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Escaping Dystopia: Finding the Path of Least Resistance


"When the hell are we finally going to create a movement that looks to the future instead of the past? When will we begin to learn from what is being born instead of what is dying? [...] In the midst of all the confusing ideological crosscurrents of our time, one question must always remain in the foreground: what the hell are we trying to make a revolution for? Are we trying to make a revolution to recreate hierarchy, dangling a shadowy dream of future freedom before the eyes of humanity? [...] Or is it finally to dissolve hierarchy, class rule and coercion – to make it possible for each individual to gain control of his everyday life?" – Murray Bookchin

~

 

Whatever happened in the past – and don’t get me wrong, I am not saying this to diminish the importance of history – obviously hasn’t delivered us from Dystopia. Whatever tactics or strategies we used to try and break the chains that bind us, did not work. The failures of Marxism-Leninism and the ease of which so many movements were co-opted suggest that new ways of organizing and acting are needed. When I read Abel Paz’s book on Buenaventura Durruti I couldn’t help feel that in Spain the split over the false dilemma of "reform versus revolution" cost them social liberation. 

 

We can learn some important lessons from history, most of which I think we should learn not to repeat and I am confident that much of the visionary strategies being discussed by many folks participating in this project are following in the wisdom of Bookchin’s questions. We are not looking to the past for nostalgia but we are starting to learn more and more from what is being born (participatory self-management) than what is dying (hierarchical leadership – which still plagues much of the Left).

 

The title of this essay suggests two things

 

  1. I feel we live in a dystopia
  2. I feel we need to escape it  

Considering the topic of this forum I doubt many, if any at all, will dispute that most of us live in a dystopia – and some considerably more so than others. Where we may find disagreements and should find ways to transcend them is on how we escape Dystopia.

 

Before I continue I want to stress that while my essay does not oppose, reject or consider international movements it is primarily focused on a national movement in the United States, and for a primary reason: Empire. The U.S. Empire, with its state and private institutions, is the heart of Dystopia. However, the general views expressed are applicable elsewhere.

 

On Dystopia

 

Dictionary.com defines dystopia as "a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding." This is surely an apt description of the world many of us live in.  

 

The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote this poem titled Our Country is a Graveyard

 

Gentlemen, you have transformed

our country into a graveyard

You have planted bullets in our heads,

and organized massacres

Gentlemen, nothing passes like that

without account

All you have done

to our people is

registered in notebooks

 

This poem reminds me of something I read not too long ago. It was a UN report that said foreign investment in Africa had the highest rate of returns. This horrified me because I know how Africa is paying for it: with their lives. The report said that 58% of the investment goes to Sub-Sahara Africa where living conditions are probably the worst in the world. What does it say when foreign companies can invest in the Sub-Saharan region, "make" considerably more all the while AIDS and poverty continues at an alarming rate? From a different angle, groups like Oxfam, Amnesty International and others have made it their jobs to document the dystopia that billions of us endure and perish under on a daily basis so that we may know what is going on (in our names, with our taxes and for our consumption) and to use that as ammunition to stop it. All that is being done to create Dystopia is registered in notebooks and accessible on the Internet.

 

Escaping Contemporary Barbarism

 

In the prologue titled What I Have Lived For to Bertrand Russell’s autobiography the British philosopher wrote

 

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

 

Presumably there is no reason to believe that famine, torture, the burden of being old, loneliness, poverty and pain are evils that "cannot" be alleviated. Maybe Russell felt that he could not do it but we could – he did say that "the only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation." If so, then I certainly agree.

 

As well as the redemption we get through cooperation I feel that organizational structuring coupled with our visions & strategies are important tools to achieve our goals. If we want a classless society then it is essential that our institutional boundaries reflect them. If we want a post-capitalist, post-sexist, post-racist and post-political authoritarian society we must begin redefining the boundaries of our social institutions.

