Knocking on millions of doors

  • 25 October 2006
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Michael Albert, founder of leftist Z magazine and ZNet website, tells Colin Murphy about spreading the message in the modern age and 'Parecon', his alternative to capitalism

If I had been the 'bad guys' – the people who run society – I would have pretty early on realised that the internet was a serious problem," says Michael Albert.

That problem was his opportunity. In the early 1990s, he was running a small, left-wing publishing house in the US, South End Press, and the monthly Z magazine. He had been a radical student leader at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s, where he'd become a friend of Noam Chomsky, and was part of a small but fervent US left-wing community.

"From the beginning, I was very clear in seeing that if we didn't establish a presence online, we would cease to exist.

"I remember saying: 'We all have to get on there, and we have to get a substantial enough audience, and a substantial enough mechanism of support and revenue-raising, so that when they figure out that this is a disaster, we can't be gotten off.'"

They got on, and formed ZNet in 1994 while the worldwide web was still in its infancy. The ZNet website now gets over a quarter of a million hits per week. Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, John Pilger, Robert Fisk and Tariq Ali write for it. There are thousands of articles in its archives, a vast clearing-house of leftist discourse, from the latest on Iraq to a selection of "instructionals" entitled 'Getting Started in Radical Politics' to a collection of lyrics from anti-war songs. It's a massive resource for left-wing organising – but that has its limitations.

"ZNet has 200,000 email addresses," says Michael Albert. "It takes me about five minutes to send an email to 200,000 people. That's the plus side.

"The down side is that there's a tendency to think that that's what organising is. You can communicate very easily with people whose email you have. But you have a tendency not to go knocking on doors and talking to people whose address you don't have. And yet that's exactly what's necessary."

That kind of knocking-on-doors activism saw its heyday in the US in the 1960s (along with the knocking-on-heads type).

"In many ways, the amount of left infrastructure in the US today is greater than in the 1960s – what's missing is the widespread involvement and support for it, the passion and energy of young people."

His analysis of the 1960s protest movement is passionate but, he says, not nostalgic. The movement was "premised on ending hypocrisy". They discovered "that a system that everybody thought was basically just was instead basically unjust. This horrified people... It was like a slap in the face."

He got heavily involved, dropping his physics degree (with some regret) and eventually being expelled: "Buildings occupations, take-overs... There would be skirmishes at times. There would be battles. There were riots. There were all kinds of activism and I was part of it."

But this activism "never developed a clear understanding of alternatives, of something to be fighting for. So when the particular thing that was being fought against ended, the movements tended to dissipate."

More than 30 years on, creating an understanding of "alternatives" is still a key challenge for the left. Michael Albert thinks the passion of the 1960s protest movements is missing today "because of a widespread sense of cynicism, that you can't really accomplish anything".

"We don't organise against ageing. Ageing does even more damage than capitalism – ageing kills almost everybody – but we don't fight against it because that's insane. It's just a fact of life: you have to accept it.

"That's what most people think is the case for poverty, and indignity, and subordination, and capitalism. They just think that's it's a fact of life."

Margaret Thatcher gave them their defeatist motto, he says: "There is no alternative." Michael Albert takes his from the anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: "Capitalism is theft."

"I also think capitalism is violence, capitalism is indignity, capitalism is subordination, capitalism abets racism, capitalism abets sexism, and on and on.

"It destroys solidarity amongst people. It diminishes diversity. It creates vast disparities in wealth and income and power.

"None of this is controversial any more. I think that most people know this.

"If you think that about a system, then I think it's a responsibility to consider the possibility of a different system in its place."

He places much of the blame for the defeatism that, as he sees it, afflicts Western society, on the left. Much of the left has not learned the lessons of the 1960s.

"We might organise a demonstration, but we don't talk about a pattern of change and a trajectory of involvement that could yield a new society.

"And we don't describe that new society, so we don't create a feeling among people that, 'You know what, even with all the pressures on me, even with all the work I have to do just to get by... I can make a contribution and I can spend some of my time fighting for a better world.'

"That feeling that it's a productive thing to do is what's missing, and what we need to cultivate. We need a movement that is self-conscious, that isn't trying to ward off a turn for the worse but is instead self-consciously seeking something much better."

Michael Albert has a particular vision of something much better and he has spent much of the last 15 years trying to advance it. Called "Parecon" (short for participatory economics), it is, he believes, a sustainable economic system which can avoid the injustices inherent in capitalism without falling victim to those historically perpetrated under communism and socialism. It is complicated, he says, and then launches into an explanation at an alarming pace.

"Parecon is a conception of how to accomplish production and consumption and allocation in a manner which is humane, that promotes solidarity, that generates diversity, that is equitable, that generates self-management. It gives people a say over the decisions that affect them. And to accomplish these things, it has new institutions."

He gives an example: "In the workplace, instead of a corporate division of labour in which about 20 per cent of the people monopolise all of the more conceptual, socially engaging and empowering work, and 80 per cent do obedient and tedious work, there's a division of labour in which everybody does a mix of tasks that's comparably empowering to everybody else's."

People are paid for how long and hard they work, and under how difficult conditions. Decisions are made by consumers' and workers' councils.

The market is gone. "In the market system, in allocation, we have a kind of competition that breeds the most vile individualism because it causes everybody to be looking out only for themselves." In its place is "participatory planning".

If the vision is utopian, he remains focused on the individual struggles against injustice that make up the bulk of global anti-capitalism. The objective of these struggles, he says, should be to fight for necessary reforms, but with a deeper underlying objective than mere reform.

"The lesson of Parecon is that we have to fight for reforms in a non-reformist way. We have to win changes that benefit people's lives but that cause people to keep fighting for more, and that develop organisations that are able to win more, and that eventually generate workers and consumers councils and so on.

"We're going very fast here."

More The 'Parecon' site is Michael Albert's blog is at