What Might Be 21st Century Socialism?
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
Note: This text is adapted from the appendix of the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chávez Government (Verso Books, 2007) by Gregory Wilpert.
Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez has recently popularized the idea that we should re-imagine society on the basis of what he calls "21st Century Socialism." Unfortunately, while Chávez and his supporters provide a number of hints as to what this type of socialism might be, there is no precise program or definition of the concept. Mostly, Chávez has proposed a series of ideals and some institutions, such as communal councils, communes, and socialist enterprises, but no concrete outline for how these fit together what the ultimate goal would look like. Not providing such an outline has its distinct advantages because it opens up the space for discussion, debate, and experimentation. Nonetheless, it is important that people begin debating on the basis of what they believe might be the best forms the institutions of a better should take.
In what follows I present my conception of what 21st Century Socialism might look like, which is based to some extent in the Venezuelan experience, but mostly derives from Parecon and a variety of other sources. This discussion begins with a description of the ideals, then presents a few guidelines for building institutions based on those ideals, and then presents a set of proposals for the institutions of 21st Century Socialism. I conclude by pointing out that such a program, by itself, is not enough for achieving a better society because, in addition to developing a strategy for getting there, we must be clear that the institutions proposed here presuppose a certain kind of consciousness that would allow these institutions to function well. Exactly what kind of consciousness is needed is the topic of my second essay.
Ideals of 21st Century Socialism
The ideals of 21st century socialism, as described by Chavez, are basically the same ideals as those that most of humanity seeks to fulfill at least ever since the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and social justice/solidarity. However, since most 20th century socialists, capitalists, conservatives, anarchists, etc., would probably agree with these ideals, these ideals, by themselves, do not distinguish 21st century socialism from anything else. Rather, it is the analysis of contemporary society and the recommended path and solutions for achieving these ideals that distinguishes different ideologies from each other. Certainly, the exact meaning of each of these three concepts also varies from one ideology to another. It thus makes sense to briefly clarify what is meant here by each of them.
Liberty in this context refers to a combination of what has been called negative liberty and positive liberty. That is, both the individual's freedom "from" outside constraints (negative liberty), such as from repression or hardship, and the individual's freedom "to" engage in political activity, such as organizing, running for office, or having an influence on matters that concern him or her. Of course, liberty is always constrained by the rights of others. That is, individuals should not be free to prevent the exercise of other people's liberty.
Second, equality refers formal equality in this discussion; that everyone enjoys equal rights and duties, that no one has a privileged status with regard to the law. This concept is different from, but closely related to, substantive equality (or equality of condition or material equality). It is one matter for a political or economic system to treat everyone equally (formal equality) and a completely different matter to live in a condition of substantive or material equality with everyone else, in terms of one's material wealth. People who use the slogan of equality often do not differentiate the two forms of equality, which leads to much confusion. For this reason this analysis will reserve the term equality for formal equality and the term social justice for substantive equality.
The third ideal of the French Revolution, fraternité, brotherhood, has a wide range of possible meanings, but in this context it makes sense to equate it with the demand for social justice and for solidarity. In other words, it reflects the general human desire that no one should be much worse or much better off than everyone else - that all have more or less equal conditions for life and that inequality of condition is the result of an individual's personal effort and decisions and not the result of good or bad fortune. Solidarity and social justice, while distinct, are closely related because it is the sense of solidarity with others that produces the demand for social justice for others.
Finally, many political philosophers have recognized that these three classical demands of the French Revolution are not enough for today's world because we are threatened by the possibility of extinction, due to humanity's own actions in destroying the planet's ecological balance. A fourth ideal thus becomes necessary, which could be called sustainability. Under the heading of sustainability we can also include the ideals of efficiency (no waste), diversity (which greatly aids sustainability), and the ideal of promoting the greatest development for the greatest number of beings (extending solidarity beyond the realm of humans).[i]
Five Guiding Principles for Institution Building
What, exactly, are the institutions that could fulfill the above-named ideals? Proposed here is a model that is inspired by libertarian socialism in its general contours, by participatory economics[ii] (Parecon, for short) in its details, which also includes some considerations about a better political sphere, and five guiding principles for developing an institutional model.
Given the all too often tragic history of socialism in the 20th century, it is important that we learn some of its lessons if we hope to avoid repeating its mistakes. The following five guiding principles for institution building could serve as five of the main lessons to be learnt from that history.
