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Linking Post-Capitalist Alternatives


Just as with the making of an invention, the building of a better society requires much trial and error and experimentation so as to come up with a working model. However, the search for a better model is aided by a good analysis and theory of society, just as the making of a new invention is aided by good natural science theories.

An integral analysis or theory of society of the sort I think we need to generate a full social vision will need to bring together not only means and end, but also all main spheres and dimensions of society and all realms of human experience (body, mind, and spirit). It will have to address key aspects of social experience such as political, economic, cultural, gender, communicational, artistic, and scientific spheres (to name some main ones). Second, so as to do justice to the age-long conflict between people-centered conceptions and social structure-based conceptions of society, it will need to focus on both types of conception and on the relation between actor and social structure. Third, it will need to be a historical approach that pays attention to the patterns of history and of social development.

 

Social Spheres

 

First, with regard to the different spheres of society that we should pay attention to, it will make sense, I believe, to make distinctions that are both logical and practical. For example, the most common distinction in social theory is one between the economic sphere and the political sphere. That is, it is generally accepted that while there are important links between these two spheres of society, they constitute distinct spheres (whose separation we can no doubt challenge and discuss). A third key sphere, which has only recently been recognized as one that needs special attention, is that of communication. Other important spheres include culture, households or gender relations, and, I would argue, the spheres of art and entertainment and that of science, and perhaps others. Clearly, there are strong linkages between all of these spheres, but we can make both logical and practical distinctions when it suits us, for the purpose of developing a clearer analysis of society and for creating a clearer vision of where we might want to go.

 

We can take this approach further, of course, looking at the spheres to see their functions and associated features as well as how they are entwined. The economy, for example, deals with how we relate to the world of produced objects or services, and how these are distributed. The political sphere is responsible for regulating how humans deal with each other as subjects, on the basis of established norms and rules. We can also sub-divide contemporary economies into the three sub-spheres, production, exchange, and technology, and contemporary polities into the three sub-spheres, of governance, law, and of civil society, and can do similarly for other key parts of social life, honing our view of components and interrelations.

 

In all parts of life, the consciousnesses in our heads determines how we, collectively, make sense of the world, and shapes how we act in the world. But the institutional structures around us delimit out consciousnesses, just as our consciousnesses in turn cause us to affect those structures. This relationship between consciousness/behavior and surrounding structure is always full of creativity and indeterminacy, but it is undeniably there with causality running in both directions, albeit sometimes more strongly one way or the other.

 

What this dialectic of structure and people also implies is that for each social sphere there two corresponding dimensions. The economy, the polity, and the spheres of communication, and gender, all have both an institutional framework of central structures and also a set of beliefs, habit, behaviors, of associated people. So to make (integral) sense of the social world, we need to pay attention to both what is in people heads and habits and the institutions that people operate within in all important spheres of social life.

 

The Evolution/Development of Society

 

Finally, I think a compelling and accurate view is going to realize that while history might often appear to be random and directionless, in the grand scheme of things, when seen over the course of millennia and not decades, history has moved in a clearly identifiable direction. While this directionality has not always been necessarily positive for human kind, there is certainly increasing complexity and increasing individual relative autonomy. This directionality claim might seem to be easily refutable, especially for leftists who celebrate the freedoms enjoyed by individuals who lived in “simpler” societies, such as Native American Indian tribes, for example. However, while it is conceivable that individuals in such small scale societies might have enjoyed more freedom from some modern forms economic or political oppression (although, this is clearly debatable), they did not have the kind of autonomy to act as individuals as people in modern societies do, in the sense of doing a wide variety of things that modern technology and modern civil rights enable us to do.

 

Spheres of social life can evolve, or more dramatically transform, and can also regress. One can impact others, pulling forward or backward, and vice versa. But the potential for improvement exists and a theory seeking to inform vision will in my view take seriously Marx’s dictum that we should strive for a society, “in which the free development of each is a condition for the free development of all.”

 

Creating freer and more even development across all spheres, dimensions, and social groups

 

One of the greatest problems of contemporary society, I would argue, is that the vast majority of the world’s population does not enjoy the opportunity to develop freely and to thus find new solutions to their problems. Many different types of uneven (or lacking) social development or evolution lead not only to blockages of development for large segments of the world’s population, preventing the free development of each and of all, but also imply limitations in freedom, equality, and social justice.

 

We can identify in each sphere of life some key beliefs, behaviors, and structures which are central to its definition, holding it together, delimiting its possibilities and features. To change a sphere, honing in on these is efficient. These defining features, ideas, behaviors, structures, are the pivot point, if we can find them, for effective change in each sphere.

 

If we hope to promote development in any given social sphere, we can either try to promote development in one dimension at a time and hope that the other dimension will be affected. For example, we can try to promote changes in structures and hope that mindsets will eventually change as well, or vice-versa. The history of social experiments, though, shows that changes in one dimension, whether behavior and consciousness or social structure, are all too often reversed if they are not paralleled by changes in the other social dimension. That is, if we work to change, for example, economic structures, by, let’s say, introducing cooperative management, but do not ensure a corresponding change in how people understand economic management (and ownership), then usually the new economic structures quickly fall apart. Similarly, we might try to introduce a new understanding of environmental consciousness, but as long as there are economic structures in place that facilitate the externalization of costs, this consciousness will be rapidly undermined.

