Today's Fiction, Tomorrow's Real Utopia
|Book: Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century|
ZNet Book Page
Publisher: AK Press
Year: 2008 (May)
Few books inspire not only imagination but also the desire for a new and better world. The compilation of essays Chris Spannos edited in Real Utopia achieves just that.
In the Introduction Spannos writes:
The book’s contributors are a diverse range of novice and veteran activists, organizers, writers, and intellectuals. The content is derived from and addresses many different regions of the world: Africa, Asia and Europe, as well as North and
To many, the slogan “another world is possible” comes off as an empty pipe dream. Born out of cynicism or maybe a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, nonetheless a response is needed. The attempts made in this book to back it up with visions and strategies are a cause for serious consideration.
Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the
The entire thing, according to the writers found in Real Utopia, comes down to social relations. On what basis should people be empowered? Should some people have more say because of their economic, political, racial or gender status? Or should they be empowered to the degree that they are affected by the decisions being made? And if we side with the latter than how do we go about constructing the necessary institutions to accommodate and nurture this?
This is what Real Utopia considers and offers some possible answers to. Real Utopia doesn’t just offer a critique of existing societal structures and political and economic institutions. It also provides a glimpse into what can be and what that society could look like.
In Chapter One Michael Albert does just this in regards to economics and in Chapter Two Stephen Shalom does the same for polity. They aim to offer some basic details on which theorizing and experimenting could offer more insight in how to construct new political, economic and social institutions and movements around popular participation.
The book draws from centuries of struggles (i.e. the Balkans, Venezuela, the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Civil War to name a few), from countless minds that have dreamed of something new and better, and tries to make those dreams a reality by looking for institutions to support them.
For example, our methods of economic development, which Michael Albert, Robin Hahnel and others in the book dissect, are not sustainable, especially in ecological terms. The belief that market economies (or centrally planned economies) can sustain our environment or equitable remuneration of labor is nonsense. So is the notion that an elitist vanguard of technocrats will act for the benefit of the good. We have centuries of examples to draw from. A study on economic development between the haves and the have-nots might make this observation abundantly clear.
Chris Spannos weaves thirty-three chapters packed with important and insightful information ranging from detailed definitions of how popular participation could work in the economy, polity, at home, to issues of polyculturalism and environmental issues, to conceptualizing how artists, civil engineers, workers and students can be playing key roles in shaping a new world. Some of the contributors include folks like Noam Chomsky – who shared in insightful observation on diversity when he noted that, “In a world in which all people were clones, I'd prefer suicide” – and lesser known, but equally important thinkers and writers like Barbara Ehrenreich, Justin Podur, Lydia Sargent, Andrej Grubacic, Michael Albert, Robin Hahnel, Tom Wetzel, Marie Trigona and Cynthia Peters.
According to Albert, it comes down to the inherent values of the systems in question. Do we want to be part of an economic system that distorts the values of goods through markets (or by a coordinator class), creates class divisions and pits people against one another just to survive a rat race or do we want an economic system that values solidarity, efficiency, equity, self-management and diversity? If we want the latter, then how do we construct institutions that nurture and emphasize those values? I think Albert is on the right track to providing those answers. But these answers are limited to economies.
In Chapter Five, Spannos interviews Robin Hahnel on parecon and the threat of seeing all of society through economic lenses:
I believe that by conflating economic vision with social vision in general, most Left visionaries have been guilty of unwarranted ‘economism.’ However, in this regard, I do not think Michael Albert and I were guilty when we wrote about participatory economics. Participatory economics was proposed as an economic vision – not as a substitute for political and cultural visions, nor for a vision for non-patriarchal gender relations. Moreover, Michael Albert and I never presumed that economic vision was more important than visions for new and better social institutions in other spheres of social life – quite the contrary – and I think we made that very clear in everything we ever wrote about participatory economics.
A couple of years ago professor Stephen Hawking noted that our destruction of not only the environment but of ourselves is so powerful that if we want to continue our survival we should take seriously the notion of space travel and colonize some other planet. Impregnated in his comment is the indictment to social movements for being ineffective at achieving their goals of a new and better world. While many of the values of radical leftists, progressives, anarchists, socialists, reformists and so on are already well represented in popular opinions, as a whole there is a disconnect between their endeavors and the mass majority of those cynics who feel impotent, helpless and hopeless. True, we cannot completely blame those mentioned above for their failures – there are powerful external forces at play to undermine them – we do have to recognize that there is predominantly a lack of vision and strategy to reach them and show them that, indeed, a new and better world is not only possible but within reach of our firm grasp.
In speaking of vision and strategy, in the first chapter of Real Utopia, Spannos asks Albert about their significance:
Spannos: Finally, what are the next steps for parecon? What do you see happening that could lead to parecon playing a major role in current practice and in how we live in a new world?
Albert: The thing about history is that it isn’t even a little like chemistry or physics that we implement in a lab. In real life there are countless possibilities. There are endless circles of variables piled on variables. Even tiny and quite unpredictable shifts and occurrences can magnify into huge implications. So, I have to honestly say, the main answer is: Who knows? Shit happens. So do good things. And stuff comes unexpectedly, often.
In the end, Real Utopia is an invaluable book for any serious person who longs for something better. Whether we think it’s possible or not is a separate matter. The real issue, at least as I have come to understand it, is: Do we think it’s preferable?