Straw Man Crawling: A Response to John Madziarczyk’s Comments on Real Utopia
By Chris Spannos at Aug 30, 2008
Today I discovered this blog post about the book I've edited that has recently come out, Real Utopia, which is an odd blog post, considering the blogger has many negative opinions and judgments about the book, and what could possibly be inside it, despite it seems the blogger never actually read the book. Although he never calls it a review, the blogger, John Madziarczyk (blog post here), makes many claims about Real Utopia based solely from the front and back covers, of which the blogger did not even read fully or carefully, for if he did he would not act as if he were mislead when reading the description, which is his main complaint below. Here I re-post his blog in full and respond to the claims he makes. His entries are noted by JM and mine CS.
JM: What if you got a book entitled "Anarchist Perspectives" and looking through it found that every essay was from a follower of Murray Bookchin's "Social Ecology"? True, they might come at it from different perspectives and, hey, in reality there may be one or two essays out of twenty that aren't totally from a Social Ecology point of view, but the book would certainly not be reflective of "Anarchist Perspectives" in general. To label it so would be to be dishonest. Enter "Real Utopia".
CS: Very odd transition, "Enter Real Utopia," for the book is not titled "Anarchist Perspectives," nor even "Utopian Perspectives," nor does it claim to be about something of which it is not. If you read the book, the introduction, or even the back cover you would get a clear idea of exactly what the book is about and the ideas it is informed by. In fact, the introduction is titled "What is Real Utopia?" so there should not be any confusion, and it is online too, which you can read here:
JM: A "Participatory Economy for the 21st century". That sounds interesting, I wonder what it means?
CS: Actually, the subtitle of my book is "Participatory Society for the 21st Century." Perhaps you're confusing it with Michael Albert and Robin Hahnels "Looking Forward" which has the subtitle you quote, but this book is much broader than that.
JM: Looking at the back of the book I find this "What if we had direct control over our daily lives? What if society's defining institutions--those encompassing economics, politics, kinship, culture, community, and ecology--were based not on competition, individual ownership, and coercion, but on self-management, equity, solidarity, and diversity? Real Utopia identifies and obliterates the barriers to an egalitarian, bottom-up society, while convincingly outlining how to build it. " That sounds great! That's what a participatory society means then sign me up.
Looking inside the book, though, something different presents itself.
CS: Wait a minute.... You wrote that you looked at the back of the book, right? The blurb reads like it is my book, but why did you overlook the following three paragraphs which clearly state what topics the book cover, introduce its contributors whose work is mostly well known, and my own bio which clearly states that I am staff with ZCommunications, an organization that places special emphasis on vision and strategy to transform the totality of oppressions, and specifically proposes the participatory economic model and complimentary changes on other social spheres, which vision could be called participatory society. Are you sure you read the back of the book? Admittedly you only say you were "looking" but why think that you were mislead by something when you didn't know what it was in the first place, nor even took the time to read the four paragraphs on the back cover?
JM: Some titles of the essays:
"Chapter 1: Parecon today by Michael Albert"
CS: Wait, did you realize that you left out my introduction, again titled "What is Real Utopia?"??? Read here: http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/18100
JM: "Chapter 5: Participatory Economics and the Environment by Robin Hahnel"
"Chapter 6: A call to artists: support Parecon, by Jerry Fresia"
"Chapter 9: Participatory planning in life after Capitalism: Barbara Ehrenreich interviews Michael Albert"
"Chapter 13: Participatory Balkans: exchanges between Andrej Grubacic and Michael Albert"
"Chapter 17: Venezuela's path, by Michael Albert"
"Chapter 21: The Making of South End Press and Z, by
"Chapter 22: Parecon and Workers' Self-Management: Reflections on Winnipeg's Mondragon Bookstore & Coffee House Collective, by Paul Burrows
"Chapter 23: The Newstandard: a Parecon workplace is possible, by Jessica Azulay"
"Chapter 24: Vancouver Parecon collective: Four Years of Organizing by Marla Renn"
"Chapter 32: From here to Parecon: Thoughts on Strategy for Economic Revolution, by Brian Dominick
"Chapter 33: Building a Pareconish Movement: by Michael Albert"
JM: See a pattern?
