Interviews Postcapitalism

Robin Hahnel Interview on Participatory Economics – Part 1A – Housing & Land

Editor’s note: discussions topics include how housing is built, distributed, and managed, in Participatory Economics (parecon), the distribution of land in a socialist economy, and economic rent.

[After The Oligarchy] Hello everybody, this is After The Oligarchy. Today I’m speaking with Professor Robin Hahnel. Robin Hahnel is a professor of economics in the United States, co-founder with Michael Albert of the post-capitalist model known as Participatory Economics, and author of many books.

Today’s conversation is in association with meta: the Centre for Post-capitalist Civilization. This is the first in a series of interviews with Professor Hahnel about Participatory Economics, and in particular his latest book Democratic Economic Planning published in 2021. It’s an advanced discussion of the model proposed in that book, so I recommend you familiarize yourself with Participatory Economics to understand what we’re talking about.

The discussion will also continue on the forum of

Robin Hahnel, thank you for joining me.

[Robin Hahnel] It’s great to be with you today.

[AO] I finished reading Democratic Economic Planning recently – here it is for viewers – and it’s an outstanding contribution I think. It’s very technical, which for me is a good thing. I really feel that I needed that book, I felt like I was waiting for that book to be published and it came along at exactly the right time. So I’d say if any viewers are similarly inclined, buy the book Democratic Economic Planning,read it. If viewers want a more straightforward and accessible introduction to Participatory Economics, then Of the People, By the People is very good; short, clear, and accessible.

So without further ado, there are something like 60 questions to discuss in total but we won’t go through all of those today, of course. Today, I just want to begin with some questions about consumption in a participatory economy.

[RH] Before you ask me a question, let me congratulate you for actually reading that book. I don’t know how many people have actually managed to do it yet. You are in very select company I can promise you. And it’s because, I mean, it’s long and there are sections that are that are very technical. And I wish there were more people who had managed to take the time and energy to wade through it. I may have to reassess my opinion of economists versus engineers. I understand that you have an engineering background?

[AO] Yes.

[RH] What I thought was, well, economists can read this book but I’m worried about my fellow political activists, where it’s kind of difficult. And actually AK Press is going to come out with a book sometime in about three or four months called A Participatory Economy, and that book is intended for the for the activist audience, you don’t have to be an economist. But I’m going to revise my strategy to think that, well I can address economists and expect them to actually read things carefully. Maybe I should shift over to the engineers and make you my target audience from now on, because at least you’ve demonstrated a willingness to put in the work.

[AO] Yes well I will add one thing, which is that I’ve got a very intense interest in political economy and I’m kind of pursuing an autodidactic course in economics to prepare myself to become an economist. So I’m in a bit of an odd position. However, I will say that in our post-capitalism discussion group in DiEM25 – so I’m a member of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 – there are quite a few engineers, it’s something that tends to crop up. What I will say about engineering and politics is that something I think about is – it has shaped my view a lot – I think one benefit is that you have a technical and numerical, mathematical, training but you’re not necessarily indoctrinated into the same presuppositions about economics. So there’s a potential there to engage with political economy that maybe those who were trained in orthodox economics don’t experience.

[RH] I can tell that engineers are more inclined to matter-of-fact thinking and therefore less interested in ideology. And I think that’s a huge barrier in thinking about alternatives to capitalism, you know, if you’re so wrapped up in the ideology. Because I think a lot of what we have to do in the aftermath of the failures of attempts to build socialist economies in the past is, I mean we have to engage in really some very concrete thinking about procedures and, you know, what the implications of deciding things this way or that way are. Less political grandstanding and more matter-of-fact thinking would stand us all in good stead. I think the answer is we need to recruit some more engineers.

[AO] Well engineers are not I completely agree with you. That’s the whole premise of this channel, the more concrete the better. And I’m completely on your side in terms of the necessity of vision, in that, it’s kind of common sense: whenever we want to do anything in life we really need to think about what exactly we’re trying to do. And there’s no reason that that would be less true in politics or economics than in any other field of life. But a lot of us on the left have managed to convince ourselves that there’s something wrong with this.

