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Futile Utopic vision

In the preface to this second edition of Realizing Hope, Michael Albert’s ‘speculative vision of a future beyond capitalism’, the author describes his frustration that no one seriously addressed his ideas the first time.

The reason, he suggests, is that while people like the idea of a just society, they do not want to get their hands dirty building one. A fair comment with regard to us armchair critics of austerity; but a more significant reason might be that Realizing Hope itself feels purposeless and dated.

At the core of Albert’s new society is “parecon” – participatory economics – a mulch of Marxist and anarchist ideas, scarcely veiled by two chapters that try to differentiate parecon from its ideological forbears. In parecon, the means of production are publicly owned. Workers have “balanced job complexes”, with the suggestion that surgeons clean bedpans (though curiously not that cleaners perform surgery). Workers are paid for effort, not production. Councils decide everything, from the price of bread to the subjects of poetry. As a reader of Financial Adviser this may not be your cup of tea.

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Aside from questions of viability, there are blind spots in this vision. There is no discussion of how a parecon justice system would operate – a major omission for a society that cannot function unless its members abide by council decisions. Albert believes goodwill and re-education would eliminate dissent. But blaming the negative behaviours of capitalism purely on misplaced incentives and habit is simplistic. We may wish to think people are generally good, but can we have faith they are flawless?

To be fair, the utopian rhetoric is deliberate: part of the book’s strategy of “arguing for vision per se”. But it seems futile to yoke a demand for vision to pure speculation – is this book just for comrades dreaming of a brighter tomorrow? The author claims he wrote it for activists. Realising Hope is not a manual for resistance, though, or a proposal for policymakers.

All this is unfortunate, because the task of Realizing Hope – to describe an ethics as well as an organisational structure for a post-capitalist society – is valuable, and one that does elude popular discourse. Yet despite its unashamed idealism, this is too vague, too vain and too unrefined to provide a real alternative or generate a movement. A book like this might be needed, but Realizing Hope is not that book.

Alexander Jackman is a freelance journalist