First, and perhaps most importantly, we cannot build institutions where we say that the ends justify the means. If there is any lesson to be learned from the horrors of the 20th century, where noble ideals were sacrificed in the present for a better tomorrow, it is this. Rather, new institutions should embody and pre-figure our values and ideals. If they do not, we risk creating institutions that might appear to be necessary for a better future, but that in the long run undermine our efforts to reach our goals. In other words, institutions that are supposed to work towards a better future, such as social movement organizations, should embody our ideals of liberty, equality, social justice, and sustainability to the greatest extent possible. This is not always possible, due to circumstances beyond our control, but to the extent that we can control them, this is what we ought to strive for if we are to have any hope of actually creating this better society. This means that this principle precludes the establishment of discriminatory or authoritarian structures, such as democratic centralism, and of exploitation within our own institutions today, just as much as it precludes them from institutions of the future.
Second, ideas for developing institutions for a better future cannot be dogmatic. That is, they cannot treat texts, ideas, or leaders' statements about anything as unquestionable dogma. Another way of putting this is to say that the model and its analysis and justifications must be based on an open mind and must be open to revision and modification in light of new ideas and new evidence. Too many movements for a better society have deteriorated because they took the ideas of a certain individual or text as the last word on all matters. Also, dogma leads to authoritarianism and thus violates the ideals.
Third, we should try to avoid privileging one ideal over the other. If we agree that we all want liberty, equality, social justice, and sustainability, we should not say that one of these is much more important than the other and that we thus ought to be satisfied if we achieve one or two of these ideals at the expense of the others. Rather, we need to recognize that these ideals are all fundamentally inter-linked and that the denial of any one of them implies the lessening of all of them. It is the privileging of liberty over social justice that allows capitalism to provide neither for the poor and it was the privileging of social justice over liberty that allowed state-socialism's oppression of nearly everyone. Also, if we say today, in light of the ecological crisis, that we must privilege sustainability over the other ideals, we might survive the ecological crisis in the short term, but at the cost of living in an eco-fascist society, which is not sustainable in the long run.
Fourth, closely related to the previous point, we should avoid privileging either the individual or the collective because privileging one leads to the neglect of the other. Rather, we need to recognize that one cannot thrive without the other, which means that both must be fostered simultaneously. For too long have political ideologies favored either the collective or the individual, when, in actuality, we need to live up to Marx's dictum where, "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all." Anarchism, libertarianism, and capitalism, for example, have generally favored the the individual, while socialism and Christian conservatism have traditionally favored the needs of the collective. Another way of putting this distinction is to contrast individual freedom with social order. Again, both are needed for a functioning society.
Fifth, as we build institutions, we should pay attention to their place in the existing network of relationships and of meaning. In other words, institutions, just as individuals, do not exist in a vacuum, but are embedded in webs of relationships and of meaning. What happens in one institution has effects on others. In practice, this means, for example, that if we create economic institutions, such as cooperatives, which contribute to the fulfillment of our ideals, we also ought to be simultaneously building political institutions that complement and support the economic institutions we create. Similarly, we cannot create new institutions without paying attention to the meaning-making, the values, culture, and world views of the people who will be working inside of these. If the participants in the new institutions have values and world views that are at odds with the goals of the new institution, then these will fail in the long run. This means that we need to pay an equal amount of attention to how institutions are organized as we do on their organizational culture.
This last point also implies that the institutions we build cannot be utopian. Instead, they should recognize the historical, social, psychological, cultural, and physical realities of today's society. This point is rather similar to Friedrich Engels' critique of utopian socialism, which he contrasted to scientific socialism, saying that we need a careful analysis of what is possible in a given moment in history, not just fantasies of what we would like.[iii] Certainly, institutions can change the way we think about things, but this causal relationship between institutions creating new forms of consciousness has its limits. Institutions can push people towards new forms of consciousness, but not if too many of those in those new institutions have values that are diametrically at odds with the ideals embedded in the new institutions.
Proposal for Institutions that Fulfill Socialism's Ideals
Armed with the ideals for a better society, these five guidelines for institution building, and the history of past and present efforts to create a better society, it is now possible to venture some ideas about what the institutions for a better society ought to look like. The proposal can then serve as a means for evaluating the probabilities of success or failure the Chavez government will have in moving towards a society with liberty, equality, social justice, and sustainability for all its citizens.
