An exploration of U.S. & World Social Forum themes, addressing prospects for what is possible, what is necessary, and what is happening.
[Paper presented as the basis for dialogue at the James & Grace Lee Boggs Center for Community Leadership, Detroit, MI., August 26th 2010, and put on by the Organization for a Free Society.]
Two months ago Detroit hosted the 2010 U.S. Social Forum (USSF). As time passes we have been able to reflect on the gathering and our experience there as organizers and participants. The Forum allowed people from all over the U.S. and world to come together under the banner “Another World is Possible,” “Another U.S. is Necessary,” and “Another Detroit is Happening!” While the forum has officially ended, report-backs have begun all over the country. And as we return to our lives the ideas and hopes inspired by what is possible, what is necessary, and what is happening remain motivation for struggle and guidance wherever we are. And until we reach that other possible world there is no expiration date on the meaning of these themes.
With over 15,000 people in attendance and 1,000 plus workshops, the USSF was host to discussion on a wide range of topics. However, as multi-dimensional social and material crisis escalates—from the crisis of having no control over our own daily lives, to the crisis of international relations, economy, and ecology—the themes of what is possible, necessary, and happening should become central to our concerns so as to, not only bypass crisis, that in some cases may already be too late, but to establish the foundation for a new classless and self-managing society.
The slogan “Another World is Possible” is projected around the globe by local and international social movements. If taken seriously, it is a slogan suggesting that another economy is possible; another polity is possible; another community is possible; another kinship is possible; and other international and ecological relations are possible, and so on. It suggests that we can move away from relations of rulers over the ruled and towards relations of classlessness, solidarity, autonomy, mutual-aid, self-management, and diversity. It challenges us to imagine answers to the hard question of what that other possible world might look like.
Declaring “Another U.S. is Necessary” suggests that the reproduction of race, class, gender, and decision-making hierarchies are unacceptable and that a reorganization of society is needed for new classless and self-governing outcomes. It is a declaration that improved relations between those who rule at the top and those who obey at the bottom are not enough and that fundamental changes in society’s defining institutions are ultimately needed to realize a new society. It is a social movement demand that by implication means that Revolution is necessary.
Proclaiming that “Another Detroit is (and has been) Happening,” along with what is and has been happening elsewhere around the world, seems to me, a way of saying that we should look both locally and globally for timeless lessons in self-governance. Drawing from those past and present examples, we modify them according to our own conditions and circumstance. This process of past and present struggle is prefigurative as it attempts to implement today what we want tomorrow.
Taken separately, each of these themes offers a much needed opportunity to explore how to overcome problems that are urgent for mass movements to solve. Taken together they offer a synthesis that should be shaped through popular participation and in a process that aims to change ourselves and the world around us for a new society.
Another World Is Possible:
Entreaty for Shared Vision and A Broad Proposal
Discussing the kind of world we want is important for a variety of reasons. First, to provide hope for overcoming popular demoralization. Second, as a guide in struggle, so we can compare where we want to go with where we are headed. Third, to have an answer for people who wonder what it is we want to put in place of dominant top-down ruling relations. Fourth, to have shared language and ideas for the purpose of movement building and struggle. These reasons are each elaborated on below.
First, hope that another world is possible is needed to overturn the loss of morale that 80 percent of us on the bottom have sustained every day of our lives in preparation for the 20 percent on the top to run society in their own interests. Everyone knows that there is not only an economic and ecological crisis, and that our government is waging wars for regional and global domination, but that there is very little to no opportunity to participate in the political, community, or workplace decisions that define our lives. Yet despite this awareness, we often don’t even believe that an alternative to the current system is possible beyond sloganeering and some of us don’t actually believe that people can self-manage the affairs that affect them, much less reorganize society for that purpose. Vision of what is possible should realistically address these doubts head on.
Second, imagining what we want is useful to help us understand what wining would actually look like and in this sense it is also a guide to help “plant the seeds of the future society in the present.” But vision should not be a blueprint or map for how we get from here-to-there as that is not only impossible to do in detail, it is also not desirable, since we want people to participate in shaping it. The trick is to offer the bare minimum of what is desirable about what we want so that it is flexible and can be made our own. We make vision our own so we do not rely on others to shape it for us and risk them becoming the new rulers in the process.
Third, if we are organizing in the community or workplace and are inspired by a grander motivation of society-wide self-governance then it is reasonable for others to wonder what it is we want and if it is not only desirable to them now but can be feasibly applied in the future too. These propositions are based on real-world human capacities and are not utopian in the sense of asking people to do things they are not humanly capable of—like sprouting angle wings to fly. Instead we want to offer a concrete alternative that opens the possibility of a new society that will inspire further inquiry and commitment as it is rooted in human capacity.
Fourthly, knowing what we want is useful as something to unite and organize around, for developing shared ideas, language, and common objectives. This includes both short-and-long-term goals relating to immediate improvements in people’s lives now and also the more long-term work for social and institutional transformation.
So what is this broad vision for “another possible world” and what would it look like to win? It is a vision of a “participatory society” where people decided for themselves their own economic, political, social, and cultural lives rather than having someone else decide for them. It is a society that is founded on and reproduces the values of classlessness, solidarity, self-management, autonomy, mutual-aid, and diversity. It is a society designed for self-governance in: economic production, consumption, and allocation of the material means of life; in political adjudication and law making; in kinship childrearing, care-giving, and socialization; and in community and religion. It is a vision encompassing basic values and society’s defining institutions. The broad strokes of this proposal are spelled out in my book Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century.
While rejecting economic determinism, the economic component of this society is called a “participatory economy” and is spelled out in more detail than in other areas if only because its creators, Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, know more about economy. Inspired by anarchism and libertarian socialism, it is an alternative to capitalism and 20th Century “socialism’s” centrally planned or market variants. It replaces: private ownership of productive assets, corporate divisions of labor in the workplace, markets for allocation, and remuneration according to luck or bargaining power, with, instead: social ownership of productive assets, balanced job complexes where everyone has an equal distribution of both empowering and disempowering tasks in the workplace, remuneration for onerousness, duration, and intensity of work, self-managed worker and consumer councils, and decentralized participatory planning. Each one of these institutional offerings is designed to produce self-management and autonomy but explaining how they do that requires much more space than is allowed here. However, this economic system is spelled out in much more detail in numerous books, as well as in audio, and video all linked from the site parecon.org.
It is becoming more urgent than ever to start building movements that debate and share these or better ideas, not just for survival, but for emancipation. It was for this reason that in 2007 Z Communications submitted a resolution as participants in the USSF People’s Movement Assembly proposing that the USSF "put out a call/entreaty that each organization, coalition, project, and movement that intends to relate to the second U.S. Social Forum in 2010...prioritize developing proposals and presentations for vision and strategy to win that new world." These priorities are more urgent now than in 2007 and should be discussed both inside and outside the USSF process. However, we need not wait till 2013. The time is now.