Vision: Problem or Solution

In a recent interview, asked what a better future would look like, Arundhati Roy replied…

“that is a question I refuse to answer. One human future doesn’t exist, neither does one image of the future. There are thousands of possibilities to make the world more human. I realize this is a vulnerable position, since those in favor of globalization do have one clear image. Their vision is like a sharp, gleaming knife put on our throats. Our answer doesn’t consist of an alternative, as simple as theirs, but of the confirmation of diversity’s wealth, in every possible way. There are countless ways of ruling a country, countless ways of protecting nature, countless ways of being a human being, countless ways to stand up straight and voice your opinion.

“Those asking after our alternative to neo-liberal globalization, actually expect an answer as violent and totalitarian as the one we reject. We are not looking for one answer. We only ask for the current brutality to stop, to create new space for thousands of possible answers.”

Roy eloquently rejects bad vision used as a club. My addendum is that we must also pursue better vision used as a solution.

We don’t want a vision which says my way or the highway. Nor do we want a vision featuring repressive structures. The former is sectarianism, typically involving personal identities wrapped up in public positions. The latter is harmful vision, typically involving allegiance to a hierarchical state, cultural homogenization, corporate divisions of labor, and markets or central planning.

The archetype culprit for both problems is the Marxist Leninist Party of varied sorts. But a secondary problem to going in a harmful direction is if we go in no direction at all. A secondary but also egregious problem, that is, is to think that every vision is sectarian and every vision is harmful, and that having no vision is best.

We don’t want unlimited diversity in every possible venue. We don’t want anyone to own another person as a slave. We don’t want anyone to employ wage slaves, either. Nor do we want anyone to politically coerce and repress others, to fold, spindle, or mutilate others, to rape, or to deny, defy, or crucify others. Thus, anything goes is an impossible and incoherent guiding precept for creating a better future because different peoples’ preferences can conflict. We can’t have anything goes for everyone. So we want each person to have freedom up to everyone else having equal freedom.

Achieving this reciprocity of freedoms requires attaining institutions that foster such outcomes. Of course people will live in diverse ways across and within future societies. Any leftist who favors a single way to live is doomed as far as organizing movements is concerned. But the complicating parallel truth is that any leftist who has little to offer in reply to the question, what do you want, is also doomed regarding organizing movements.

To advocate a thousand, a million, or a billion uniquely diverse flowers blooming is necessary but is not sufficient. Just enumerating success fails to reveal the basic structures needed to propel success,

Fearful of becoming one-minded sectarians, many leftists leave off from discussing new defining institutions. They move from rejecting hierarchical parties, exclusionary organizing techniques, and economic choices that enshrine a new ruling class, to rejecting advocacy of ay vision at all. They choose visionary silence, even as other leftists who aren’t nearly as sensitive to sectarian and authoritarian failings adopt visions and agendas that then become the only maps forward.

The problem is that the soil resulting from our visionary silence plus their visionary leadership will be so diseased that the range of subsequent human flowering will be quite narrow.

When people ask us what do you want, most of our questioners know at some deep level that the current condition of our societies is abysmal. The problem is, they don’t see any alternative. Fighting for an end to hierarchies of wealth and power seems to them to be blowing into the wind. It is grieving against gravity. It is organizing against earthquakes. They tell us to grow up, to face facts, and to get a life because we seem to be wasting our time rolling rocks up hills only to be crushed as they roll back down. They think we are well-meaning fools, giving our lives to meaningless struggle for a better world that won’t ever exist.

They ask us, what do you want? To answer them usefully will require providing reasoned shared belief in better institutions and in strategies to attain those better institutions. We can’t allay widespread doubts about future possibilities by talking about how painful present injustices around us are. We need to talk about vision and strategy.

No one demonstrates against cancer, against aging, or against raging storms because these grievous ills are part of life and not subject to elimination via activism. We need to understand that people who ask us, what do you want, often view poverty, racism, rape, and war the way we view hurricanes and gravity. They think fighting against large-scale injustice is hopeless. They think vague hopes for a better world are like a wish for perpetual youth, and therefore not worth their time.