CS: Uh, yeah... That is what the book is about, and in fact it is much more than that too considering you list less than half the chapters, i.e. race, gender, and political vision, education, technology, international assessments, etc., with strategy contributions from a number of other people too, and neglect to post the introduction. Did you some how miss that?
JM: There are only 33 Chapters in the book and twelve of them either declare that they're directly about ParEcon, Michael Albert's ideology, or they're by Michael Albert, or they're about Z and South End Press, which Michael Albert cofounded and which published a lot of his earlier work, including his original ParEcon books.
CS: And who I also work with, but um, I guess you didn't get that far on the back cover, nor did you actually read the book, which includes a whole chapter on how Michael Albert and
JM: So where does that leave our Participatory society?
CS: You would have to read the book, or again the introduction linked above, or know something about it, to understand what I and the other book contributors propose. But, if you're content with judging a book by its cover---quite literally from what I read in your blog post---than why even waste time on it? Why not pick up another book that you may be genuinely interested in and do a credible review of it? Why would you want to write about a book that you haven't read, are not interested in reading, and present it as if it were not about what it is in an effort to lambaste it?
JM: It looks like the book in fact isn't about general perspectives on what it would look like but is instead a commercial for ParEcon, the ideology that Michael Albert promotes on Z-Net, a website that gets close to a million hits a day.
CS: Hmmm, nowhere in the title or in the description does it propose to be about "general perspectives" in anything. It is instead a book that proposes, as described on the back cover, indicated by the subtitle of the book on the front cover, outlined in table of contents, explained in the book intro, and fully explored in over 30 chapters---none of which you seem to have read---a participatory society which includes vision for economics (parecon), politics, kinship, culture / race, and even touches on ecology, everyday life, international assessments, strategy, etc. Why think otherwise when that is all over the book---inside and out---and then be act to be mislead? This is, as I explain in the books intro, what I hope to be an emerging body of thought with adherents all over the world, and as is also explained in the intro, that the vision is not final and needs more elaboration and that all who care---who agree with it or see weaknesses---should help expand, improve, and refine it---including parecon. But, it seems from your above comment, that it may not be the book that actually bothers you, but parecon. I would rather discuss that head on than in this round about way.
Also, a commercial? Are you serious? Does that mean anybody or group of people who believe and advocate a set of ideas, or any idea, is simply doing a commercial? By that logic any author's book is a commercial, including your own if you have one. Your blog would be considered a commercial by the same reasoning. Unless calling it that is used as an easy way to dismiss other people's work who you have a dislike of, and don't take the time to seriously understand where differences could be, where lessons could be learned, or commonalties and advances made. That would require reading the book and doing a serious review. But instead the reasons you offer don't amount to real objections to the content of the book i.e. you don't say what you have against, or what you think is wrong with, the books approach in seeking to understand a totality of oppressions, nor, if you don't agree with parecon, or any of the other visions presented for other areas of social life, do you say what it is you don't like about them, how to improve them, or why they should be jettisoned altogether, or propose anything else. Constructive criticism is, well... constructive. But so far the only claims that you've made, with no argument, are that:
(1) the book is somehow not about what it is about, so therefore misleading.
(2) the book advocates the parecon vision.
(3) the book, even though it explicitly proposes the parecon model, is some how a Trojan horse for parecon.
(4) For some reason, although you haven't stated it explicitly yet, you don't like parecon.
From the above it seems that you don't like parecon, therefore you don't like the book. That is fine to say of course. Anyone could hold that opinion and not have to justify it, rightly. But it is another thing to hold the opinion than actually formulate a case against the book based on false premise, and consequently make false claims about it. It would be more constructive if you were to approach it by saying you don't like parecon, then explain why you might disagree with it, and if you thought the rest of the book had equally un-compelling or even mistaken vision then say what you don't like about that too. But doing either of the above would require reading the book. Or at least taking the ideas seriously. Instead all you've done is conjure a straw man argument that avoids discussion of the ideas in the book. Instead, you seem to use the book as your Trojan horse to express dislike of parecon, although, again, you write nothing about why you don't like it, nor even mention its defining features such as balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and federated workers' and consumers' self-managed councils. I would be curious what you think of these or other vision proposed in the book, as this is the heart of the matter I think.
