Monday, July 7, 2008

Real Utopia

Below is an excerpt from the book: "What Is Real Utopia?" by Chris Spannos. The book is a collective effort to spell out vision and strategy for a feasible and desirable transformation of society's defining institutions. It offers institutional and social vision for the economy, the polity, kinship relations, culture, community and the environment. There are chapters on how these transformations may affect daily life in art, architecture, technology, cities, and education. The hope for the book is that it inspires others to build upon, refine, advocate and work to realize the ideas presented in its pages; including belief in a new society that is classless, self-managing, diverse, and participatory.


Utopias have a long, mixed history in Left movements. Sometimes they have propelled our imagination toward what better worlds might look like. Other times they have trumpeted heaven on earth, a world for angels rather than mortals, a far fetched leap to the impossible, where birds can play guitar and human beings are able to flap their arms to fly. Utopia, the word, has its origins in Greek, meaning nowhere, suggesting that it doesn't - and maybe cannot - exist. Still, it has been conceived as an island perfectly designed in all ways societal and moral, and an ideal place or state of being where no wrong can be done. Where utopia offers vision escaping reality it has rightly been rejected by serious Leftists. But even when vision is not pie in the sky, objections are made that any long-term goals can become a blueprint that carries inherent danger of authoritarianism with people reacting as spellbound children naively following the Pied Piper. In this book, we hope to transcend all such problems by drawing from history and real-world conditions, offering vision and strategy for what is possible in transforming society's defining institutions and in revolutionizing human existence in all spheres of life.

"Another world is possible!" does not have to be a vague claim never solidifying compelling visions of a better world, nor a demand glossing over the structural roots of capitalism, patriarchy, racism, imperialism, and un-sustainability. Instead we need and should want convincing vision and strategy that reaches into the roots of today's problems and seeks to replace them with emancipatory alternatives. We hope to leave behind our forbearers' baggage but carry forward their wisdom and courage. Our efforts are made easier by both the gains previous struggles have won as well as their previous failures. When looking back, we only need to turn to a period as recent as last century when movements that sought to change the world were predominantly concerned with class struggle and transformation of the economic system. Class was considered by many as the lone focus that could yield progressive social change. This conception was held by many on the Left and articulated primarily by orthodox Marxists. And though the 60s and 70s saw the emergence of "neo-Marxists," even these variations on Marxism still emphasized a core of economics with class struggle being the driving force of history and society.

In the last third of the 20th Century many social movements arose whose principle concerns were in other spheres of social life including the women's and gay liberation movements, and the civil rights and Third World national liberation struggles. These movements did not fit so easily into Marxist conceptual frameworks, at least not without considerable overhaul, with results yielding something little resembling the old Marxism. For those of us concerned with societal transformation and emancipation, the best of these New Left efforts yielded new social formations, experiences, and insights which some in turn used to inform their vision and strategy. The worst of this period, despite being rightly disillusioned with deterministic and mechanical approaches toward social change, wrongly jettisoned emancipatory aspirations and attempts to seek out understandings guiding us to a better future; and in some cases even consciously rejected truth, reason, and rationality, claiming these concepts were actually part of the problem (post-modernism).

This conceptual re-working, largely a response to overly mechanical and economistic approaches of the past, offers today's movements insight to draw from; however, we should avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water. Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel made their own contribution where they first outlined their proposal for a three-class analysis introducing what they call the "Coordinator Class. The Coordinator Class is positioned above workers who do rote and un-empowering tasks, who want higher wages, better working conditions, more control over their work, etc.; and below capitalists who own the means of production and want to lower wages while extracting more labor and progressively weaken the bargaining power of workers in order to gain more profit. On the one hand, coordinators have authority and power over workers. They do mostly empowering and conceptual work, and so benefit from their elite position. On the other hand, workers below them do mostly rote and executionary work. This matters, not only in the unjust distribution of desirable work, but also in so far as the kinds of work we do help shape and inform our skills and capacities for decision-making and participation both in our work places as well as in the institutions of society more broadly. Putting a three-class analysis in the conceptual tool box of today's social movements is only one of the many tasks critical to developing widely shared vision and strategy for the kind of classless and participatory society proposed in this book.

