Real Utopia: Participatory Society 1
By Chris Spannos at Aug 06, 2008
As part of the opening session of the Z Education Online courses I'm facilitating the course "Participatory Society 1" which is based on a book I've recently edited for AK Press Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century. We're now in the middle of week 5 of the 10 week course program, and for last weeks course project I had those taking my course review the answers to the week 1 questions, of which there were over 40 responces, and comprise those answers which they thought best, excluding their own. I also participated and below are my selections. I reviewed all entries, and there were many insights and explanations that, although very good, are not below. The ones here are just the ones I thought broadly emblematic of the issues presented in the course. My edits, changes, and suggestions are in red text.
(1) What is the purpose of having vision for a new world?
a) - Provide guidance for movements: If we don't go all the way to developing vision, movements may be working towards aims which ultimately will be found undesirable, unsatisfactory, counter-revolutionary etc..
- Analysis of journey / gains: Having a vision is helping us developing short-term achievable goals, which will allow us to keep gaining. This allows us to analyse our gains, different strategy options etc...
- Provide a point of reference that allows us to analyse the current situation, the current institution and their dynamics and compare them with the ones we are seeking..
- Moving forward / different focus: Many of us are unhappy about capitalism, racism, patriarchy, or/and state of political institutions. Without vision we then spend much time expressing our discontent in one form or another. Most of our time and energy is spent improving how we can articulate our discontent, explaining to others that we are right to be upset and that others too should join us in whining. Discussing /having a vision provide a different focus and inevitably (I hope) leads people to seek ways of moving forward, to actually look for progress, solutions etc...
- Long term involvement. People keep coming in and going out of movements of resistance or social change. Involved for a few years, battling to create change, people quickly become disillusioned by how much they have achieved during their involvement, don't see the point staying involved etc... The lack of long term goals or agreement toward long term goals also have similar effects.
- How we organise. Developing vision should also inform us about the way we organise in our movements. What king of dynamics, decision making etc...are we seeking ultimately for a new society. So we don't replicate racism, sexism, classism, etc. Maybe these or just some features can be applied right now and should be applied if we don't want to end with a non-desirable society.
- Providing hope. People may have no hope simply because they don't see any workable alternatives to capitalism, patriarchy, racism or representative democracy etc...Presenting desirable and credible alternatives may provide hope to many. I assume that I don't have to stress the importance of hope to social change here.
b) In order to win a better society, you have to know where you're going. A vision not only provides hope that something decent can be aspired to, but also guides immediate actions. That is, how can you even form a strategy to take you to a better society, if you have no clue what that society looks like. The strategy you come up with could lead to places uglier than what you were trying to get away from.
c) Vision provides a movement for a new world with a starting off place to begin revolutionary change. It gives us an opportunity to discuss and test (very important) our ideas about what constitutes a "new world." What kind of world do we want to live in? What are the social structures that enable us to create and live in that world? How do we get there? These are crucial questions for any movement that wants to create a new world to ask themselves and that is what vision provides.
d) The purpose of having vision for a new world? If we want to eliminate the different forms of oppression and exploitation- the things we consider harmful- in society, we need to recognise that they stem from the very structures of society. Rather than just criticizing these structures, we need to put forward alternatives, the structures of which don't lead to the things we consider harmful.
Vision also gives movements which seek to eliminate oppression now, organising methods that prefigure the Vision. The institutions of the vision can be incorporated into the movement, so that they don't reproduce in their operations the oppressions they seek to eliminate.
Further, having (convincing) vision can persuade those who feel that "There is no alternative" (TINA) to, for example, Capitalism, (and racism, sexism, etc.) that an alternative is attainable.
(2) The predominant approach to social change among Leftists last century was Historical Materialism. What is Historical Materialism?
a) Historical materialism is a methodological approach to the study of society, economics, and history with strong emphasis on relations within the economic sphere.
This may have first been articulated by Karl Marx. Funny enough a quite opposite way of seeing history was described by Frederick Engels (when he describes history's imponderability). Reference quoted in Liberating theory - Chapter Seven).
