Participatory economics has long been proposed as an alternative to capitalism and centralized planning. It remains, nonetheless, a misunderstood concept and continues to find opposition among both capitalists and anticapitalists. So, what exactly is “participatory economics” and how does it fit with the socialist vision of a classless society? In this interview, Michael Albert, founder of Z Magazine and one of the leading advocates of the movement toward a “participatory society” addresses key questions about capitalism, socialism and the implications of a participatory economy.
C.J. Polychroniou: Any discussion of economic systems revolves essentially around two apparently opposed poles — capitalism and socialism. In reality, however, most of the actually existing economies in the modern world have been “mixed economies.” Be that as it may, what’s your understanding of capitalism, and what are the distinguished features of socialism?
Michael Albert: Capitalism is an economic system in which people own workplaces and resources, employ workers for wages to produce outputs and overwhelmingly employ market allocation to mediate how the outputs are dispersed. Typically also, and I would say inevitably if it has the first two features, it will also have what I call a corporate division of labor in which about 80 percent of the workforce does overwhelmingly rote, obedient and mainly disempowering tasks, and the other 20 percent monopolizes empowering tasks. Income will be a function of property and bargaining power.
In my view, there are, therefore, three main classes in capitalism: a working class doing the disempowering work [whose members] have low income and nearly no influence; a capitalist class that employs workers, sells their product and tries to reap profits, and which, due to those profits, enjoys tremendous wealth and dominant power; and a coordinator class situated between the other two, doing the empowering work, and, due to that, having the power to accrue high income and substantial influence.
Socialism is trickier to pinpoint. For some it is an economy in which those who produce decide all the outcomes, so it is classless, or, if you like, has only one class, the workers, all of whom have the same overall economic status. For others, socialism is a society with a polity that greatly influences economic outcomes on behalf of the public, even while owners still reap profits. For still others, socialism is an economy that has public or state ownership plus central planning or markets for allocation.
I think this last is what socialism in practice has been, plus having a corporate division of labor that arises inexorably due to its forms of allocation but is also preferred, plus an authoritarian polity. However, I call this type of economy “coordinatorism” for the clear and obvious reason that its institutions eliminate capitalist ownership but elevate the 20 percent coordinator class to ruling status. Out with the old boss: the owner, the capitalist class; in with the new boss: managers, doctors, lawyers and so on, the coordinator class.
So, if you like socialism because you hope for classlessness, you are pretty likely nowadays to have in mind some kind of worker-controlled economy but typically without offering clarification of what institutions can deliver that.
If you don’t like the idea of full classlessness — either fearing that it would be dysfunctional or wishing to maintain coordinator class advantages — as socialism, you likely have in mind some variant on classical Marxist coordinatorist formulations.
I prefer classlessness — which, in my mind, is like preferring freedom to servitude — but I also see a need to have an institutional vision able to give it substance, which is what participatory economics, or if you prefer, participatory socialism tries to provide. Read more
The United States is rapidly declining on numerous fronts — collapsing infrastructure, a huge gap between haves and have-nots, stagnant wages, high infant mortality rates, the highest incarceration rate in the world — and it continues to be the only country in the advanced world without a universal health care system. Thus, questions about the nature of the US’s economy and its dysfunctional political system are more critical than ever, including questions about the status of the so-called American Dream, which has long served as an inspiration point for Americans and prospective immigrants alike. Indeed, in a recent documentary, Noam Chomsky, long considered one of America’s voices of conscience and one of the world’s leading public intellectuals, spoke of the end of the American Dream. In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Chomsky discusses some of the problems facing the United States today, and whether the American Dream is “dead” — if it ever existed in the first place.
C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, in several of your writings you question the usual view of the United States as an archetypical capitalist economy. Please explain.
Noam Chomsky: Consider this: Every time there is a crisis, the taxpayer is called on to bail out the banks and the major financial institutions. If you had a real capitalist economy in place, that would not be happening. Capitalists who made risky investments and failed would be wiped out. But the rich and powerful do not want a capitalist system. They want to be able to run the nanny state so when they are in trouble the taxpayer will bail them out. The conventional phrase is “too big to fail.”
The IMF did an interesting study a few years ago on profits of the big US banks. It attributed most of them to the many advantages that come from the implicit government insurance policy — not just the featured bailouts, but access to cheap credit and much else — including things the IMF researchers didn’t consider, like the incentive to undertake risky transactions, hence highly profitable in the short term, and if anything goes wrong, there’s always the taxpayer. Bloomberg Businessweek estimated the implicit taxpayer subsidy at over $80 billion per year.
