Piracy & Participatory Economics

Tagged as: anti-militarism culture economic_crisis free_spaces gender social_struggles
Neighbourhoods: bradford economics leeds
Published by group: Group1 in 12 Club

Reflections on Michael Albert, Gabriel Kuhn, Piracy, Economics and so on…

The M62 Corridor (as planners doubtless think of it) - or at least a short stretch of it – had the good fortune last Thursday to host both Michael Albert and Gabriel Kuhn, hearing them talk on their respective expert subjects.

Your correspondent, equipped with a bicycle and railcard, was able to encounter both speakers by catching one talk in Leeds and the other in Bradford, and offers the following reflections.

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First though a quick limk-a-rama to let you know that you can still catch Michael Albert (if you’re prompt, and in the right locality) in Nottingham tonight (1st Nov)


And audio of his speeches at the London Anarchist Bookfair and Bradford University can be found here and here - and a video interview on London Indymedia here.

Links disclaimer: throughout this article various links will take you to the best information sources I could find - some of these will be corporate sites trying to sell you crap, others will simply want to harvest your IP address for their own mysterious purposes. Northern Indymedia uses RemoveIP to anonymise your  browsing (and publishing) - we cannot offer any similar assurances once you click away from this site.

The lecture hall at Leeds University Geography East was, quite literally, standing room only.  The room was densely packed with a slightly odd demographic forming a sort of (Bactrian) camel’s hump distribution of young studenty types and elder concerned citizens, with only a thin spread of 30-somethings in between. One could speculate endlessly on what this might mean…

Michael Albert  began by dealing with “the current crisis”  - saying that the use of the “crisis” terminology is only applied when rich and powerful people are affected. As the prevailing economic systems go about their routine business and millions suffer and die that is not a “crisis” – that’s business as usual. There is not seen to be a problem, or even a relationship, between those humans and their suffering and the systems within which they exist.

Given that the subject of the talk were the ideas about “Participatory Economics” – which are to be found in the pre-“crisis” 2003 book “Parecon: Life After Capitalism”  it’s perhaps reasonable that Albert should pass quickly on to the matter in hand, but it would have been nice (time permitting) to hear him dissect the unfolding crisis from the perspective he occupies - that there is, after all, an alternative to the twin broken schemes of Crony Capitalism (a.k.a The “Free” Market) and State Capitalism (a.k.a. The Evil Empire).

To expand on that for a moment, your correspondent, in his daily life at Gradgrind & Sons' Bookmakers & Casino, on the seventeenth floor data-crunching spreadsheet coalface, can report that Joe Average – even the Joe with a maths degree and a daily exposure to matters of a financial nature, is expecting the economy to “bounce back” sometime soon. For Joe the clanking sounds and severe vibrations coming up through the foundations do not betoken a thrown shaft about blow the side off the crankcase of the economic engine. In fact - somewhat like the Andean airline pilots relying on their dead reckoning to conclude, with absolute conviction, they had already safely passed over the mountain which in fact they were about to fly into – Joe is dismissive of the unanswerable questions posed by the “constant growth – forever” model. (To pose just one, for example, if 3x impoverished workers toil – as part of their “development” - to produce cheap consumer goods for x citizens on a planet (population 4x), where will the 9x workers be found to provide a similar standard of living for the 3x workers as they finally make their ascent up the development ladder? And what raw materials will they use? And when will the 9x workers get their turn?). 