Another odd thing, you say ZNet is a "website that gets close to a million hits a day." Where on earth did you get that number? I've been working fulltime on ZNet for two years, and volunteered two years before that, and have never heard such an outrageous number. Do you have information I don't? About two months ago we got 3 million hits, for that one month. That is the most recent stat I've seen, but there is a huge difference between the 30 million you falsely claim, and the reality that is only one tenth of that. Granted 3 million is nothing to sneeze at, but it is not entirely clear what you're driving at. You seem to be taking jabs at parecon, and perhaps even Michael, but you don't do so directly. Instead, using false premises, you use Real Utopia as your launching pad against parecon, without arguing any real substance, and then continue with ad hominem arguments, using overblown numbers, and not even making clear what you are implying. ZNet and ZMag both promoted Real Utopia through the site and magazine---kinda makes sense as 99% of the contributors are regular Z writers and close friends of Z who share, if not the same vision and strategy spelled out in the book, something very close and complimentary. Maybe you were unaware of that, but regardless... If you are implying that the site is used to sell millions of copies of books, and although you didn't write that, you seem to be implying that, you would be very mistaken. I can say that from my experience that-that is certainly not going on. In fact, I am currently indebt from Real Utopia since I needed $1500.00 advanced from the publisher so I could edit the book, and my percentage of sales (at this time about one third of an approximate 3000 print run) are so far paying that debt off and there is a long way to go. Yippee! Presumably this is the commercial glory you were driving at. The reality is very different.
JM: Here we have the parallel to Bookchin. What if Bookchin founded a progressive news service, with a nice looking website, and subtly injected Social Ecology into it....then when enough people had taken the bait and had tried out some of the ideas he collected their experience into a book and labeled it as "Anarchist Perspectives"?
CS: In fact, this does not follow from the ad hominem case you were trying to make against parecon in the paragraph above this one. But if you want to switch back to Real Utopia, okay. This is where, as noted above, it is one thing to hold an opinion, say, that you don't like parecon, or even the book Real Utopia because it advocates parecon. That is entirely fine, and you're probably not alone. But then it is quite another thing to formulate a straw man case against the book---and clearly not even the ideas, just the names of a book and an economic vision, without discussing their substance.
Your Bookchin analogy is more of the same, and is not even needed, for, in fact the Institute for Social Ecology, the School for Social Ecology and their journal "Harbinger," are to social ecology, in their respective forms, what the book Real Utopia was aspiring to be for those who share common vision and strategy of the sort presented in the book, i.e. a place where serious advocates of their held views could present, elaborate, change and refine their views along with many others who thought similarly. Those efforts of Bookchin's hid nothing about what they were, and in fact, as far as I know, embraced their own views, just as Real Utopia the book does. There is no hiding what the book is about; the only way you could miss that is if it was on purpose, or if you are a complete idiot, but could either be the case? I doubt the latter. But why run the risk of bashing the book when it is so blatantly obvious what it is about to anyone who cares to spend 30 seconds reading the back cover or browsing the table of contents?
JM: That's the deal here.
It's not that it's a book focusing on ParEcon, where ParEcon forms the framework around which the whole book is based so much as that it doesn't come right out and say that that is what it is.
CS: What? Again, incase you were simply too lazy to read the very second paragraph on the back of the book, it is here, and also on the AK website:
Instead of simply declaring "another world is possible," the writers in this collection engage with what that world would look like, how it would function, and how our commitments to just outcomes is related to the sort of institutions we maintain. Topics include: participatory economics, political vision, education, architecture, artists in a free society, environmentalism, work after capitalism, and poly-culturalism. The catchall phrase here is "participatory society"—one that is directly democratic and seeks institutional solutions to complex sociological and economic questions.
JM: It doesn't say that it's not impartial but is instead very partial to a certain ideology. And that's both not right and deceptive.
CS: Deliberately avoiding the books introduction and description and claiming that the way the book is presented is misleading, is in it self superficial and deceptive.
JM: You'd need to know about the plethora of Parecon books that Albert has written to realize that there's something more going on than just a book looking at possible avenues for creating a just society.
CS: And you don't have to know anything at all about the contents of those books, nor even pay the slightest attention to the books description, detail, or writers to throw conspiracies around and make it blatantly clear that you're not even interested in taking these works seriously, nor offer any substantive reasons for your reaction. Yet you seem quite confident that your assessment should be taken seriously and you think you've made a damning case---you've certainly convinced yourself. But because you've convinced yourself does not make it necessarily true.
