How can democratic socialism improve the lives of working people over what they experience under capitalism? Major improvements will result from eliminating unemployment, economic insecurity and wealth inequality. But democratic socialism also hopes to revolutionize the work experience and equalize power within the workplace. How can this be done?
Over the past 40 years, two radical economists, Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, have developed a detailed model of a workable democratic socialist society that they call participatory economics or parecon (participatoryeconomics.info). A particularly intriguing (and controversial) aspect of parecon is the practice of balanced jobs. This practice attempts to eliminate the alienating capitalist division of labor and to equalize power within socialist workplaces without reducing the productivity of labor achieved within modern economies.
In a capitalist economy, most jobs are boring, repetitive, disempowering and generally undesirable. A minority of jobs, however, are challenging, creative, empowering and overall desirable. Jobs of the latter type usually involve intellectual, managerial and/or professional labor. The balanced jobs practice is to restructure work so that every job includes some of the interesting and empowering tasks and also some of the unattractive but necessary chores. The ultimate goal of the balanced jobs approach is to make all jobs equally desirable and all workers equally able to participate in workplace decision making. For example, in an airplane manufacturing plant, an engineer might do some cleanup and construction work, while a construction worker might perform some managerial and design tasks. And in a hospital, a surgeon might also make beds and deliver meals, while a janitor might also organize work schedules and handle complaints.
The composition of balanced jobs would be decided democratically by the workers in each production unit and would be perfected over time (i.e. balanced jobs would gradually approach equal desirability). Job balancing would initially happen within particular organizations but would eventually entail work within different establishments. Compensation under the parecon system would be entirely determined by effort and need. Because effort and need are not uniform, parecon compensation would exhibit some variation, but income inequality would be extremely small compared to that in capitalist societies. In order to make job balancing practical, a democratic socialist society would need to produce more experts of every kind (e.g. surgeons, architects, engineers, computer technicians) because all experts would perform some routine labor. Moreover, everyone’s education would require substantial upgrading.
Critics of parecon argue that the balanced job practice would damage production efficiency because highly trained experts must spend time doing entirely routine tasks. Albert and Hahnel rebut this criticism. They claim that balanced jobs would generate a surge of productivity from the great majority of workers who would find their labor more interesting, more empowering and far less alienating. Balanced jobs would also induce technical creativity entirely suppressed by the profit-driven capitalist organization of work. Albert and Hahnel think these positive effects would swamp any loss of efficiency resulting from the redeployment of experts. Of course, the balanced jobs practice would also advance the socialist goals of equity, solidarity and participation.
To learn more about balanced jobs and participatory economics, listen to Michael Albert’s ongoing podcasts at patreon.com/revolutionZ.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs every week in the Colorado Daily.