Staying with average Joe, just for one more paragraph - readers, as s/he toils over their spreadsheets and calculates just how much tax can be levied on hope before the customers wise up and take their punts elsewhere, s/he still lives – your correspondent would contend - in a special version of that pre-crisis phoney war described in Turbulence magazine’s “Life In Limbo” article  - a place where the enemy is not some easy-to-describe racial or ideological stereotype gathering on the borders, but  the difficult to understand consequences of policies to which “There Is No Alternative”  - represented by a mainstream media which still believes in that mantra, and thus prevents a coherent analysis of the come-down following the 30-year sugar rush of neo-liberal fizzy-pop uber-liquidity mayhem. To the point where Dick Fuld can be quoted – explaining his misfortunes to Congress – that he was undone by “uncontrollable market forces” without a murmur of dismay from the financial press (or any others). Since the uncontrollability  - the explicit and deliberate deregulation - of Market Forces is what gives them their special magical powers,  lamenting the absence of control is somewhat like the moment Dorothy pulls aside the curtain and reveals the Wizard of Oz to be an insignificant little dude whose powers only come from the belief that everyone has in him.

So, while Joe and the other Average Workmates sweat over their computations and attempts to marry Game Theory up with Financial Good Practice, your correspondent has slipped away early from old Mr Gradgrind’s gaze and is seated amongst a throng of academics and concerned citizens, listening to Michael Albert, 63, tell jokes and cajole the attendees with contrarian opinions.

“‘Say Hello To The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss’ – who said that”  Albert deadpans, to stunned silence, before, after a few more good-natured taunts, explaining that he’s already told us “C’mon, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Who – rock bands, y’get it? Pete Townsend – he said that” Your correspondent knew the answer but was afraid it was a trick question. Albert is in mid-flow discussing Argentinian workers who’ve taken over their workplaces, set up their workers' councils, and are now saying – somewhat despairingly – that the same old power relationships and benefits distribution inequalities are re-establishing themselves. “It seems to be human nature” Albert reports them as saying. His view is different – the point is that when owners and managers leave, and the workforce become the owners, and new administrators are found from among their own number, then the ones doing the onerous, heavy, repetitive work will not have the same energy to attend the workers’ councils as the newly re-skilled white collar staff. Which makes a lot of sense. If you have basically the same structure you will get basically the same problems re-appearing, it’s the nature of the structure, not the humans. And the ones staying behind for the workers’ councils, trying to enact direct democracy, will be doing so with an unbalanced representation and will make less-good decisions  because of it. The old worker-boss schism will reappear.

Participatory Economics anticipates this problem and seeks to address it with the concept of “balanced job complexes” where each worker does a share of the stultifying “shit work” (not the phrase he used) so that the tedium of work is evened out and we all have the same energy left for the workers’ council (or whatever the decision making body is, if you need one – which you may not).

The relevant chapter is here (if you skipped the link I gave you already).

The reason I’m pointing you there is twofold. Firstly because I don’t have the brain power to accurately regurgitate the whole thing here (I just want to tell you it happened, that it was interesting, give a couple of examples of why I thought it was interesting, and use it as an excuse to unburden myself of a couple of my own half-baked opinions) and, secondly, because as Michael Albert took questions about the whole Production: Remuneration: Consumption (Distribution) arc, he totally skipped the last bit, saying there wasn’t time and that – if we were interested we should read the book(s).

Which was a pity: one of the interesting questions taken concerned the way in which Parecon addressed Climate Change. Or, to put it another way – and to hijack the question and burden it with my own interpretation – if The Market Economy truly will come to be seen, when we look backwards from the utopian Parecon future, as a destructive peculiarity consigned to the same historical dustbin as slavery and constant war - then what of Cap’n’Trade? Not that many in the room would have been pinning their hopes on Carbon Pricing to save us, but if Parecon doesn’t provide a better answer then it’s not much use, as we probably won’t be getting to a future of any kind (most of us). Albert kind of half-answered by describing the relationship between three people and a motor car. One sells it and gets some money, one buys it and drives it around (those two have a relationship with each other), and a third inhales the tail-pipe emissions (no-one has a relationship with them). I guess he was saying that in the Parecon world there will be an acknowledgement of all the people affected, whereas in the current system only the two people exchanging money are regarded as significant. And that by extension, the issues of Climate Change would somehow be factored into the “Allocation” part of the system (a habitable planet being something to allocate). In a perfect world your correspondent would read-up the “Externalities” chapter now and report back, but there’s a celeb programme coming on the telly in a mo so you’ll just have to read it yourself:    