An alternative to historical materialism would be to take into consideration other spheres such as the kinship, political and community spheres as equally important when analysing any society or history in general.
We should keep in mind that when we are using such methodological approach to analyse history we are not aiming at finding the exact truth about the past but rather aiming at getting a better understanding of the dynamics within history and hope these understandings will help us in moving towards a desirable society.
b) Historical materialism is the idea that history is driven by the struggle between two classes of people. Capitalists own the means of production and are in need of the second class, workers, who are employed to work for the capitalists. The interest of these two classes are quite opposite. Capitalists want to compel their workers to work harder and for as cheap as possible, while workers want to better their condition of life and be treated equally and fairly.
c) Vision provides a guide, allows us to chart how to get from ‘here' to ‘there'. Without vision then it's very hard to move beyond reacting and critiquing society and its institutions now to discussing and working towards what type of society we would like. Vision also provides hope, something to hold on to when things don't seem to be going well. It can point the general way.
d) Historical materialism is the view that class struggle is the driving force shaping history, society and people. This view tends to over emphasize class and therefore neglect other influences on people such as gender and race.
e) Historical Materialism tackles social change by claiming that economy and class struggle (of the two-class kind) are the predominant forces that shape society, and therefore must have predominant focus.
f) Historical Materialism is the idea that the driving factor of history is property relations. (I would have said, instead of property relations, class struggle, as it seems to me what the rest of this answer, which I agree with, is driving at.) Who owns the tools of production and how does that ownership function in relation to the people who use the tools? Society goes through great upheavals when the ownership of productive property changes hands at a societal level. Thus, the revolution to destroy capitalism will be won when the workers take ownership of the tools of production away from the capitalist owners. This approach places the emphasis for change primarily on class analysis and the working class expropriating the means of production, which would be valueless without the workers.
g) Historical Materialism is a monist approach that says class struggle is the lone driving force shaping history, society and people.
Historical Materialism is an approach to study society, history, and economics propounded by Karl Marx. Historical Materialism renders most important in understanding the causes of various developments in society an economic analysis and an economic consciousness embedded in all human beings as a result of their economic lives, interactions, and struggles. ... (deleted segment) Marx reduces the prime motivator and cause of causes in terms of understanding human beings in terms of understanding their economic lives. By his reckoning and metaphysical assertion, a conditional consciousness produced by the traits assumed to be resulting in economic life, and historically created through the clash of classes and struggles, results in a grand narrative showing the material base of human existence. Human beings in the narrative of Historical Materialism have only a material based existence.
h) Historical Materialism is the idea that all the conditions and aspects of society results from class struggle and from ownership of means of production.
(3) How might a feminist respond to the belief that class struggle and the working class is the primary agent of social change? How
would an anti-racist or nationalist respond? How would an anarchist respond?
a) Rather than give specifics, we may be able to presume that agents for social transformation such as feminists, nationalists, anarchists, and other activists may not lay the primary point of contention for their particular social activism at the feet of economics, or the economic hierarchy, nor in the disgruntled and frustrated consciousness assumed to be produced by the division of labor and the result of economic exploitation. For those who are oppressed for their race, for instance, regardless of their particular economic life at a factory, the struggle for social justice may not necessarily revolve around economic justice alone. In other words, there are spheres of existence vitally important to understanding social activism beyond the fight of workers against exploitative producers, beyond purely economic struggle. Each social group may have its own priorities arising from its history, sense of identity, and desire for expression and need for change. Whether this emphasis is gender, or nationalism, or a critique and opposition to excessive State power, the point remains that economics, though a vital and tremendously important sphere to understand history, may not be adequate to explain all motion of social transformation NOR all spheres of human existence. Various social movements have been based in gender issues, racial justice issues, even environmental issues which did not have as their primary emphasis over-riding all other issues, economic life as the primary axis to understand human desires, expression, and fight for justice.
b) A feminist would respond to class struggle being the primary agent of social change by arguing that gender relations are in fact the area that should be of greatest concern. Perhaps arguing that gender relations define economic roles, or even that unequal gender relations existed before class struggle, among other possible arguments.
