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Clare Melhuish reviews activist Michael Albert on 'Life after capitalism'

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In an interesting, though coincidental, sequel to Paul Finch's lecture (AJ 6.3.03), the ICA offered a platform last week to activist Michael Albert, from which he propounded the values of the 'parecon': a vision of life after capitalism.

However, the concept of the 'participatory economy', as set out in Albert's new book, was greeted with considerable scepticism, both on the part of his interlocutors on the platform and from the floor. It certainly has a strong utopian flavour, and is seemingly unwilling to acknowledge both the darker side of human nature, and the possibility of disparities in ability.

In this ideal world, to cite the example used by Albert, the hospital cleaner and surgeon would be one and the same person, enjoying a 'new kind of balanced job complex', consisting of a mixed set of tasks and responsibilities, in contrast to the monopolised, hierarchically structured, character of employment in capitalist society.

Or the architect or the architecture critic would be one and the same person with the doorman or the receptionist, sharing out the 'tedious, debilitating and obedient' roles in society with the creative, responsible and analytical ones.

Is it possible - even supposing that, firstly, the sheer logistical task of restructuring society in this way were manageable and, secondly, people would actually want to do each other's work? According to Albert, the current structure simply suppresses most people's innate capacities, giving a monopoly on knowledge to a privileged minority. He points an accusing finger at the education system - schools which 'teach you to endure boredom and be obedient which stifle creativity'.

Albert's ultimate goal is a society in which the activities of production, consumption and allocation can be carried out 'while upholding the values we hold dear.'As he says, 'the economy affects relations among people', and what we desperately need is greater solidarity among individuals.

Whereas leaders such as Margaret Thatcher set out to pit one individual competitively against another, it is in everybody's interests to be 'more social rather than anti-social'. In short, it is hypocritical to moan about anti-social elements in communities, or so-called social malaise, while continuing to prop up a desperately unequal social and economic structure. According to Albert, the principles promulgated by institutions such as the Harvard Business School - 'you get what you can take' - are the same as those of Genghis Khan.

But his proposition, that 'what we should reward is the amount of effort we put forward in our labours and the pain and suffering they incur', seems unlikely to go down well in artistic and intellectual circles because, even though these are precisely the constituencies of society most likely to chafe against the tyranny of business, it challenges the very principle of unique talent and perception which underpins them.

Michael Albert's lecture, 'A Good Society? Life after Capitalism', took place at the ICA, London last week.

His book, Parecon, is published by Verso.

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