Somewhere in the midst Michael Albert asked the attendees if any of us had, perhaps,  the opinion that people buy things they don’t need as a result of advertising. A forest of hands went up. Certainly, at Gradgrind & Sons Joe Average talks all the time about things s/he is going to buy, what a bargain the thing was when they do buy it, and then for a week or two afterwards keeps going on about how great it is it until the next thing hits the consumerist radar and it all starts again. Same with holidays to places that they come back from with stories containing no location-specific observations. Albert thinks (a) I’m being a snob (b) we’re all wrong. Well, I used to like contrarians but I’ve been going off them a bit lately. The once noble calling of sceptical enquiry has been dragged into the gutter by the furthest-out conspiracy theorists who don’t know when to stop flogging a dead horse and Climate Change deniers who haven’t seen the springtime growth coming up in my autumnal weed patch. Nonetheless, Michael Albert made a brave fist of exculpating the admen by citing the conduct of Tony Manero, a fictional character played by John Travolta in the popular moving-picture entertainment feature “Saturday Night Fever”. Your correspondent thought this was an all-singing all-dancing exploitation piece cashing-in on the disco craze of the late 70’s, based on a made-up piece of reporting by Nik Cohn. (Top tunes by the Bee Gees though.) Michael Albert observes that Tony Manero works all week in a dead-end job in a hardware store to get the cash together to buy a shirt to look good in at the disco. And repeats ad infinitum because he can’t be seen in the same shirt twice. Well, that might happen sometimes (even if it is derived from a piece of fiction based on another piece of fiction) but I don’t think it disposes of the Bill Hicks theory of advertising . I mention that here to give you a flavour of the sacred-cow slaying Michael Albert likes to get into. He has some pretty rum stuff to say about America (not Americans, just the new Evil Empire itself) and refers to his “friends” from the 1968 era anti-war protests as “delusional maniacs”  (the ones who went off to the wilderness to learn how to use weapons and survive a soon-come guerrilla war, that is, not everyone he knew in 1968).

Tony Manero, Michael Albert seems to be saying, wouldn’t need to buy respect and love (or whatever) with a new shirt and some tasty dancefloor moves if he worked in a “balanced work complex” which may be true, I dunno. But I think the problems outlined by Thorstein Veblen, Reverend Billy and even Alain de Botton require a little more examination than that (n.b. don’t buy anything on the end of these links – thanks). Perhaps it’s in the book…but I have an urgent appointment with the shopping channel – they’re doing a special on multi-purpose step ladders and I‘ve no idea how I lived without one so long. The book learning can wait.

Touching briefly on a couple of concepts of Production and Allocation  - Michael Albert anticipates early on in the talk one of the problems around the balanced work complex – “what about the experts?” – with a little thought experiment. “Suppose...” he says “…you took – 50 years ago, say – all the surgeons in America and rounded them up in one place? You could look around at them, all male, all white, all from comfortable backgrounds, and ask them to account for that uniformity. They’d explain that they were the only ones up to the task of learning to be surgeons…”  But we know that’s not true, he continues, just by looking at the same profession today. In the same way, in any workplace where a small number of people work in the air-conditioned offices and a larger number engaged in some tedious, less comfortably provisioned, onerous task, the reality is that some of the office staff could pull some weight in the onerous task department and the work left undone in the air conditioned offices could be performed by people previously sweating it out on the production floor all week long. Your correspondent likes the sound of this, but wonders how it sounds to a roomful of academics. Perhaps some had holidays jobs that gave them an insight into the productive side of the economy, but if they’ve never been mini-bussed out to a frosty spring-onion field before dawn in the company of fellow pre-teenage sans papiers then they’re probably a bit unclear about the true cost of their salad sandwiches (nor yet their cotton socks).

