Michael Albert is visiting England next week to promote IOPS (International Organisation for a Participatory Society). John Keeley asked him some questions.
John Keeley - Michael, you are coming to England to speak at the Anarchist Bookfair to promote IOPS, what is the key message you want to get across?
I am speaking three times at the bookfair, I believe, once on Anarchist economics, once on a three book set called Fanfare for the Future, and once about IOPS. For that matter, the trip is also taking me to Norway, Sweden, Belgium, France, Germany, and Denmark for broadly similar talks.
For the anarchist economics panel, my focus will be that to be anarchist economics ought to understand existing economic relations and their implications but with special emphasis on the structures that impose restrictions on people controlling their own lives, including, in particular, markets and corporate divisions of labor – not simply private ownership.
The Fanfare talk, I suppose, is to introduce the books, so I will focus on trying to explain their motivation and broadly what they encompass, including how they try to provide the tools needed for full and effective participation in analyzing current relations, envisioning and advocating goals, and developing organization and program for reaching those goals. I will also try to summarize a cross section of the insights in the books.
The third talk, the IOPS presentation, is where I will try to make a case that IOPS visionary, strategic, and organizational commitments are, or at least in my view ought to be, highly congenial to anarchists. I will discuss the features that I think justify that claim. There will also be time, and I look forward to answering questions that raise people’s concerns about IOPS.
John Keeley - What makes IOPS different from other revolutionary organisations?
For one thing, a large set of such organizations are Leninist, or, even if not calling themselves Leninist, are organized in a fashion that more or less mimics typical power structures in society – including incorporating hierarchies of influence rooted in racial, gender, political, or economic residues from past oppressive relations. IOPS, instead, elevates the ideas of not only solidarity and mutual aid, but also, and perhaps most critically self management and diversity.
The emphasis on self management is about each participant having a say in decisions broadly in proportion as they are affected by them. This is of course anarchistic in the best sense, and wildly different from the way most organizations operate.
The emphasis on diversity includes welcoming internal dissent and preserving contending viewpoints and providing space for their being respected and developed. These commitments are not only quite contrary to what is typically found in Leninist revolutionary organizations, and, but many others, as well.
The emphasis on self management and diversity not only explain the IOPS structure of local chapters, national branches, and an international federation, which is far from distinguishing, but, more important and more distinctive, they also explain the IOPS emphasis on supporting and respecting internal dissent and contending viewpoints, using self managing decision making procedures, and facilitating the involvement of all members in organizational activity – with high consciousness and confidence.
Another main difference with most other revolutionary organizations is that IOPS not only elevates race, gender, political, economic, ecological, and international issues all to prominence, without a priori claiming or urging that any one is prior to or more critical than the rest, IOPS also emphasizes having broad vision for each, having program for each, etc. Indeed the underlying conceptual commitments of IOPS are designed to cause its members to become aware not only of the concerns that arise most directly from their own personal experiences, be those about gender, race, class, or power – but also the concerns that are more distant from their own personal experiences, for example the three that they don’t feel so acutely, but nonetheless equally central to social change.
John Keeley - Perhaps the key difference between your position & Marxism is the role you ascribe to a third class, the coordinator class, can you explain more?
The marxist approach to class typically says that classes arise from and reflect ownership relations and then, in light of that, goes on to emphasize two classes because those two are deemed most centrally important to understanding the world in order to win classlessness. The two emphasized classes are, of course, capitalists and workers. Of course these two classes do both exist and are both critical. No argument there.
But the approach that I favor doesn’t stop at that realization. Instead, it says that while ownership relations can indeed produce class differences, other structures in the economy can do so as well. Then in answering the question what classes are most critical to highlight on the road to winning classlessness, this approach says there are three, not two: owners, the coordinator class, and workers.
The coordinator class, located between labor and capital and typically about 20% of all economic actors, gains its position, according to this approach, due to having a relative monopoly on empowering tasks and situations in day to day economic activity. The claim is that this group’s empowered circumstances, which stems from their position in the division of labor as managers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, accountants, and so on, gives them a different set of class motives and different consciousness then owners above or workers below. This, in turn, has important implications inside capitalism to how it works. Even more important, it has critical implications for projects seeking to get beyond capitalism because beyond capitalism there is not only a desirable classless economy, but there is also an economy that elevates the coordinator class to ruling status while workers remain below. That is, we have to not only fight against capitalism, we also have to fight for classlessness, which means for the specific institutions that guarantee classlessness, lest we wind up, as has historically repeatedly happened, with what we don’t want, a new boss in place of the old boss.
John Keeley – You are well known for promoting participatory economics, would this require a form of direct democracy?
I think the phrase “direct democracy” is rather vague, or at least to me it is. If in the economy, it means people should participate in determining economic outcomes, and should do so with a say proportionate to effects on them – which I like to call self management – then yes, participatory economics, or parecon, is conceived to deliver that. But if “direct democracy” means everyone passes direct judgement on, say, all the work that gets done in some plant, on which person there does it, and so on, then, no, of course not. Not only is that level of comprehensive involvement in everything that happens in a large economy impossible, it also isn’t needed or warranted, either morally or economically. I didn’t get a direct say in your choice of socks this morning, nor should I have. So we have already established that decisions are taken by different groups, based on their involvement – not with everyone having a direct say. At the talks you are asking about, there will be time limits, but no one will intervene to tell me I have to use a stop watch, or a portable phone, or anything else as my way of keeping myself to the time.