Roy makes it sound in her brief statement that trying to answer the question, what do you want, is somehow intrinsically a slippery slope toward seeking to homogenize life and to impose a narrowing sectarian conformity on people. It can become that, and like Roy we must oppose that outcome, for sure.

But seeking vision doesn’t have to become sectarian and coercive. And the counterpoint to emphasize is that if we go beyond rejecting sectarianism and rejecting bad vision to rejecting all vision, our choice will tend to curb people who understand liberty and diversity from deciding what they want, which in turn will leave as vision either empty rhetoric, which doesn’t build movements beyond a relatively small scope, or even worse, authoritarian Leninist and coordinatorist visions, which will either disrupt movement potentials or lead to horrible outcomes.

I should say that I don’t think there are an endless variety of options for societies at the level of defining institutions. I don’t think, for example, that there are going to be even two much less dozens or thousands of underlying defining ways of determining relative values for economic exchange in a given country, nor even across countries, once we live in a better world.

But whether once there is a better world there are different allocation systems and other defining institutional relations in single countries or across countries, or only one, our saying that we just want room for diverse options and our not offering any credible institutional picture that can propel people’s reciprocal freedom, will convince no one that there is a viable alternative to markets, profit seeking, corporate divisions of labor, and all the rest.

It is suicidal for people who are anti-authoritarian and who favor diversity and care about equity and self management to leave the field of describing new institutions to those who don’t seriously reject sectarianism and authoritarianism. More, it is a harsh irony to do this in the sincere but confused belief that to put forth a vision intrinsically means denying diversity or freedom.

Roy eloquently conveys the view of many others, including myself, that as a goal she wants a world where people can explore and express their infinite desires and potentials. But attaining that goal requires attaining underlying defining institutions that provide a soil for the preferred outcome. Saying we want multifaceted mutual freedom, without urging people to develop and possess visions of what institutions could evoke and sustain that freedom will in many instances have exactly the opposite of what I assume is Roy’s and other people’s intended effect.

The counter to democratic centralism and regimented thinking and organizing much less to corporate divisions of labor, remuneration for output or for power, and markets or central planning – isn’t to reject vision entirely, but is, instead, to offer visionary alternatives that are flexible and truly libertarian in their logic and implications.

Communicating to Argentineans, for example, in their workplace and neighborhood assemblies that we leftists want an economy or a polity in which there is infinite variety, but offering nothing more about what to do to counter and ultimately replace markets and to eliminate and improve on corporate divisions of labor and to remunerate justly so that economic tasks get done in new ways rather than falling back into old patterns, will leave the way clear for old style lefties to dominate discussion and to trample aspirations with wrong-headed aims.

Argentinean activists who think about these issues, taking their rebellions as a current case in point, know very well that there is not going to be an Argentina that has dozens of defining economic accounting systems, dozens of defining property arrangements, dozens of defining logically different approaches to remuneration and to divisions of labor. There won’t be anything goes regarding defining institutions. There is an economy and a polity, and these will have broad logics and defining structures that will impact life options throughout Argentina.

If the structures are very good, on top there will grow a huge diversity of the sort that Roy celebrates. But if we ignore describing desirable defining institutional features able to engender that sort of diversity and freedom, either there will be no such visions in the air and gains will drift back into deadly old capitalist patterns, or there will be bad (Leninist, coordinatorist) aims in the air and gains will either drift back due to lack of support for authoritarian change, or will move forward into patterns that most citizens will wind up horrified by, including us.

So when people ask what do you want–our answer needs to be freedom, justice, solidarity, love, creativity, diversity, self management, sympathy, and whatever else we aspire to… in all the infinite arrangements of daily life that people contrive to construct.

But our answer ought to additionally advocate new institutions that propel rather than curtail such wonderful results. We must not only reject private ownership, markets, corporate divisions of labor, remuneration for property or power, hierarchies of political domination, sexist social and household arrangements, racism and cultural homogeneity, etc. — we need to self-consciously advocate carefully described new institutions that have preferred logic and implications to take their place.

We need vision to counter cynicism and to provide hope as well as to orient our strategies so that they lead toward what we desire.…and thus we need multitudes of people to flexibly partake of the many headed process of bringing worthy vision into wide debate and shared acquisition. That is the way for diversity as well as solidarity, equity, and self management to prevail.

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