Much has been said and written about economic inequality. Is economic inequality in the contemporary capitalist era very different from what it was in other post-slavery periods of American history?
The inequality in the contemporary period is almost unprecedented. If you look at total inequality, it ranks amongst the worse periods of American history. However, if you look at inequality more closely, you see that it comes from wealth that is in the hands of a tiny sector of the population. There were periods of American history, such as during the Gilded Age in the 1920s and the roaring 1990s, when something similar was going on. But the current period is extreme because inequality comes from super wealth. Literally, the top one-tenth of a percent are just super wealthy. This is not only extremely unjust in itself, but represents a development that has corrosive effects on democracy and on the vision of a decent society.
What does all this mean in terms of the American Dream? Is it dead?
The “American Dream” was all about class mobility. You were born poor, but could get out of poverty through hard work and provide a better future for your children. It was possible for [some workers] to find a decent-paying job, buy a home, a car and pay for a kid’s education. It’s all collapsed — and we shouldn’t have too many illusions about when it was partially real. Today social mobility in the US is below other rich societies.
Is the US then a democracy in name only?
The US professes to be a democracy, but it has clearly become something of a plutocracy, although it is still an open and free society by comparative standards. But let’s be clear about what democracy means. In a democracy, the public influences policy and then the government carries out actions determined by the public. For the most part, the US government carries out actions that benefit corporate and financial interests. It is also important to understand that privileged and powerful sectors in society have never liked democracy, for good reasons. Democracy places power in the hands of the population and takes it away from them. In fact, the privileged and powerful classes of this country have always sought to find ways to limit power from being placed in the hands of the general population — and they are breaking no new ground in this regard. Read more
Since the end of the Cold War, the US has been the only true global superpower, with US policymakers intervening freely anywhere around the world where they feel there are vital political or economic interests to be protected. Most of the time US policymakers seem to act without a clear strategy at hand and surely without feeling the need to accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Such is the case, for instance, with the invasion of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. US policymakers also seem to be clueless about what to do with regard to several “hot spots” around the world, such as Libya and Syria, and it is rather clear that the US no longer has a coherent Middle East policy.
What type of a global power is this? I posed this question to retired colonel and military historian Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University professor who has authored scores of books on US foreign and military policy, including America’s War for the Greater Middle East, Breach of Trust, and The Limits of Power. In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Bacevich explains how the militaristic nature of US foreign policy is a serious impediment to democracy and human rights.
C.J. Polychroniou: I’d like to start by asking you to outline the basic principles and guidelines of the current national military strategy of the United States.
Andrew Bacevich: There is no coherent strategy. US policy is based on articles of faith — things that members of the foreign policy establishment have come to believe, regardless of whether they are true or not. The most important of those articles is the conviction that the United States must “lead” — that the alternative to American leadership is a world that succumbs to anarchy. An important corollary is this: Leadership is best expressed by the possession and use of military power.
According to the current military strategy, US forces must be ready to confront threats whenever they appear. Is this a call for global intervention?
Almost, but not quite. Certainly, the United States intervenes more freely than any other nation on the planet. But it would be a mistake to think that policymakers view all regions of the world as having equal importance. Interventions tend to reflect whatever priorities happen to prevail in Washington at a particular moment. In recent decades, the Greater Middle East has claimed priority attention.
What’s really striking is Washington’s refusal or inability to take into account what this penchant for armed interventionism actually produces. No one in a position of authority can muster the gumption to pose these basic questions: Hey, how are we doing? Are we winning? Once US forces arrive on the scene, do things get better?
The current US military strategy calls for an upgrade of the nuclear arsenal. Does “first use” remain an essential component of US military doctrine?
It seems to, although for the life of me I cannot understand why. US nuclear policy remains frozen in the 1990s. Since the end of the Cold War, in concert with the Russians, we’ve made modest but not inconsequential reductions in the size of our nuclear arsenal. But there’s been no engagement with first order questions. Among the most important: Does the United States require nuclear weapons to maintain an adequate deterrent posture? Given the advances in highly lethal, very long range, very precise conventional weapons, I’d argue that the answer to that question is, no. Furthermore, as the only nation to have actually employed such weapons in anger, the United States has a profound interest and even a moral responsibility to work toward their abolition — which, of course, is precisely what the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obliges us to do. It’s long past time to take that obligation seriously. For those who insist that there is no alternative to American leadership, here’s a perfect opportunity for Washington to lead.
