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Engaging the State – Today and Tomorrow


I was recently asked to do a short essay on “Engaging the State” for the innovative new Left Turn Magazine. My submission appears below…

Engaging the State – Today and Tomorrow

By Michael Albert

To engage the state one must answer two key questions. What do we want now? What do we want later?

Regarding now, we want improvements in people’s lives ranging from stopping wars and corporate globalization to improving election laws, winning serious affirmative action, redistributing income, redirecting the federal budget, and winning better labor laws.

To win such gains, we will have to build movements that raise sufficient social costs so elites have no choice but to give in to our demands. But winning short run goals should not be our sole aim. We should not fight for modest gains today in order to go home tomorrow. We should fight for modest gains today to move on to more and larger gains tomorrow.

Regarding politics, in the future we want to accomplish legislation of norms, adjudication of disputes, and implementation of collective projects consistent with desirable values.

Stephen Shalom, among others, has tackled the task of outlining political vision in a participatory polity, or a parpolity for short. He argues that a good polity should produce solidarity not anti-sociality and should value and generate diversity rather than homogenizing options. Justice is another central political value Shalom emphasizes, addressing the distribution of rights and responsibilities, including redress for violations of social welfare, and self management is his fourth guiding value. Each actor in society should influence decisions in proportion as he or she is affected by them.

For legislation Shalom advocates “nested councils” where “the primary-level councils will include every adult in the society. The number of members in these primary-level councils [might plausibly] be somewhere between 25-50.”

Everyone is in one of these basic political units situated where people live. Some folks are elected to higher level councils as well since “each primary-level council will choose a delegate to a second-level council” where “each second-level council [would again] be composed of 25-50 delegates.” And this would proceed again, for another layer, and another, “until there is one single top-level council for the entire society.”

The delegates to each higher council “would be charged with trying to reflect the actual views of the council they came from.” On the other hand, “they would not be told ‘this is how you must vote,’ for if they were then the higher council they were attending would not be a deliberative body.”

Shalom suggests that “the number of members on each council should be determined on the basis of a society-wide decision … to [be] small enough to guarantee that people can be involved in deliberative … face-to-face discussions; but big enough so that (1) there is adequate diversity included; and (2) the number of layers of councils … is minimized.”

In these deliberative and public councils voting on norms and collective agendas takes place. Within the limits of time and the importance of particular issues, the councils provide self managing decision making. The exact combination of voting at the base versus in higher level councils and of procedures for presenting, debating, and tallying viewpoints most consistent with self management will emerge from practice. But details aside, in a good political system Shalom argues the legislative branch will be built on face to face nested councils with open deliberation using methods of information transfer, debate, and tallying aimed at providing all actors self managing say over the decisions that affect them.

What about executive functions? Think of delivering the mail, or of investigating and trying to constrain outbreaks of disease, or think of environmental protection functions.

All of these involve a production and allocation aspect handled by the structures of economics, including, in a good society, balanced job complexes to eliminate class division, payment for effort and sacrifice to attain just remuneration, and participatory decision making to attain self management. The post office delivering mail is in these senses not particularly different from a factory producing bicycles, nor is the center for disease control very different in these respects from a typical hospital, and likewise for the Environmental Protection Agency and a typical research institute.

But in another sense the three political institutions are different from their economic counterparts. The Post Office, CDC, and EPA operate with the sanction of the polity carrying out tasks that the polity mandates. The latter two agencies act have political authority to investigate and sanction others where typical economic units have no such rights and responsibilities.

So the executive branch largely establishes politically mandated functions which are then typically carried out by the norms of a good economy, though with a political aspect defining their agendas and conveying additional powers.

Presumably the means for an executive branch to mandate and implement its agendas would be the legislative branches council votes, as well as entities like the CDC, etc.

What about a judiciary? As Shalom asserts, “Judicial systems often address three kinds of concerns: judicial review (are the laws just?), criminal justice (have specific individuals violated the laws?), and civil adjudication (how are disputes between individuals resolved?).”

For the first concern, Shalom offers a court system more or less like the supreme court functions now, with tiers at the levels of the councils adjudicating disputes over council choices. Is this the best or the only approach and can it operate consistent with self management? I don’t know. It certainly merits close consideration.

For the second and third judicial functions including criminal matters as well as civil adjudication, Shalom proposes a court system modestly different from what we have now plus police that of course have balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, etc.

Regarding having a police force–which is for many people more controversial than matters of courts, etc.–I don’t see any intractable problems. There will be crimes in a good society, sometimes violent and even horribly evil, and investigation and capture of culprits will be serious matters requiring special skills. It seems obvious some people will do that kind of work with special rules to ensure they do it well and consistent with social values, just as some people will spend some of their work time flying airplanes or doing other difficult and demanding jobs with special rules overseeing their acts due to that they are done well.