New Economic Institutions[iv]
Based on the fact that privatized means of production will almost always mean greater inequality, due to the owners' unearned income, and greater unfreedom, due to the owners' (or managers') ability to control all aspects of the workplace, it makes sense to call for the socialization of the means of production. In practice, this means, first and foremost, self-managed cooperatives, where all workers have an equal voice in the management of their enterprise and an equal share in the revenues it generates. Cooperatives have over and over again proven to be every bit as—or more—efficient and productive as traditional capitalist enterprises, so there is no reason to be concerned that cooperatives would lead to economic stagnation and decline, as is sometimes argued.
2. Balanced job complexes
However, as many observers of the cooperative movement around the world have noticed, cooperatives easily fall into typical corporate divisions of labor, whereby managers end up controlling or manipulating with far more power than is accorded to them by the one person, one vote principle of cooperatives. The reason for this dynamic is simple: managers tend to centralize information and gradually acquire essential skills that make them indispensable for the running of the cooperative, so that, even though they are elected, they wield far more power than they should. The solution to this problem is to rotate or balance tasks within the cooperative, so that everyone has an equal opportunity to do the work that is empowering and the work that is less empowering. In other words, all cooperative members would engage in co-called "balanced job complexes."
The creation of such job complexes is often one of the most controversial aspects of the participatory economics proposal, perhaps because it is extremely difficult for people who are involved in high-skilled and high-responsibility tasks to imagine balancing their work with that of the janitor or the secretary. In other words, much of the criticism probably comes from resistance to the idea that they too should be involved in such menial work. However, if one is serious about creating a society with social justice, where everyone enjoys the similar degrees of freedom and power, then there is no way around balancing work between empowering and non-empowering tasks.
3. Remuneration for effort and sacrifice
Another source of inequality society is income differential. The simple solution to this problem is to make sure everyone enjoys the same income. Here, though, critics rightly point out that if that happens, then there could be insufficient incentives to ensure that people do not simply "free-ride" and not do their work. The alternative, of letting the labor market determine incomes, tends to lead to enormous income differentials, which are mostly based on luck of birth, such as talent or having a family that could afford to provide for an expensive education. Such family or genetic luck should surely not be a justifiable basis for income differentials. Instead, most progressives would probably agree that the only justifiable basis for income differentials is effort and sacrifice. That is, if you work more or in jobs that are riskier or that require other kinds of sacrifice (such as not being with your family for months at a time because you are at sea), then you deserve to earn more than someone who does less work or does work that requires less sacrifice. A key principle of participatory economics is thus income based on effort and sacrifice, not on talent, skill, or family luck.[v]
4. Participatory planning (cooperative allocation)
The fourth institutional proposal is perhaps the most controversial and complicated of Parecon, which is to replace markets with participatory planning. If we agree that markets exacerbate inequality, reduce solidarity, and increase ecological destruction, especially with the severe degree of global inequality we have today and the risks we face of ecological catastrophe, then we must seriously re-think markets. One reason this is rarely done, though, is because it is generally assumed that markets are "natural" and that there is no alternative to markets, other than central planning, which, as is generally assumed, failed miserably. However, what if there is an alternative to market allocation?
The main known remedy for the problems of the market has already been in effect for almost as long as market economies have been in existence: state regulation. Progressive taxation can, in theory, correct for inequality and regulations and taxes on the externalization of costs can correct for ecological damage. The problem with these solutions, while better than "pure" markets, is that they do not eliminate the root of the problem, which is the market itself. As long as the problem's root remains, there is an opening for the more market powerful to expand their power and to gradually eliminate the regulations and taxes, as indeed happened from the 1970's to the 1990's. Furthermore, markets fundamentally undermine the principle of rewarding according to effort and sacrifice, which no amount of government regulation can correct. Also, taxing externalities is extremely difficult to do on a broad scale because businesses have an almost infinite variety of cost externalization mechanisms, which cannot be dealt with an infinite variety of taxes. Finally, no amount of taxation or regulation is going to correct for markets' undermining of solidarity. As long as everyone is pitted against everyone else in a market situation, the incentives to act only in one's self-interest will be stronger than the interest to help others.
What is the solution then, if "pure" markets (there is no such thing), regulated markets, and central planning cannot fulfill our ideals? Participatory economics proposes participatory planning, where workers and consumers jointly and in a decentralized process develop a production plan. Allocation, in other words, would be based on cooperation instead of competition. That is, rather than having consumers compete against each other for products and having producers compete against each other for consumers, the operating principle for allocation and production would be cooperation. In participatory planning workers and consumers deliberate within their respective consumer or producer councils to determine consumption and production targets. These targets are then matched, via gradual revisions and corresponding price adjustments.
