The Why, What, and How of Economic Revolution
Table of Contents
Introductions: Warming Up
- If You Are Reading This
- What’s Inside
- Some Quick Disclaimers
1. Foundations: Getting on the Same Page
- Holistic Politics
- What is an Economy?
- The Importance of Economics
- Institutions: Can’t Live Without ‘Em
- People: We Make the Machines Run
2. Analysis: What’s the Deal with Capitalism?
- Crash Course in Relations of Production
- Something Missing: The Coordinator Class
- Class and Exploitation
- Alienation and Disempowerment
- The Failures of the Market
- The Company Capitalism Keeps: A Reminder on Holism
- Auntie TINA, Why Does Mean Uncle Capitalism Always Overstay His Welcome?
3. Vision: Participatory Economics
- Introduction to Participatory Economics
- Values First, Institutions Next
- Collective Ownership: That’s Right, Me and You
- Councils! Councils for Everyone!
- Participatory Planning: Talk it Out
- Balanced Jobs: Pass the Mop
- Compensation for Effort/Sacrifice/Need
- Common Sense
4. Strategy: From Here to a Free Society
- 7th Inning Stretch
- Vision Before Strategy
- Counter-Hegemony: New Narratives and Raised Consciousness
- Alternative Institutions: Revolution in Itself
- Counter Institutions: Coming Out Swinging
- Movements in Struggle
- On Revolution
Conclusion: About Today and Tomorrow
- An Historical Moment?
- Glimmers of Hope
- OFS Statement: Our Mission
- OFS Statement: What We Believe
- In Case You Want More…
~ Warming Up ~
If You Are Reading This
If you’re reading this pamphlet, you could be pretty much anyone. Maybe you had this given to you by a concerned friend, which means your friends know what’s up. Maybe you picked it up from an OFS table, so you at least know we exist and are curious enough to open this front cover. Maybe you had it thrust onto you by a shameless leafleter, and we only have a few sentences to convince you to keep reading. Maybe you sought this out, because you already have a pretty strong feeling that the condition of the world today is not as it should be. Maybe you’re a cop. Whatever the case is, read on.
In the few pages ahead, the short time that we have managed to capture your attention, we are going to go through a lot of serious stuff with pretty simple, straight-forward logic (and maybe some humor sprinkled in, topped with a modest dose of inspiration). Frankly, most of it will be common sense (that title was already taken unfortunately), and you will be annoyed that you didn’t have the idea to write it down before we did. We were pretty late coming to it too if it makes you feel any better.
To keep it simple, we are pretty convinced at this point that we need to move on from capitalism. We will explain that in the coming pages, but really, we aren’t nearly the first ones who thought that up. What might make this pamphlet a little more interesting than your standard rant about capitalism, though, is that this isn’t just a complaint or analysis (although it is also that), but also a vision, an outline of a viable alternative. And then, since we have an idea of what to get rid of, and what to have instead, we also try to give an idea of how to get from here to there.
Some Quick Disclaimers
First of all, I am warning you right now, we are in a strange middle ground here between the words “I” and “we.” I am an individual, and I have a lot of evidence of that (for example, there is space between me and other people, I have a drivers’ license, I get bills, etc.). I wrote this pamphlet. At the same time, though, I am also part of a group, the Organization for a Free Society. You will notice, sometimes I write “I” and sometimes I write “we.” Trust me, I/we am/are as confused as you are about this. This pamphlet is a mish-mash of my ideas, those of my partners, and those of countless other people (both living and long gone) who have influenced me/us. It is, also, a work in progress. We’ve thought a lot, borrowed from others, and learned through struggle, but there is much more to learn. Hopefully, after reading this, you will also be ready to teach us something new.
Next, this pamphlet cannot possibly cover in detail all the things it needs to cover, and you should just know that upfront. We understand the economy to be intimately bound to community (race, nation, religion, etc.), kinship (gender, sexuality, child-rearing), power (governance, decision-making), and ecology – so there’s no way a pamphlet on economics could ever really give a full picture. At the same time, it seems pretty obvious that a pamphlet won’t get through all the details even in just the economic realm. Nothing we can really do about that. If you want more, there is a recommended reading list at the end of this.
Now, this was a real dilemma for me, because it got me thinking that – unless I really went the whole way – some people might read this and end up moving on without being convinced. I got into a bunch of trouble particularly when I got to writing the section on participatory economics. All I could imagine in my head was someone refusing to join the revolution because I couldn’t properly explain the 7th iteration process (whatever that means), or because I didn’t explain how jobs would be rated in a participatory economy, or the nuanced difference between Swedish capitalism and British capitalism. I thought about it, though, and decided to cut myself some slack. I decided that, regretfully, if this pamphlet were any longer, it would be a book, and since books for many of these topics already exist, let’s spare you the reading and me the writing. I decided, too, to make peace with the idea that this is only one trigger among many out there that we hope will move and trigger people to change things.
This pamphlet alone won’t convince you, and it shouldn’t be expected to. Hopefully it will get you thinking, or push you in a certain direction, or introduce you to new ideas. Maybe it will inspire you to read more, or challenge you to answer some questions and think about your life. Maybe it will connect to the things you already experience in your actual life, and things will start to click. Maybe it will lie folded there unused in your pocket or bag, nagging you to read it, until you remember it one day – perhaps when you next encounter something truly ugly and brutal about daily life in capitalism, when you are thirsty for an alternative, when you are ready to throw down and fight. Maybe you’ll pass it on to a friend, too. You never know.
~ Chapter 1: Foundations ~
Getting on the Same Page
Even though this pamphlet is specifically about the economy, this is only one of what we consider to be essential spheres of social life. Those other spheres include: class/economy, gender/sexuality/child-rearing/kinship, and power/authority, all wrapped up in this earth and our environment and with an international dimension as well. We think all of these spheres are fundamental to human life, and all bound up with one another, such that you can’t really understand the world by analyzing only one, or by valuing one as more important than the others. We call this complementary holism, and you can find more on that in a book called Liberating Theory, as well as in articles on Z-Net by people like Michael Albert, Chris Spannos, Stephen Shalom, Cynthia Peters, and others.
As far as we can tell, the world is organized so that a network of oppressive institutions (capitalism, patriarchy, authoritarianism, environmental degradation, imperialism, and others) produce and re-produce one another, making it impossible (and silly) to think about one without having – at least in the back of our minds – the understanding that the others are contributing to the issue simultaneously. We understand that capitalism works in coordination with racism, that patriarchy has an integral role in government, that the environment is influenced by authoritarianism in government, and so on. Although different oppressions might be more prominent than others in particular contexts, we are certain that we can’t fight only one of them at a time, thinking the rest will disappear on their own. They won’t.
Again, this pamphlet is specifically about one of those spheres, the economy, but you should know that we see that as something holistic. That’s where we’re coming from, so even as we focus in, that is what the background is made of.
What is an Economy?
To put it simply, an economy is a system for organizing the production, allocation (who gets what, from where, and how), and consumption (as well as disposal) of goods and services. It’s a collection of institutions that govern what we make, how we make it, what we use, how it gets around, who gets how much of it, and where it goes when it’s broken, unwanted, or used. Simple enough.
Any economy has to provide answers for a few basic questions. How is labor divided? How are people compensated, paid) for their labor? How is it decided who gets what goods and in what amounts? How are decisions made? Who makes them?
