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Anarchy & Participatory Society


[This commentary is based on a talk given for the opening panel of the 2007 Renewing the Anarchist Tradition conference, Nov. 2-4.]

"It is often said that anarchists live in a world of dreams to come and do not see the things which happen today. We see them only too well and in their true colors, and that is what makes us carry the hatchet into the forests of prejudices that beset us."

– Peter Kropotkin, Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal

"Anyone who studies the economic and political development of the present social system will easily recognize that [anarchist] objectives do not spring from the Utopian ideas of a few imaginative innovators, but that they are the logical outcome of a thorough examination of the present day social maladjustments, which with every new phase of the existing social conditions manifest themselves more plainly and more unwholesomely."

– Rudolf Rocker, anarcho-syndicalism

The title of this panel is "Real Utopia: Paths to a Participatory Society," and is inspired by a book I am editing for AK Press (April, 2008). However, a conference like RAT presents challenges for how to approach the topic of vision for a participatory society. What’s my angle here? I am surrounded by people who already agree that capitalism, private property, hierarchical divisions of labor, and the institutional roles of buyer and seller in markets are vile and despotic. I am among others who have no illusions about centrally planned economies and who are fully aware of the corrupting institutional roles of central planners and managers, or what I and others call the coordinator class. I am in a room with others who would agree that racism and sexism is bad, and that environmental sustainability is good. In other words I am among some of the greatest allies I could hope for.

However, within the anarchist tradition there has been a mixed response to vision — it has been both rejected and embraced. So, I am also among critics. The task I have at this conference is to side with those within the tradition who embrace vision. Many arguments can be made against vision, although the one most relevant to anarchists is that vision is a form of authoritarianism. These anarchists argue that vision is vangaurdist, or that vision has intrinsic qualities that automatically trump people’s creative pursuits and imagination. It’s not that I don’t agree with many of the worries that those who oppose vision hold. I too want as many people as possible to help shape our vision, and I too oppose a small elite having disproportionate say over the realization of a future society. I just don’t believe our worries about vangaurdism or authoritarianism have anything to do with conceptualizing vision. Reasoning that says vision is authoritarian overlooks that people will not join our struggle if we cannot answer the hard question of where we want to go. Offering vision is not the same as being vangaurdist. Nor does vision have intrinsic qualities that trump peoples’ imagination. Vision is used to guide us and inspire us. Ideas should be proposed, shared, discussed, and debated for movement vitality. Calling visionary thinking authoritarian is reactionary and curbs evaluation of past, present, and future alternatives to the racism, sexism, and classism that we struggle to transcend. In short, it thwarts our efforts today and limits our chances for successful societal transformation in the future.

Anarchism & Participatory Society

"’Anarchy may be a perfect form of social life; but we have no desire to take a leap in the dark. Therefore, tell us how your society will be organized.’ Then follows a long list of questions’According to what method will children be taught?… How will production and distribution be organized?… Will all the inhabitants of Siberia winter at Nice?’ And so on, without end, as though we could prophesy all the knowledge and experience of future time, or could, in the name of Anarchy, prescribe for the coming man what time he should go to bed, and on what days he should cut his nails. How will children be educated? We do not know. What then? The parents, teachers and all who are interested in the rising generation, will meet, discuss, agree and differ, and then divide according to their various opinions, putting into practice the methods which they respectively hold to be the best. That method which, when tried, produces the best results will triumph in the end. And so for all the problems that may arise."

– Errico Malatesta, Anarchy

Traditionally, anarchism’s concern has been with power relations, exploitation, and oppression by economy, god, and state. Anarchism, pared down to its most basic form, addresses power differentials in all spheres of life. An anarchist society should seek emancipatory values, institutions, and outcomes eliminating the totality of oppressions that afflict us today. This is precisely the goal of a participatory society — to produce liberation in all spheres of life. This vision of a participatory society is firmly within the anarchist tradition.

The broad values of such a society should be based on solidarity, self-management, equity, and diversity. Solidarity means that we care about and express compassion for one another. Equity means that people are remunerated for effort and sacrifice. Self-management is decision-making in proportion to the degree one is affected. Diversity means that we want divers living arrangements to choose from.

The thumbnail sketch of a participatory society I propose is based on the above values of solidarity, self-management, diversity, and equity, among others. It embodies several defining features and institutions for all spheres of life such as kinship, culture, the polity, and economy. Some of these visions are based on preliminary sketches. Others, like the Participatory Economic model, are further developed, with whole books written about the model, as well as many debates and exchanges, all easy to find. There are even a number of activist organizations and institutions which are self-conscious experiments in the parecon model. However, none of the visions presented here are absolute and all require further development.

Participatory Economics

An economy is where production, consumption, and allocation of the material means of life occur. A participatory economy is comprised of socially owned rather than private or state owned productive assets; nested worker and consumer council’s and balanced job complexes rather than corporate hierarchies; remuneration for effort and sacrifice rather than for property, power, or output; decentralized participatory planning rather than markets or central planning; and self-management rather than class rule.