Social costs are taken into account, in that the production and consumption process is collective, involving all those affected by these processes and not just the individual consumer and producer, as is the case in a market system. That is, if a particular consumer council feels that some of the consumption requests of its members have too high a social cost, they can collectively decide to change the consumption plan.
The producer councils would be based on workplaces, with smaller ones for work teams and larger ones for industries. Consumer councils would be nested from the individual, to family, to neighborhood, to city, etc. Each side (consumers and producers) draws up their proposals for what they would like to consume/produce and these are then passed on up to the appropriate level and then matched to the appropriate counter-part, which, in turn, modifies its proposed plan until the plans of the two sides match.
The process might sound complicated, but does not have to be, if one uses computer technology, to indicate what one wants to consume or produce. The resulting balancing of supply and demand might not be perfect, but neither is it in a competitive market economy. More importantly, with participatory planning, self-management, cooperation, solidarity, equity, and sustainability are all assured because everyone has a collective say in how much can and should be produced/consumed at what price.[vi]
Since this process is somewhat unfamiliar to most people, here is another explanation, provided by Albert and Hahnel, the theorists of participatory planning:
The participants in the planning procedure are the workers' councils and federations, the consumers' councils and federations, and an Iteration Facilitation Board (IFB). Conceptually, the planning procedure is quite simple. The IFB announces what we call "indicative prices" for all goods, resources, categories of labor, and capital stocks. Consumer councils and federations respond with consumption proposals taking the indicative prices of final goods and services as estimates of the social cost of providing them. Workers councils and federations respond with production proposals listing the outputs they would make available and the inputs they would need to make them, again, taking the indicative prices as estimates of the social benefits of outputs and true opportunity costs of inputs. The IFB then calculates the excess demand or supply for each good and adjusts the indicative price for the good up, or down, in light of the excess demand or supply. Using the new indicative prices consumer and worker councils and federations revise and resubmit their proposals.
Essentially the procedure "whittles" overly optimistic, infeasible proposals down to a feasible plan in two different ways: Consumers requesting more than their effort ratings[vii] warrant are forced to reduce their requests, or shift their requests to less socially costly items, to achieve the approval of other consumer councils who regard their requests as greedy. Workers councils whose proposals have lower than average social benefit to social cost ratios are forced to increase either their efforts or efficiency to win the approval of other workers. As iterations proceed, proposals move closer to mutual feasibility and indicative prices more closely approximate true social opportunity costs. Since no participant in the planning procedure enjoys advantage over others, the procedure generates equity and efficiency simultaneously.[viii]
5. Free Knowledge
Now we turn to an economic institution that is not part of Parecon, but that has in recent years acquired increasing number of adherents and which promises to greatly contribute to self-management, equality, and social justice. The Free Software Movement proposes that software knowledge should be "free" to be used, reproduced, modified, and distributed as users of the software see fit. Under normal copyright and patent provisions, this not possible, which can make the developers of important and widely used software unusually rich and those who wish to remain competitive in the free market are often forced to adopt that software at high personal cost. The result of the existing system for distributing useful knowledge thus strongly contributes to social inequity. Also, limitations placed on the use of proprietary software/knowledge reduces one's options for self-management, and gives the owner more rights than the mere user, thus distorting formal equality.
The concept of free software, however, does not have to be limited to software. Already creative artists have initiated an "Open Content" (similar to "free content") movement, which allows people to freely use, reproduce, modify, and distribute artistic content, such as music, articles, pictures, and video. The concept can be taken even further, to processes, which are currently governed by patent law. For example, medications are often released of their patent restrictions, so that generic medications can be made at a much cheaper price than those of the original developer. It makes sense then, to extend the concept of free or open to all forms of knowledge. The Open Knowledge Foundation thus defines open knowledge as, "A work is open if it is accessible, reproducible and re-usable without legal, social or technological restriction."[ix]
Since knowledge is an essential aspect of contemporary society, how this knowledge is used and distributed has a significant impact on social life. In a participatory society, where people would be rewarded according to effort and sacrifice, it would not make any sense to impose copyright or patent restrictions, since their main purpose was to provide an incentive and income to those involved in creative work. However, on our way to such a society, it makes sense to support and expand institutions such as the open/free knowledge movement, so as to help create the better society today.
