Westie Wing
Much work has been done in the past to ease the plight of clothing outworkers in New South Wales. It's time to step up the pressure, as sweatshops and clothing contract work are thriving stronger than ever, writes Ian West.

The Soapbox
Who Started the Class War?
Evan Jones looks across the Australian political landscape and asks who are the real class warriors?

The Locker Room
First Past The Post
Phil Doyle is coming up in class and is all the better for recent racing

Westie Wing
Our favourite state MP returns for his monthly Macquarie Street wrap.

Positive Action
Australian unionists are helping give hope to Filipino workers living with HIV/AIDS.


The Premiership Quarter
After spending the past month with a decidedly sinking feeling, there’s a whiff of hope and expectation that the Howard era could actually be coming to an end.


 Kev Cooks the Books

 Black Hole In Libs Kids Plan

 Xerox Copies Waterfront Tactics

 Hardies Asbestos Woes "Snowballs"

 Air Fleet Grounded By Job Cuts

 Musos Lung For Better

 Customs Officers Declare

 Dumbing Down The Trades

 Pacific National Sidetracks Hunter Jobs

 Witch Hunt For Whistleblower

 Black Diamond Deaths Spark Mining Inquiry

 Pensioners Strip Over Pension Strip

 Activists What's On!

 Donkey Vote
 Problem Solved
 How To Run Society
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Life After Capitalism

A situation that all anarchists dream of? Michael Albert has been more than dreaming., writes Neale Towart


He has looked at the working of some institutions, workplaces, peoples to develop the idea of participatory economics. On Z-Net the website that he helps run, on a participatory basis, you and I can join in discussion of Parecon, do courses on economics and participation, and read debates between himself and others who seek an alternative, one of the most interesting being between himself and Alex Callinicos, a respected Marxist economist and activist.

For union members, the key statements of Parecon on opening the website is "The underlying values parecon seeks to implement are equity, solidarity, diversity, and participatory self management."

Workers Control was very much "in vogue" as an ideal during what now seem the far off days of confidence on the left during the 60s and 70s. A friend has a cigarette packet from the Gaulloise factory in France, produced in a red rather than blue packet, following the factory occupation when the workers ran the factory and produced the cancer sticks. The recent article in WO on Nymboida was another example. Argentinians have taken up the mantle now, following economic collapse and the firing of workers. They didn't go quietly but took control of their fate and their workplaces (see

Daniel Morduchowicz on "The Take", a film by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein

Albert places workers control and direct participation in production, distribution and consumption decisions at the centre of the participatory economic approach.

He also takes on the much misused notion of globalisation. George Monbiot has rightly said that those who oppose corporate globalisation have to reclaim words, and the term internationalist is more representative of what "anti-globalisers" are about. As Albert puts it, activists "favor sympathetic and mutually beneficial ties to advance equity, solidarity, diversity.... Globalize equity not poverty. Globalize solidarity not greed. Globalize diversity not conformity. Globalize democracy not subordination. Globalize sustainability not rapaciousness.".

Albert begins at the beginning, with "What is an economy?", and then moves on to economic values and judging economies.

He then goes on to outline, in six chapters, a vision for a participatory economics, including issues of ownership, councils, remuneration, allocation of goods and services. A chapter defending the vision against critiques and an evaluation round out this section. Part three looks at the possibilities for daily life in work, consumption and play. Part IV is a more sustained addressing of criticisms of the ideas he has developed over the years.

So what is an economy? A place where with sensible production, products are used. We don't make too many or not enough of an item. We clearly don't have sensible production when we have so many armaments, unused mountains of food, empty office buildings, huge inventories of cars. We need, therefore, sensible allocation of resources and the products of those resources. So production, allocation and consumption define "an economy".

Albert's argument starts from here. That production process is owned by the few, the systems of allocation are owned by the few, the powers of persuasion about consumption are owned by the few, and the many are seen as consumption units to be pushed and prodded to use the small resources they "earn" into spending to benefit the few. The key is that the many are the producers, not the few who pull the strings. The institutional settings, at political and legal levels are the structural backing for this. Participatory economics has as its central institutional and organizational components:

- Social rather than private ownership

- Nested worker and consumer councils and balanced job complexes rather than corporate workplace organization

- Remuneration for effort and sacrifice rather than for property, power, or output

- Participatory planning rather than markets or central planning

- Participatory self-management rather than class rule

Albert is not about doctrinaire slogans or pseudo-Marxism, and is a strong voice against central planning, Stalinist rhetoric and sectarian divisions on the left and his emphasis on participation, not on class lines in his vision for a good society highlight this.

