Help Me Out
Help Me Out
Perhaps this is a bit unorthodox, but I would like to ask certain potential and current critics of what I think is a very important pursuit to help me understand their view.
The pursuit in question is that collectively activists need to create, advocate, and become adept at communicating a shared description of the better world we seek.
We need to describe not every nook and cranny, of course, but how a new society can accomplish defining social functions without class, authority, gender, and race/community hierarchies.
We need to describe key institutions for production and allocation, for legislation and adjudication, for nurturance and socialization, and for cultural identification and celebration, showing how what we seek would propel values such as solidarity, diversity, equity, justice, sustainability, self management, or whatever else we propose.
Of course we also need to have our feet planted firmly in the here and now, addressing current injustices with immediate demands. We need short and middle term strategy and advocacy, that is, and also, long term institutional vision of a new society.
Critics, however, say that while having short and middle term strategy and program is essential, seeking long-term vision about a new societyâ€™s defining features is a foolâ€™s errand. Below I offer a three point case for trying to generate institutional vision, then a four point case against doing so, then a rebuttal of the case against, and then my plea for help.
Why Should We Think About
Long Term Institutional Vision?
The reasons I offer for why we need shared long-term institutional vision include:
(1) Long term vision can enlarge our movements.
A viable long-term vision will help us rebut claims that no better world is possible and help us overcome fears that all efforts to attain a better world will bring on even worse injustices than we now endure, or be rolled back by persistent underlying sources of injustice.
We win higher wages, affirmative action, voting rights, but, in time, societyâ€™s underlying oppressive institutions roll back or otherwise constrain our victories. Cynicism escalates.
To compellingly assert that â€œa better world is possibleâ€ requires describing that better world. Just saying it exists, without offering substance, wonâ€™t convince those outside the choir who think that poverty, racism, and war are just facts of life. Many will be inspired by short term gains, yes, but many more will be unmoved due to anticipating subsequent roll back.
As but one example of the hope-instilling benefits of long term vision, Margaret Thatcherites regularly proclaim that private profit and market competition are unavoidable. They tell us that there is no more point in fighting to abolish poverty and alienation than there is in fighting to abolish aging and gravity. The former, like the latter, is just a fact of life, they say, continually reasserting itself even against temporary inroads.
If we have long term economic vision, however, we can say no, here is how we could accomplish economic productivity and distribution in a new society without profit seeking and without markets. Here are viable economic institutions that can accomplish production and allocation not only without impoverishment and alienation, but in ways making life much richer, more diverse, and more dignified than we have ever experienced. Moreover, here are immediate steps we can take that will not only win short term benefits to help people now, but be part of a process that attains the new society.
Being able to make this type of argument will help us generate hope in place of cynicism. It will motivate activism among folks who otherwise feel dissent is tilting at windmills. To be able to describe a better society we favor and indicate how people can bring it about isnâ€™t an organizing panacea, of course, but if we lack this ability a great mass of people will remain skeptical and our recruitment woes will persist.
(2) Long term vision can inform critique of the present.
We will better understand the roots of current injustice and their implications if we can compare envisioned liberation to what we now endure.
As but one example of this analytic benefit, awareness of potential structures of classlessness will help us better understand the institutional causes and interpersonal and collective implications of current class divisions and class rule. For example, by understanding what a desirable workplace and division of labor might be, we will better understand current divisions between those who administer and those who obey. And the same type of gain will accrue, I think, from developing institutional vision about political institutions, cultural institutions, or gender related institutions regarding understanding other hierarchies in society.
(3) Long term vision can provide activism positive long and short term aims.
Our activism ought to point toward radical goals, not just rush away from current ills or work toward desirable but only short term aims. For example, an economic vision of how production, consumption, and allocation could be organized and of how people could receive just income and exert appropriate influence over outcomes, will provide insights into how we should structure our movements so they lead where we want to wind up. This will in turn inform how we organize production, allocation, remuneration, and decision making in our own projects in the present. And in the same way, visions regarding gender, culture, and politics would enlighten us about strategy and structure in those realms.