 

In 1970 Noam Chomsky, said in a speech (published by Seven Stories Press in Government in the Future or in audio at www.chomsky.info) that

 

We have today the technical and material resources to meet man’s animal needs. We have not developed the cultural and moral resources – or the democratic forms of social organization – that make possible the humane and rational use of our material wealth and power. Conceivably the classical liberal ideals as expressed and developed in the libertarian socialist form are achievable. But if so, only by a popular revolutionary movement, rooted in a wide strata of the population and committed to the elimination of repressive and authoritarian institutions, state and private. To create such a movement is a challenge we face and must meet if there is to be an escape from contemporary barbarism.

 

When I decided to start the Dallas/Fort Worth Project for a Participatory Society (DFW-PPS) I wanted to be a part of something that does just that – establishes a popular revolutionary movement committed to the elimination of any and all forms of repression and coercive authority. 

 

Institutional Boundaries of Dystopia

 

In the book Liberating Theory by Michael Albert, Leslie Cagan, Noam Chomsky, Robin Hahnel, Mel King, Lydia Sargent and Holly Sklar the authors note that society consists of four primary spheres: economy, polity, kinship and culture. They argued that each compliments the others in a holistic way that they call Complimentary Holism. In each society there is the human center and the institutional boundaries

 

We can conceive of society as two basic networks: a human center composed of citizens, their consciousnesses, personalities, needs and skills, and a surrounding institutional boundary composed of society’s institutions and their role structures.

 

It is argued that both the human center and the institutional boundaries affect each other just like the four social spheres do – i.e., the institutional boundaries of market systems has an impact on human centers; and the human centers of our societies impacts the institutional boundaries of market systems. We can see this played out in the differences between Capitalism in the U.S. and Capitalism in, say, Sweden. You might say that the human centers in Sweden have had a more humanizing effect on affecting the institutional boundaries of their market system. As we begin to explore the boundaries, as they currently exist, we can start to get an idea of how they should be modified, if at all. 

 

Perhaps you are like me and feel that how we teach children to play conditions them for the roles they will take later. Should we be surprised to see the sexist division of labor when little girls are given toy brooms and dolls to mother while little boys are giving toy guns, construction tools and little toy lawn mowers? A recent study has shown that overweight women are less likely to get promotions than overweight men. How much of this is the result of how we define and shape sexuality? Also, non-whites continue to face glass ceilings in terms of income. How much of this is the result of how we define and shape race relations?

 

When we explore the institutional boundaries of homes, workplaces, schools and governments we see many of the same features. Power and privilege is divided in unequal and unfair ways. The next question is: What are the institutional boundaries of a Good Society; how do we go about setting those boundaries; and how do we get there?

 

Revolutionary Projects

 

Years ago I read Upton Sinclair’s Cry for Justice and was taken back at how those cries have been made throughout our recorded history and across every culture and civilization. It’s hard not to agree with Mikhail Bakunin (the 19th Century Russian anarchist) that humans have an instinct for freedom. But if being free is a natural instinct then why on Earth do we live in a dystopia?

 

A revolutionary is a creator and not a destroyer; a revolutionary is also an optimist and not a pessimist. Where cynicism, apathy and inaction have never liberated a people the same could be said for destroyers (i.e., "smash the state"). It’s not enough to be able to break something. The real revolution lies in making what we struggle against obsolete by creating something new and better.

 

Like the anarchist historian Andrej Grubacic, many others and I find the "revolution versus reform" to be a false dichotomy. Reforms can be revolutionary, and a revolutionary should be a particular kind of reformist: A revolutionary should be for reforms that move them closer to their revolutionary goals. Social liberation is less about destroying illegitimate orders and more about creating new legitimate ones that enhance and enrich our lives.

 

One of the main values I think we can and should aspire for is participatory self-management. In all areas of life, and to the extent possible, we should create social processes that nurture each individual’s ability to manage their own affairs in accordance with others (since most decisions impact more than just an individual). We should seek out all institutional boundaries – whether at home, work, school or government – that limit our participation and building of social bonds, and find ways to change them in order to accommodate. It seems to be an axiom that people who have at least an adequate say in managing their lives do not live in a dystopia. They are the fortunate ones who get to live in Utopia. 