Well, Michael Albert already thinks I’m a snob so there’s not much left to lose. I might as well hit you with my own crazy-crackers contrarian economic theory. We are all The Boss Class, those of us in the x group above depending on the sweat of the 3x. Who of us, peering into our computer screens, can safely say we produce more than we consume? Who’s ever been to a coltan mine? Or any kind of mine, actually? Few of us, and fewer all the time. As workers organise – inexpertly and imperfectly – capital moves somewhere more conducive and we all obediently troop off to the shops and thank the globalistas we don’t have to work all week for a flashy shirt any more. Progress! Two shirts! Three shirts!

I am put in mind of Francis Spufford’s “Red Plenty”, the story of that moment at the end of forty years of revolution, starvation, massacres, purges and painful progress when the Soviet Union technocrats looked at their graphs and thought for a moment they were on the way to a cornucopian utopia. Clever people had worked out how to make things and other clever people were working on how to make sure the right things were made, in the right quantities, without the “unseen hand” of the free market doings its powerful magic and making all the numbers come out right. A bloke called Glushnikov (in the fictionalised account, based on real events) has plans for a big computer to do all the sums and plan everything without human intervention (another unseen hand, automated, dispassionate, incorruptible) to purge the last bits of waste from Central Planning,  but someone totals up the variables and realises it’s not going to happen, too many permutations spiralling off into infinity. Can’t solve that problem that way. Took a couple more decades for the wheels to fall off and for all those with a lefty-authoritarian control-freaky bent to find themselves with nothing much left to believe in.

And boss class as we are, we're all sitting obediently waiting for someone else to lay some wisdom on us and fix everything. Damn that pessimism gene!

Michael Albert is calling for a more perfect organisation of labour, that includes an organisation of production, consumption, remuneration and allocation. I hope it’s in the book, because it wasn’t in the talk, engaging and interesting as it was. I hope it doesn’t involve a big computer.

As your correspondent passes through the station at Leeds the machine (designed to do the work of a ticket attendant) steals the precious season ticket. A couple of nearby railway workers – clocking off, it seems – point to a third and suggest he might be able to help “…he’s fucking useless though…” they say, in passing (though it turns out he does have the key to the labour saving ticket-stealing machine). I guess that's a very complex job complex going on in that workplace.

Michael Albert is on his way to Bradford too – he’s already been to Lincoln. No one can say he’s a slacker, that’s for sure. Not on the same train as me though…

Your correspondent is heading for The Loser Hovel, a night-spot in Bradford mired in filth and despair. All the talk of workers' councils and grumbling manual staff put me in mind of the keyholders at The Hovel (well, some of them). Theoretically in touch with their own working conditions and income stream, and in control of the expenses, by having the power to sell drinks, avoid wastage, and use their time productively, a grouchy clique avoid the workers’ council meetings (we call them members’ meetings, as TLH is a mutual enterprise) and ventilate their frustrations late at night in the bar -  over inexpertly tallied-up drinks on the never-never -  or in gormless graffiti around the building.

Perhaps its unfair to compare the Geography East lecture theatre  - where contract cleaners come in before dawn and wipe away the smears of the previous day’s academic exploits, paid for somehow or other – with the grim realeconomik of TLH, where weeks of beer spillages and that strange material known to science only as “crust” gathers. Elsewhere in Bradford millions is spent from various public funds to sponsor the right kind of Arts & Culture – at TLH we “compete”, in effect, with these subsidised outlets trying to show (and sometimes succeeding) that a non-hierarchical, non-profit-oriented entity can provide (some) good facilities without doffing its cap to the Arts Council or participating in the tax-on-hope of the various lottery funds (your correspondent is conveniently forgetting his nightmare existence at Gradgrind’s Casino here). One of the low-cost almost crust-free corners in TLH is the top floor café-library, where vegan meals and snacks are being prepared and Gabriel Kuhn is preparing his lecture notes.