New Political Institutions
It would not be of much use if we manage to establish the above-named new economic institutions, but political institutions that reward power with more power, that undermine solidarity, and that institutionalize social injustice remained in place. The new economic institutions would probably never get off the ground and, even if they did, they would probably be reversed in short order. It is thus absolutely necessary to think about whether our existing political institutions contribute towards the ideals of liberty, equality, social justice, and sustainability and, if they do not, how we could create institutions that do contribute towards these ideals.
1. From Representative Democracy to Participatory Democracy
The problems with representative democracy—the most prevalent form of democracy in the world today—are becoming increasingly obvious. As economic power grows and the means for manipulating the electorate becomes increasingly more sophisticated, representative democracy is ever more held hostage to powerful economic interests. Powerful lobbies and economic interest groups exist in most representative democracies that manage to sway elected representatives on crucial pieces of legislation, who end up listening to these lobbies more than to their constituents because they have to depend on these only once every election cycle. Second, elected representatives do not even need to truly listen to constituents because the electoral process has become very removed from debating actual issues of import, relying instead on images and "character." This usually happens via the private mass media, which exert a powerful sway over public opinion.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the decisions of elected representatives do not necessarily reflect what citizens themselves would choose, if given a chance to debate the issues. Democracy, in its original intention of "rule by the people" meant that political decisions reflect the desires of the people, but if representatives make the decisions, this is not guaranteed. Already Max Weber pointed out that elected leaders, due to the need to maintain party discipline, do not really deliberate in parliament anymore. Rather, decisions are generally made behind closed doors by party leaders. The result is what Weber called an "elected dictatorship." For this reason, a number of political theorists have recently been suggesting that a more democratic form of governance, short of unmanageable direct democracy, is deliberative democracy.[x] In a deliberative democracy emphasis is placed on citizens' discussion and deliberation of issues, with decisions emanating from these deliberations either directly or indirectly. Exactly how deliberation is institutionalized and how decisions are made varies from one theorist to the other.
The concept of participatory democracy builds on the idea of deliberative democracy and argues that citizens should be active participants in politics for real democracy to be possible. However, for this participation to be real and effective, they need to do so on a relatively small scale. One concrete institutionalization of this idea is Steven Shalom's proposal[xi] that people be organized in nested councils of 25 to 50 people, depending on the total size of the society, with up to five levels. Councils of 50 with five nested levels could thus encompass a society of over 300 million people. Issues could be discussed on a relatively small scale at each level, with representatives being sent on a short-term basis from one level to the other. Important aspects in this idea are that the representatives maintain close connections to their lowest level council and that they do not serve for extended periods of time, so that these do not become removed from the general population, as usually the case in representative democracy. Also, whenever a decision is close (e.g. does not have a 2/3 majority) or when lower councils feels that that they might object to a decision, the decision of a higher council can be brought back to the next lower one. That is, contrary to representative democracy, the lower councils' decisions have more weight than a higher council's decision.
The main principle of this type of participatory democracy is the continuous participation and deliberation of citizens in the political will formation process. This is quite different from contemporary democracy, where voters vote once every four years or so and that is the extent of participation for the vast majority of citizens. The constant participation and deliberation of all citizens as equals would provide a better basis for ensuring self-determination. Also, social justice would be better served because powerful economic interests (insofar as they would still exist, if at all) would have a much harder time swaying councils and influencing their deliberations than they do now, when they have to influence voters only occasionally and a handful of powerful politicians continuously.
2. From Formal Equality to Justice
The second key political institution is the legal system. In most western societies it is based on the principle of equal rights, or formal equality. All citizens enjoy the same rights and duties in a state that is governed by the rule of law, regardless of class, gender, race, ethnicity, or other characteristics. However, as feminists and other critics of the principle of equal rights point out, formal equality results in greater material or substantive inequality when those who are being treated equally are materially unequal.[xii] The classical example of this is that if a poor person and a rich person commit the same crime and both have exactly the same rights in court, chances are that the rich person will receive a better verdict than the poor person because the rich person has more resources to defend themselves with. Other examples are when someone's social, ethnic, or gender group was always discriminated against and thus received fewer opportunities, educational or otherwise, would rarely succeed in a capitalist society, which always gives more advantages to those with more education and money than to those with less of either, even after discrimination and unequal treatment are abolished. This is why social justice is often seen as an absolutely necessary additional ideal for meaningful equality.
One important way for the legal system to provide for social justice in addition to formal equality, is to make sure that social justice is a part of the legal system's operating principles. For example, Venezuela's 1999 constitution states, in its second article, that Venezuela is governed by the rule of Law and Justice. The implication is that the legal system seeks not only to apply the law equally, but that it also seeks substantive social justice. Affirmative action programs are the best example of this type of justice. In this way the legal system becomes committed not only to the ideal of equality and formal justice, but also to social justice.
