By Robin Hahnel and Erik Olin Wright
- Of the People, By the People: The Case for a Participatory Economy (2012)
- Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy (2016)
Are there alternatives to capitalism? What would a viable free and democratic society look like? Poverty, exploitation, instability, hierarchy, subordination, environmental exhaustion, radical inequalities of wealth and power—it is not difficult to list capitalism’s myriad injustices. But is there a preferable and workable alternative?
Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy presents a debate between two such possibilities: Robin Hahnel’s “participatory economics” and Erik Olin Wright’s “real utopian” socialism. It is a detailed and rewarding discussion that illuminates a range of issues and dilemmas of crucial importance to any serious effort to build a better world.
Hahnel on Participatory Economics
Olin Wright on Real Utopian Socialism
Heather Blakey on Red Pepper wrote:
There is much agreement in the book about ultimate goals: humanity, democracy, empowerment, equity. And the debate is respectful and even mutually laudatory. The book has been praised as an example of the productive and positive way left debate should proceed. [...] While extremely useful and provocative, this volume is also a bit 'apples and oranges.' One case, Participatory Economics, is a prescriptive and highly-specified model of how a post-capitalist participatory economy might work. Real Utopian Socialism is a highly unspecified and abstract model of how a transformation from capitalism to socialism would proceed in terms of reform strategies and forms of transformation. Each side has a number of areas where they agree with the other, especially with respect to goals. Yet three distinct areas of disagreement emerge: whether markets should or could be eliminated in any new system; the desirability of ruptural transformation; and, the degree to which a future model should or can be planned in such a way as Participatory Economics attempts to do. The differences between the two sides often seem more ideological than technical."
Andreas Zaunseder on British Journal of Sociology wrote:
"With this thoughtful book, Robin Hahnel and Erik Olin Wright aim to strengthen the resources of anti-capitalist politics against the charge that ‘there is no alternative’. [...] Given the extent of their agreement over principles, much of the discussion focuses on their major point of disagreement, the innate value of markets. Wright defends socially regulated hybrid systems, while Hahnel characterises markets as ‘a cancer that undermines efforts to build and deepen participatory, equitable cooperation’. Somewhat frustratingly, Wright and Hahnel accept the nation-state as the unit of analysis, although we know this to be historically and ideologically intertwined with capitalism. Their utopian alternatives would arguably benefit from challenging this area of mainstream economic doctrine. Additionally, their alternative understanding of efficiency assumes scarcity rather than abundance, and so tends to overlook the need for redundancy and resilience in the allocation of resources. Would resource scarcity be inevitable in a utopian, democratic, egalitarian society? Unlike Wright’s ecosystem, Kahnel’s participatory planning seems to try to create ‘perfect knowledge’, to be too optimistic about the possibility (and desirability) of human control. Likewise, Wright critiques the possibility of what we might call ‘monetising’ effort, and I felt that this could be applied to the planning model as a whole. What about the gift economy? What about a society in which ‘thicker’ social relationships are not governed primarily by economics, however participatory, but by solidarity?"
"In my view, one major disagreement between Hahnel and Wright needed attention: the need for markets. Both authors acknowledge that markets lack efficiency, distort democratic power and can negatively affect human equity. However, in Chapter 4 Wright argues that markets are still the most efficient form available for allocating resources and that these deficits can be minimized through rigorous democratic regulation. In the following chapter, Hahnel avidly disagrees, contending that markets are intrinsically detrimental for society and environment because competition and trading corrode solidarity, honesty, transparency and trust (pp. 104–5). Hahnel acknowledges the need for markets only in the process of transition, but argues that they should finally be replaced by participatory planning. Pricing is facilitated by so called ‘indicative prices’, which comprise opportunity costs and social costs (p. 6). Although Hahnel and Wright discuss the issue of quantifying social cost and indicative prices, both leave the reader without further explanation about their use of opportunity costs (OC). [...] In this instance, an exemplary specific calculus of opportunity costs would, perhaps, have allowed a better and more tangible grasp of the wider argument. Another interesting aspect of Hahnel’s non-market model is
that consumer and producer rights replace money. However, it remains unclear how workers’ income is determined and then converted into spendable household budgets. By proposing a model that works without markets, it is crucial to ensure that the substitution of basic features such as pricing, income and budgets are clear. This would have invigorated the proposal and captured the readers’ imagination. What remains unclear, too, is the scale on which a participatory economy can work at a sufficiently efficient level. Markets have been implemented on a global scale. But is this also possible for a structure based on councils? [...] In the end, this book seems to work in two ways: one, because of its intelligible outline of the core characteristics of and concerns for the respective models, it is an appealing start for a readership that is not familiar with the two suggested models of organizing economic life; and two, the conversation would appeal to a readership already familiar with their writings. For the latter this book is particularly interesting if they aim to complement Wright’s concept of transformation with Hahnel’s final-stage model."
Table of Contents of Alternatives to Capitalism
- The Case for Participator Economics (Robin Hahnel)
- Participatory Economics: A Sympathetic Critique (Erik Olin Wright)
- In Defence of Participatory Economics (Robin Hahnel)
- Socialism and Real Utopias (Erik Olin Wright)
- Breaking With Capitalism (Robin Hahnel)
- Final Thoughts (Erik Olin Wright)
About Robin Hahnel & Erik Olin Wright
According to Wikipedia "Robin Eric Hahnel (born March 25, 1946) is an American economist and professor of economics at Portland State University. He was a professor at American University for many years and traveled extensively advising on economic matters all over the world. He is best known for his work on participatory economics with Z Magazine editor Michael Albert. Hahnel is a radical economist and political activist. Politically he considers himself a product of the New Left and is sympathetic to libertarian socialism. He has been active in many social movements and organizations for forty years [...]. Hahnel's work in economic theory and analysis is informed by the work of Marx, Keynes, Piero Sraffa, Michał Kalecki, and Joan Robinson, among others. He has served as a visiting professor or economist in Cuba, Peru, and England."
According to Wikipedia "Erik Olin Wright (1947 – 2019) was an American analytical Marxist sociologist, specializing in social stratification, and in egalitarian alternative futures to capitalism. He was known for diverging from classical Marxism in his breakdown of the working class into subgroups of diversely held power and therefore varying degrees of class consciousness. Wright introduced novel concepts to adapt to this change of perspective including deep democracy and interstitial revolution." He taught sociology at the University of Wisconsin since 1976, where he was Vilas Distinguished Professor of Sociology.