My Resoc Interview
By Stephen R. Shalom at Nov 16, 2009
1. At a public talk someone asks you, "okay, I understand what
you reject, but I wonder what are you for? What institutions
do you favor that will be better than what we have for the economy,
polity, gender, race, ecology, or whatever you have vision for?
I want a society which takes the full development of all human beings as its primary objective.
This necessarily excludes any society based on capitalism, where winners are necessarily balanced by losers. (Indeed, if there were no losers in capitalism, then the whole dynamic of capitalist incentives, and the desire for more than everybody else, would fall apart.) A good society has to design institutions such that cooperation is rewarded and solidarity among people is encouraged.
Also excluded are any societies where a privileged few make the key decisions, even if these few were the most intelligent people around (since intelligence is no guarantee against extreme greed), and even if these few were both the most intelligent and the most selfless people (because part of what the full development of all requires is that people develop their capacities for self-management, for decision-making, capacities that can only be developed by actually engaging in these activities. So both political equality and a substantial degree of participation are necessary. And so too are deference to the majority in some realms and limits on the majority in others.
The full development of all human beings also requires that people not be remunerated by society for the genetic endowment they inherit, or any other morally irrelevant characteristic. Obviously, there are advantages to being smart or athletic or having a great singing voice -- and society should not do anything to eliminate these skills. But it should provide no additional benefits to those who possess them. If you're smart, that's great; this will benefit you in many ways. But you're not entitled to a higher standard of living because of it. The basis for remuneration in a good society should be those things that are under a person's individual control: namely, the amount of effort and sacrifice they put in. In fact, we have to compensate people for effort and sacrifice (rather than strict equality) if we are to allow people the freedom to decide for themselves how much they value compensation in time and how much in material reward. (Equality doesn't mean making everyone work the same number of hours or receive the same level of material compensation; rather it means letting everyone face the same trade off between time and material goods.)
Of course, another consequence of not rewarding people based on their genetic or morally irrelevant characteristics is that discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality would be prohibited.
Can we devise institutions that can accomplish these goals. I believe we can. Spelling them out is a detailed process, and necessarily an ongoing one.
2. Next, someone at the same event asks, "Why do you do what
you do? That is, you are speaking to us, and I know you
write, and maybe you organize, but why do you do it? What do
you think it accomplishes? What is your goal for your coming
year, or for your next ten years?
Our current society is light years away from what a good society ought to be. I think anyone who sees the gap between what exists and what could be should be working for social change. Movements for social change have made incredible progress over the years. To take a single example, consider the change in the social position of gays and lesbians and other sexual minorities over the past two decades. Yet there's still a long way to go before achieving full equality. I don't have specific one-year and ten-year goals; I don't think social movements work on that kind of time frame. But I and millions of others are part of diverse movements that are pushing on many fronts. As Daniel Cohn-Bendit once said, we can't be coopted because we want everything!
3. You are at home and you get an email that says a new
organization is trying to form, internationally, federating
national chapters, etc. It asks you to join the effort. Can
you imagine plausible conditions under which you would say,
"yes, I will give my energies to making it happen along with
the rest of you who are already involved?" If so, what are
those conditions? Or - do you think instead that regardless
of the content of the agenda and make up of the
participants, the idea can't be worthy, now, or perhaps ever.
If so, why?
I would love there to be an organization that could pull together the many diverse movements for social change in the United States and worldwide. I'm a little skeptical that this could happen before there were strong national organizations, so my recommendation would be that energies be put into developing these national organizations first.
4. Do you think efforts to organize movements, projects, and
our own organizations should embody the seeds of the future
in the present? If not, why not? If yes, can you say what, very
roughly, you think some of the implications would be for an
organization you would favor?
Let me start with an example. I would want any organization to reflect its commitment to equality in its internal workings. But I don't have a simple answer to how an international organization should pay its staff members living in different countries with vastly different standards of living. (If we pay activists in desperately poor countries what we pay those in rich countries, the former will be among the highest paid people in their countries, undermining the social change agenda. But if we pay them differently it seems a betrayal of the equality principle.) This is one example of how it may not be possible to embody all our future values in an organization operating in the current unjust world.
On the other hand, there are some values that if not embodied in our current organizations will prevent us from achieving our goals. I think the Bolsheviks were wrong to believe that they could promote democracy by means of an undemocratic political party.
One issue I've thought about a lot is that of pacifism. I want a peaceful world, but I am not persuaded by the pacifist argument that all social change must be accomplished by means of nonviolence. However, I do think that pacifists are right to emphasize the ways in which violence can corrupt our goals, and to warn us that the dangers of such corruption are more substantial than many people realize.
So I don't have a rigid answer here. I would like to incorporate as many as possible of our future values into any social change organization today. But I suspect that we will have to make some compromises. It will be crucial to keep these to a minimum, but I'm afraid I can't provide general rules that could help us decide which compromises are necessary and which will be self-defeating.
5. Why did you answer this interview? Why do you think others
did not answer it?
I've delayed so long in answering this because I've been extremely busy. I'm guessing that some who didn't answer were similarly busy, while others didn't see the value.