 

Which brings me back to my current project and the kinds of questions we are here to discuss: Here are our goals for the Dallas/Fort Worth Project for a Participatory Society. (In fact, borrowed mostly – and with permission – from the London(Ontario, Canada) Project for a Participatory Society we established this by consensus as our Mission Statement – thanks Steve!)

 

We strive to develop and promote the kind of analysis, vision, and strategy that people need to work effectively for radical social change. Among the changes we seek are the elimination of all hierarchies and oppressions, including those based on race, gender, sexuality, ability, age and class.

 

We also seek to promote both institutional innovation and grassroots popular mobilization in order to advance our goal of an egalitarian post-capitalist participatory economy, and a society founded upon political and economic democracy and social and environmental justice.

 

We also agreed on this to describe who we are

 

At the present time, the DFW-PPS describes its activities in the following way….

 

The role of the DFW-PPS is to pursue three interrelated projects:

 

·         First, to establish a more visible presence for radical politics in DFW, by fostering discussion, dialogue and debate about social analysis and strategies for achieving social change.

 

·         Second, to foster the development of more effective radical activism, by organized skill-sharing, through workshops and training sessions, and knowledge-sharing, through continual collective discussion about dilemmas confronting people in their work and ongoing attempts to pool information and share insights.

 

·         Third, to serve as a catalyst for establishing new forms of collaboration on the wider left, for example, by organizing campaigns that tie together several different initiatives pursued by many different groups, on the basis that they are all fighting for a city that puts people before profits, and promotes social and environmental justice, as well as political and economic democracy.

 

So what are some campaigns we can organize "that tie together several different initiatives pursued by many different groups"?

 

The environmental movement is in my mind the best choice, and for a variety of reasons. First, we all rely on the health of our planet to ensure our own survival regardless of whether we live in Utopia or Dystopia. This is, in my opinion, the path of least resistance because here is a common ground on which all can be brought together on. Second, thanks to ecologists we know that our planet does not possess infinite resources.  What we have is finite and the inter-connections between species and the environment are fragile. This means the prevailing foundation on which modern industrialism is based – the race to the bottom of the barrel or the "cradle to grave" mentality – must be replaced with something that is sustainable. Without a habitable planet we have no place in which to struggle for constitutional rights, economic reforms or new political laws that redefine public participation.

 

In the book Real Utopia Chris Spannos conducted a wonderful interview with Robin Hahnel on the topic of protecting the environment in a participatory economy. Hahnel argues that the participatory planning system as proposed in participatory economics would be effective at calculating the true social costs and benefits of production and consumption

 

The fact that a participatory economy can treat pollution and environmental preservation in an "incentive compatible" way is crucial. When producers or consumers have incentives to ignore damaging effects on the environment of their choices about what and how to produce and consume, it is not incentive compatible. And when polluters and pollution victims lack incentives to reveal the true costs of pollution to victims, or the true benefits of pollution to consumers of the products produced jointly with the pollution, it is not incentive compatible. But in a participatory economy since producers are charged for harmful emissions the damage from pollution is included in the cost of a worker council proposal — giving producers just as much incentive to reduce pollution as any other cost of production. And since the indicative prices consumers are charged for goods in participatory planning include the costs of pollution associated with their production and consumption, there is just as much incentive for consumers to reduce consumption of goods that cause pollution as there is for them to reduce consumption of goods that require scarce productive resources or unpleasant labor to produce.

 

In the book Cradle to Cradle; Remaking the Way We Make Things, the authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart point out that the issue of nature versus industrialism is also a false dilemma. The real issue is how we make things, not whether we make them, and which they say can be altered in more "eco-effective" ways. They stress that nature is full of superior design and technology that is not only sustainable but an essential feature of biodiversity, and that human industry should develop methods that compliment nature

 

Consider this: all the ants on the planet, taken together, have a biomass greater than that of humans. Ants have been incredibly industrious for millions of years. Yet their productiveness nourishes plants, animals and soil. Human industry has been in full swing for little over a century, yet it has brought about a decline in almost every ecosystem in the planet. Nature doesn’t have a design problem. People do.