For example, capitalism is a system in which production is organized and carried out in privately owned enterprises, where the system for deciding what goes where and to whom is coordinated through market-based exchange. We have a corporate, hierarchical division of labor. We are compensated on the basis of a combination of our property (or lack thereof), how much power we have (or don’t have), and our output (that is, what we can produce). Decision-making is dominated by capitalists (people who own productive property), but also by another class of people we will call coordinators (we will deal with this soon), hired by the former to carry out management and decision-making.
Sound relevant yet?
The Importance of Economics
Well, look, right off the bat, if we can agree that an economy provides the answers to all these questions – how we work, where we work, how long we work, what we get for our work, how we get (or don’t get) the things we need, and how decisions about all of that are made – economics seem to be pretty important. Different economies answer those questions differently, some worse, and some better. We spend a lot of our time producing and consuming, so that’s important. But ultimately, we’ve got to eat, be clothed, house ourselves, be treated medically, and a whole host of other things in order to survive. We die if we don’t have those things, and we can’t just wish them into existence. The way we get the things we need is absolutely critical to us, and it isn’t theoretical. Economics, then, are unavoidably central to our lives.
They are, of course, not the only questions central to our lives, but (as we noted before), it seems pretty clear to us that economics are deeply intertwined with a whole set of other issues. It is important to deal with economics, then, in order to deal with other elements of our lives. For example, our economy is organized hierarchically, where people are categorized in different classes that compete with one another (and within which they also compete against one another), some ultimately repressing the others. Now, just with common sense, it’s pretty obvious that a system like that is not only compatible with other divisive, hierarchical systems (like racism, patriarchy, and authoritarianism), but that it also helps to produce those systems (and is, in turn, co-produced by them).
So, not only is it important for us to deal with economy because of the implications of an economy in itself, but also because of the implications it has on other parts of our identity and society. An economy is not only a system of production for goods, but also for people, for culture, for consciousness. We’ve got to take that very seriously.
Institutions: Can’t Live Without ‘Em
An important thing to keep in mind throughout the rest of this pamphlet is that economics – as well as other areas of social life (community, kinship, etc.) – is created in the interplay between humans and institutions. It isn’t one or the other.
Institutions are real things, structures and processes that dictate the way we have to live to some extent; they are the frameworks through which we carry out a lot of our lives. Institutions, for example, that dictate what I mentioned above about having to work in order to buy in order to survive and so on. I, as an individual, did not decide that, so on some level, I am being acted upon by the foundations of our society, by the stuff – the factories and social norms and governments and so on.
That’s important for two reasons. The first is that it points out that, when we criticize capitalism, we aren’t really talking about individuals. Sure, some capitalists are mean, and they treat their workers poorly, and they run conservative think tanks, and they are willingly responsible for the death and suffering of a great many people. But a lot of capitalists are just people playing the game. Most people who start the board game with extra points use them to get more points, and that makes perfect sense. Within the logic of the system, capitalists would be silly not to play by the rules of the game. The rest of us, too, are playing the game when we go to work or put money in a bank or buy fast food or what have you. It would be silly to attack that, as most of us have very little choice and flexibility of how to play within the game that’s already on, with its rules already defined before we were born.
The second reason the whole thing about institutions is important is that it signifies very clearly that we can’t just talk about changing society through changing people. Changing people is important, but somewhere along the way those institutions need to be changed. An army of friendly, cookie-baking, poetry-loving capitalists are still capitalists, and they will be as long as capitalism exists.
People: We Make the Machines Run
That being said, we need to always remember the flip side. Yes, institutions matter, and play a huge role in shaping the way we think, act, play, work, etc. But they are ultimately filled, motored, and governed by people. If I didn’t go to work today, the work I do wouldn’t get done. If none of us went to work today, none of the work we do would get done. If all of us (or enough of us) got together to work in a totally different way, and fought for our ability to keep doing so, the institutions would change. We run them.
So yes, changing people matters. That’s why, for example, we do things like read and write pamphlets like these. People are free, some more and some less, but everyone to one extent or another. Now, of course, that’s not to say that we are all free to go run wild and do what we want. I covered that above; we are very much bound by truly real, material things (fear being one of these material things, police being another). But it does mean that we have inside us, the collective potential to get free. We will not, unfortunately, be freed by institutions on their own, nor by “history,” as if history is some being that propels the world forward on some inevitable journey. No, we will be free if we recognize and use our potential to manage an alternative way of life, and then carry it out and fight for it.
But that’s getting too far ahead of ourselves. The point is, institution have a vital role in the way we live, and people make institutions, and institutions make people, and so on and so forth. We’ll get to the rest in the coming pages.
~ Chapter 2: Analysis ~
What’s the Deal with Capitalism?
Crash Course in Relations of Production
Alright. Let’s start with the basics. We’re going to borrow from Karl Marx here, if you don’t mind, because it’s a good place to start, not because it’s the best place to end up.
According to Marx, there are two basic ways of relating to production. The first is as a worker, C-M-C (commodity for money for commodity). The second is as a capitalist, M-C-M+ (Money for commodity for more money). I’ll explain.
Basically, the vast majority of people on earth (workers/consumers) wake up every day with a commodity – their ability to work and the time with which to do it. They trade that commodity for money (that’s what the salary for your job is), and then use that money to buy another commodity (like food, a home, clothes, a movie ticket, etc.): C-M-C. Most people have to live out this very process every single day or they will starve or be kicked out of their homes. Some starve and lose their homes even so. The average working class family is three paychecks away from not being able to pay rent.
Now the other class (capitalists) wakes up in the morning with money. Maybe the capitalists inherited it, or worked and were granted the opportunity to acquire enough excess to have more than needed to simply survive, or won the lottery and bought a factory. At any rate, they are a very small minority. So these people start out with money (we call this form of money capital, which is really just money put in motion to make more money), and they trade it for a commodities (the other class’ ability to work and the things that make it possible for them to work, such as tools, etc.), in order to trade the things produced by their employees for more money (profit): M-C-M+. In other words, the capitalist is using money to get the worker to make him/her more money than was invested to begin with.
Now, of course, that’s very crude. There are a lot of other classes and sub-classes in there, and there are a lot of other things happening along that production chain. But it’s a good place to start, because it really makes it clear that something fishy is going on.
Something Missing: The Coordinator Class
Marxism and the other frameworks that see capitalism as a fight between two major classes (such as many anarchist or feminist traditions) fall short in their ability to explain class relations in their entirety. Sure, Marx allows for a set of other sort of sub-classes, but he’s still saying that there are only two major players in the game, the capitalists and the workers. We think that there is a third class, no less fundamental to the functioning of capitalism: the coordinator class.
By coordinator class, we mean that tier of people who manage their work and the work of others – the CEOs, big bankers, big lawyers, big tenured academics, politicians, and so on. We mean the people who – though they don’t necessarily own any substantial capital – are the go-betweens for the capitalists and the workers, and have an overwhelming monopoly over empowering work. Most of these people manage themselves and others, live comfortably materially, have relatively fulfilling work (often creative, self-managed, intellectual labor), and have a serious say in the way production is carried out by everyone else. These people have their own economic interests: to keep their employees repressed, to compete with workers and one another to become capitalists, and to continue to hold onto a disproportionate share of empowering work.
