Monday 11 January 2010

Michael Albert - Imagine And Then Act

Z Magazine, in an attempt to increase the visibility and discussion of alternatives to capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy, is highlighting five essays from among more than 100 contributions to its Reimagining Society Project that address the question "What Do We Want." I was particularly interested in these reflections by co-editor Michael Albert.

Imagine a set of claims about vision and strategy for a participatory society. Imagine each claim is refined over time until the remaining list is important enough that 40 countries each send from 5 to 50 activists to a 5-day gathering of roughly 1,000 who further refine and then broadly agree on a final document. Imagine that this conference in turn conceives and promotes a proposal for an International Organization for a Participatory Society, including an interim structure, program, and methods of recruitment and action based on an initial 40 national chapters—then proceeding from there. Imagine that a year or so later 3,000-5,000 delegates from 60 countries representing 75,000-125,000 members gather to finalize a broadly-shared vision, structure, process, strategy, and program of this rapidly growing organization. It's a nice image, but can the Reimagining Society Project generate the shared claims needed to go forward? To argue that it can, here are some tentative claims.

Elevate Vision: My first claim seeks to refute the mainstream view that "there is no alternative" while also transcending the left view that even if an alternative is possible, it is not a priority and/or that unity around producing a convincing practical vision is virtually impossible. Rather, I maintain that only substance can counter cynicism and only by knowing where we want to go can we take steps to get us there. People who reject developing and sharing vision of a better society argue that vision might fuel sectarianism, overextend our knowledge, divert attention from important concerns, and might be monopolized by an elite using knowledge to accrue power.

Nonetheless, we should not leave vision to narrow academic groups or other elite formations. We should instead develop, advocate, and use vision flexibly and widely. We should welcome constructive criticism and seek continual innovation. Our antidote to misleading and elitist vision must be an inspiring, popularly-shared vision—while welcoming continual innovation and rejecting jargon or posturing.

Elevate Ethics: To compellingly argue for a new society, we need to describe the key institutional features that make it liberatory. But before we do that we must settle on values. Our values provide a measuring stick for how institutions might be organized. So our values come before institutions, as a moral and intellectual foundation.

Social life is endlessly diverse and complex. Most decisions about policies and structures are for people to determine in future times in light of their evolving circumstances and preferences. It would overstep our rights and responsibilities to get too detailed about the future. All that we need are the essential features.

But what values can help us with all this? And how do we get a list of values down to a workable length? People have dozens, maybe even hundreds, of values they favor. Undoubtedly, there is no single answer to picking a manageable subset that encompasses all our central desires. But different short lists can have the same social implications, so movements and organizations can arrive at the same destination despite having started with different values in the forefront. For example, would any leftist deny that people should have control of their lives without diminishing the same level of influence for others? Or that societies should deliver a fair allocation of the benefits and costs of social life, including fair resolution of disputes and effective use of assets to meet needs and develop potentials? Or the central importance of mutual aid and solidarity, of diversity in outcomes and methods, including ideas, lifestyles, life choices, etc.? Would any leftist deny the need for ecological balance? Would any leftist deny the importance of horizontal participatory relations in place of hierarchical and top-down elitist relations in all spheres of social life?

Multi-Focused: Surely a new and better world should include new and better production, consumption, and allocation; new and better laws, adjudication, and collective action; new and better relations of kin, family, sexuality, and nurturing; new and better relations of community, religion, race, and culture; new and better ecological relations and practices; and new and better international relations; as well as, of course, new relations in more specific parts of life, such as innovations specific to science, art, sports, education, health, and so on. Given that we need social vision to inspire and guide practice; given the importance of all sides of life, it follows that we need vision for economics, kin relations and socializing, cultural and community relations, legislative relations, ecology, and international relations—and not just for one or another of these. Being multi-focused not only says all these realms are centrally important, but that there is nothing to be gained by trying to prioritize them.

Win Classlessness: To have classes means to have groups that by their position in the economy have different access to income and influence, benefitting at one another's expense. Attaining classlessness means establishing an economy in which everyone by their economic position is equally able to participate, utilize capacities, and accrue income, and in which no one can accrue excessive income or influence at the expense of others.