Does the US have, at the present time, a Middle East policy?
Not really, unless haphazardly responding to disorder in hopes of preventing things from getting worse still qualifies as a policy. Sadly, US efforts to “fix” the region have served only to make matters worse. Even more sadly, members of the policy world refuse to acknowledge that fundamental fact. So we just blunder on.
There is no evidence — none, zero, zilch — that the continued U.S. military assertiveness in that region will lead to a positive outcome. There is an abundance of evidence pointing in precisely the opposite direction.
Was the US less militaristic under the Obama administration than it was under the Bush administration?
It all depends on how you define “militaristic.” Certainly, President Obama reached the conclusion rather early on that invading and occupying countries with expectations of transforming them in ways favorable to the United States was a stupid idea. That said, Obama has shown no hesitation to use force and will bequeath to his successor several ongoing wars.
Obama has merely opted for different tactics, relying on air strikes, drones and special operations forces, rather than large numbers of boots on the ground. For the US, as measured by casualties sustained and dollars expended, costs are down in comparison to the George W. Bush years. Are the results any better? No, not really.
To what extent is the public in the US responsible for the uniqueness of the military culture in American society?
The public is responsible in this sense: The people have chosen merely to serve as cheerleaders. They do not seriously attend to the consequences and costs of US interventionism.
The unwillingness of Americans to attend seriously to the wars being waged in their names represents a judgment on present-day American democracy. That judgment is a highly negative one.
What will US involvement in world affairs look like under the Trump administration?
Truly, only God knows.
Trump’s understanding of the world is shallow. His familiarity with the principles of statecraft is negligible. His temperament is ill-suited to cool, considered decision making.
Much is likely to depend on the quality of advisers that he surrounds himself with. At the moment, he seems to favor generals. I for one do not find that encouraging.
Andrew J. Bacevich is Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, he received his PhD in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University. Before joining the faculty of Boston University, he taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins.
C.J. Polychroniou is a political economist/political scientist who has taught and worked in universities and research centers in Europe and the United States. His main research interests are in European economic integration, globalization, the political economy of the United States and the deconstruction of neoliberalism’s politico-economic project. He is a regular contributor to Truthout as well as a member of Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project. He has published several books and his articles have appeared in a variety of journals, magazines, newspapers and popular news websites. Many of his publications have been translated into several foreign languages, including Croatian, French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish.
On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump managed to pull the biggest upset in US politics by tapping successfully into the anger of white voters and appealing to the lowest inclinations of people in a manner that would have probably impressed Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels himself.
But what exactly does Trump’s victory mean, and what can one expect from this megalomaniac when he takes over the reins of power on January 20, 2017? What is Trump’s political ideology, if any, and is “Trumpism” a movement? Will US foreign policy be any different under a Trump administration?
Some years ago, public intellectual Noam Chomsky warned that the political climate in the US was ripe for the rise of an authoritarian figure. Now, he shares his thoughts on the aftermath of this election, the moribund state of the US political system and why Trump is a real threat to the world and the planet in general.
C.J. Polychroniou for Truthout:Noam, the unthinkable has happened: In contrast to all forecasts, Donald Trump scored a decisive victory over Hillary Clinton, and the man that Michael Moore described as a “wretched, ignorant, dangerous part-time clown and full-time sociopath” will be the next president of the United States. In your view, what were the deciding factors that led American voters to produce the biggest upset in the history of US politics?
Noam Chomsky: Before turning to this question, I think it is important to spend a few moments pondering just what happened on November 8, a date that might turn out to be one of the most important in human history, depending on how we react.
The most important news of November 8 was barely noted, a fact of some significance in itself.
On November 8, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) delivered a report at the international conference on climate change in Morocco (COP22) which was called in order to carry forward the Paris agreement of COP21. The WMO reported that the past five years were the hottest on record. It reported rising sea levels, soon to increase as a result of the unexpectedly rapid melting of polar ice, most ominously the huge Antarctic glaciers. Already, Arctic sea ice over the past five years is 28 percent below the average of the previous 29 years, not only raising sea levels, but also reducing the cooling effect of polar ice reflection of solar rays, thereby accelerating the grim effects of global warming. The WMO reported further that temperatures are approaching dangerously close to the goal established by COP21, along with other dire reports and forecasts.