In an analysis of class and exploitation, as well as in an alternative to capitalism, we will need to take this into account, because to fight long and hard only to transition from a capitalist class system to a coordinator class system would be a real shame. In many ways, this is what happened with most socialist revolutions of the 20th century, and is a major reason that a new vision for an alternative to capitalism must be developed.
Class and Exploitation
So now a couple of things seem pretty obvious from all of this. One is that capitalism relies on class divisions, on inequality. There really is no way around it, and I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s my opinion. Of course, in my opinion, it’s bad to have inequality, but that capitalism rests on inequality is a fact, whether you think it’s good or bad.
Capitalism only works when there is one class with capital to buy the labor power of another class. No matter how often we read in our history books that everyone has a chance, and that everyone can make it if only they picked themselves up by their bootstraps (by the way, what the hell are bootstraps?), as long as there is capitalism, there will always be one class working for the other (with coordinators in the middle, and the unemployed on the bottom to serve as a threat to the workers, and so on). One class will be largely impoverished and disenfranchised making wealth for the other class, and another class will dominate empowering and high-paying work, even if a handful of individuals from the working class “make it.” Those classes are not only unequal in their endpoint, but also in opportunity; it is undeniable that being born of a certain class you are incredibly likely to stay in that class, and that class privileges or lack thereof become more and more entrenched.
Another issue is that there is a basic and unavoidable exploitation that takes place in capitalism, which becomes a lot clearer when you look at the outline with the Ms and Cs above. How are the capitalists making money? Somehow, something is getting produced by the workers that the workers aren’t keeping. The capitalist puts the workers to work in order to make wealth, but the workers have to produce more wealth than they will ever get to take home, or else the capitalist won’t make any money and the whole system becomes nonsensical. That’s where the profit comes from, after all. All the capitalist has to do is put the workers to work – by owning the field or the factory or the office – and pay the workers back a share of the wealth those workers produced, so they can live to work more the next day (by feeding, clothing, and housing her/him). Essentially, the capitalist just owns the thing that makes it possible for the workers to work (like a field, seeds, and tools), and the workers go and plant and harvest and whatnot. Then the workers give it all over to the owner, who gives them back a share for their trouble, as if they didn’t do all of the work that produced the wealth to begin with.
Maybe the capitalist also does some management work, or coordinating, even working in the office along with the workers. There are plenty of small capitalists who work very hard, for example, playing roles in both the capitalist and coordinator classes (just as there are plenty of capitalists whose only work is talking to their accountants every so often to see how the account is doing). What is important here, though, is that the capitalist owns capital, and that is what brings her/him wealth. What makes the system so perverted is that s/he doesn’t have to do any work, and isn’t profiting because of any effort or sacrifice, but merely because of ownership of capital, while those who labor away most of their lives get to keep (usually) only enough to keep them working; sometimes they get a flat screen TV thrown into the deal to keep them buying things.
When you look at it that way, it seems rather silly to have the capitalist at all. But we’ll get to this later. The actual material exploitation that leaves so many suffering and impoverished is not the only problem with capitalism.
Alienation and Disempowerment
Capitalism, and the monopoly over empowering work that the coordinator class has, means that most of us work crappy jobs for crappy wages. We go to work to sell a part of ourselves (alienating), to produce something that doesn’t belong to us (very alienating), in a way that is not up to our design (more alienating), with people to whom we are only connected through this already-alienating process (incredibly alienating), and essentially, limit our full potential as essentially productive, creative beings (the ultimate straw of alienation, perhaps). I don’t need to tell you. Work, for most of us, is totally divorced from meaning. We are vibrant, creative, dynamic people, yet most of us spend most of our days fulfilling boring, alienated tasks. Instead of being human through work, within that structure that takes up so much of our time and energy, we are forced to try to find a way to be creative and happy in spite of it, and as far away from it as possible.
In a micro sense, we have very little control over what work we do, how we do it, for how long, and under what conditions. In a macro sense, we have very little say in terms of what gets produced, what is out there for us to consume, and how it affects our lives and the world around us. The rhetoric of capitalism says we are free to leave whenever we want and sell our labor elsewhere, or that we are free to go to another store and spend our money elsewhere. But we know it isn’t that simple. Most of us don’t have the luxury to walk off and sell our labor somewhere else (which is why some people can compare capitalism to slavery). Most of us don’t have the excess to spend our money on goods and services that are more in line with our values, and most of those goods don’t get produced in the first place. And let’s be honest, the variety isn’t so great anyway, so you can vote with your feet all you want and ultimately it’s not going to change much.
Now, this isn’t just a problem with capitalism, but with authoritarianism as well. That is, if we got rid of capitalism and markets, but didn’t deal with the way work was distributed, the way decisions were made, and so on, we would end up just about as alienated and disempowered as we were before. This, again, is the reason an analysis of the coordinator class is so important. Not only do we deserve to have the wealth we produce, and to live rich, fulfilling lives materially, but we deserve to have a say in production, consumption and allocation all together. We deserve to make decisions about how we want to work and live, and we deserve to have our fair share of work that is fun, empowering and fulfilling.
Intermission: A Reminder about People
Now, we covered this in the beginning, but it’s worth mentioning here again. Capitalists and coordinators don’t exploit or compete with workers because they are mean (although some of them are very mean). They do it because the system has governing rules, and they are in the position in that system in which it makes perfect, logical sense to behave that way. Even the capitalists who are truly nice – who treat their workers well, who are genuinely good people in their private lives, who donate to important causes – still play a devastating role in society. They simply cannot exist other than through the exploitation of the people who work for them. There’s no way around it.
That’s the scary thing. It would be one thing if all we were dealing with was a bunch of assholes. If that were the case, we could just send them on a fancy space shuttle to another (forever after unfortunate) planet. But it’s not that. We’re talking about an entire set of relations, norms, and institutions. We are dealing with a deeply entrenched, sophisticated system that compels people to take advantage of others. It is a system that ultimately rewards people for being antisocial.
Even that system, though, cannot overpower basic human drives to help one another. Even capitalism cannot compel a mother to compete with her daughter for food. Even capitalism cannot undermine the countless examples of people sharing resources, even in times when resources are almost nonexistent. Even in the midst of all this, people have organized throughout history to oppose this system, or to fill in the enormous gaps capitalism tears through our society, from revolutions and unions, to bike-shares and food drives. That ought to tell us something about people, and about the potential they have to live a different way. More on that later.
The Failures of the Market
It’s probably a good idea to go over briefly what is so fundamentally wrong with markets in the first place.
First of all, they aren’t fair. That should be obvious. Besides what we already covered with the Cs and the Ms (which means that capitalists are basically making a profit regardless of their work, and at the expense of workers, who are obviously working and being exploited), labor markets are also unfair between workers. Workers are valued for increased output, regardless of effort or sacrifice, meaning that workers are valued based on their spot in a production process, not necessarily on how hard they work. That is, a worker in a position in which it is easier to produce more (like a salesperson who gets commission), gets a much greater reward than a worker on an assembly line (ironically, the one actually producing the good being sold).
Secondly, markets influence our culture and reinforce particular values. In a way, they make social relations dependent on the market. They encourage competition, aggression, greed, opportunism, and indifference towards the other people around us. They undermine democracy by denying us the skills needed to be active participants (such as teamwork, empathy and solidarity) – and by concentrating wealth (and subsequent political and decision-making power) into the hands of the few. They train us to fight each other, rather than work together, and they reward the most anti-social behaviors instead of the solidaristic ones.
