"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson


We as Americans all remember being taught when we were young about our nation's founders, the patriots who stood up to the tyranny of the crown of England, the drafters of the declaration of independence, the constitution, and the bill of rights, the documents that became the framework for a system of governance that they believed would maintain a balance of power within a truly representative government, that would preserve the basic rights and liberties of the people, let their voice be heard, and provide to them a government, as Lincoln later put it, "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

What we may not be so quick to recall, however, is that there was much debate between the founding fathers as to what model our system of government should follow. Those such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry on one side favored a pure and direct democracy with the legislative power vested in the very hands of the people, while others such as James Madison, John Adams and George Washington held that a representative democracy would better serve the people than a true democracy because they believed it would protect the individual liberties of the minority from the will of the majority. Alexander Hamilton even went so far as to support the creation of a monarchy. In the end, those favoring representative democracy won the day and that is the system they put in place in the hopes of creating a "more perfect union."

Now we must ask ourselves, what would the founding fathers think if they were resurrected today to see what has become of their vision? One can only assume that they would begin to search for modern day patriots to meet them once again at the liberty tree in order to plan a new struggle for freedom and self governance. Although we continue to praise and honor those who founded our nation and sought to create a truly just form of government for it, do we really stop to reflect on whether we as a nation have in fact succeeded in preserving what they fought so hard to create?

Today, in contrast to our revolutionary ancestors, we as citizens of the United States generally observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. Over the decades and centuries we have allowed the erosion of the ideals of the founding fathers and the corruption of the principles which they enshrined in those so carefully conceived documents. We have been left with essentially no real power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. We may write an occasional letter to our senator or representative that generates a form letter in response and a statistical data entry that may or may not be weighed against the influence of some powerful corporate lobby. We may be permitted to participate in a march or demonstration of thousands or even millions, something our patriots of old would have marvelled at, only to be dismissed as a 'focus group' with no bearing on policy decisions.

How then is the government held accountable to the voice of the people? Are the people meant to speak only at the polls when given a choice between a select few candidates that may be equally corrupt? No, as Jefferson and his allies rightly believed, the people should be heard much more than that.

In spite of their good intentions, the system of representative democracy that the founding fathers opted for has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

We have become so accustomed to this failed system of representative democracy that it may not occur to us that there are other alternative forms of democracy. In various places around the world participatory or direct democracy has been instituted both in concert with representative democracy, and as a replacement for it. It is a form of democracy that is designed to take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and to politically empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the concept of participatory democracy and how this grass-roots based form of governance could help bring us back in line with the principles this country was founded upon if it were allowed to take root here. In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…



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Sunday, May 4, 2008


This book review of Moving Forward reveals Michael Albert's ideas about participatory democracy in the workplace. Jonathan Sterne points out that Albert is providing an answer to the call for a new soci0-economic structure that would be more beneficial to all than the current capitalist system. Albert calls for workers' participation in democratic processes within the workplace and teases out social and economic consequences that would be superior to the hierarchical formation of capitalist societies based on wealth. Other consequences faced by the environment and race relations require further examination since they are not covered in the book. Albert's ideas are worthwhile study for envisioning the reality of a more egalitarian and participatory future. - Editor

Moving Forward: Program for a Participatory Economy

Any left movement worth its name needs to present a compelling alternative to existing ways of life. If we have a sense of what's wrong with our society, it is incumbent upon us to try and come up with a better alternative. Though this position seems commonsensical, it has been immensely difficult for leftists to agree on a concrete agenda...

Michael Albert

Reviewed by Jonathan Sterne

Thursday, November 15 2001, 11:51 AM

Any left movement worth its name needs to present a compelling alternative to existing ways of life. If we have a sense of what's wrong with our society, it is incumbent upon us to try and come up with a better alternative. Though this position seems commonsensical, it has been immensely difficult for leftists to agree on a concrete agenda for change or a vision of the good society. Many have given up: in the academic circles where I run, one often hears preemptive objections to "utopian," "totalizing," or other forms of programmatic thinking on the basis that these enterprises are inherently vanguardist, or worse, oppressive -- since in imagining alternatives, social visions inevitably exclude other possibilities.

So it is no surprise that Michael Albert's Moving Forward begins with a defense of programmatic thinking, since the book is meant as a blueprint for a more just economy. For over ten years, Michael Albert and his sometime collaborator Robin Hahnel have been working to refine a vision of participatory economics -- or "parecon" -- a series of books, interviews, and articles. Albert's Moving Forward is the latest print contribution to this project. In this very accessible book, Albert outlines the basic principles of parecon, anticipates and answers basic questions about his model, and argues for its necessity.

Albert's project should be applauded by all leftists, whatever their particular orientation. Though I will take issue with some of the specifics of his platform below, I strongly recommend this book and the parecon project as food for thought. They represent a needed alternative to the ongoing myopia of left thinking -- in the U.S. and elsewhere. Early in the book, Albert anticipates a variety of objections to his kind of programmatic thinking. He argues that while we cannot have a blueprint for social change, we need some sense of what we want so that we can go after it. More to the point, "values support and inform vision, but they are not its entirety" (p. 11). Rather than nebulous goals like "equality," Albert actually tries to reason out what equality in the economy might look like.

Moving Forward is structured around Albert's platform: seeking just rewards for effort, self-management, dignified work, and participatory allocation. Each section of the book offers an outline of his position, and then anticipates objections and responds to them in a question-and-answer-style format. The book avoids specialized and technical discussions, aiming instead to offer the broad outlines of the position. Readers interested in a more technical discussion of parecon in terms of economic theory would be wise to turn to Albert and Hahnel's The Political Economy of Participatory Economics. The book ends with discussions of economics and "the rest of life," practical questions around platforms, and a discussion of the reform vs. revolution dyad that's plagued left thought for some time.

Albert's goals are relatively simple and straightforward, though they would ultimately require a total transformation of the capitalist economy. I will briefly sketch each of them:

Albert argues that renumeration should be made according to effort, sacrifice, and need -- and not according to actual contribution to the economy. This is an important departure from traditional left economic thinking. Albert persuasively argues that renumeration according to actual contribution rewards the accumulation of wealth or other forms of fixed capital. If two people expend the same effort cutting sugar cane, but one has better tools, that person will make a larger contribution.

Albert's conception of effort and sacrifice is relatively simplistic 񠨥 rather quickly reproduces the mental-manual labor distinction (I'll return to that below) and tends to suggest that manual labor in most events requires more effort and sacrifice than mental labor. His examples of manual labor are rote working class jobs like coal mining and cane cutting while his examples of mental labor are largely professional managerial class jobs (though he does mention secretarial work on more than one occasion). Still, this is not a tremendous weakness in his argument, since rather than assigning a fixed calculus for effort or sacrifice, he argues that workers should rate one another on this scale. Though the logistics of this would need to be more fully worked out at each site, workers would rate one another on some kind of scale, either a 0-100% with fine gradations, or they could assume everyone performs an "average" job only deviate from that rating in special cases. Next, compensation would need to be regulated among workplaces by rating productivity against expectations and resources. As Albert points out, these are just proposals 񠴨e logics themselves would be negotiable. The point is simply to replace wage labor with a more egalitarian and participatory model.

This brings us to the second part of his platform: self-management. He argues that the default for parecon should be democratic self-management, while acknowledging that there will be times when it is most appropriate for the good of a society to delegate decision making to a particular group that may have some kind of expertise. He does not argue for a consensus model of decision making (a good thing, since consensus models of decision making can be paralyzing), acknowledging that even in an ideal society, well-intentioned people will have differences of opinion.

To read the rest of the review, click here.

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