How do we know how to structure our media institutions such as
Why Should We Ignore or
Avoid Long Term Institutional Vision?
Okay, those three points are at the heart of my and many other peopleâ€™s arguments for pursuing long-term vision as one part of the broad array of tasks that face activists. In my experience, the resistance to pursuing this type of vision sees no need to investigate a proposed long-term institutional visionâ€™s merits or debits, and in fact no need to take long-term vision seriously at all. To propose basic defining institutions of a better society is deemed a priori a bad thing, or at least irrelevant in the present and thus not worth our time.
This resistance comes in varying levels of adamancy, but in almost all cases it rests on one or more of four claims.
(A) We shouldn't pursue long term vision because we donâ€™t know enough about future conditions to transcend sophomoric musing. Worse, we might make a mistake that people decide to pay attention to. In doing so their allegiance to wrong views might foreclose their arriving at better views.
For example, movements could advocate central planning or markets, or a one-party state, or cultural homogenization, as long-term institutional goals, as many historically have, and could then miss out on discovering far better options.
Claim A says that to pursue long term vision, as compared to short or medium term program, is to cement ourselves into paths that due to our lack of omniscience are bound to be imperfect and perhaps even horribly flawed, as in these historic instances.
(B) We shouldn't pursue long term vision because anyone involved in doing so will have a high probability of becoming part of a new elite. Thinking about what is right for others as a long term goal has an elitist tinge. Worse, those who pursue long term vision will control the vision that results and will in turn control movements and, whether intentionally or not, any new society that those movements achieve.
A powerfully instructive recent example of these phenomena is the initial Solidarity movement that emerged in
Another example is the Bolsheviks. Whether one thinks their becoming a domineering elite occurred against their truly libertarian hopes and priorities, or that it occurred in accord with their elite hopes and habits, or a bit of both and differently for different people, they too had institutional vision, and they too became oppressive rulers.
Claim B says regardless of motives, to pursue vision leads to oppressive elitism.
(C) Long term vision is disassociated from real peopleâ€™s current needs and what contemporary activism can soon achieve. Even when sensible, long term vision is so distant it is not worth the time required to produce it, evaluate it, or become conversant with it.
We have many pressing problems. Our resources are stretched thin. Dealing with what we should demand in the present, and with how we should convey important information, organize support for campaigns, pay bills in our projects, handle repression, and sustain commitment, takes all our energies. Thinking about, writing about, reading about, and advocating long term institutional vision is divorced from what matters in daily practice. We donâ€™t have surplus time to devote to long term vision.
Claim C is a less hostile but ultimately equally dismissive toward long term vision.
(D) In any event, we don't need to pursue detailed vision to legitimate opposing existing horrors.
To oppose slavery (or Jim Crow racism, or any bigotry), it was not morally incumbent on abolitionists to offer a comprehensive structural alternative for the Southâ€™s slave economy. To oppose capitalism it is not morally incumbent on anti-capitalists to offer a comprehensive alternative for corporate divisions of labor and market allocation. To oppose patriarchy it is not morally incumbent on feminists to offer a comprehensive alternative to whatever structures relating to our procreation, socialization, nurturance, and sexaulity breed patriarchy. To oppose political injustice, similarly, one is morally required only to see the violation of human possibility, and to say no to it, and fight for its elimination. Having long term vision isnâ€™t incumbent on those who dissent.
Claim D says not having long term vision shouldnâ€™t slow us down.
Responding to the Arguemnts
Against Long Term Vision
When I say that I need help understanding resistance to long term vision, I donâ€™t mean I need help understanding the above four claims.
I mean instead that I donâ€™t understand why in my experience these claims are offered and maintained without responding to counter views. I donâ€™t understand why their adherents think that Claims A- D, are self evident and above dispute. Why, I wonder, isnâ€™t it necessary to attend to replies?