But the real kicker, and my personal favorite, is how inefficient capitalism is. Yes. That’s right. Read that again. Inefficient. I know it’s hard to believe, because all we hear over and over is that, sure, capitalism’s got problems, but it’s the most efficient thing out there. Well. Turns out it’s not.
Exchanges that take place in a market system don’t account for externalities, which are the ways that those transactions affect anyone or anything other than those directly involved in the transaction (like the environment, other communities, etc.). In fact, businesses make a greater profit the more they push their externalities onto others (other businesses, the government, society in general). Producing cheap goods that people want to buy regardless of the external effects is efficient in raising profit for the owner and sometimes a bargain for the individual consumer, but it isn’t necessarily efficient in terms of society as a whole. Producers don’t have any incentive to care, either. The production process doesn’t say anything about what social costs led to that production. It doesn’t say anything about how many different people were exploited along the production chain, or where the dozens of plastic wrappings came from and how they will be disposed of. It doesn’t say how the smog from the factory will affect the nearby community, nor what the introduction of a cheaper good will do the jobs people already had. The price tag doesn’t include an account of how the product will affect quality of life in the long-run, or how much society will have to work (and pay) later on to clean the rivers of the pollution its manufacture caused. The list goes on. This is only one way in which markets are inefficient, but there is a whole list of others, written up very well in Robin Hahnel’s “Against the Market Economy” where actually a lot of this was lifted from.
It’s good to know (and revel in the fact that), even within its own parameters for judgment, capitalism is a failure. Unfortunately, it’s getting late, and we’ve got to move on. I wish we could spend longer on this, or delve into Neoliberalism as the current trend in capitalism’s development (capitalism’s worst hair day ever, it seems), but again, the critiques are out there. Check the resource list at the end to get some tips.
The Company Capitalism Keeps: A Reminder on Holism
Not only does capitalism have an effect on the questions answered by economic systems, it also has an effect on other areas of our lives.
With a complementary holist approach, we don’t go out and blame capitalism for all of society’s problems, and we don’t have any illusions that if we just get rid of capitalism, we will all emerge in a warm, loving, chocolate-sprinkled paradise. No, it isn’t that simple, and before the chocolate rivers, we have a lot of work to do on a lot of levels, like race, gender, the environment, and so on, all of which deserve their own attention in the realms of analysis, vision, and strategy.
Still, though, it is undeniable that capitalism helps to produce and re-produce other oppressions. We won’t get into this too deeply, because we’ve already taken up quite a lot of your time, but you should know that very serious people have made very serious arguments tying capitalism to authoritarianism, environmental degradation, racism, sexual repression, patriarchy, imperialism, and the loss of community and human intimacy. Capitalism sure does have some nasty friends.
Auntie TINA, Why Does Mean Uncle Capitalism Always Overstay His Welcome?
This isn’t the first indictment of capitalism to be written, and it’s not complete – we could go on for days, and a lot of political philosophers have made their careers by doing so. There have even been countless people and movements that spent decades fighting to get rid of capitalism. And yet, capitalism has survived. If we are serious about social revolution, we’ve got to understand why the damn thing won’t just go away.
Well, for one, the people who profit most from this system of exploitation use all sorts of mechanisms to protect themselves, from cooption to conversion to destruction – the bright lights flickering at Times Square, the rhetoric that everyone is middle class, the consumer goods to buy us off, the different social cleavages that we identify with and pit us against one another, the sophisticated corporate media that dull us, a fantasy version of democracy, and – yes – the violence of the police or the military if we step too far out of line (or simply come from a more threatened community). Together, they form a brutally efficient system of domination that protects the privilege of the few at the expense of the very many.
But there is another tool capitalists and coordinators have harnessed to their incredible success, only so rarely challenged, even by the most outspoken on the Left. This tool is the endless mantra of hopelessness. It has been summed up perhaps best by our favorite (note the sarcasm) politician, Margaret Thatcher, in her all-too-brilliant slogan, TINA: There is no alternative.
I don’t know about you, but when I was a 17-year-old railing on capitalism and the state and blah-blah-ing about how terrible it all was, that was always what stumped me. I could never get further than analysis and critique. I knew what I didn’t want, but couldn’t imagine what I wanted instead. To be honest, even during my time at university, most of what my professors and the thinkers they referred to could ever really do well was talk about how bad capitalism was. They did a good job at it, but it wasn’t enough. Without an alternative, we find ourselves forced to either sigh and resign ourselves to capitalism while maybe living out our day-to-day lives a little more conscientiously, or holding our noses in order to wholeheartedly defend the social experiments that claimed to opposed capitalism (Soviet Russia, Communist China, etc.). I certainly do not want to say that the best we can do is blunt capitalism’s teeth a little, live in a nice social democracy, buy organic, volunteer at the shelter. And at the same time, centrally planned coordinator class economies under military dictatorship are not, I imagine, what the masses of workers who rose up all over the world had in mind when they fought for decades to liberate themselves.
Neither of these options, markets nor centrally planned socialism, are even remotely attractive. But capitalism – a system literally based on parasitism, that exploits and tortures workers, that reinforces the most despicable qualities to be found in humans, that smashes to bits the hope of creative, meaningful work, that makes it impossible to share and live in community, that denies so many people of their potential – has survived partially because we haven’t been able to describe something better.
It seems like our enemies figured it out even before we did – I feel kind of stupid that someone like Ronald Reagan (B-list actor/president at best…) beat us to it. It’s almost obvious: Without a vision, we can’t inspire people, can’t ask people to take risks, can’t experiment with alternatives, can’t design a strategy for struggle, and can’t expect people to want something badly enough to fight for it. Without vision of what we want instead, we remain the perpetually-stumped 17 year old who knows what s/he doesn’t want, but can’t imagine what would be better.
I suppose, then, it’s time to talk about an alternative.
~ Chapter 3: Vision ~
Introduction to Participatory Economics
Participatory economics is both a general idea and a specific model for an economy. On the one hand, it is a descendant of generations upon generations of thought and struggle by anarchists, socialists, council communists, and others. On the other hand, it is an economic model most notably reworked, further developed, and brought up to date by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. They are probably writing something about participatory economics as we speak, and there are people from Atlanta to London to New Delhi talking about it. It’s good to know that we are not alone, and that there is a budding movement of people who are – along with us – working with these ideas – not a hundred years ago or in history books, but here and now.
Furthermore, there are people out there attempting to practice participatory economics as a whole (such as some collectives in the United States), as well as parts of it (some cities like Porto Allegre in Brazil have participatory budgets, and some countries such as Venezuela seem to be developing the type of planning councils fundamental to participatory economics). We can also find elements of participatory economics that were carried out by movements in the past, like the Israeli Kibbutz Movement, or the Spanish anarchists.
At the same time, it should be taken for what it is: a theoretical model. A participatory economy has yet to be put into practice fully on a large scale, and still has a long way to go before all of the kinks are worked out. It is offered here as the beginning of a conversation, and it is a work in progress – one that hopefully you, too, will decide to engage with and shape. We think it is, at the very least, a solid base to work from.
Values First, Institutions Next
One of the most important points about participatory economics is the starting point that Hahnel and Albert take. They figure – and it makes sense – that first of all, we’ve got to define our values, decide what kinds of human beings we want to be, what types of principles we want embodied in our society, and only after that can we figure out how to make those values a reality. The values they (and we) put forth are: equity, self-management, solidarity, diversity, efficiency, and sustainability.