An anti-racist would argue obviously that race, or culture, are the defining aspects of society and define its current structures and inequalities. Thus to effect social change you need to address inequalities culturally over or before other considerations.
An anarchist response would argue that hierarchies, or state power, need to be changed to effectively bring about social change. Change those features and the rest of society would then be fundamentally changed
c) A feminist may charge that addressing gender, and not class, is the most important step in the struggle for a more democratic society. Someone fighting racism might make the same claim for addressing racial inequalities. A nationalist might believe that issues of sovereignty or immigration laws are most crucial to societies problems. And an anarchist may say the same about centralized government or interpersonal hierarchical structures. All of these stances give importance to a single or narrow range of factors and in doing so remain unaware of the interdependence of the others.
d) A feminist might respond that looking at society and the structures of power within institutions, we can clearly see how they are prejudiced, and contoured to the dominance of male over female. This difference in status and roles of the sexes clearly has nothing to do with class.
An anti-racist might respond that the historical domination of whites over blacks also has nothing to do with class struggle and means of productions. This is domination resulting from prejudice.
e) Each activist might respond that the central importance of their issue is not appreciated by the other activists. This is the antagonism that is carefully analyzed in the book Liberating Theory.
f) The feminist will argue that liberating the working class without liberating women, will keep in place a system that binds one entire half of the human race. An anarchist will say that unless political power is decentralized, economic change will not truly liberate humanity. Similarly anti-racist activists will argue that failing to eliminate racism will maintain the subordination of the non-white majority of the world's population.
(4) What role does class play in social transformation?
a) ...Marx's class analysis—with ‘class' understood in part as a social and/or economic grouping of individuals of similar circumstance and conditions—assumes several antagonistic conditions between ‘classes'. Various economic theories have particular assumptions and predictions regarding the different classes comprising society. Marx's analysis broke society into two distinct groupifications/classes of an owner/capitalist class which held economic power and rights to the ‘surplus labor'/profits of economic enterprise, while the other worker class, whose labor was extracted during the process of production, was viewed to be fundamentally exploited.
In Marx's theory, when the exploitation of the capitalist class becomes very great the worker class' pains and hardships spill over into revolution of overthrowing the social and economic order.
b) Class affects social transformation through the ownership of the means of production. It divides the population into economical haves and have-nots, and defines the nature of their struggles. Class also affects social transformation through the positioning of individuals with more empowering and conceptual work. This "co-ordinator class" sits between the wage laborers who don't own their means of production and the capitalists who do own theirs. They have their own interests that is unique to their position, and hence their separate entity.
(5) How would you define "class?"
a) A class is a group of people in society that share certain material and cultural similarities (I would have said shared material and social relations and interests i.e. class cultural, kinship, wealth, and decision making power---as others in their class whether capitalist, coordinator, or workers) causing them to act on society in a particular way.
(6) What are some key factors determining class relations---private property, ownership of productive assets---what else?
a) - Power over decisions related to production (what is produced, how it is produced and how the workplace is organised)
- Power over decisions related to reward (wages)
- Power over decisions related to working conditions
- Ability to consume: poverty and wealth
- Ownership of skills / knowledge / information.
- Level of desirability, diversity and empowerment of tasks being carried out.
b) Key factors determining class relations are private property and empowerment. Private property (control of the means of production) of course gives immense power to people who own and control them. This group of people are capitalists. Empowerment gives coordinator class control over people below them and makes them a class. This class does mostly empowering and conceptual work and so benefits from its position. This gives them skills, self-confidence and capacities that enable them to see themselves as separate from capitalists and workers. Workers have to do onerous and repetitive tasks and endure humiliation.
c) Monopoly on information and skills...
relative decision making power
(7) Why is a three-class analysis important?
a) I can see three main reasons of why a three-class analysis is important:
- It helps us understand better the dynamics within the economic sphere. It also helps us understand things as basics as the hatred form the working class towards managers, lawyers etc...