To me, it seems obvious that Claim D is true. But it also seems obvious that Claim D is irrelevant. The reason why we need long term vision is not to attain moral legitimacy â€“ and Claim D is correct about not needing vision for that reason -- but to be able to rebut cynicism, elicit interest and support, inform our understanding of the present, and orient our efforts toward sought ends.
When I was in college, it was the time of the Vietnam War. I would continually encounter faculty and students bellowing at me, â€œokay, you are against the war, and you are against the imperial system. Fine, we get it. But what are you for? You offer no alternative to how we do economics and politics. You offer no answers to what should replace our current world system. You therefore have no right to speak so harshly.â€
This used to drive me into a frenzy. I would holler, â€œwhat the hell are you talking about? I have no responsibility to explain how to organize society, much less the whole world, in order to oppose the barbaric annihilation of the people of
I was right that I had no responsibility to offer a long term alternative to capitalism, patriarchy, etc. before I could legitimately militantly oppose a barbaric war. Similarly, anyone propounding Claim D is right that we donâ€™t have a moral obligation to provide long term vision as a prerequisite to rejecting corporate globalization, war, capitalism, or other oppressive systems.
But sometimes the person asking us â€œwhat do you wantâ€ actually honestly seeks to know what we want. In those cases, my reply that I had no moral responsibility to answer was technically correct but substantively unresponsive and even self-defeating. If I had to give an â€œI donâ€™t have to do itâ€ reply from the age of 20 to the age of 80, and if movements have to give it for decades or centuries on end, we will leave huge swaths of people perpetually dismissing us because they continue to doubt they could generate worthwhile results. Being morally justified would then be faint compensation for being strategically bankrupt.
Claim D is true, in other words, but it also has no bearing on whether we ought to propose vision. It only makes a case that we donâ€™t morally have to propose it, not that we shouldnâ€™t propose it.
In contrast, Claim C would be totally valid if any advocate of pursuing long term vision were saying that everyone ought to drop everything else and only spend time trying to produce, discuss, share, or gain lessons from applying long term vision. But what is actually being said is only that some time should go to this pursuit, instead of virtually all the writing we do, all the talks we give, all the essays we distribute, all the interviews we produce, all the dramas we script, all the banners we loft, all the slogans we chant, and everything else we do being overwhelmingly about what we reject, or sometimes about what we immediately seek, but nearly never about what we want as a new world and how we intend to win it. The advocates of long term vision arenâ€™t looking for everyone to conceive and advocate institutional alternatives for a new society, we are only arguing that some people ought to do it.
An additional problem with Claim C is that it arises from a mistaken view of the purpose of long term vision. If long term vision is any good, it will not be divorced from current program and strategy. Quite the contrary; long term vision will arise from a history of involvement in political struggle and will efficiently and insightfully inform current program and strategy.
Take economics. If we shared a long term vision of alternatives for aspects of the economy such as the division of labor, income distribution, allocation, property relations, and decision-making, it would give us considerable insights into how we ought to organize our workplace struggles about production and remuneration and our community struggles about budgets and consumption. It would help us conceive demands that would produce gains in accord with attaining a desirable future, and help us build organizations that would propel us along the road toward that desirable future. Long term vision will help us conceive and execute desirable short term program.
Should everyone therefore be working on long term vision, whether economic, political, kin related, or cultural? Of course not. No more than everyone should be working on uncovering the crimes of corporate globalization. Or of militarism. Or of sexism. Or of political authoritarianism.
Some movements and people will focus in one area, some in another. We need to have at least some people focusing in each area, developing ideas and lessons that can be used throughout the movement. The situation is analogous for long term vision as for other focuses, but with a twist.
Some will, or should, be producing long term vision about economics, others about politics, or about other domains. Many will work on none of these, however, since many will not produce new institutional vision at all. Moreover, the results generated for any particular type of long term vision will be more interesting to people with related short term agendas than to people with short term priorities in different areas.