However, so that the legal system is also committed to the ideal of sustainability or of ensuring the greatest development for the greatest number of beings, further modifications to the legal principles of a country might be necessary. As we will see, here too, Venezuela's new 1999 constitution provides an example of how such an ideal might be incorporated into the legal system. That is, various articles of Venezuela's constitution (articles 20, 62, and 299) affirm that the full development of all Venezuelans is a goal of the country's legal and political system.[xiii] Exactly what development might mean here will be explored at the end of this chapter.
3. From Identity Politics to Universal Solidarity
Civil society, defined as the free association of citizens outside of formal government or economic institutions has in recent years been increasingly recognized by political theorists as being a crucial element of a functioning polity.[xiv] Normally, civil society organizations and movements have, in the western world at least, been organized around what has sometimes been called "identity politics" lines. That is, people organize on the basis of identification with one's ethnic group, gender group, or class group (although, the latter is generally not included), such as women's rights groups, groups representing ethnic or racial minorities, groups representing a particular sexual orientation, or similar types of groups. While this type of civil society organization was necessary to call into question the false universalism of civil society groups that made universalistic claims, such as that of leftist political parties or socialist movements, and of the supposedly universalistic principles of the political system in general, the time has come to transcend identity politics in many countries. Identity politics tends to be based on and to foster a type of solidarity that is limited to one's own identity group and thus severely limits the potential power of mass movements based on solving problems of social injustice in general.
Instead, in order to create broad-based and powerful movements, it is necessary to incorporate the concerns articulated by identity politics in a generalized movement for social justice. This also means that the sense of solidarity that a movement feels must transcend all boundaries and encompass all who are the victims of injustice, wherever they are in the world, and not just those of one's own ethnic, gender, or class group. This might seem obvious to most people, but despite this it rarely has the practical consequences it should. Applied to the foregoing institutional model for a better society, this implies, among other things, the advocacy for remuneration based on effort and sacrifice, and not based on market value, in-born talent, or skill that came from having the luck of being in an advantaged family.
Also, a truly universal solidarity means letting go of the notion that some are destined to perform menial and unempowering labor and others are destined to perform intellectually rewarding labor (or that society is better off if this is the case). Instead, universal solidarity would require us to give everyone the opportunity to perform intellectually rewarding and empowering labor. In other words, universal solidarity means making sure that we are involved in job complexes that are balanced in terms of the degree of empowerment they provide.
Next, the ideal of social justice can only become a reality if we indeed feel a universal solidarity with all and are thus able to support the principle of making sure that universal formal equality is complemented with universal social justice, as it is in affirmative action programs.
Finally, a truly universal solidarity would require us to feel for other non-human beings on the planet and for the eco-sphere in general, which is continuously being destroyed. Our self-interest in survival could be sufficient to make us reverse course, as we acquire more information about how we are participating in the eco-sphere's destruction and our own extermination. However, we do not always have the necessary scientific knowledge for saving ourselves. Besides, it would be more morally mature if we were interested in preserving nature for its own sake.
New Form of Communication - Peer-to-Peer
The German social philosopher Jürgen Habermas points out that our society and all of its institutions are based on and held together via communication. The implication of this is that if the mode of communication of a society changes, then this will have a profound effect on how society's institutions function. That is, just as Marx argued that every society has a mode of production, which consists of the technology for production and the social relations in which production occurs, so one could say that every society has a particular mode of communication. This mode of communication also consists of the technology that enables communication (such as telephones, Internet, TV, printing press, etc.) and the relations of communication (hierarchical or participatory, for example).
More and more social theorists are observing that contemporary societies are changing their mode of communication,[xv] which some are describing as a transition from communication based on center to periphery messages, to one that is based on peer-to-peer messages, which is having a profound impact on consciousness and on social institutions. This is not to say that we are entering into a glorious brave new world because of technology. Rather, the new form of communication is creating an amazing enabling potential for transforming economic and political institutions in the direction mentioned in the earlier sections of this chapter.
For most of the 20th century mass communication was largely based on the technologies of television, radio, and the printing press. This technological platform combined very well with hierarchical forms of organization because they encouraged communication from a knowing and powerful center to an ignorant and powerless periphery. Recipients of TV, radio, and printing press messages had relatively little control over what was being broadcast. They could choose to remain ignorant and thus relatively unaffected by this centralized form of communication, but in a technologically advanced society ignorance is an even worse option than receiving centralized forms of communication. However, with the proliferating use of the internet in the last decade of the 20th century, a fundamentally new mode of communication was being developed, which has the potential to help generate and support the participatory kinds of transformations we have been discussing about earlier in this chapter. What, though, exactly is peer-to-peer?
