Michael Albert - NLP

NLP talks to Michael Albert, co-founder of Z Magazine, ZNet and South End Press, about complementary holism, Participatory Economics and an alternative to capitalism.

1. Could you outline for us what the theory of complementary holism, is?

Very briefly, it is a way of organizing one’s thoughts, you might say, when considering matters of history and society. It says that in any society the domains or areas we might reasonably label economy (production, consumption, and allocation), polity (legislation, adjudication, and implementation of shared programs), kinship (procreation,nurtuance, socialization, and household life), and culture/community (religion, ethnicity, race, and community identification generally) are each and all centrally important. Each defines rules people can fill, including often causing people to have different circumstances and interests, which are sometimes at odds, and including that each emanates influences such as those of class, power, gender, and race, among others, that impact all social relations and all people’s lives dramatically.

To understand a society, then, this viewpoint claims we need to understand these aspects or spheres of life, including how they limit human options and permit or enforce other outcomes, and how they impact and define or are defined by one another, as well.
There is more, but that is a nutshell picture of it.

2. How did you and Robin Hahnel develop the theory? What were its roots?

We were very active in the New Left of the 1960s and this perspective, a better name than theory I think, is really a kind of codification into concepts and approaches of many insights gained in that period.

3. What impact do you think complementary holism has had? How have Marxists, feminist, anti-racist and anarchist thinkers and activists responded to the theory if at all?

Honestly, I don’t know. Many of the insights of the approach have become commonplace, at least in considerable degree. Others are still resisted, at least by some folks. To what extent either of these results is due to the actual words set down describing the viewpoint as we offered it, as compared to being a product of changing times and lots of other people’s related efforts, I have no idea.

4. Are the four spheres detailed in the theory fixed? Might different spheres pertain in different times or societies?

I think these four are present because of our basic natures and the basic requisites of social life. Thus, imagine there were not two sexes, only one, and that children were born adult and therefore with no need for nurturance, etc. You can imagine, in that case, that there would be no such thing as kinship, or nothing like what we now know, anyhow. The same holds for other spheres – imagine that everything anyone might want could be had just by thinking the thought – or that there was only one race, and so on – but, we don’t live in those universes – and in this universe that we inhabit having to accomplish economic, kin, political, and cultural functions has always been and likely always will be part of what it means to be a society – and doing so can generate, and has up until now generated, defining differences among people central to what is possible in life.

Could there be some other sphere of life that attained a similar level of importance in some society. Probably, yes, sure, why not? But I think it would be a result of historical, contextual, situations – as compared to these four which are always, in all societies, centrally important. And the point is, because they are always there – we can know that when thinking about society and history we should always have a toolbox of concepts at our disposal and that we are familiar with, which highlights these spheres including their social relations, their ways of interacting, their implications for different sectors of people, and so on.

5. Can you briefly outline the model of participatory economics? How does it relate to complementary holism?

Parecon is a vision for a better classless economy. It is based on certain institutions that it claims are central to attaining classlessness. It highlights equity, diversity, solidarity, and self management as guiding values. It celebrates workers and consumers self managed councils, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onersousness of social valued labor, what is called balanced job complexes that give everyone a fair share of empowering work, and also a feature called participatory planning, which accomplishes allocation by a kind of cooperative negotiation of workers and consumers councils – and not by markets or central planning.

I think parecon is an economic vision consistent with the conceptual approach you ask about. It is vision for the economy. Parsoc, or participatory society, is a developing vision for all four spheres, not just the economy but including the economy, again consistent with that approach.

6. You and Robin Hahnel describe Marxism as a form of “monism”. What do you mean by that?

Well, monism is a somewhat obscure term that was in wider use back when we used it too, which is now a long time ago. The idea was that a conceptual approach could be narrow in choosing just one single priority angle of assessment and analysis – such as just kinship and gender, or just culture and race, or just politics and authority, or just economics and class – among other possibilities. A monist perspective, then, would elevate one angle of analysis to highest priority, above all others, and would pursue any others, if at all, only insofar as they had effects on the priority one.

Calling marxism monist meant that in most of its practitioners hands, and certainly in most organizations that saw themselves as marxist, economics and class were elevated to highest priority, and beyond that, if there was attention given to matters of kinship and gender, polity, and culture and community – which there often was – it would take the form of trying to see the impact of class on these other domains, and the impact of these other domains, in turn, on class. The problem wasn’t that trying to understand that much was itself a bad thing to do, but that it was done alone. There was a tendency arising from “monist” concepts and methods of looking at and thinking about the world around us, to overlook centrally important aspects of life and society in realms other than the one we would monistically elevate – in their own dynamics and implications.

A particularly destructive additional factor is that in modern societies people carry lots of baggage preventing or obstructing attention to particular domains other than that which most occupies them. So, a white or male or white male marxist might key closely on economic mattes but would not only have a conceptual tool box that didn’t emphasize the intrinsic issues of gender and race and power, but also a personal background and daily conditions that even militated against doing so. And this wasn’t just a problem for marxism, by any means. So a white or ruling class woman who was monistically feminist or a male or ruling class black person who was monistically nationalist or anti racist – or, and you get the idea – would also focus on the area their life experience most oriented them to, but miss critical features of and connections to other areas, in those cases including economics.

In this sense the perspective we were offering, and still advocate, was designed to ward off these problems by equipping each leftist with a conceptual toolbox and an approach to society and history that would virtually compel them, even against personal biases, to pay attention to all critically important sides of life in their own right, as well as in their mutual and collective interactions.