JM: People will no doubt reproach me because a large section of the book focusses on the experience of people trying to make socially just ways of working a reality, therefore doing good in the real world.
CS: The case you've made against the book thus far is that it is not "impartial but is instead very partial to a certain ideology. And that's both not right and deceptive," when in fact the book is explicit in what it proposes and who its contributors are and it is they who have done serious work---many over decades, since the 60s and 70s, creating institutions and movements whose after affect still have an impact today and who deserve to be taken seriously. I'm not even convinced you read the introduction, much less the whole book, as a serious Leftists would, and you fail to quote even the second paragraph on the back cover, which to me seems dishonest and lazy and that is why you may be reproached by others.
JM: However, that's not the point.
CS: ??? It's not? But you just spent the top two thirds of your blog repeating precisely this in various ways, as well as taking the occasional jab at parecon. Oh, well, let's see what the point is then.
JM: If a Participatory society means direct control over your life and the life of your community then a book about perspectives on a Participatory society would include essays by people running anarchist collectives that have little relationship to ParEcon, to consumer cooperatives, to non-profit community organizations.
CS: Wait, this is the same point... Ah, well, perhaps this is the source of confusion---there is that word again that keeps creeping in, that is nowhere to be found in the book description or title, but that you keep introducing to make your case---"perspectives." But since it takes less effort to read 3 paragraphs on the back of a book than write a blog 3-4 times that length, I still suspect more than simple confusion. If you read the book, than you'll have noted that my introduction is very explicit about what is in the book and how it was decided.
JM: But none of that is present in the book.
CS: Actually, the book does deal with many of the things you suggest it should, and much more, except, you seem to have been looking at another book, because Real Utopia looks at those things explicitly through the lens of parecon, parpolity, kinship vision, etc.---and that is the point. Too bad you seem to have missed it.
There are plenty of books out there, which are exactly the kind you are looking for, and not what my book claims to be. Why you picked up my book if you were looking for something else, is beyond me---you would literally not want to understand what Real Utopia is about, or be quite literally blinded by your hopes of what the book was about to miss the description, or simply be motivated, for some reason, perhaps a knee-jerk dislike of parecon, to write that the book is misleading, deceptive, etc., and to deliberately ignore the book description, introduction, etc. By now, I'm almost certain you've not even read the book.
JM: Instead, the section that deals directly with people implementing strategies for a just society is composed entirely of essays from people who either helped found ParEcon, are self consciously following the ParEcon model enough to label their project as that, or have been inspired by ParEcon but have taken their work in unique ways. More false advertising.
CS: How is that false advertising?! The book claims to be precisely what it is, and even more so in the introduction than maybe anywhere else in the book, simply because that is where I outlined the core conception of the content---but you chose not to read the intro, or if you did, deliberately choose to sidestep it repeatedly...
JM: Maybe the problem was that the market has been glutted with so many ParEcon books that another one would have just produced groans and cynicism, so a new strategy had to be invented to get more ParEcon material out there.
CS: Aside from being totally ridiculous, this is just silly, and unfortunately what has characterized most of your blog post. You offer a sort of conspiracy theory about Real Utopia, and avoid the most substantive issue and purpose of the book---that it is offering what seems to be an emerging and widely shared vision and strategy, by dedicated activists and organizers from just about every continent, which may not be as theoretically consistent or even coherent than one or two people writing about the same vision and strategy on their own, but is in fact a great leap forward in that it is many people embracing shared ideas about a possible future society and proposals for possible ways to get there. This is very much needed today for national and international movements and this book, I think, and it is certainly one of my main motivations for doing it, is unique in that respect.
JM: No matter. In my humble opinion the only reason that ParEcon gets talked about is because Z-Net plugs it as its official ideology. If Z-Net wasn't doing that it would occupy a lonely little quarter of the net.