Another event took place on November 8, which also may turn out to be of unusual historical significance for reasons that, once again, were barely noted.
On November 8, the most powerful country in world history, which will set its stamp on what comes next, had an election. The outcome placed total control of the government — executive, Congress, the Supreme Court — in the hands of the Republican Party, which has become the most dangerous organization in world history.
Apart from the last phrase, all of this is uncontroversial. The last phrase may seem outlandish, even outrageous. But is it? The facts suggest otherwise. The Party is dedicated to racing as rapidly as possible to destruction of organized human life. There is no historical precedent for such a stand.
Is this an exaggeration? Consider what we have just been witnessing.
During the Republican primaries, every candidate denied that what is happening is happening — with the exception of the sensible moderates, like Jeb Bush, who said it’s all uncertain, but we don’t have to do anything because we’re producing more natural gas, thanks to fracking. Or John Kasich, who agreed that global warming is taking place, but added that “we are going to burn [coal] in Ohio and we are not going to apologize for it.”
The winning candidate, now the president-elect, calls for rapid increase in use of fossil fuels, including coal; dismantling of regulations; rejection of help to developing countries that are seeking to move to sustainable energy; and in general, racing to the cliff as fast as possible. Read more
What is the connection between economic globalization and climate change? Is globalization reversible? Can climate change be reversed? If so, how? In the interview that follows, two leading voices in the struggle for a safe planet and a sustainable future, Graciela Chichilnisky and Helena Norberg-Hodge, address these questions from their own unique perspectives and offer critical insights on how we can avert a climate change catastrophe.
A world renowned economist and mathematician, Graciela Chichilnisky is the architect of the Kyoto Protocol carbon market and cofounder and CEO of Global Thermostat, a disruptive, carbon negative technology company based in the Silicon Valley that removes carbon dioxide from the air. She is Professor of Economics and of Statistics at Columbia University and Visiting Professor of Economics at Stanford University. Helena Norberg-Hodge is the founder and director of Local Futures, a pioneer of the “new economics” movement. She is the producer and co-director of the award winning documentary “The Economics of Happiness” and recipient of the Goi Peace Award.
J. Polychroniou and Marcus Rolle: Climate change is the most daunting problem facing humanity today, and globalization seems to be accelerating it. In fact, the effects of climate change are moving faster than predicted as free trade agreements are proliferating, multinational corporations move their operations to developing countries in order to avoid stricter environmental rules at the home country, and export-oriented industrial agriculture has replaced local farming. Do you agree with the view that economic globalization bears responsibility for climate change?
Helena Norberg-Hodge: Absolutely. Globalization – or the deregulation of global trade and finance – has direct consequences for the climate. It promotes unnecessary long-distance transportation of goods, rampant consumerism, biological monocultures, energy-intensive technology use, and mass urbanization – which leads to ever-increasing fossil fuel consumption. It is also worth noting that a 2013 study found that two-thirds of the fossil fuels that have been burned over the last 150 years were burned by just 90 corporate entities, including companies such as Texaco and ExxonMobil.
With the help of corporate-funded think-tanks, there is a commonly-held belief that individual citizens’ consumption patterns, rather than the systemic changes in production because of globalization are to blame for climate change. This is a very narrow framing of the climate crisis, but it’s one that has gained a lot of credence in the media due to the support of Al Gore and others. Meanwhile, it’s becoming increasingly clear every day that there are inherent and predictable connections between the deregulation of transnational corporations and the climate crisis. And people are beginning to notice those connections.
So reversing the trend towards further globalization needs to be central to the climate movement.
Graciela Chichilnisky: Yes: globalization was led by the Breton Woods institutions that were founded after WWII to encourage and enforce a pattern of international trade duplicating colonialism at a global scale: deep and extensive extraction of resources from developing nations that were exported at low prices for consumption in industrial nations. This pattern of international trade can be seen as a global tragedy of the commons, since developing nations lack property rights on extractive resources and their governments are dependent of international organizations and therefore “permeable” This term was introduced by Natasha Chichilnisky-Heal who documented the “permeability” of governments in developing nations that are rich in extractive resources in the cases of Mongolia and Zambia, with examples on the direct role of the World Bank in the case of Rio Tinto and Mongolia’s copper mines, the largest in the world. Read more
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