7. A common critique of providing detailed economic vision is that it is too restrictive and that many problems can only be worked out in real concrete situations rather than in a pre-revolutionary period. What is your view?

I think this is a different issue, one that a person might say about economic vision, or about kinship vision, or cultural vision, or political vision. And yes, in each case one can certainly go too far. One can exceed, for example, what we can sensibly have any opinion on, given our sometimes lack of relevant experience. Or one can also exceed what we have any right or reason to assert – because most features of a better future need to be decided, and will be decided, not by us specifying them in a vision, but by future citizens choosing them as future policies. Fair enough. I agree.

But – future citizens need to be in position to make those decisions, and need to have circumstances that are at the very least consistent with them doing so and able to provide them the information and personal wherewithal to do so. And this defines our visionary task. So we can very sensibly and relevantly ask, what are the minimum set of features we can intelligently conceive and elaborate now, given our current knowledge and experience, that will be essential for future people to fill out the choices that will enhance future lives? What, also, are the minimum set of features we can intelligently conceive and elaborate now, that can move us from being only negative about our surroundings to having a positive agenda about our desires, and that can in turn provide hope and spur desire while overcoming cynicism, and that can orient our program so it is likely to get us where we desire to wind up, rather than taking us in circles or to a destination we would actually rather not endure?

I agree that we should not urge or advocate or seek, too detailed a vision, but for me “too detailed” doesn’t rule out everything. So, as one example, regarding the economy, if future people are going to self manage a future economy, making all kinds of decisions about organization, outputs, and so on, certain attributes will need to be in place. And those are precisely the attributes that participatory economics believes it is advocating, and no more than those. I think that is a very reasonable and essential way to do vision, more, I think it is necessary if we are to go forward, and not just for economics, but for the other domains as well.  

8. Parecon is often criticised as being out of tune with human nature which is often alleged to be too selfish to allow for the success of alternative economic systems. How do you respond to that criticism?

Honestly, it depends on my mood. Sometimes it is sincere, even if incredibly pessimistic. Sometimes it is just a way of saying no to change without acknowledging one’s real reason, not wanting to lose one’s advantages, not wanting the poor and weak to advance.

Still, when I do answer I tend to try a few approaches. For example, I try to demonstrate that there are good reasons to think much more hopefully about intrinsic human nature – thus, where does any good come from, if we are all bad? Why don’t the powerful take everything, why don’t adults encountering kids brush them aside and take their belongings? Indeed, why would we see something that is innate, as being bad, why would we see an powerful person simply taking the clothes off the back of a weak person, as bad, or more likely pathological?

Similarly, where does a good person come from? Someone caring, empathetic, even self sacrificing, and so on? If a drive to aggrandize oneself at all costs, to trample and lie and cheat and so on and so forth is innate – then surely people operating not only with those innate attributes at their core but also in institutional settings that reward that behavior and punish more equitable and caring inclinations, would all be veritable Hannibal Lectors. So, okay, how come there are nice guys and gals?

Then, after a bunch of the above – if the person is still clinging tenaciously to the view that people suck – I might try asking if he typically assumes he himself sucks, his kids suck, his parents suck, and so on. If that fails, there is another, I think irrefutable approach.

Okay, suppose, against what I think is very good reason to think otherwise, humans are heavily predisposed or even overtly driven to be “evil” and “anti social” and so on. Even in that case, in fact, arguably especially in that case, why would we want institutions which will propel these trends even further? Wouldn’t we want, instead, settings for people to inhabit that push against these inclinations? And so on.

9. How has parecon been received by the broader left and by left media?

The easy answer is not at all. That is, parecon still hasn’t reached the broader left, largely due to its being overwhelmingly ignored by left media – and of course by mainstream media. This was far more true say five years ago and from there all the way back to the origin of parecon about twenty years ago. Of late there has been some progress. But the progress hasn’t been due to left media taking great interest – that still hasn’t happened. Instead it is more due to advocates pushing very hard, reaching out, talking, writing in the few places that will run content, etc. Word of mouth and those limited repeated efforts induce steadily more people to be interested, inquire, etc.

As to why prominent left media is so standoffish about actually giving space to taking about parecon, well, different people will have different answers to why that is the case. It is without any doubt true, however, that still, articles, book reviews, etc., are routinely submitted and nearly immediately rejected. And there is no drive within prominent left media to pursue the topic by soliciting articles on parecon or related matters, doing interviews, sponsoring debates, etc. I am interviewed, for example, all the time, often, by folks from around the world, but almost never by anyone from prominent left media. The contrast is really striking. Even the Reimagining Society project has been ignored by prominent left media – which is pretty incredible, when you think about it.

So why does this happen? Well, there are various plausible explanations one could consider, though each also has some rather obvious problems. For example, it takes a long time before people react well to new ideas or even hear about them. It takes a long time before media will risk exploring new ideas – whether not wanting to give the space, or not wanting to get caught up in a fruitless pursuit, or not wanting to elevate into visibility disliked views.

About that last reason – one might wonder, that’s logical, but why would prominent left media dislike the views in parecon?

Well, for example, why did men dislike and seek to ignore and silence and otherwise keep off the agenda – forty years ago and to a degree even now, too – feminist views?

By analogy, is there something in parecon, regarding economic structures and class relations, that might, of parecon gains wide support, disrupt the familiar daily choices and even advantages of those who make decisions about what will and won’t run in prominent left media? Clearly, the answer is yes – assuming, that is, that those people are not yet ready and even eager for those institutions to incorporate a classless organization and approach. So perhaps that is part of the reason for their avoiding the topics.



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