 

These kinds of proposals to move forward with the environmental movement needs to receive more broad attention and discussion. That much of this was spelled out nearly fifty years ago in the essay Ecology and Revolutionary Thought by Murray Bookchin is an indictment to all of us.

 

Healthcare reform is another obvious choice for a campaign that many more groups and organizations can and should organize around. While the wealthy have selfish motives to oppose a single-payer program those who have selfish motives to favor it (if you consider having access to good health is selfish) largely outnumber the former. Right now there are over 50 million Americans who are either uninsured or underinsured. Healthcare is also one of the biggest concerns many Americans face.

 

The Associated Press reported recently that

 

If the uninsured were a political lobbying group, they’d have more members than AARP. The National Mall couldn’t hold them if they decided to march on Washington.

But going without health insurance is still seen as a personal issue, a misfortune for many and a choice for some. People who lose coverage often struggle alone instead of turning their frustration into political action.

Illegal immigrants rallied in Washington during past immigration debates, but the uninsured linger in the background as Congress struggles with a health care overhaul that seems to have the best odds in years of passing.

That isolation could have profound repercussions.

 

Many things jump off the page.  First, the "best odds" of reform are not due to popular support but recognition from healthcare industries that their private looting cannot continue much longer, and what Congress is struggling over is how to ensure that the private companies can have their cake and eat it too. It also demonstrates that political power comes not from the numbers of voters but the money behind a "lobbying group" as well as pointing out the atomization and isolation of the population. 

 

Not only are the 50 million (uninsured & underinsured) strong potential allies for a movement for a Participatory Society, but so are the tens of millions more – like myself – who have insurance but are worried about the high costs that come with it, and the tens of thousands of physicians who have a sincere concern for the health of their patients.

 

Addressing the massive problems of the private healthcare system goes a long way to addressing many of the concerns of those who also advocate a Participatory Economy – and more broadly, a Participatory Society. Whether you are queer, black, old, female, radical or not doesn’t change much for our health care situation.  Not only do we share a common interest (freeing ourselves from the chains of private medicine) but if we dig deeper we see we share other interests.  Our "instinct" (Bakunin) for freedom and justice goes beyond the bondages of our private healthcare system and extends into other social realms of political, economic, cultural and kinship areas as well.

 

My point is that viewing healthcare reform through a non-reformist reform campaign (where we seek reforms not as an end but as an opening to push for broader social changes) provides us with many things we need for success.  It gives us the opportunity to do something humane, improve the quality of our health, address property relations, tax justice issues, and it also gives the general public more power in managing our lives which can be an important factor in building the "democratic forms of social organization – that make possible the humane and rational use of our material wealth and power." It also gives us strength in numbers so that we are not "lingering in the background as Congress" caters to highly concentrated centers of private power; and at a time when the healthcare crisis could make the ongoing financial crisis much worse we stand a much bigger chance to win – historically, there is something to change coming as we stand at a precipice.  What we need to figure out is what trajectory we want the change to take and whether we can we do it before we fall off the cliff.

 

Rallying around healthcare reform to advance radical leftist economic policies is a sound tactic.  Much of the economic issues of property relations, living wages, socialization, tax justice and efficient spending are neatly wrapped up into this one issue.  And again, any reform that improves people’s lives and empowers them is a good thing.

 

But what about the political sphere?  Is there a political cause that also neatly defines much of our prime concerns?  I think so.

 

Undoubtedly the main issue in American politics for citizens is controlling the politicians.  We know that they will say anything to get elected and will drop those promises once elected in order to focus more on the corporate/propertied interests of those who financed their campaigns.  We see this time and time again and even in pop-culture. In Star Wars: Attack of the Clones the character Obi-wan Kenobi tells Anakin Skywalker that, "It’s been my experience that Senators are only focused on pleasing those who fund their campaigns… and they are more than willing to forget the niceties of democracy to get those funds." Even George Lucas sees the writing on the wall!