CS: Would you rather we hide what we're about? From all I can gather from your blog, what you don't like is that parecon gets talked about, on any significant scale, much less a book that has so far sold maybe 1000 copies. You have yet, in this entire blog, state what explicitly you don't like about parecon. Just because something is talked about or has visibility does not mean it is bad. And it certainly doesn't mean that something is bad simply because people who hold that view can advocate it, debate it, talk about it, etc. To say something was bad just because of that, or to want to shut it down, is sectarian, and actually very disruptive of our social movements progress for it curbs discussion of critically assessing past and present social movements in order to offer vision and strategy for the future. Additionally, have you looked at the range of opinion on vision and strategy on ZNet? Aside from the general lack of vision and strategy material, there are Marxist, Leninist, Trotskyist, anarchist, primitivist, autonomist, feminist, nationalist, and all kinds stuff on ZNet, of which, parecon and participatory society vision, is probably the least, and much that I in particular don't agree with---yet I post anyway... Yes, we have pages dedicated to parecon and participatory society, but there are also debates pages, and many other place and topic pages, forums, and blogs, that host others ideas and exchanges between proponents of many different views. Do you know of any other online outlet that facilitates that kind of exchange? Perhaps there are some, I can think of a few on a smaller scale, but it needs to happen more not less. And those other outlets that do, well..., I think it is obvious that we run much more by them than you'll find in their outlets by us explaining parecon or participatory society.
JM: It's not fair to people with other perspectives on what a just society is and what you need to do to get there to plug ParEcon constantly like that, and to even publish dialogues trying to justify ParEcon over other ideologies instead of just making room and publishing articles based on them as interesting fellow alternatives.
CS: So this is all about advocating parecon? Anyone can advocate their own views and many people do, on many different websites, including Z, and in many different journals, magazines, etc. Anyone can say, write, organize for, etc. what they think is good. Why pick out Z? Because it is visible? Is it fair to say at all what you might believe, to discuss and debate differing opinion and ideas? To try and develop shared ideas and goals? What is not fair about that? That would be taking people seriously, which is what we need more of, not only in this blog, but also in our movements.
JM: Save your money if you don't want to just get Michael Albert repackaged.
CS: Or get the book if you are interested in what the actual vision may be, its institutional features, proposed material and social relations and outcomes, the wide array of contributions, differences, and shared ideas, and if you yourself would like to help elaborate on these proposals...
JM: By the way, the whole idea of labeling this thing Participatory economics and a Participatory society is dishonest in and of itself.
CS: Again, offer a substantive critique based on the institutional features of the vision, how they may be different or the same from other visions, if they are desirable or not, etc. rather than sidestep what are the real issues---the actual world that we need to win.
JM: What they're talking about is either a socialist society or an anarchist society but they don't want to take the responsibility and likely unpopularity that would come from using those terms, so they invent a new one that no one has used before them. Except possibly some authors in obscure New Left journals in the late sixties.
CS: Well, as you probably know, there are different kinds of socialism and different kinds of anarchism, and to know the difference between them and parecon, and what makes them each unique, and even similar in some respects, we would have to get into some detail, which is in fact the subject of numerous contributions to Real Utopia, and if you read it would have the answer to your own question already.
JM: Participatry Economics...why not label it Democratic Socialist Economics or Anarchist Economics?
CS: Because it has been referred to as that....
JM: Participatory politics: Anarchist Politics,
CS: That is fine, but what actually matters are the defining institutions of the vision, call it what you want... But I am more than happy to say that the vision in the book is for an anarchist society, and I identify myself as an anarchist (which I do), but what matters most for me is what the new world would actually look like, not what we call it.
JM: Democratic or Left Socialist Politics. Artists supporting ParEcon....artists supporting Anarchism and Socialism.
CS: Some of your name proposals, with out spelling them out in some detail are overly vague. Consequentially, this has all been discussed in numerous articles and debates on Z. If you care to find the answers to your questions or concerns, it would take you probably 5-10 minutes to find what you're looking for using the search pages, or hell, even google.
JM: Take away the neologisms, it's clearer that way.
CS: If you have a label for something, say a vision for a new society---anarchist, Marxist, etc. I want to know what the hell you mean---what you want broadly, not to the 9th degree---but enough before I get on board with you. That is why it is important to discuss the defining features of our vision, so evermore people will join us. (If that is indeed what we want, and I do.) If it is the same as something else out there, than with exception to strategic semantic issues, than we call it the same as what already exists---we call a wheel a wheel. But if they are different, as parecon and participatory society are, although heavily influenced by various strains of anarchism and libertarian socialism, its values, vision, etc---but is different from either in more respects than not---than we call it something different. But, in most cases, one thing we do not want to do, is spend a lot of time screwing around debating what we call it, again, unless there is a strategic semantic issue---it takes away from what matters most.