The first question is about housing. There are a few questions about this, and I will throw a few of them at you and we’ll move through them and maybe come back. How is housing organized in a participatory economy? Because obviously housing is a very important sector, it has distinct characteristics in terms of houses being assets, they’re durable, they’re large purchases, and so forth. If there’s no private ownership of housing and all housing is socially owned, then what are the rights of use? How does society decide who gets to live where, and for how long? And then, is housing rented? If so, how’s the rent calculated? And so on, but we’ll come to that.

[RH] Actually before starting, let me say that when I looked at your questions the first five are the ones that I am least suitable to answering as fully as we’re going to try and do now.

[AO] Yeah that’s all right.

[RH] Actually as you just mentioned, housing poses some particular problems. But I think what I’ll explain is not really from the production side, that’s not where it’s peculiar, it’s different. It’s from the using and consumption side, because it is such a major … I mean a house in terms of an asset or purchase, if you purchased it, dwarfs everything else you buy. And the other problem is that on a regular income you can’t actually pay for the entire thing, and that’s why we have mortgages. So here’s something that we somehow have to figure out: a way for people with sensible incomes to manage to pay sensible amounts as they go.

Now renting is kind of easy, and so my answer could be well ‘what if we just don’t’? What if all housing units are rentals? Then they would be produced by … if you take a look on the production side, compared to a lot of really, really, large firms, contractors who build housing, these aren’t multinational firms. They’re large, many of them are large companies, many of them actually aren’t. So the idea that you can have worker councils, with carpenters, and electricians, and all of the kinds of people that actually work to build housing, including the engineers that design them – well that could be a workers council and that’s the product that they are selling.

That’s sort of straightforward and easy, but it’s the financing and purchasing of it. and when you’re living in it how do you pay for and what are your rights, etc, that that do pose some special difficulties. And I’m just going to say that this is a subject that one of my collaborators … I accuse him of obsessing over it. This is Anders.

[AO] Ah yes.

[RH] Anders who is a member of the collective in … he’s Swedish and he lives in Stockholm.

[AO] That’s Anders Sandström, is it?

[RH] Yes, it’s Anders Sandström. And he’s published a book called Anarchist Accounting, which I think has the most brilliant title of any book I’ve ever heard. Because who would be the least likely people to have anything to do with each other? It would be anarchists and accountants. And here it is. So I’ve declared him to be the most famous anarchist accountant in the history of the world.

And he also obsesses on matters do come into play particularly heavily in trying to deal with a situation like this. I mean it’s amortization and how do you cost all that out. So I’m just going to say that I’m going to give you my answer, but he took up that challenge in his book Anarchist Accounting in more detail and more seriously than I have in anything I’ve published.

Here would be the short side of it. I think if we just had housing always rented, there’d be a fairly straightforward explanation. And the rent would be, people will be charged the social cost of providing the housing. Whether or not they are paying that to the construction workers council that built it, or whether there’s actually an intermediate workers council which is … I mean usually the builders aren’t the ones that are then managing the property, or the sale of the property, or if it’s rental taking care of the rental. Then there’s another workers council that basically is managing that.

But I think that that people sometimes have a legitimate interest in not just being a renter, where, you know, they might be thrown out at any point. And there I think the idea that comes to mind is well there’s a difference between a lease and being a renter. It’s sort of a halfway ground between ‘I’m the owner of the property’ and ‘I’m merely a renter’, and maybe I sign a one-year contract but basically I’m paying rent month-to-month and the rate can be varied as we’re going along. So as far as I’m concerned, I don’t see any reason that we couldn’t be leasing for people who wanted the lease, and that gives you a long-term contract.

And now you’re thinking ‘okay, we have people who still probably are working on family farms’. And so here’s a family farm and the parents die, and should there be some sort of arrangement? Or just if you grew up in a house, and your parents have been there all that time, you’d grown up, and now you want to stay there. I don’t know why we couldn’t write in something like a first right of [refusal]…