Those values will guide us in the development of institutions, not the other way around. In other words, we think society should be governed by institutions that encourage and empower, facilitate and develop these values. We want to build economic structures that create equity between people, that empower us to manage our own affairs, that facilitate a solidaristic community life, that preserve the environment sustainably, that provide for us efficiently, and that give us a diverse range of options of what to produce and consume, where to work and how, and who and how to be.
Now, not only will those values help us develop institutions that are intentional and thought-out, but they will also be useful in judging other economies (like capitalism). We have already done our bit of railing on capitalism, but it really only takes a glimpse to see that these values, which we hold dear and take seriously, are truly undermined by capitalism. In brief, capitalism is based on gross inequality, it removes decision-making from the hands of the vast majority, turns us against one another, denies most of us options about how to truly express our lives, is totally unsustainable, and doesn’t actually meet the needs of a great many people who live on this earth.
So. Participatory economics. Jump in!
Collective Ownership: That’s Right, Me and You
First of all, in a participatory economy, ownership of the means of production (the things that produce wealth) would be collective. Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t own your shoes, or that some guys in off-white jumpsuits are going to storm Grandma’s apartment and confiscate her beloved 50-year-old radio. What it means is that those enormous producers of social wealth, the things we use to create new things for consumption – the workplaces and tools, land and factories, etc. – belong to all of us (if that sounds crazy, remember there are a lot of things already collectively owned, like public schools for example). It means we don’t have a system where the vast majority who owns nothing works for the tiny minority who owns it all. It means we don’t have a handful of people with a disproportionate say on what and how things should be produced and consumed. It also means no one gets the excessive income usually obtained by that handful of people.
So, you might be thinking…ok…but then who does own it all? And yes, we do have some bad experience with ideas like collective ownership of the means of production. For example, centrally planned economies also base themselves on collective ownership. What they meant by that, though, is that the state owns everything on behalf of the people. This inevitably means a handful of people deciding for everyone, and this is (again), what we mean when we talk about the coordinator class. That’s not the kind of society we are talking about. We are talking about all of us together. So, then, what mechanisms are there to carry out all of that coordination?
Councils! Councils for Everyone!
Councils – groups of people discussing and deciding together, directly representing communities – have emerged as central in literally every meaningful revolution to date. In many of those cases, those councils were later destroyed. A good example is that the Russian revolution actually began with soviets (councils), which were soon after ruled over by commissars (the coordinator class).
In participatory economy, the main institutions of governance and coordination are two types of councils: worker councils, and consumer councils.
After all, we are all workers, and we ought to be part of a council in our workplace in order to have a say in the way things are run around there. We ought to be able to participate in the process of deciding how our work will be organized. We ought to be able to decide together how much to work, under what conditions, at what times, to what end, and in what sort of arrangement between us.
In addition, we all are consumers, and we ought to be part of a council in our neighborhood to be able to discuss what we need and want for our consumption. We ought to have a space to plan what sorts of things need to be made so that we can be happy, as individuals and as a community (from solar panels to playgrounds). And our council ought to be connected to other councils, and part of larger councils (like a municipal one), and even larger ones (city-wide, regional, etc.).
If we want a democratic society, then the decisions about what we want to consume should be decided together, and they should be weighed in conjunction with what it will take to produce it all.
Participatory Planning: Talk it Out
Part of the issue with capitalism is its myth that we are all individuals, acting autonomously, with the freedom to do as we please so long as we don’t interfere with anyone else. We live in a sort of fantasy world like that, and we can do it because what it takes for me to buy a cell phone is simply to walk into a store, pick one up off a shelf, and hand the cashier a credit card. But that’s a complete farce, enabled by the lack of active participation in production and consumption.
What is concealed in that process is the fact that the phone is the end result of a ridiculous amount of little pieces of equipment, and hours of labor to put them all together and make them work. The metal was mined in Africa and then shipped and refined and then shipped and put together with some plastics that were made somewhere else and shipped and repackaged and shipped and then melded together with a thousand other things by the dexterous little fingers of a Thai kid who got paid a few cents, then shipped back (on some sort of gas-monster like a cargo plane, piloted by some underslept workers) somewhere else to be packaged with other materials and by other little underpaid hands, to be shipped elsewhere and so on and so forth. Materials and labor are expended on that thing at every step of the journey, sometimes in ways that would disgust the hell out of us if we actually knew the details. In the meantime, back here, the plastic card I handed the cashier is a representative of dollar bills, which is a representative of a theoretical concept called money, which is a representative of my ability to work and the time I spent doing it, which is totally taken away from me and made a thing, to be bought and sold like anything else. In a capitalist economy, through a market, we don’t consider (and aren’t encouraged or empowered to consider) all of that when we buy a phone or anything else.
In a participatory economy, the people making that phone are in a council where they decide how to work and how much to produce, in coordination with the request on behalf of councils of consumers as to how many phones are needed or desired. Our desire to have more phones doesn’t necessarily outweigh their desire to produce less on account of working under better conditions, for example. Now, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have phones, but it does mean we have to take into account the social costs of the decisions we make in terms of our production and consumption. The decision about that can only be arrived at democratically if we reject both markets and centrally planned systems, and instead go through a participatory planning process.
As we covered, we are all part of councils and federations on both the consumption and production side of things. As workers, we are making proposals about what we are able and willing to produce given the resources necessary to produce it. When I make a proposal for my spending, I am essentially saying that X should be the average income, and when I make a proposal for my workload, I am essentially saying Y should be the average output. At first, supplies of different goods and services and the demand for them won’t match (because we’re probably going to want to spend more than we want to make, right?), so if the prices of things after we make our proposals reflect some inconsistency, we go back to the drawing board to rewrite proposals. In many cases, these mis-matches will be obvious, because all of this will be boiled down to numbers – prices (reflecting the opportunity and social costs of things) – which will make it easy for councils to vote on one another’s proposals relatively easily. There is no central planning bureaucracy to make decisions for us, or even to synthesize our proposals. Instead, councils and federations propose and revise what they want to do with the aid of estimates of opportunity and social costs that grow increasingly more accurate with every revision.
Of course, this does have certain implications. For example, we may have to have more…[insert dramatic horror music]…meetings! Yes. Maybe. But again, the meetings wouldn’t be carried out by distant bureaucrats who don’t know what’s happening on the ground, but within each council, and with all the necessary information about opportunity and social costs. Also, meetings would then become part of what we expect to do at work, and part of our community practice, and we’d probably have more time to spare once we do away with all the silly, strange capitalist jobs like marketing and hedge funds. Besides, on the whole, it’s not that there would be more meetings necessarily, just that we would all be having our share of them – because we would live in an actually democratic society – rather than some of us never having meetings while the CEOs do nothing but meet all day to decide how the rest of us will live. And look, if you still aren’t convinced, I hear you – meetings are a drag, but get over it. Ultimately, more meetings are a small price to pay for being free, not to mention living in a world where the astounding number of people who are starving today finally have enough to eat.
But now we’ve started to touch on the next issue, how to balance our work.