As he puts it, "no one should have a disproportionate say due to having a different relationship to owning the means of production than anyone else".

The councils Albert frames are worker and consumer councils. Workers should be able to consider what they can contribute to the social product. The Lucas Aerospace example (see Mike Cooley's "Architect or Bee") was an attempt to do this. Consumers ought to consider what they would like from the social product, as individuals, neighbours, families or whatever social grouping they are participants in. The adverse effects of activities should also be considered. Albert sets out what local structures workers and consumers may organise. The familiar European system of Works Councils appears in a new guise here, but decision-making systems would be more based on consensus, not one worker one value majority rule and weighting of different kinds of work. Consumer councils may be based on a size such as a city ward, block or precinct.

What doe she mean by consensus? A respect for all parties and the use of diverse methods of information preparation, dissemination and discussion. This would affect neighbourhood planning, hiring of new workers in job complexes, the decision to produce a particular product or plan a new road, railway, solar power plant, child care centre or whatever.

What are job complexes? Whilst we can say everyone can have a say via work councils, how can the organisation of the actual work and the impact "their work experience has on their capacity to participate." He suggests that if you spend a lot of work time in some disempowering task, then for some time you should work at a more pleasant or empowering job (personally I don't like the word empowering!).

Remuneration based on effort would be a dramatic alteration to the norm as well. This must link with the reorganization of work implied by work complexes too. The reorganization of work for socially useful production, with all workers having a say in organization and production, distribution decisions, would profoundly alter the balances of power in corporate workplaces so that effort expended would be in a different ways and remuneration would be more based on social and individual need.

Allocation would be based on communicative tools ie price (a social opportunity cost of doing a particular thing would be shown by this); measures of work (based on the way work complexes plan work and organize it in a participatory way), qualitative activity (participants would be able to access lists of all direct and indirect factors that go into producing goods, so those producing and consuming will communicate with the planning process of the qualitative human effect of the production). Planning of all this would be participatory at each level, and information could be updated regularly.

A strength of Albert's book is that he gives plausible scenarios of these things working, so we can more easily imagine how this seemingly complicated and slow process would operate. Information provision being a key issue, he provides an explanation of information that is useful and how it can be used effectively. Part IV of the book provides a more detailed look at and examination of criticism of these approaches. He makes a preliminary case, and then has chapters of scenarios and also of examples of work places/complexes that attempt to apply the approaches. South End Press as an alternative to mainstream publishing houses provides a great "case study" of "working" (chapter 11) through its metamorphosis into Northstart Press.

Opposition to "socialism" often drag out the notion of sameness as the outcome of attempts to achieve greater equality, as they decide that equality does equal sameness. Albert takes on this opposition, arguing about meritocracy, creativity and quality. We don't need capitalist competition to generate innovation, we just need people to be economically and socially able to express their creativity, something that capitalism does not like the factory hands to do.

Albert in a sense is redesigning existing institutions away from systems that support, acquisitiveness, greed and inequality, into ones that promote, develop and create equality, decency and humanity. We could call participatory economics a synthesis of the red and green, as Albert uses his anarchist bent to frame a good society. Anarchism attempts to move from class based analysis to a hierarchy free system.

Frank Stilwell is another left wing thinker who has for many years attempted to reframe political-economic institutions into a more equitable society. His many books are not just critiques but are looking to a better future. Frank has continued this in a recent article for Australian Options magazine on What Future for the Left - towards a red-green politics explores possible ways forward. A fusion of socialist ideas of a more democratic polity and egalitarian society with green ideals of consensus-seeking and environmental issues is a way to a new politics. As Frank says, the exemplary figure in Australia, who has been advocating this for many years and who, along with the members of the NSW Builders' Labourers' Federation (BLF), implemented these ideas, is Jack Mundey. The Green Bans united workers, neighbourhoods, students and other "communities".

Frank Stilwell himself has articulated these visions ,most clearly in his Changing Track (Pluto Press) with socialism seen as having five clear in-principle appeals:

- Equity - establishing a classless society

- Rationality - the use of economic resources more systematically to serve social goals

- Democracy - extending periodic elections into our daily lives as workers, citizens, students, consumers

- Solidarity - recognizing common interests and the nee dfor processes of mutual support and cooperation

- Harmony - living in balance with the environment, linking socialist and ecological concerns

I don't see parecon as disagreeing with this approach, except crucially that Michael Albert would see that parecon as not having the division between socialism and the environment.

Both authors have written admirably and often on the need to think and articulate a better future, and as we face our limited democratic choices, we can imagine and shape a more equitable society.

Michael Albert. Parecon: Life After Capitalism. London and New York: Verso, 2004


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