But let’s take another more subtle and I also think, in real practical experience, far more important point. Suppose 100 of us work in some plant. Perhaps the owners give up and leave (as happened in hundreds of plants in Argentina some years ago) or perhaps we throw the owners out, or perhaps we create a new workplace, from scratch. In any case, owners are gone. So we opt for what we call “direct democracy.” We set up a workers council and it is our forum for deliberation and decision making. Having understood the point raised earlier, we don’t say that the whole group discusses everything about each person’s or teams daily choices. We say, instead, that the workers council discusses hours of work and schedules, production policies, remuneration, and other broad issues. In other words, the council as a whole sets policies, but then teams and individuals function within those policies making countless decisions for themselves without anyone else directly involved. So far, so good. We may opt for one person one vote majority rule on such policy matters that affect the whole workplace, or we may, I think far better, opt for self management which would often mean majority rule, but sometimes might require different decision norms such as consensus, two thirds, etc. – and different durations and modes of deliberation as well. Still, so far, so good.
Now, however, suppose we retain the old corporate division of labor. Perhaps we do this just by habit. Perhaps we all think it is more effective. Perhaps we do it because some people, those who will be managers, designers, etc., force it through. Whatever caused us to do it, we wind up with about 20 of us doing all the empowering day to day tasks such as design, finances, and whatever those tasks may be in our workplace. The empowering tasks convey to 20 of us confidence, social skills, information, access to levers of influence, and so on, not to mention being more pleasant, fulfilling, etc. The other 80 of us do rote and repetitive tasks which induce only boredom, diminish our confidence and social skills, reduce our knowledge, atrophy our experience of having influence and instead make us endure habitual acts of obedience. The claim of the new approach IOPS members favor is that the 20%, not by their genetics, or even malevolently, will, due to their circumstances in the workplace, so dominate the setting of agendas and discussions and decisions that are reached, and the 80 will be so exhausted and alienated and unprepared to participate other than as observers, that, in time, the old crap will come back – as the saying goes – and the 20 will be a class above and dismissive toward the 80. The 20 will make decisions that aggrandize themselves at the expense of the 80 and that ensure their continued domination over the 80, all the while telling themselves they are loyally serving the 80.
If it sounds like class rule is is because, this view says, it is, at least writ large across society, class rule. Of course more needs to be said about the corporate division of labor imposing class rule (and about markets and central planning doing so as well), but what ultimately emerges and distinguishes the IOPS approach on these matters from that of many other revolutionary organizations, is that with these views one is moved to envision a new economy that is truly classless, not an economy most of whose members want classlessness but which retains corporate divisions of labor and/or markets that prevent arriving at classlessness and instead guarantee coordinator class rule. It also yields as an approach that if one sees the need to embody the seeds of the desired future in the present in order to attain that desired future, then one needs movements that are aware of coordinator class / working class dynamics and that self consciously overcome the tendency toward enforcing the old corporate divisions of labor and markets that produce and preserve those dynamics. This is analogous to working hard to eliminate racist residues in the movement lest they yield racist results in a new society, except in the case discussed here the issue is classist residues, and, in particular, residues in mentalities and especially structures that elevate the coordinator class. And it is why and how having a positive vision helps inform activity, by determining what new structures are needed. And yes, as you say in your question, this added set of insights is a large step away from usual marxist conceptualizations of current society, and particularly from their conceptualizations -and even more so their practices – regarding what we need if we are to have classlessness.
Finally, one last point. Participatory economics, and the above mentioned and related attitudes about economic institutions, is not all that IOPS is about. So when you ask about “direct democracy” you may also have in mind political issues, of in families, or culture, and so on. I think the same broad issues as those above exist. One wants self management, cooperative negotiation and resolution of policies with appropriate say for all affected. Arriving at, say, new political or other institutions that embody and fulfill that aim, whatever other aims they also fulfill, of course also needs to be a priority, and is, for IOPS. IOPS itself is, one might say, more an example of a political institution than an economic one, and nonetheless, all that we have said, including about eliminating internal old style (or new style) hierarchies of power, applies.
John Keeley – To achieve a participatory society requires overcoming the institutions of capitalism, does this mean building the new institutions required now?
Overcoming capitalism, yes – but also racism, patriarchy, political authoritarianism, etc. And yes, building new institutions in the spaces we can navigate even in current society is certainly part of what it winning a new world requires and IOPS, for example, is very serious about the slogan plant the seeds of the future in the present. This is why IOPS itself, a new institution in the present, seeks to be classless, without political hierarchy, without racist and sexist hierarchy, and so on. It is why, not only in creating a revolutionary organization, but also in creating a production unit, a media operation, etc., or addressing those that the left already has, for that matter, IOPS members would typically argue for not incorporating (or retaining) or for at least steadily overcoming residues of past hierarchy producing structures – including, those that yield coordinator domination – which is an emphasis not so clearly prioritized by most other revolutionary agendas.
But I would like to also note that for IOPS members getting beyond capitalism to classlessness isn’t just about building the new classless institutions now – at least in the sense of starting from scratch outside existing structures and creating new and separate ones of our own. I have certainly done that, And I believe that that is important to do, to provide models that inspire and from which we can learn more about our aims and also meet various current needs. But people also work in existing institutions, live in them, study in them, celebrate in them, vote in them. So a second part of the project we face, that is easily as important as building new institutions with features that we desire, is to wage campaigns and struggles inside existing institutions to win changes that meet needs and that also create conditions for winning still more changes, all the while increasing consciousness of injustices and especially of positive alternatives, while also growing movement membership and effectiveness.