Balanced Jobs: Pass the Mop
The way a capitalist economy divides jobs is directly related to the way capitalists want to see society in general. Let’s say we were to rate tasks in a workplace from worst (1) – most deadening, most boring, least fun, least empowering, etc. – to best (10) – most fulfilling, most empowering, etc. A certain group of people would get the jobs ranked in the 10s and 9s. Another tier of people would get jobs in the 8s, and 7s, maybe a 9 thrown in. Some people would get a bundle of tasks that was all in the 2s, and so on. That’s what happens in a class society. Some people do all the lunch meetings and designing, while other people do all the toilet-plunging and paper-shredding. The higher you are in the chain of command, the more desirable your bundle of tasks. Since this is the case, aside from the fact that most of us have miserable days, it seems pretty obvious that the janitors can’t possibly be expected to participate in the decision-making that goes on. They are less and less empowered every day, while the coordinators are more and more empowered.
Our idea is really pretty simple: balance it out. Now, that doesn’t mean people rotate their jobs. We don’t imagine, as Marx did (and for which he has been made fun of endlessly, and we think it’s funny too…), that we will fish in the morning, study in the afternoon, and perform brain surgery in the evening. No, some jobs require consistency, some require serious training, and so on.
We mean that we come to a general agreement on how certain tasks affect us. Are they rote? Are they creative? Do they make us feel good and fulfilled? Do they degrade us or make us want to go home and take a shower as quickly as possible? We figure out roughly what it’s like to experience a set of tasks (although people are different and so on and so forth, but still, generally, we can agree on most things as a group), and we make sure that on the whole, everyone’s basic work experience balances out. Different people prefer different types of work, so already things tend to even out on their own, but where they don’t, we need to arrange things such that everyone has a reasonable average of empowering and fulfilling work. I might do mainly one or two different types of tasks that are in the middle range and keep me at the average. Others might do a combination of 3s and 7s, and of course that’s just a general outline. The point is overall balance.
Balanced jobs are an integral part of a participatory economy on a couple of levels.
First of all, our ability to self-manage relies on sharing information, which comes from our life experience (and in this case, since we are dealing with economics, we’re talking about work). We can’t expect it to be meaningful for people to participate in the process of deciding how to manage their workplace if all they know about is where the door is, since all they do is open and close the door when people enter or leave. If we want a democratic work environment, we have got to empower people to participate, which means balancing peoples’ work lives to grant them that experience and perspective.
Secondly, we spend a lot of our time working. In fact, some might even consider work to be part of our essential expression as human beings (we mentioned this in the section on alienation). There is no possible reason that some people should never clean a bathroom in their entire lives, while others are relegated to a life full of only cleaning bathrooms. It doesn’t make a shred of sense, and it isn’t a remotely decent way to organize a society if we care about people (by the way, we care about people).
Compensation for Effort/Sacrifice/Need
We all know that surgery doesn’t get carried out if no one is taking out the garbage. We know that the surgeon is capable of performing surgery because of whatever genetic gifts s/he was born with (for which s/he needs and deserves no more reward than already having the fortune to have been born that way), or through training (which is a right, and a privilege, something a good society would automatically offer everyone, and not something to be compensated for). We don’t think the surgeon should be paid more than the janitor, and we could make the argument that the farmer works harder, or provides a service just as socially necessary, or is doing something others couldn’t do because they couldn’t stand it, or had a more difficult time working in a basement while the doctor was in an air conditioned med school. The flip argument could be made on behalf of the surgeon. It’s a dead-end debate, and fortunately totally unnecessary if we are balancing jobs to a reasonable extent.
Also, to quantify this one part of life – our ability and time to work – as capitalism asks us to do, seems to be missing a whole lot of other things. We don’t quantify someone being more caring or more loving, even though those things make it possible for the rest of us to maintain some sanity while we perform our difficult work tasks, and make it more pleasant to be alive, and are simply good and valuable in and of themselves. We don’t compensate mothers for giving birth, nor do we compensate people for giving up their seat on the subway to an elderly man. We don’t and we shouldn’t quantify all things, so then we shouldn’t abstract work from that either. Even if we could differentiate between different kinds of labor, where did we come up with the idea that if you have a certain kind of job deemed somehow more valuable, you get more stuff? It sounds arbitrary and totally unnecessary.
In a participatory economy, people are compensated (paid) based on a few things. One is the effort people put into their work; effort, after all, is something (unlike genetics) we can control. There are, though, disagreements on how to judge effort. We could be very particular, and each reflect on one another as workers anonymously and be compensated based on our average ranking. Or we could be lenient and assume that people are putting in a fair share of effort unless things are really out of line. A good, pretty standard way to judge effort, for example, is how often people take off work without an emergency related to needs. And this doesn’t have to be looked at as a punishment either; I know plenty of people who would gladly forego a lot of their pay just to be able to have a bit more of a relaxing life at home. Sounds reasonable to me.
Another marker for compensation is sacrifice. In general, in a society with balanced jobs, this shouldn’t be much of an issue, since our work should be relatively even. That being said, though, we might not be able to balance certain things, and certain industries might always be a little bit worst off. For example, mining for metal – even if the miners have to work less, and they have incredibly fulfilling work a couple of days a week, etc. – might still arguably be subjected to conditions that are unfair relative to the rest of society. Unlike in a capitalist society, which would actually pay those miners less than the people who are off politicking at country clubs and golf tournaments, a participatory society would pay them more. On a side note, we have a pretty strong feeling that if scientists and inventors and so on were part of a system that required them to work in mines like everyone else, they would come up with a way for us not to have to do it very quickly, and if we lived in a society where the full range of effects on society were taken into account for all the things we produce, we would probably transition to a more sustainable way of life in general.
Finally, participatory economics takes need into account. We want a humane society, where people are taken care of, and where their individual circumstances are taken into account. A workplace where people know each other and deliberate, where councils make decisions democratically, and where people aren’t competing with one another, is an appropriate forum to take needs into account.
The most striking thing to me about participatory economics is how common-sensical it all is. Of course I want a society where people manage their own affairs and have say to the degree to which they are affected. Sure, I want to live in a community where people care about each other and consider one another in their decision-making. I want to have the same opportunities as everyone else, I want to have basic amenities of life and the same standard of living as the rest of society, and I want those options to be diverse and varying. I want institutions that promote those values and principles rather than smash them. I want to have a say in how my workplace runs, and I want to have a say in what is produced for me to consume. I want to plan ahead, and I want to do it democratically so I can take into account not only my needs but also those of others, and those of society in general. I want to have a reasonable amount of fulfillment and empowerment in my work, and I want everyone else to have it too.
And when you put it that way, and you lay it all out, it doesn’t sound so crazy at all. It sounds much more sane than what we have now, and it sounds entirely possible. Yes, there are difficulties. This is a system where people have to meet more often than they did before potentially, a system where time is spent planning the economy. Well, we’ve explained why that’s necessary, but the bottom line, even the things that are imperfect about this, even annoying and undesirable, are worth it. We think having to meet more often (meeting time being taken into account in one’s workday), or having to go through a potentially obnoxious planning process, or having to figure out how to rate co-workers’ effort without hurting their feelings, are small prices to pay for a society where people don’t starve, aren’t homeless, don’t exploit one another, have a sense of community, and find dignity in their work.
That being said, it’s definitely true – as we’ve written over and over again in this pamphlet – that this is only a beginning. This vision will be reworked every moment of every day for as long as the people exist to rework it. It will be finalized in struggle, and then recreated again immediately after. It’s good enough, though, to allow us to move forward and figure out how we want to get there.