The balanced job complex is a redefinition of our concept of work. Jobs are organized so that everyone has an equal set of both empowering and un-empowering tasks. Jobs are balanced within each work place and across work places. Balancing jobs within work places is done to prevent the organization and assignment of tasks from preparing some workers better than others to participate in decision-making at the workplace, or what would be the result of our standard work place corporate division of labor. Balancing work across work places is equally necessary so that disempowering and menial work places are not ruled by empowering ones. The outcome of the participatory balanced job complex is that everyone has an equal share of both desirable and undesirable tasks, with comparable empowerment and quality of life circumstances for all. Balanced job complexes are necessary for the functioning of a classless society.

Another key element is remunerative justice, or pay for effort and sacrifice. This method of pay insures that unequal outcomes are not produced and reproduced, due to ownership of the means of production, bargaining power, output, genetic endowment, talent, skill, better tools, more productive coworkers, environment, inheritance, or luck. Of all these factors people control only their effort. So, effort and sacrifice is the remunerative norm in parecon, tempered by need as appropriate in cases of illness, catastrophe, incapacity, etc.

Participants are organized into federations of workers’ and consumers’ councils who negotiate allocation through "decentralized participatory planning." Workers in worker councils propose what they want to produce, how much they want to produce, the inputs needed and the human effects of their production choices. Consumers propose what they want to consume, how much they want to consume and the human effects of their consumption choices. "Iteration Facilitation Boards" (IFB) generate "indicative prices," using both quantitative and qualitative information, which is used by workers and consumers to update their proposals for further rounds of iterations. The IFB whittles proposals down to a workable plan within five to seven iterative rounds. A plan is chosen and implemented for the coming year.

A participatory plan is a feasible and desirable choice distributing the burdens and benefits of social labor fairly. It involves participants decision making inputs in proportion to the degree they are affected. Human and natural resources are used efficiently providing a variety of outcomes.

ParPolity

The political sphere is where adjudication, legislation, and lawmaking occur. The vision of ParPolity proposed by Stephen Shalom is a model of direct democracy designed to compliment participatory economics. This is also a council system where everyone participates in a council small enough for face-to-face decision-making and real deliberation. The idea being that councils are not so small they exclude decision-making by those affected, but also not so large they inhibit people from having their perspective considered.

Decisions that affect only, or overwhelming, that council will be made by that council, keeping decision-making to the lowest level council as possible.

The more people affected by a decision, the higher level of council will be needed to decide, and therefore the more coordination between higher level councils will be needed. If decisions affect more than one of these higher level councils, they would in turn send delegates to a third-level council, etc.

Kinship

The Kinship Sphere is where child rearing, nurturing future generations, socializing, and care-giving occur. Key institutions are the family, with parental and child rearing roles, where gender and sexuality, and other relations form for boys and girls, men and women, fathers and mothers, adults, children, and the elderly. New kinship institutions would have divers familial, socialization, and care-giving arrangements.

However, just as the new society should have a balanced division of labor in the economy, so should there be a balanced division of labor in the home. This doesn’t necessarily mean there will be balanced job complexes in the home, nor material remuneration for domestic work. The balanced job complex in a classless society lifts the heavy material burden in the economic sphere. However, socialization and care-giving both within and outside the home need to be balanced too. Inside the home a balanced division of labor is needed where parental partners share in the childrearing and socialization process. Outside the home socialization of care-giving i.e. daycares, and caring for the elderly, would be needed. Addressing the domestic and societal division of labor within the kinship sphere is necessary to remove gendered divisions of labor and care-giving in daily life.

Race/Community Vision

The Community Sphere is where identity, religion, and spirituality occur with race, ethnicity, places of worship, and beliefs about life, death, and celebration. A new community sphere would facilitate interaction among and within each other creating a rich diversity of cultures and communities. A participatory society would allow individuals to choose the religions, cultures, and communities they themselves identify most with, in a self-managed way. Again, parecon would eliminate competition for material resources within and between communities. However, while these material inequities are absent in a participatory society, cultural and identity differences are not. Here, the parpolity is able to do a lot of heavy lifting, facilitating minority protection and representation in media, education, and political institutions, while also negotiating relations between smaller and larger groups.

Conclusion

"Every human being who is not devoid of feeling and common sense is inclined to Anarchism. Everyone who suffers from wrong and injustice, from the evil, corruption, and filth of our present day life, is instinctively sympathetic to Anarchy. Everyone whose heart is not dead to kindness, compassion, and fellow-sympathy must be interested in furthering it. Everyone who has to endure poverty and misery, tyranny and oppression should welcome the coming of Anarchy. Every liberty-and justice-loving man and woman should help realize it."

– Alexander Berkman, What is Communist Anarchism?

Again, none of the above visions are absolute and most require further development. In addition to transforming societies defining spheres we also want to revolutionize everyday life, which means we need to additionally consider how science, technology, education, sports, media, cities, and civil engineering would exist within a participatory society. The future participatory society is an anarchist society. In closing, I would like to ask you, "which side of the vision question are you on?" and "why?" In answering, I hope you will consider joining the effort to realize the new society.

Thank you.

Chris Spannos is staff with Z.

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