According to one definition, "It is a specific form of relational dynamic, is based on the assumed equipotency of its participants, organized through the free cooperation of equals in view of the performance of a common task, for the creation of a common good, with forms of decision-making and autonomy that are widely distributed throughout the network."[xvi] The internet itself is the best example of peer-to-peer communication. Via e-mail, chat rooms, websites, and file sharing internet users communicate directly with one another, largely past centers of power or hubs (or straight through them, with minimal interference).
This is not to say that peer-to-peer is purely a result of a new technology. Rather, it is the confluence of a new technology with a more participatory-minded consciousness. It is perfectly possible to use the internet in the old hierarchical, center-to-periphery forms. As a matter of fact, many large corporations try to deploy the internet in this way. However, the more participatory consciousness that peer-to-peer (P2P) technology enables reinforces both the technology and the consciousness. The following conceptualization of P2P is not, for example, purely technology-driven:
[P2P] does not deny ‘authority', but only fixed forced hierarchy, and therefore accepts authority based on expertise, initiation of the project, etc... P2P may be the first true meritocracy. The threshold for participation is kept as low as possible. Equipotency means that there is no prior formal filtering for participation, but rather that it is the immediate practice of cooperation which determines the expertise and level of participation. Communication is not top-down and based on strictly defined reporting rules, but feedback is systemic, integrated in the protocol of the cooperative system. Techniques of 'participation capture' and other social accounting make automatic cooperation the default scheme of the project. Personal identity becomes partly generated by the contribution to the common project.[xvii]
As such, the principles embodied in P2P are also an integral part of the previously discussed free culture, free knowledge, and free software movements. More than that, P2P systems are ideally suited for the development of participatory economics and of participatory politics. Just as in P2P, participatory economics and participatory politics involve everyone's equal opportunity to participate, automatic feedback systems, and decision-making that is widely distributed instead of top-down.
The perhaps most significant aspect for the feasibility of P2P communication and a participatory society in general is that these are not incompatible with contemporary capitalism. That is, many alternatives to capitalism are often completely antithetical to capitalism, such as state socialism, which then leads to a fundamental conflict between the interests of capital and the interests of those promoting state socialism. P2P, however, as has already been proven in the realm of the free software movement, is in many ways quite compatible with capitalism and even thrives in it. For example, major corporations, such as IBM, have incorporated and promoted many products coming out of the free and open source software movements, such as the Linux operating system. While this might seem to open the system to cooptation, this is not necessarily the case because P2P production is quite capable of producing products more efficiently than is possible with the normal capitalist production process.
Some might conclude that P2P thus is merely a new phase within capitalism. Such a claim misses, though, that P2P production transcends capitalism's core institutions of private ownership, the market, and capitalist governance. The means of production, which currently, in the P2P realm, involves the internet's infrastructure and the software developed under P2P principles, is not privately owned/controlled. Also, given the unrestrained access, reproduction, and modificability of P2P products, one cannot say that it is distributed via market mechanisms. Finally, the governance principles of P2P (such as the free software license) emerged cooperatively, outside of the realm of capitalist governance principles (there is no free software law). Certainly, government is still needed to help enforce the license, but when it does so, it is forced to operate outside of capital's normal interests.
Given P2P's simultaneous compatibility with and undermining of capitalism, the expansion of this type of production could create a situation similar to the one Marx described as having caused the downfall of feudalism and that would cause the fall of capitalism. That is, new forces of production (the internet) are gradually creating new relations of production (P2P) that clash with the old capitalist forces and relations of production (mass production industry and private property/market). However, capitalist production is eager to make use of this new form of production, until, perhaps, it is eventually completely displaced. This is not to say that there are or will be no conflict between the two systems, but there is a good possibility that capitalism's resistance to change will be significantly weaker because of the initial compatibility of P2P with capitalism.
A fuller analysis of the relationship between P2P, participatory economics, and capitalism is still needed for a fuller understanding of how these dynamics are playing and will play out. The outline here is merely meant to be suggestive of what might be possible and how this potentiality is and could be applied to Venezuela's transformation.