I should digress, one more time, to say that t’1in12 club (for this is the true location of Kuhn’s talk) is not run by losers. They just act that way, some of them, some of the time. Window broken? Shrug. Door lock broken? Shrug. Stairs filthy? Shrug. Who knows if it’s the alcohol that’s to blame, or just the welcome we implicitly extend to misfits and weirdos that gives us this culture. Certainly it seems that a good proportion of members with access to the keys seem to live in a “someone else will eventually do it” fantasy. I guess they know it’s bollocks or they’d come to the workers’ council to argue their case.

Luckily the Gabriel Kuhn talk is in the Library when some other people have done it. The detritus from the recent crust fest has been scooped up, the piss wiped away, the broken glass gathered up, the books put back on the shelves, the plants watered, and the floor give a good clean.

Gabriel Kuhn generally talks on one of his three specialist subjects but, following a show of hands, it is established that there’s equal interest in Landauer, Piracy and Straight Edge.

Kuhn explains that coming from a small Austrian town there was an all-pervading drinks culture associated with growing up, but that he was alienated from that scene by the associated violence and generally negative conduct which prevailed. Unfortunately the non-drinkers in town were representative of a conservative culture with which he also felt no affinity. So it was a relief to him to discover the expression of the basic ideas of “Straight Edge” in the song of the same name by Minor Threat – { lyrics here (don’t buy the ringtone) } Kuhn  talked about the positive and negative aspects of Straight Edge (for example, relating how Straight Edge had been appropriated by some illiberal types with conservative views on abortion and sexual relations) and then gave us a reading from the collection of writings he edited on the subject “Sober Living for The Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straightedge, and Radical Politics"

Kuhn began his talk on Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger by explaining that he had initially written an article partly in response to a piece on Piracy in Do or Die, and that his article had subsequently been translated and re-published together with another piece by Ulrike Klausmann, and Marion Meinzerin to complete the edition. There’s a very fine review of the complete work here and an interview with Gabriel Kuhn on Znet here. The key points which your exhausted correspondent picked up were these: though Pirate imagery is used world-wide from St Pauli to the Oakland Rangers as a symbol representing independence and a rejection of authority, and whilst the available literature of "Golden Age Piracy" is sketchy, the claims that the values endorsed by the pirates of that era were more akin with ours (us right there in the 1in12 Club) as a result of being opposed to authority and convention, while not exactly groundless, were certainly in some doubt. For example, the gender-equality implied by the existence of Women Pirates in powerful roles was reduced in significance by the fact that they dressed, acted and lived as men in order to perform these roles.

Finally Kuhn gave an illuminating account of the life and death of Gustav Landauer, with readings from his book Socialism From The Inside Out: Gabriel Kuhn On Gustav Landauer. (There’s a short review with some useful links here.). In short, Kuhn makes the case that Landauer was Germany's first and most significant anarchist, and observes that previously only one of his works had been translated into English, a point he emphasised by holding up a copy of "For Socialism" from the 1in12 Library Collection (though we should also note that a we hold a copy of Anarchy magazine from August 1965 containing a feature on Landauer and Buber). As translator he has now made the other writings of Landauer available to interested readers who didn't pay attention in their German lessons at school (me sir!).

As the press deadline has elapsed your correspondent humbly submits his incomplete copy and hopes for leniency in the next workers’ council meeting.

Apologies to Gabriel Kuhn for the lack of proportion in the coverage. T’was a long day.


The 1in12 Library opens fortnightly on Thursdays, and every Saturday as part of the Café opening hours. The collective is always looking for members to help with its work cataloguing, arranging events, and scooping up crust (we like to think of it as an unbalanced job complex).

 Michael Albert tour organised by The Project for a Participatory Society U.K (PPS-UK)

Gabriel Kuhn tour organised in conjunction with The Social Centres' Network


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