There is also another difference today that makes having widely shared vision and strategy for a new world necessary. Here in the U.S., across North America, Western Europe, and in many parts of the world, the passion for radical societal transformation is not present in our social movements. We are not excited about the prospects of human liberation, of fundamentally altering society's core defining institutions—of Revolution. Where is this passion among today's movements? Does the international anti-corporate globalization movement have a widely shared desire not only to fundamentally transform corporate hierarchies, markets, class structures, and property relations, but also to develop complimentary vision and strategy regarding emancipatory transformation in other spheres of life? Where is this desire among our anti-war, labor, or other social movements? Does anyone believe, as they should, that we can transcend the policies and institutions which warp our society in racist, sexist, and classist ways?

To illustrate the point, consider Venezuela. The Venezuelan population is excited about the massive structural reforms leading them to more control over the institutions which affect their lives. Nobody knows where it will lead. It could all unravel and fall apart next month. But right now Venezuelans are aroused about the possibility of winning a new society. It is not just in Venezuela, but wherever structural transformation empowers the population hopes and desires surface. Passion seemingly deepens and spreads as moves toward empowerment and structural change deepen and spread. Venezuelans believe they can win. Our own efforts should also propose vision and strategy able to inspire our movements so that we too believe we can win, one of the many reasons for Real Utopia.

Our vision and strategy should inform our understanding of who the agents of social change are, what guides and shapes them, and not send us down a century long dead end. Looking back, the predominant view among Left movements of the 20th Century was historical materialism, that class struggle was the lone driving force shaping history, society, and people. We want our vision and strategy to incorporate a modern understanding of class struggle, enriching the insights of class analysis, but also accounting for other factors that shape people and society. Therefore this book aspires to present vision for all spheres of a future participatory society on equal footing.

To contrast, a monist approach would look at one sphere of society and attribute primary importance to how that sphere affects the rest of social life. Someone looking at the economy might say we need to focus on class struggle because it is the primary force affecting all other spheres—gender, cultural, political relations, and so on. Alternatively, someone looking at power and culture would use a pluralist approach combining the political and cultural spheres seeing authoritarianism and racism as the primary forces shaping society. The same pluralist approach could be applied again using any other two focuses, say kinship and economics, to see class struggle and patriarchy as the determining factors shaping society. A third approach, and the one guiding this book, argues for a complimentary and holistic orientation which does not assume the primary dominance of any of the spheres over any of the others, but instead seeks to understand how parts of the whole are interdependent and relate to one another. It understands that a variety of interactions among the different spheres can occur and that careful observation and assessment will often reveal differing results from society to society.

Part 1 of this book, "Defining Spheres of a Participatory Society," opens with by outlining Participatory Economics, explaining briefly how parecon handles production, consumption, and allocation, where it comes from, and its implications for today. Next comes the model of "ParPolity," a political system designed as a nested council structure complimentary to parecon handling disputes, lawmaking, adjudication, legislation, and society's political matters more broadly. Further vision is offered for kinship in a better world; in particular ideas about family, sexuality, and caregiving. "Polyculturalism" is the subject of an essay, where the author explores possible interactions between different cultures and identities in accordance with the principles of participatory society. This section wraps with an interview about how a participatory economy would handle ecological considerations in a sustainable and judicious way.

Parts 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 deal with "Revolutionizing Everyday Life" e.g. what a self-managed city might look like as well as strategic implications. Technology and civil engineering of the new society is explored. A wide array of international movements and assessments of revolutionary possibilities opening the 21st Century follow. Africa's post-colonial theory and development is examined; which discusses the implications of pan-Africanism, black nationalism, black Marxism, and more generally the relationship between race, class, and gender for vision and strategy in Africa. Finally, Real Utopia closes with a section titled: "Moving Toward a Participatory Society". It covers today's youth movement, this century's SDS, and the strategic relation between theory and practice. It explores the potential of assembly organizing as a strategic vehicle for emancipation. The final chapter in this section, and of the entire book, presents ten claims about the vision and strategy of participatory economics and the implications for building a "ParEcon Movement." Finally, it is my hope that this book will contribute to the growth and development of a movement aspiring to win a participatory society in this century.

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