Utopianism and Human Development
Given how far most societies are from the institutional model for a participatory society that is described here, it would not be surprising if readers believed that this proposal violates the fifth guideline for institution building that I described earlier, that the proposed institutions should not be utopian. In other words, are the institutions proposed here too far removed from contemporary society to ever have a realistic chance of being implemented? Hopefully the last point about the increasing use of peer-to-peer communication and the analysis of the Venezuelan experience will show that these institutions for a participatory society are much more feasible and realistic than at first seems.
However, when building new institutions for a participatory society we should keep in mind that the proposal, by itself, is insufficient. What is also needed is a critical mass of people who share the values and interpretations underlying these institutions so that the people who populate the institutions end up strengthening them instead of undermining them. What kind of consciousness, though, is necessary for or compatible with the institutions for a participatory society?
One way to describe this consciousness is to contrast it with the type of consciousness that prevails in capitalism. Capitalism, as mentioned earlier, promotes and requires an individualistic consciousness, which sees the world in an atomistic and reductionist manner. In contrast, the participatory institutions described here promote and require a consciousness that is inclusive, capable of including others' perspectives. This also means that this consciousness needs to be capable of systems thinking instead of atomism and of integrating perspectives instead of using reductionism to make sense of the world.[xviii]
If we look at society historically, we can see that each major epoch in human history corresponded to a particular form of consciousness. In simplified form, one can say that feudalism corresponded to a conformist and dogmatic religious consciousness, while capitalism corresponds to individualist and strategic-rational consciousness. The challenge for social change movements is to promote the type of integrative consciousness necessary for a participatory society. As suggested earlier, a participatory society promotes integrative consciousness, but it will not come into being without a critical mass of individuals who already operate from this type of consciousness. Also, the persistence of dogmatic pre-capitalist and of individualist capitalist forms of consciousness constantly threaten to derail and undo projects for a participatory society. As we saw in this book, this is one of the main challenges that the Bolivarian project for 21st century socialism faces in Venezuela.
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[i] This last ideal, of promoting the greatest development for the greatest number of beings, actually ends up encompassing all the other ideals, insofar that liberty, equality, social justice, efficiency, and diversity are needed for this ideal to be possible. It is, in a sense, a mega-ideal. Ken Wilber (2000) has expounded the basis for this type of universal ethics in great detail. Also, Marx echoed this ideal when he said that communism sought to create a society in which "the free development of each is a condition for the free development of all." Marx (1998), p.62
[ii] Participatory economics was developed by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel over the course of numerous books. The most recent are: Albert (2003, 2006) and Hahnel (2005).
[iii] Friedrich Engels, "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific"
[iv] The following outline of new economic institutions is based on Albert and Hahnel's conception of Participatory Economics. For a full discussion of Parecon and criticisms and responses, see: www.parecon.org The presentation of Parecon here is meant to be suggestive, not a blueprint.
[v] This principle assumes that people are also paid to learn, so that they don't need to justify higher incomes for higher skill levels, based on earlier unremunerated sacrifices.
[vi] There are other, less participatory and more hierarchical, models for democratic planning, such as the one developed by Cockshott and Cottrell (1993), but which does not deal much with issues of workplace hierarchy, remuneration, or self-management. It might be conceivable, if a society wanted to, to combine elements from different economic democracy models.
[vii] Every workplace and every industry assigns "effort ratings" to workers and to cooperatives, which reflect the amount of effort these generally expend in their work, in terms of hours worked and the degree of sacrifice or burdensomeness of the work.
[viii] Albert and Hahnel, "Socialism as it Was Always Meant to Be" at www.parecon.org
[x] This concept has been promoted particularly by Jon Elster, Jürgen Habermas, Joshua Cohen, and Amy Gutman, among others. See: Bohman (1997).
[xi] A full summary of his conception is available at: www.zmag.org "A Political System for a Good Society," Stephen Shalom, 2006
[xii] See, for example, Weisberg (1993).
[xiii] Lebowitz (2006) highlights the importance human development has for a conception of 21st century socialism.
[xiv] See, especially: Habermas (1996) and Arato and Cohen (1992).
[xv] See, for example, Poster (1990), Turkle (1995), and Castells (2000).
[xvi] Definition provided in the P2P Foundation Wiki (http://www.p2pfoundation.net/index.php/Peer_to_Peer), by Michel Bauwens.
[xviii] Theorists who describe this type of consciousness very well are Wilber (2000), Gebser (1984), Kegan (1994), and Torbert (2004). They each use different terms for this type of consciousness, but essentially point to the same type.