Post-capitalism debate between Albert and Varoufakis: Part 1

A mέta initiative, this is exchange number 1 in a debate between Michael Albert and Yanis Varoufakis on post-capitalism:

1. Participatory Postcapitalist Vision

Michael Albert, 30 October 2021

For me, the defining institutions of capitalism are private ownership of productive assets; authoritarian control of workplaces; production for profit; a corporate division of labor wherein empowered employees dominate disempowered employees; remuneration for property, power, and/or output; and allocation by markets and/or central planning.

To my eyes, these capitalist institutions produce obscene inequity, vile anti-sociality, and soul crushing indignity. They impose stupefying, empathy destroying, democracy defiling, and world-ravaging economic conditions.

To my mind, this poses a paramount question. What new post capitalist economic features are essential to ensure that our future selves will freely determine the details of their future lives with dignity, equity, and social solidarity? Here are the defining features participatory economics proposes:

  • A new conception of the natural and built workplaces, tools, and resources that we use to produce society’s goods and services. We call this a “Productive Commons,” and we propose it to replace private ownership of productive assets.

  • Workers and consumers workplace and neighborhood councils (and industry and regional federations of councils) that we use to convey to all a say over economic decisions proportional to the extent those decisions affect them. We call this “council self management,” and we propose it to replace authoritarian control of production and consumption.

  • Jobs composed of tasks that together provide each worker a manageable mix of responsibilities which convey by their daily accomplishment average “empowerment effects.” We call this mix “balanced job complexes,” and we propose it to replace a corporate division of labor that elevates an empowered coordinator class above a disempowered working class.

  • Equitable remuneration for how long, how hard, and the onerousness of the conditions under which we do socially valued work. We call this “equitable remuneration,” and we propose it to replace remuneration for property, power, and/or output.

  • And decentralized cooperative self-managed negotiation of production and consumption in light of personal, social, and environmental costs and benefits. We call this “participatory planning,” and we propose it to replace markets and/or central planning.

Advocates, myself included, claim that these five institutional aims, which we of course expect to see refined by future experience and augmented by diverse contextual policies and features that emerge from future practice, can together establish a classless, self managing, sustainable, and even aesthetic post capitalist economy that serves the fulfillment and development of all people.

Some advocates call this “participatory economics.” Some call it “participatory socialism.” But all its advocates, myself included, claim that these five proposed defining institutions can together serve as a flexible visionary scaffold we can refine and build on to help us traverse the road to winning a post capitalist economic vision. More, we claim that such participatory vision can inspire hope and sustain commitment. It can provide orientation to help us plant the seeds of the future in the present, win immediate gains in non-reformist ways, and traverse a trajectory of changes that avoids winding up other than where we wish to arrive.

Yanis Varoufakis’ response:

2. Do we really want negotiations to replace markets and hierarchies?

Yanis Varoufakis, 4 December 2021

At the very heart of a heartless (and distinctly irrational) capitalist world lies the curious idea that the crushing majority who work in the corporations do not own them while the minuscule minority who own them can very easily not even know where they are located, let alone work in them. This gross asymmetry is the source of exorbitant power in the hands of the few to wreck the lives of the many, as well as of the planet. And it is not just a matter of unfairness. It is more a matter of wholesale alienation, as even the capitalists are condemned to live like sad bastards resembling guinea pigs running faster and faster on a treadmill, going nowhere.

So, it is a great relief that, here, I do not to have to argue about the need to terminate capitalism. That Michael and I are embarking from a common belief that capitalism must end in order to debate the type of feasible postcapitalism we want.

Michael traces the source of illiberty, inequality and inefficiency in the private ownership of productive means, which lies behind the elevation of profit to the only motive and begets the soul-crushing division of labour within a company as well as within society at large. Spot on! He is also right to propose a ‘productive commons’ and to point to the importance of a decentralised system of decision-making (extending beyond the workplace to the community, the neighbourhood etc.). Lastly, I agree wholeheartedly with the principle of participatory planning as a replacement of the power of bosses (capitalists or any type of ‘coordinator class’) to decide “who does what to whom”, to quote Lenin’s famous words.

But here begin our differences. Michael employs two words that ring alarm bells in my head: “equitable”, which he links to the remuneration of work (especially of ugly or dirty tasks); and “negotiation”, which he proposes as the basis for consumers and producers to decide, together, what must be produced and in what quality/quantity. My alarm is due to a deep conviction that both words are wolves in sheep’s clothing, hiding the prospect of new forms of domination and oppression.

Take “equitable”. Who decides what it is fair to pay you to go down the sewers, to maintain them? I suppose the answer is: the collective. Does the collective have the right to specify that you must go down the sewers for that wage without your consent? I hope not. But, if your consent is required, then the wage setting is not much different to a market mechanism, where the collective is your employer.

Take “negotiation”. This implies consensus. Which implies huge social pressure on a dissident to acquiesce to the majority’s view; e.g., to their rejection of a weird but potentially wonderful idea that the majority cannot wrap its mind around.

Personally speaking, I find suffocating the prospect of having to reach via negotiation a common understanding of what I must do and of what an equitable reward is for me to do it.

Before I suggest an alternative to negotiations, I felt the need to express, early on, this feeling of suffocation. And to ask our readers: Am I alone in feeling that authentic freedom requires not just the end of capitalism but also a degree of autonomy from the collective?