~ Chapter 4: Strategy ~
From Here to a Free Society
7th Inning Stretch
To sum up, if we haven’t lost you along the way, we should have an agreement on a few things.
First of all, capitalism is not the party it’s cracked up to be. It’s oppressive, repressive and a lot of other nasty adjectives. It can be reformed, but it has essential features that make it inherently exploitative, and violent. However, despite the evils of capitalism, it is only fair that those who seek to dismantle it present an idea of what would be better. So we need vision, or else, even as bad as capitalism is, we’re not going to agree to go out and fight it.
But – hold on – we do have a pretty good idea of what would be better, and that is a participatory economy. We know it’s not complete, and that we have more work to do on it theoretically, and that it will take a lot of trial and error to figure it all out. We know that even then it won’t be perfect, because humans (and therefore society), are dynamic, changing, critical beings (and perfection is just about the most boring thing out there). But we think it’s certainly a very good starting point. It is based on values we can agree with, truly human values: solidarity, self-management, equity, diversity, efficiency, and sustainability. It functions based on institutions that promote those values: participatory planning, councils, balanced job complexes, fair remuneration, etc. In short, it is an economy that reinforces the types of values we want to express, and empowers us to reach our human potential.
So. The question we will deal with in this chapter is: How do we get there?
Vision before Strategy
Well, I would say the first step in developing a strategy is a identifying a vision. Since we’ve just done that, we’re covered for now. Onwards!
Counter-Hegemony: New Narratives and Raised Consciousness
Let’s be honest, that’s sort of what we’re aiming at right now with the pamphlet.
Capitalism has a narrative, a rhetoric, a whole story justifying itself – told to us through stories and movies, billboards and magazines, clothing and our day to day interacting. We call that an ideological hegemony. If we want something else, a different economy, it too needs a story. We need to destroy the ideological hegemony of capitalism and replace it with a counter-hegemony, with our story – a story about solidarity and compassion, about equity and care, about meeting people’s needs, about having a say. For that to happen, there needs to be an enormous shift in consciousness, in the way we think, in the way we relate to one another.
We have to write, talk, teach and learn from one another. We have to engage in political struggles that teach us on the ground realities. We have to confront ideas we’ve never confronted, and imagine alternatives. We’ve got to reach out to others. We have to be able to write a story, to create a discussion that strengthens the movement we want to build, and punctures holes in the card trick that capitalism has been playing on us. We have to educate ourselves and others to the point that we are in the position to fight for a new society, and to the point that we would be able to actually live in it.
That brings us to dual power, which is the process of building institutions that replace the current ones, alongside institutions that fight against the institutions of today.
Alternative Institutions: Revolution in Itself
Alternative institutions are the frameworks or structures we use in order to allow us to live the way we think we should. They are things we build (and that people have built for as long as capitalism has existed) to meet a need unmet within the current system. They are also, a step in the direction of replacing that very system.
Alternative institutions might be cooperative workplaces, communal living arrangements, or food coops. They might be urban gardens, neighborhood councils, student-run university courses, or alternative high schools. In any part of life, we can dream up a whole set of institutions that would allow us to function in a way more closely aligned with the world we wish to see in the future. Many such alternatives already exist, and they are important on a number of levels.
Living or working within an alternative proves to others that we are serious, and gives supporters something tangible to relate to in our politics. Functioning in an alternative helps us actually meet serious needs, and provides us with the experience we need in actually practicing those alternatives. Having strong alternatives fulfills the task of having institutions ready to replace the ones we are fighting when the time comes. Last but most certainly not least, these alternatives make our lives better.
Presumably, if we are fighting for a world that is more collective, more democratic, more egalitarian, etc., then institutions that are that way even in the present society would be better than the ones we grew up in. We should want to create those institutions for ourselves now. To those who see that as a waste of time, I would say that there is nothing very impressive or sustainable in the long-run about martyrdom and suffering for the cause; revolution is for us too.
Ultimately, if we want a self-managed, solidaristic, equitable, and diverse economy, we need to create alternative institutions now that teach us what that really means, and which are in the position to become the norm when we are ready to struggle to bring them from the periphery into the mainstream.
Counter Institutions: Coming Out Swinging
And yes, then comes the struggling. Counter institutions are those organs through which we fight, the organizations and movements and collectives whose mission is to actively change society, to confront the rotten institutions that dominate us now, that shift power. While the alternatives look in, the counters look out.
Examples of counter institutions might be labor unions, workers councils (these can double up), or radical law firms. They might be political parties, organizing networks, or radical educational groups. In certain times and places, they might be groups of people prepared to defend their communities. These sorts of institutions have been around forever, and have always been on the forefront of social change.
To connect the dots, alternative institutions, if alone, will either be co-opted and subsumed within capitalism, or destroyed by it. An alternative alone is good for the people who get to participate in it and serves as an example, but it doesn’t amount to very much of a difference for the rest of society, floating in the middle of perhaps the most degrading, most violent, most oppressive economic orders in history. An alternative only for itself, without connection to a struggle outwards, is not particularly revolutionary. When they take that form, then, they are often left alone, because they aren’t particularly threatening to the social order.
When, though, alternative institutions see themselves as part of something larger – a movement, or a network of alternative and counter institutions – or when it takes upon itself the role of also fighting outwardly, it is under very serious threat from the powers that be. The examples of alternatives crushed by the powerful groups of society (or even just by the way the economy functions on its own) are too numerous to mention.
This is why counter institutions are necessary. We can’t expect this intricate web of oppressions (or capitalism in particular) to collapse on its own, merely because some of us are living or working in a way that is alternative. We can’t expect to have the leniency to develop viable alternatives and attempt to make them mainstream, without being able to defend ourselves. We can’t expect to have the space to grow a society the way we think it should be without fighting for that space. We can’t expect those privileged by the way things are now, to simply walk away and hand over the keys. We’ve got to fight.
Movements in Struggle
Power doesn’t evaporate just because you close your eyes and wish, and people with power tend not to want to give it up. Power folds when you challenge it, when you exhibit determination, when you have clear demands and you fight until you get them, and when you see those demands as part of a never-ending list towards a social transformation. Power only backs away when confronted by a new power, not before. We have to build alternatives, and struggle to secure more and more space for those alternatives to develop, and there are also times in a revolutionary process, we think, when it becomes necessary to rise up.
In other words, we need a movement. Different community groups doing their own local things isn’t going to cut it. Democratic workplaces here and alternative living arrangements there aren’t going to do it on their own either. On the flip side, different political or social struggles all disconnected from one another, and without affiliation to alternative structures, are equally incapable of bringing about a serious social transformation.
We use the term autonomy within solidarity to describe the movement we want to build, a movement made up of different groups working autonomously to deal with the issues that mean most to them, while functioning in solidarity with something greater. We need movements where alternative and counter institutions work side by side, and where the endless list of issues they all deal with can meet in one place, feed off one another, support each other, struggle together. Only a real movement of people can accomplish what we are talking about here. Only a consistent, long-term struggle will ever push the status quo aside.
We think the uniting factor should be a vision for what the world ought to look like, and that is one of the reasons vision is at the center of our thinking.
When we talk about revolution, we don’t mean storming the Bastille, or occupying buildings, although we know that those acts, too, are part of a revolutionary struggle. When we talk about revolution, we mean a real upheaval in the way we relate to one another. We aren’t only talking about things – factories and farms and buildings and machines. We are also talking about me and you, about feelings, about fulfillment, about pleasure.