 

The May 2009 edition of Z Magazine featured a great article by the activist and writer Paul Street who wrote about Obama and the Democrats

 

[T]he two parties are not simply interchangeable. It is the Democrats’ job to define and embody the constricted left-most parameters of acceptable political debate. For the last century, it has been the Democratic Party’s distinctive assignment to play "the role of shock absorber, trying to head off and co-opt restive [and potentially radical] segments of the electorate" by posing as "the party of the people"(Selfa). The Democrats performed this critical system-preserving, change-containing function in relation to the agrarian populist insurgency of the 1890s and the working-class rebellion of the 1930s and 1940s. They played much the same role in relation to the antiwar, civil rights, anti-poverty, ecology, and feminist movements during and since the 1960s and early 1970s. In every case, the movements that arose to challenge concentrated power and oppression and to reduce inequality were pacified, silenced, and ultimately shut down, their political energies sucked into the corporate and militaristic Democratic Party.

 

This is certainly true.

 

But what can be done about it?  How do we restrict the dominating influence of capital in politics?  How can we strengthen Democracy so that the average citizen has a fair say in shaping policies? The American philosopher, John Dewey, is famous for having said that "As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance."  

 

In 2008 many Americans tried to attenuate the shadow by voting for Obama, but the movement – and it does exist – to change what casts the shadow was, and is still, under supported, marginalized, atomized and weak.  

Politically speaking, one such issue is campaign finance reform.  Campaign financing does to the political system what markets do to the economic system: it gives undue influence over decision making based on who has the most.  In campaigns, as in the markets, you vote with your dollars and those with the most dollars gets the most votes.  Campaign financing as it is currently practiced is anti-democratic and produces predictable inequalities that pervert an already perverted political system.  The private funding of elections needs to be abolished if we are to begin laying the foundation for a vibrant democracy where each citizen has a fair and just say in managing their lives.

 

Summary

 

I began this essay with a quote from Murray Bookchin. It came from his essay, Listen Marxist!, which he also went on to say

 

Discarding the tactical handbooks of the past, the revolution of the future follows the path of least resistance, eating its way into the most susceptible areas of the population irrespective of their "class position."

 

In a similar way, Bruce Lee tried to tell us the same thing through his philosophy of Jeet Kune Do

 

Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind; be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; you put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; you put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

 

What these two are saying is that things change and we must adapt to those changes. The social environments of the past are not the same as today. Capitalism, racism and sexism are not the same today as they were yesterday. Yesterday was a cup, today is a bottle and tomorrow may be a teapot. We need to discard the tactical handbooks of the past, we need to stop looking to the past, we need to stop learning from what is dying, and we need to look to the future, learn from what is being born, and we need to find form in formlessness. 

 

Here’s the rub: What is the path of least resistance? A successful "constitutional insurgency" (Jeremy Brecher) movement for the right to hold national referendums could be used to vote for campaign finance reform or healthcare reform. It could also be used to establish participatory budgeting programs, which all could be used favorably for the environmental movement. Likewise, a successful campaign finance reform could be used to further other issues by giving the public more democratic control over politics. The point I want to make here is that the success of any of these campaigns, which are not impractical, unrealistic or hopeless pipedreams, could be used to take us further in other areas. Another important question for us is: Can we get past sectarian divisions and infighting – something even I must admit to being guilty of – in order to form "a popular revolutionary movement, rooted in a wide strata of the population and committed to the elimination of repressive and authoritarian institutions, state and private"? If we can then the success of the environmental movement, campaign finance reform, single-payer healthcare or any other reform that reduces the influence of capital (or race, gender, sexuality, age, etc.) while increasing the influence of the public would be a considerably large gain for Democracy and a more-than-adequate foundation for us to use in order to escape Dystopia.

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