Interviews Postcapitalism

Robin Hahnel Interview on Participatory Economics – Part 4 – Outsourcing and ‘Wage Labour Through the Back Door?’

Editor’s note: discussion topics include how to decide which workers are members of a particular worker council in Participatory Economics (parecon), whether this threatens wage labour exploitation through the back door in market socialism or parecon, balancing jobs and reproductive labour in parecon, and outsourcing in capitalism.

[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 (Parecon), 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. If you haven’t watched the first interview check out Part A and Part B here.

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. You can do that by visiting You can also read Of the People, By the People for a concise introduction to parecon.

The discussion will also continue on the forum of

Robin Hahnel thank you very much for joining me.

[Robin Hahnel] Great to be with you.

[ATO] So, the question is about how to decide who is a worker council member and who isn’t. In parecon, how does a worker council decide who is a member who isn’t?

For consumer councils the answer is a simple matter of geography, if you live in a certain area you’re part of that consumer council. That’s easy.

However for worker council it’s more complicated. A worker council will use many labour inputs, but some of them will be considered internal inputs of labour from the worker council members and some will be considered external inputs of labour from non-members. How is this distinction made in practice? And how is this distinction made such that wage labour isn’t introduced through the back door by excluding certain workers from membership? For example, just to illustrate that, again coming back to our furniture factory, let’s say you have a handful of cleaners who come in and they clean the offices every day. You could imagine that those cleaners would be part of the furniture factory worker council. You could also imagine that there’s almost a subcontracting situation where the worker council hires the cleaners as external labour and then pays them differently.

But then again, maybe I’m thinking of this just in terms of a market. But please, anyway, just come in.

[RH] There are no external workers.

I mean, first let’s just deal with the basics. So, how do you become a member of a worker council? You go to their personnel department and you apply. So for existing worker councils you’re free to quit the one you’re in and apply to work in any other one.

There’s a more complicated issue about how do new workers councils come into being, particularly because as soon as we have a worker council they get to participate during the annual planning process and they could be allocated social resources. So there’s a question of do you have to establish some sort of credentials and credibility before we have you participating in the planning process.

But you’re not you’re not concerned with that.

[ATO] No.

[RH] You’re concerned with an issue that basically comes down to how integrated is an industry. So you could have a single company that makes its own steel and then makes its own automobiles. On the other hand, you could have two companies, one that makes the steel and sells the steel to the automobile company, and the automobile company buys the steel and then goes ahead and makes the automobile out of the steel.

[ATO] Yes. But do you mind if I just make the question a bit more pointed? So, I think probably in the context of parecon the question might be a confusion. But I’m thinking about it because this is a concern that I have about market socialism. And, for example, let’s look at Google under capitalism, then consider it under market socialism, say, and this will explain where I’m coming from.

So, Google today has wonderful conditions, like many such workplaces with highly skilled labour, where you can get your food there, and relax on bean bags, and blah, blah, blah. However, if you clean the offices where the software engineers work, you have no labour rights, you’re considered self-employed, you’re paid very little, and you’re just treated like human waste essentially. Okay, that’s capitalism.

Now let’s look at market socialism. I have concerns that even in a market socialist society that that worker council which operates Google could have an incentive to treat the cleaners in a similar way. That the cleaners would not be part of that worker council, they wouldn’t get the profit divided by number of members, because there is an incentive to have as few members as possible and it’s still a competitive market situation. So you can reduce costs by paying these cleaners less. And, of course, there’s a whole coordinator class element there, where there’s an issue of bargaining power, and that’s why I picked the cleaners because they have less bargaining power.

So that’s in a market economy. But is that even a question in parecon?

[RH] First of all, this is not an issue that I have thought about so I’m thinking out loud here.

You have a place like Google, and one of the things that has to happen at that place is offices have to be cleaned and the cafeteria has to be [served]. I can tell you that back 30 years ago, thinking about this, the way I would have thought about it would have been well those are some unpleasant tasks and we have to be sure that when we create jobs we have to be sure that everybody is going to have to do some of those unpleasant tasks along with those more pleasant tasks. So I would have viewed this as an issue of how do you balance jobs for both empowerment and desirability. And if you don’t balance them for desirability, how do you compensate that in terms of greater sacrifices and therefore effort ratings.

And I think those are perfectly good answers, but what you’ve introduced is a is a second possibility which is, well, wait a minute, you’ve imagined the more integrated production process where a single worker council is both producing software and also cleaning offices. What if we have a whole separate workers council that is cleaning offices? Now the place that that that I’ve actually done some thinking about this is in the chapter on reproductive labour. And there it’s not a question of a workplace, it’s a question of are there going to be households that hire people to [do reproductive labour]? Are you going to be able to [hire someone to do] gardening for you and they’re going to be all male? And are you going to be able to hire people to come and make your beds, and do your laundry, and do a deep cleaning on your house, and those people in that workers council are going to be all female? It was that sort of problem and issue that we were trying to address. But it introduces the same issue which is if we have this place that says ‘we don’t want to clean our offices at all, we want to hire another worker’s council to come and do this’ …