We cannot eliminate the distinction between those who own the means of production and those who do not own the means of production unless no one owns the means of production everyone owns the means of production equally. But class division can also arise from a division of labor that affords some producers, who I call the coordinator class, far greater influence and income than others, who I call the working class. The important thing is that capitalism also has a third class (besides owners and workers), the coordinator class that sell their ability to perform specific tasks like workers, but have great power and status built into their structural position in the economic division of labor.

Our movements and projects must not only be anti-capitalist, they must also be pro-classlessness. They must prioritize both eliminating the monopoly of capitalists on productive property and also the monopoly of coordinators on empowering work.

New Economic Values: First, we should also seek positive economic values such as equitable distribution—each person who is able towork receives back from society in proportion to what he or she expends.

Second, economies affect not just income, but also relations among people. We would presumably prefer to have people concerned with and caring about one another in a cooperative social partnership, rather than seeking to fleece one another in an antisocial competitive shootout. Our second economic value is therefore solidarity and mutual aid.

Third, economies also affect our range of available options. Since most humans are social beings who can enjoy vicariously what others do that we cannot and who can benefit from avoiding over-dependence on narrow options, then diversity enriches possibilities and protects against errors. Our third value is therefore diversity.

The act of decision making itself affects us by influencing our mood, our sense of involvement and personal worth. Our fourth value is self-management—people having a say in decisions in proportion as those decisions affect us.

What an economy should do is reveal the full and true social costs and benefits of economic choices, including accounting for their impact on ecology. Our fifth value is ecological balance.

Lastly, economies also affect the social output we have available for people to enjoy. Indeed, this is the reason economies exist. If an economy honors the above values, but wastes our energy and resources, it unnecessarily diminishes our prospects. Even as an economy operates in accord with equity, diversity, self-management, and ecological balance, it should also efficiently utilize available natural, social, and personal assets to meet needs and develop potentials without undo waste, avoidable byproduct problems, or misdirection of purpose. Our sixth value is efficiency, understood as meeting needs and developing potentials in accord with self-managed choices without wasting assets or incurring avoidable costs along the way.

Reject Capitalism and 20th Century Socialism: Seeking classlessness and the values listed above should compel us to reject private ownership of productive property, corporate divisions of labor, top-down decision making, markets, and central planning. For all these economic institutions, the propensity to produce class division in turn homogenizes options within classes thereby violating diversity, and creates a war of class against class, thereby violating solidarity.

New Institutions: Rejecting capitalist and other oppressive economic structures leaves us needing to advocate new economic institutions. For workers and consumers to influence decisions requires venues through which we can express and tally our preferences—i.e., self-managing councils and balanced job complexes. If each person gets a mix of empowering and disempowering tasks, so that each participant is comparably empowered and thus comparably prepared to participate in self-management as the rest, the division of labor basis for class division is removed. Allocation should be accomplished by self-managing worker and consumer councils and it should be undertaken by cooperative and informed collective negotiation. All this implies a defining institutional feature of participatory economics, participatory planning.

Revolutionary Organization: Creating institutions in the present that incorporate seeds of the future makes sense partly as an experiment to learn more about our aims, partly as a model to inspire hope and support, partly as a way to do the best possible job of fulfilling participants now, and partly to begin developing tomorrow's infrastructure today, including incorporating council organization, balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, and self management in their organizational structures.

Today's Tasks: Change will not come via an unfolding inevitable tendency in current relations that sweep us, uncomprehending, into a better future. Change will come, instead, via self-conscious actions by huge numbers of people bringing to bear our creativity and energy in a largely unified manner that will incorporate continuous and lively internal debate, which will continuously develop overarching shared aims. It is incumbent on us to collectively seek wider agreement, to add additional spheres of social life, and to solidify into an organizational and programmatic unity, in accord with shared views.

Michael Albert is co-founder of South End Press and Z Communications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Parecon: Life After Capitalism, Realizing Hope, and Remembering Tomorrow (a memoir).

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