Democratic Economies

The impasse of the authoritarian command economic systems in the communist zones of the 1970s brought a great deal of rethinking about economic planning and co-ordination in non-market societies within the East Bloc and outside.  As well, the acceptance of capitalism by the social democratic parties in the Western countries, and their accommodation to neoliberalism, including the New Democratic Party in Canada as a party and where it governed, encouraged numerous writers and movements to begin to discuss alternative economic strategies. Interventions from the feminist, ecology, and anti-colonial movements also added to critiques of all existing models and insistence that alternate economic strategies and models had to


greater complexity than simply seizing the “commanding heights” of the economy.

From all these sides, there has been a proliferation of new models of socialism and alternate economic strategies. They have had in common an attempt to extend democratic participation in a decentralist fashion by extending workers’ control and user participation in the management of enterprises and organizations and to formulate new representative bodies, administrative means, and strategies at the centre to control the economic surplus and redistribute it toward sustainable production for needs. Although the neoliberal mantra that “there is no alternative” sometimes blinds us, there has never been more creative thinking on possible socialist futures, concrete transitional strategies, and specific egalitarian policy measures in history. To be sure, with the end of the historical communist parties and the thorough integration of social democratic parties into capitalist market policies and values (the NDP being a telling example), there is a lack of political agencies with enough organizational capacity to put alternatives on the agenda.

The intellectual interventions since the 1970s, however, have been numerous and important. They have provided some of the most innovative thinking on socialist strategies since the oddly called “calculation debate” that, in a broad sense, spanned the 1920s-1940s, as theorists furiously waged war over the possibility and content of socialism, in light of the Russian Revolution and the emergence of mass working-class movements demanding an alternative to capitalism. This debate was revisited in a trenchant debate between Paul Sweezy and Charles Bettleheim, collected in On the Transition to Socialism (1972), over the “laws of motion” of Soviet societies. But new parameters for the discussion of socialist alternatives really came with the debate over “markets and plans” in the context of extending democratic economic coordination in the late 1970s. There were numerous interventions. A sampling of the more significant would include: Alec Nove, The Economics of Feasible Socialism (1983); Raymond Williams, Toward 2000 (1985); Pat Devine, Democracy and Economic Planning (1988); Michael Ellman, Socialist Planning (1989); Robin Blackburn, After the Fall (1991); and Ernest Mandel, Power and Money (1992). More recently, this line of thinking has been placed in the context of globalization and neoliberalism, with Walden Bello’s Deglobalization (2002) and Monthly Review’s “Socialism for the 21st Century” issue of July-August 2005 being as representative of current approaches as any.

The contributions by Robin Hahnel to these debates have been significant reference points, reflective of the intersection between liberatarian socialism and left-anarchism, if one has to try to label his standpoint.  His writings have often been in collaboration with Michael Albert (and loosely in connection with Z Magazine, Z-Net, and that tendency in the US anti-globalization movement). The intellectual project has gone under the name “participatory economics” or “parecon.”  The texts go back to Albert and Hahnel’s 1981 Socialism Today and Tomorrow, but the most significant contributions have been their The Political Economy of Participatory Economics (1991) and Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the 21st Century (1991), the latter being the more accessible text. Hahnel’s recent book, Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation (2005), extends the “parecon” analysis, but also develops more immediate programmatic demands and orientations than the “models” that characterize his previous work. Here, like so many other radical movements and efforts today, the question of political agency is as often asserted as adequately assessed, particularly in the American context, where further political fragmentation is hard to imagine and socialist ideas are not even on the margins.

Hahnel’s writings on alternatives are a vital contribution to the global anti-capitalist movement. They have added an enormous amount to our re-imagining what socialism might be, and the insistence that we pursue “practical utopias” today. The re-making of a viable Left today surely lies with critical engagement with these ideas, and the struggle they insist upon in moving from theory to practice.

Greg Albo teaches political economy at York University.