- What happen if we don't take into account a third class so called "co-ordinator class" into account when working towards a new society. Well history seems to have shown that we could end up with a society which is not much more desirable than the one we had before. We can take the example of the
- It helps us building a vision of a classless society. If Michael and Robin did not make a three-class analysis before developing an alternative economic vision, there would have ended with something probably very different from Parecon. Balanced job complexes per example is one feature which I see as quite key to a classless society especially in regard with the third class. They may not have ended up with this feature would they have not started with a three-class analysis.
b) The third, non-Marxist, class - the coordinator class - is crucial to understand in relation to the other two major (and well-known) classes - the working class and the capitalist class. How the three classes interact is crucially important to understanding how capitalism works and how a classless society can be erected in its stead. With an understanding of the coordinator class, a movement to abolish capitalism can avoid the mistakes of past socialist revolutionary movements which created a two class system with the coordinators as the ruling class and the working class largely staying the same.
(8) How do social movements treat class in this century?
a) Class is largely seen as irrelevant to mass movements so far this century. The classical Marxists still use class as a defining lens to see the working of history through but many American leftists (I don't know much about other countries) have moved away from an anti-capitalist stand and have moved toward a market-socialist, non-class oriented view of social change.
b) I'll talk only of social movements in
Most social movements in
Class is not often taken into account in movement building so we often end up with so called white middle-class 20-30 year old as active members in the movement with no particular focus on inclusivity, on widening the base for participation.
Sometimes the notion of class is not even discussed also because of a rejection / fear of Communism. People often associate class analysis directly with communism.
(9) How should social movements relate the concerns of others to their own, and how should this inform our movement vision and strategy? Can you give an example? What is the consequence of overlooking Class? Or for that matter, Race, Gender, etc.?
a) Ideally social movements would put their concerns forward and have a platform of visibility and discussion with other social movements to see where they diverge, where they can ally or where they can just choose to bring about solidarity with each others.
Sharing concerns and insights between social movements would hopefully lead to a broader understanding of the dynamics between each sphere. This could lead feminist getting a new insight in how class interfere in gender relations or orthodox marxists accepting the importance of patriarchy with the economic sphere.
Each would have to revise their strategy for reforms and revolution in order to win long lasting changes.
Maybe this would also help social movements realise that by overlooking class per example they will not be able to achieve long lasting changes or that they are in fact alienating a huge number of people. The same can hold true of overlooking race or gender.
b) Social movements should take the concerns of others seriously, on their own merits. Not as a Trojan horse to deliver the ‘real' message, whatever that may be. Social movements should relate the concerns of others to their own by viewing them as part of a wider whole. By recognizing that others have valuable insights, and not seeking to prioritize or rank one lot of concerns over others, by working in solidarity and employing a holistic analysis a more comprehensive and effective movements can be formed. By seeking to understand how the concerns of others fit with our own, we seek to work together in a generally similar direction separate but in solidarity. I think an example taken on board across the political spectrum are environmental concerns. While most of these would be a good example of ‘Trojan horses' mentioned earlier, however I think that many have taken environmental concerns more seriously and have made efforts to provide solidarity to awareness and sustainable efforts, broadening understandings past say an existing Marxist analysis or socialist analysis for example.
The consequences of overlooking other concerns is a distorted analysis, which leads to a misguided vision and strategy which if ever achieved would be limited and most likely severely flawed. By overlooking class for class for example, a social movement that only examines gender issues will not develop an understanding of how divisions of labor can be both class and gender based. By addressing only one you don't necessarily address the other, which may mean that can not effectively address either.
c) A social movement that aims to overthrow one particular type of oppression must understand that all oppressive forces work in concert with one another. Movements must understand that to have a truly classless, non-oppressive society all the types of oppression in society must be overcome. Acknowledging that fact can help us formulate a vision and strategy for the movement that will have a meaningful understanding of the different oppressive forces arrayed against it and how the movement can get rid of those forces. A class based vision may overlook the fact that half the population - women - may still be oppressed by patriarchic institutions not affected by the overthrow of the capitalist class.
d) Social movements should challenge themselves (and where appropriate, others) to understand the concerns of others in the context of the other's experience- in their terms. This is a prerequisite for the kind of communication necessary for establishing shared principles and building solidarity.