Sure, in a good society many reasons for crime are gone and criminal acts are likely to be far fewer than now, but that doesn’t mean there will be no crimes at all. And the idea that policing can be done by volunteers makes no more sense than saying that flying planes can be done by volunteers. It ignores that desirable policing involves special skills requiring training to avoid the misuse of police prerogatives. And it exaggerates the dangers of specially employed police, forgetting that they in a good economy have balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and self managed decision making methods, as well as broad social constraints all together minimizing possibilities of excess, aggrandizement, or violation, just as airplane pilots do, or doctors, etc.

It is not the police part, therefore, but the courts and legal advocates and jury part of the visionary equation that I find myself unsure about.

On the one hand the advocate model of jurisprudence makes some sense. We don’t want people having to defend themselves so that those who are good at it have a tremendous advantage over those who are not. We need well trained lawyers and prosecutors available to all disputants. We also want these advocates to try hard. But at the same time the injunction that prosecutors and defense attorneys should each seek to win a favorable verdict regardless of their knowledge of the true guilt or innocence of the accused and by any means they can muster because that will yield the greatest probability of truthful results strikes me as about as believable as the injunction that every economic actor should seek selfish private advance because that will yield the most solidaritous outcomes. But as to how to alter the combination of courts, judges, juries, and aggressive advocacy, I have no good ideas.

Insofar as a political vision exists, perhaps a refined formulation of parpolity as described by Shalom, what implications should it have for present day political strategy, which is to say, for engaging with the state?

The main implication will bear on two dimensions of activism—(1) what we demand and (2) how we organize ourselves.

As to what we demand, having a political vision will tell us a variety of things we might usefully demand in the present. That is, we should try to win changes in political practices now that reflect and move toward our political vision. These might include instant run off voting, vast extensions of public media and debate, implementation of programs including public oversight of budgeting, and judicial reforms I feel unsure how to even intimate.

As to how to organize, when movements fight for changes, two very broad criteria ought to inform the aims. First, we should try to win improvements in people’s lives. Second, however, we should try to win empower people to seek still more gains and inspire people to do so.

On both counts, a political vision should help us discern present day changes that would benefit, empower, and inspire people, toward the political future we desire.

But the second large implication of political vision for present practice has to do with movement structure. If we want the politics of the future to have certain properties, surely we should try and incorporate those properties into our current efforts, as much as we can.

In other words, our movements should organizationally incorporate solidarity, diversity, justice, and self management. The conditions under which we operate today are difficult and unlike those of a future society, of course. But nonetheless, the implication of political vision is that we should build movements based on grass roots organization and participation, and even on nested tiers of self managing councils for decision making, as soon as we are able to.

As a political vision becomes more compelling, its implications for how to enact shared movement agendas, to adjudicate movement disputes, and to legislate movement norms and arrive at movement decisions should become clearer and, over time, more susceptible to incorporation in our efforts.

Let me pose just one possible lesson. Typically, contemporary movements are fragmented into single issue efforts that come and go with events. But if a movement is to create a new society, then it should not be primarily atomized as our movements currently typically are — but it should instead incorporate differences and deal with them as necessary, and in so doing be all the stronger.

Suppose that instead of creating coalitions organized around a least common denominator laundry list of mutually agreed demands, an overall encompassing movement of movements was created. This would be an amalgam of all organizations, projects, movements, and their members, and maybe individual members also, who subscribed to a broad range of priorities and values as well as organizational norms, including and encompassing a wide range of differences.

This movement of movements would take its leadership regarding particular aspects of its focus from those most directly dealing in that area — from the women’s movement about gender issues, from black and Latino movements about race, from the anti-war movement about peace, from labor and economic movements about economic matters, and so on. The whole would be the total sum of all its component groups, contradictions and all (just as a society is).

This movement of movements would be a new society in embryo. Its internal organization and operations would presumably include council organization and self management. For this type of project, engaging with the state would not mean eliminating polity per se, or seizing the existing polity. It would mean creating a new polity, partly by altering what is and partly by constructing the infrastructure of what will be.

Such a political approach, coupled with economic, kinship, cultural, ecological, and internationalist orientations equally rooted in the realities of the present and aimed toward a desired future, would, in my view, win both immediate reforms and long run revolutionary changes in the safest and most effective manner. This points toward some important aspects, I believe, of a desirable way to engage with the state, and also with the economy, culture, gender, ecology, and international relations.

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