But, if a long term vision is to lead toward a world that is truly participatory and democratic, then that vision will need to be held widely throughout movements concerned with all kinds of social change -- even more so than specific insights such as about why the IMF is flawed, how the CIA works, what the distribution of income is, how corporate profit seeking produces inequality, the effects of inflation, the dynamics of contemporary legislative lobbying, or the impact of contemporary family structures, need to be common knowledge.
In this respect there is an asymmetry. It is not a problem, that is, that there are folks far more knowledgeable than anyone else about the Mideast, and others far more knowledgeable about Africa, or about the subtle workings of patriarchy, or the IMF, etc. Nor is it a problem that there are folks who focus more on gender or on race or on class than on the others â€“ so long as movements broadly have sufficient awareness and attentiveness to overall issues. Lessons from each domain and focus should spread, but not everyone needs to be comparably aware of everything, of course.
But for long term vision the situation is different. If our movements are to win a better world run by all its citizens, long term institutional goals need to be the property of at least most of those citizens. So while some activists in contemporary movements will be far more engaged with developing long term vision in one area, and some in another area â€“ and while many wonâ€™t work on developing long term vision at all due to having other priorities, at a minimum long term vision needs enough attention to be produced, tested, improved, etc., to become so accessible and generalized that it becomes the property of a large majority of all activists.
In all these respects, and especially in respect to the short term benefits accruing from long term institutional vision, Claim C seems to be wrong.
Claim B also seems to be wrong, unless it is poses the prediction that developers and advocates of long term institutional vision will become an elite as a possibility and not as a necessity. More, once this correction is made, the implications of Claim B regarding whether we should do long term vision seem to me to reverse.
That is, it is false to think that developing, advocating, sharing, refining, and then using a shared long term vision to inform current critique and strategy and to orient our short and middle term program, necessarily dictates that some relative few people will accrue undue authority and become a new oppressive elite or will at least put so much elitist pressure on activism as to make it less productive than it might have been without anyone pursuing long term vision.
If the reasons for doing long term vision were insignificant, it is true that the mere possibility that it could become elitist would be sufficient reason not to do it. Why bother doing long term vision if there could at best be minimal benefit and there could at worst be substantial harm?
But, in real social struggle, if all or even most activists who care about not having a new elite emerge decide to collectively reject working to ensure that long term vision is publicly held, the result of their boycott wonâ€™t be that long term vision wonâ€™t exist at all. but instead that long term vision will be produced and owned by those who donâ€™t care if a new elite emerges -- which is precisely what was feared.
In other words, long term vision will not wither away because those worried about elitism donâ€™t produce, refine, or share it. If the call to boycott long term vision galvanizes those who fear elitism, it will not deter people unafraid of elitism. Anti-elitist avoidance of long term vision will ironically fuel elitist vision by leaving only those not worried about elitism involved. Thatâ€™s the first problem with Claim B.
But the second problem with Claim B is that the benefits of having long term vision, including to offset cynicism, to inform critique, and to orient strategy, are not only significant but critical, so that rather than avoid vision-associated elitism by avoiding long term vision entirely, it would be much better if we worked on long term vision in a way that counters rather than propels elitism. That way we could get the important benefits of long term vision and we could also avoid the potential pitfalls.
But Claim B rules out a priori developing, advocating, sharing, or using long term vision in anti-elitist ways. I wonder why it assumes we canâ€™t make long term vision popular and accessible? Why canâ€™t we pursue it widely and openly? Why canâ€™t we constantly incorporate revision and refinement as needed?
Claim B puts up a stoplight where a cautionary warning is needed. The injunction arising from fears of elitism should be, â€œyes, we have to do long term vision because we need to counter hopelessness, generate insight, and orient strategy, but we need to do it publicly and openly. We need to do it in plain language. We need to do it in an empowering manner incorporating broad debate and flexible discussion. If we donâ€™t do it in ways countering elitism it will be elitist despite everyoneâ€™s hopes to the contrary.â€ I would certainly agree with that warning.