There are many examples of how this could inform vision and strategy (though I do not attribute these examples to the influence of "parsoc" ;) Indigenous movements consider the concerns of the working class when they take care to emphasize that land reclamation should not include working class neighborhoods. This is similar to how the Zapatista's heeded the Mexican population's call for ceasefire in 1994. The Zapatista's also emphasize that their political movement has historical roots in the efforts of women organizing to address the shortcomings of their own culture. And, between women, some white feminists have recognized how their movement has marginalized or even exacerbated the problems of women of color. Some decided to change. Now, for example, they speak out against using law enforcement tactics that are actually supporting the prison-industrial complex.
e) Examples of the consequences of overlooking class (or race, or gender) abound. Some anti-racists bring coordinator class mentality to their projects. This is a problem I have experienced more than once. For example, when some members of a coalition were planning to having a press-conference to publicize an ICE raid hotline before they knew what they would do when someone called, it could have been a huge disservice to the community. (The coalition fell apart.) Also, Robin Hahnel's book, Economic Justice and Democracy describes a potential future example: If labor and environmental movements in developed economies fail to consider how global enforcement of labor and environmental standards would affect the populations of developing economies, their strategies will be counterproductive.
(10) Who are the agents of social change? Is it people we want to change or institutions? Why?
a) Almost everybody can be agents of social change. The influence of each depends on what influence they have over decisions but also on how much influence people can have by creating alternatives or by getting together and resist or fight for specific reforms etc...
People or institutions?
Ultimately we want to have different institutions that foster our values. So we want to change institutions. In order to change institutions, people need to participate in one way or another in changing institutions.
Do we need to change people for them to help changing institutions?
It is hard to predict when / why people decide to take control of their destiny into their own hands. An important factor is hope, so social movements can help fostering hope by building up alternatives and popularising vision.
We also need people to be empowered to help/create change. People can do that by themselves but social movements can help facilitate empowerment, debates etc...
So I don't' think the notion of changing people is particularly helpful. We have to think about what would be needed for people to show their support.
For example if most people benefit very significantly by using cooperatives, if these alternatives are threatened they are likely to provide spontaneous support. So we conclude that we need to build co-operatives or any alternatives to the degree that most people are benefiting enough so that they would help defend them in they are threatened.
One illustration of this can be holding a squat. A couple of people decide to squat a building in the centre of a small town (20 000). Ultimately they would like the squat to become permanent. Two months later they receive an eviction order. One of the only way they can keep the building is if they have a very significant popular support in the small town and that people will show their support by helping resist the eviction. To reach this point of support within two months they'd have to change the residents' lives by providing cheap meals on Sundays, run free computer courses, run a creche on week ends, organise a food depot etc...While running these activities they could also inform people that they will potentially be threatened and that they will need some support etc...
b) People are the agents of social change. People are currently influenced by certain institutions which then influence behaviour and so on. Changing society's institutions to reflect the values we desire will then encourage human habits and behaviours different to what we see now.
c) People are the agents of social change. This is true whether the change is good or bad. We must seek to change the institutions that we don't like in society. We don't need to change people. People work together or against each other based mostly on the institutional factors that they are surrounded by and operate within. By changing the institutions we can change our relationship with one another. If the predominate institutions that govern our lives encouraged rather than discouraged solidarity for example, we would be a society with more solidarity.
d) The agents of social change are those who react to being oppressed in all the spheres of society.
e) The agents of social change are people, and people build institutions. In real utopia people also can change harmful institutions and, ultimately, people can be changed by institutions which empower people.