We are revolutionaries not only in content – that is, in the program and platform of our organization or the slogans we shout or the concrete suggestions we make on what a just economy would look like. We are also revolutionaries in form. We want our struggle, not only in its result, but in its process, to reflect the world we want to create – we want it to be as fierce as any fighting force has ever been, as fun as the best party in town, as compassionate as the warmest community in history, as determined as humans are capable of being, as liberating, democratic, and fulfilling as we imagine it being when we finally win. Our revolution should not only be a protest, it should be the seeds the world we want. It should grant us as much of that world as it can.
We are fighting for a future generation, for a world where our grandchildren will ask us, with confusion and curiosity in their eyes, how such monstrous systems were ever allowed to exist such a long, long time ago. We are fighting so we can keep them from knowing it through their experiences.
But we are also fighting for ourselves, and we think the struggle, too, should be beautiful.
~ Conclusion ~
About Today and Tomorrow
An Historical Moment?
Yes, I know, every moment is historical. Or maybe none are. But at the very least, every aspiring revolutionary thinks her/his generation is an historical one, thinks that her/his time is special, crucial for some reason. Without that fire, those revolutionaries would have been community organizers, or sympathizers of a revolution, or workers with some radical ideas, but not revolutionaries. So, on the one hand, the answer has to be yes, and it’s not so special a yes because it’s the same yes that every revolutionary of every generation repeats to her/himself in order to muster up the will to struggle.
But I don’t think it’s an altogether wasted question. I do think now is a vital time for a movement. The earth’s climate is in shambles; we have reached peak oil and will only have less than we need pretty much from now on unless we make some big changes; capitalism has experienced another titanic crash that will only worsen and perhaps in epic proportion; people are losing their jobs, losing their homes, losing their pensions, losing their savings; everyone is in debt (we seem to always wonder why the banks are lending money to the wrong people, but very few think to ask why is it that almost everyone on earth has to borrow in the first place); the united states is potentially losing its footing as the world’s superpower, and the wars it is managing are very obviously enormous ethical and strategic catastrophes, as are a whole slew of other wars of aggression, military occupations, human rights abuses, and so on (many of them perpetuated or financially backed by the class that finds itself most at home right here on Wall St.); people are tired, terrified, and impoverished all over the world.
So yes, maybe every revolutionary rattles off a list like that for her/his generation, but the list is real nonetheless. A year ago, New York City dailies ran a headline about the coming collapse of capitalism. It has been in the news, and politicians have thought it necessary to reassure us that capitalism isn’t going anywhere (which makes us feel pretty strongly that the big-shots are afraid it is, in fact, going down the drain). This signals, it seems, a temporary breach in the ideological hegemony of the status quo; in other words, the image of the ever-enduring strength of capitalism is shaking, water is starting to drip through the cracks, and the Dutchboys are getting worried. Even if only because of that, this is an important historical moment.
Glimmers of Hope
There are, as always, glimmers of hope. If there weren’t we, we wouldn’t have bothered writing this.
All over the world, there are people taking control of their communities, fighting for tenant rights, organizing against gentrification, fighting union battles, going on strike. All over, there are people creating alternatives – alternative living spaces, alternative workplaces, alternative ways to produce and consume and govern and teach. All over the world, workers are taking control of factories, students are taking control of schools. In some places, those people have even taken control of governments. Perhaps, one day not so far from today, after a lot more work to strengthen ourselves, build new institutions, and change the way people think, those different parties, organizations, institutions, and communities will become a movement. It seems this is already beginning.
There is hope in that movement.
Then, of course, there is hope in you.
OFS Statement: Our Mission
The Organization for a Free Society envisions a world characterized by solidarity, equity, self-management, diversity and ecological balance.
We are committed to building a movement for social liberation. We aim to transform the governing values and institutions in all spheres of social life. Through study and struggle, we have come to understand that systems of oppression condition our lives by mutually defining and reproducing our social relationships. We work to break down all systems of inequality and injustice and to create a participatory, democratic, and egalitarian society.
We are dedicated organizers from diverse backgrounds who work within grassroots movements to build, take, and decentralize power in society. We believe in raising consciousness and awareness through education. We seek to build alternative institutions that challenge and undermine exploitation and domination, and instead embody in the present the values of the future. It is essential for us to live and organize as close to our vision as possible and to transform ourselves as part of the struggle for a free society.
OFS Statement: What We Believe
1. Social revolution. We recognize the need to fundamentally transform the governing values and institutions of society. We need to approach the root of the problem to make a lasting change.
2. Holistic politics. We commit to analysis and action in all areas of social life, including race, community, the economy, gender, sex, sexuality, age, ability, and authority, without elevating any but instead recognizing the intrinsic important of each, their interconnection, and the need to confront the totality of human oppression.
3. Vision for all spheres of social life. We envision a truly democratic and participatory political system, a classless and participatory economy, a liberated and egalitarian kinship, intercommunalist community relations, international relations that foster autonomy within solidarity, and social and economic organization that can ensure sustainable ecology.
4. Embodying in the present the values we want to see in the future. We strive to organize, struggle, and lead our lives in a way that exemplifies the change we wish to see in our society and the world. We seek to build institutions that reflect our values and meet real needs in the present.
5. Self-management. We believe everyone should have a say in the decisions that affect them, and the resources on which they are dependent, in proportion to the degree to which they are affected. We strive to actualize this principle in our organization, movements, and society. We reject structures that embody authoritarian and inequitable relationships, including hierarchical divisions of labor and authoritarian decision-making structures.
6. Strategic action. We work within movements in order to fight for meaningful change in the present towards the path social transformation. We believe in building power through the creation of viable alternatives in all spheres, and by unifying alternatives and struggles in a common challenge to the current system.
In Case You Want More…
- Participatory Economics on ZNet, http://www.zcommunications.org/topics/parecon
- Socialist, anarchist, and Marxist thought, http://www.marxists.org/
- Peter Kropotkin, “The Conquest of Bread,” http://libcom.org/library/the-conquest-of-bread-peter-kropotkin
- Robin Hahnel, “Against the Market Economy: Advice to Venezuelan Friends,” http://www.monthlyreview.org/080101hahnel.php
- Tom Wetzel, “Workers Power and the Spanish Revolution,” http://libcom.org/library/workers-power-and-the-spanish-revolution-tom-wetzel
- Robin Hahnel, “Protecting the Environment in a Participatory Economy,” http://www.greens.org/s-r/34/34-18.html
- Maurice Brinton, “The Irrational In Politics,” http://www.uncarved.org/pol/irat.html
- Kovel, Joel. The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?, Second Edition. 2 ed. London: Zed Books, 2007. Print.
- George Lakey, “Strategizing for a Living Revolution,” http://www.nonviolence.org.au/downloads/living_revolution.pdf
- Ann Ferguson, “Sex and Work: Women as a New Revolutionary Class in the United States”
- Ed. Ed. Roger S. Gottlieb An Anthology of Western Marxism
- Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
- Michael Albert, Parecon: Life After Capitalism
- Horrox, James. A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement.
- Michael Albert, Leslie Cagan, Noam Chomsky, Robin Hahnel, Mel King, Lydia Sargent, and Holly Sklar. Liberating Theory
- David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism
- Brian Dominick, “Real Utopia Left Forum ’08 [Dual Power]” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jk68DbFdDx8&feature=related