In other words, the alternative to elitist vision is public, open, shared, flexible vision. Putting up a stoplight to curtail pursuit of long term vision ironically curtails the real solution to elitism, which is participation.
Claim B is an impediment to what it says it seeks.
Finally, Claim A strikes me as very strange. The argument is that while of course we have to know our aims at some point to arrive at them, we shouldnâ€™t try to develop, share, and employ those aims now because now is too soon. We donâ€™t know enough. We will make mistakes. The mistakes may curtail future insights.
First, if now is too soon even after a couple of centuries of anti-capitalist struggle, even after diverse completed anti-capitalist revolutions that were horrendously undesirable and whose faults and failings we need to avoid, and even after diverse current efforts, and our own diverse personal experiences, just exactly when will be an acceptable time to start publicly developing and sharing long term institutional vision?
When will we know enough so that we can all suddenly begin to think about the character of the institutions we desire for a new society, and in turn about their implications for how we ought to be organizing ourselves to win that new society rather than some horrible world we never intended?
Take the economy. If we donâ€™t know enough about possible ways of organizing work and consumption and allocation, if we donâ€™t have enough experience of economic oppression, resistance, and counter institutions (both failed and promising), if we canâ€™t elaborate on all this to come up with useful insights now â€“ then when are we going to have enough experience or insights at our disposal to say something cogent about what we want for our economies? In ten years? In fifty years? In a hundred years?
Claim A misunderstands what thinking and advocacy are all about. Imagine saying that scientists shouldnâ€™t pose innovative ideas because such postulations may be wrong and may therefore curtail other correct ideas from surfacing. It is true that new ideas, in science and in any realm, may be wrong. Of course, in science or any realm if people cleave to wrong ideas in a sectarian fashion it may cut them off from more valuable insights. But the only way to have new ideas is to seek them. And the only way to improve offered ideas is to test and debate them. The solution to bad ideas crowding out good ones is not to bar having ideas at all. It is to pursue ideas, test them, and refine them. The same holds for vision of a better future society.
One canâ€™t legislate that there will only be good scientific ideas or good long term vision proposed. That simple solution to avoiding bad scientific ideas or bad vision isnâ€™t available. The correct solution to the problem of bad ideas of any sort crowding out valuable needed explorations and insights is for new ideas to be generated and then repeatedly tested, refined, altered, and when need be superceded -- and for this to be undertaken all throughout the relevant community. In science the community is scientists in the relevant discipline. In the struggle to win a better world, the community is the whole non ruling and non-elite public interested in social change.
The real implication of the sentiments of Claim A is that we need to do long term institutional vision, but we need to do it in a participatory way that welcomes involvement and makes the resulting insights a public, shared, asset of movements.
The Help I Need
So, to return to the help-seeking motive of this essay, what I donâ€™t get about resistance to vision, is that while those who dismiss long term institutional vision as inevitably elitist, arrogant, misleading, or unrelated to present needs, make a first round of assertions effectively, my experience is that they seem to stop there. They never seem to reply to the responses to their initial claims. This leaves those of us who see pursuing long term vision as valuable a bit at a loss. Are our responses so dumb that they donâ€™t need rebuttal? So dumb that they canâ€™t even be perceived? If our responses are unconvincing, why is that?
I would like to reply to those who reject long term vision by saying, back to them hey, of course vision can outstrip reasonable deductions from of our knowledge, of course it can be elitist and sectarian, of course it can be pie in the sky and divorced from implications for current program and strategy -- but here is participatory economics and I believe it hasnâ€™t succumbed to those failings. So what is your reaction not to vision in the abstract, but to this particular vision, and especially to its institutional claims about the viability and desirability of council self management, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning?
But I understand that many critics of long term institutional vision feel that to look closely at a particular vision such as participatory economics would be a waste of time and also ratify a pursuit they donâ€™t want to legitimate. Fair enough. But how about discussing the three points for long term vision, the four points against long term vision, and particularly the reponse to the latter that is offered above?