 

 

A parallel similar insight is that if we work for change in one sphere, even in both the mindsets and habits and the institutions, without, however, changing the other spheres, again we run risks, as history shows, that laggard parts of society will pull back those that we worked on. Let us now turn to how a transformation of key beliefs and behaviors in each of the main spheres can lead to wider social transformations.

 

Production sphere – property rights – cooperative

 

Capitalist production is organized under the principle of private ownership and private accumulation of profit. That’s certainly at the core, even if not alone. This capitalist production sphere has become one of the main sources of unfreedom, social injustice, and uneven development. While states can occasionally correct for this, via state-directed redistribution efforts, nowadays these measures collapse increasingly, as the world becomes more globally integrated and it becomes ever more difficult for individual states to engage in activity that could frighten off potential private investors. This means that reform efforts that can transform the functioning of the production sphere are becoming increasingly less effective and that anyone who believes in liberty and social justice should look towards more transformative measures for addressing the uneven development capitalist production causes.

 

If we look at the property and management rights, we can see that a transformation in the conception of who may own and control productive property is crucial for the creation of greater social justice. That is, productive property rights would have to transform from a universal individual right to a right that inheres in the collective that is affected by that property’s production.

 

To make such changes, it would help if there are any existing social trends that could be encouraged and which might develop organically out of existing social relations. How ready is contemporary society for such a transformation? Social change activists need to analyze and examine where existing trends can be encouraged and where social trends are working against the goal of creating a transformation in the production sphere. In this regard, it seems that there are indeed some strong social trends that appear to lead in the direction of a transformation of the production sphere. One such trend is the one for the increasing establishment of non-profit organizations. More and more institutions in the developed world are non-profit organizations, where ownership of the organization’s production is organized on a collective principle for the furthering of the social good (which doesn’t mean that they always fulfill this goal, but at least it is explicitly different from the goal of for-profit organizations). Similarly, the number of producer and consumer cooperatives has been increasing around the world. These trends could pave the way for changing the way productive property is conceived of as a whole.

 

Exchange Sphere – Money – Democratic and interest free

 

The second sphere, that of exchange, regulates how goods and services are exchanged and distributed. The problem with state regulation is generally widely recognized because it is believed that it contributed to the downfall of state socialism in Eastern Europe. At least, in an autocratic state of a highly complex society, it is impossible for a central state authority to know exactly where what goods and services are needed and how to set prices accordingly. There are too many incentives in such a system for information about the real needs of the population to be distorted and without good information it is impossible for a state to make good decisions.

 

The opposite approach, which is the predominant one, is to let markets, with the use of a central state-issued currency to determine prices, which, in turn, allow producers decide what and how much to produce. This system too suffers from serious problems, which, in the age of globalization, have recently become exacerbated.

 

The problems with markets include the tendency of markets to exacerbate inequality because the powerful are in a better position to take advantage of market situations than the weak and the tendency for markets to hide the real costs of production because often producers can “externalize” costs, such as via pollution or exploitation.

 

A visionary task for the economy includes figuring out what replaces private ownership and top down management, and what replaces authoritatively or competitively establishing allocation.

 

Key to the functioning of the exchange sphere is money. That is, a free market economy cannot function without money. Unfortunately, money, just as the private ownership of property in the production sphere, also contributes to increasing material inequality and thus to uneven or blocked development. Money does this by allowing owners of money to earn interest (and compound interest) on it, thereby allowing them to earn an income without having to lift a finger. The flip-side of interest is that it requires those without money to borrow it and to pay more for this money than they borrowed, thus reducing their income. In short, the dominant form of money (as we will see, there are other forms of money) increases inequality. Interest, however, is absolutely necessary in the current economic system because without it there would be no incentive for its owners to keep money in circulation and without the circulation of money, the economy would grind to a halt, since exchange without money, in our economic system, is practically impossible.

 

While the economic issues involving this sphere are too intricate to get into in a short paper, there is a fairly large literature that explores the ways in which the functioning and of money can be modified so that it actually contributes to social justice instead of injustice. Some of these projects are known as local currencies, complementary currencies, or local trade and exchange systems. There are hundreds of such projects around the world, but mostly in Europe, where the economics of a different type of money has been theorized far more than in the English-speaking world. (For an overview of some of this theory and its projects, see: www.systemfehler.de/en.)

 

Techno-Sphere – useful knowledge – free

 

Technology is another crucial sub-sphere of the economic sphere. According to some social theorists, technology is the key driving force behind social transformations, responsible for the shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural, to industrial, to informational society. It plays an important role not only in how we produce things, but also in how we exchange them and how we interact and communicate with each other, not only in the sense of making these interactions more efficient, but also introducing qualitative changes in them.

 

The key principle around which the technology sphere is organized is intellectual property rights. However, intellectual property rights, as they are currently formulated, represent a tremendous obstacle for the broader diffusion of the benefits of technology because only those who can pay for the license to use that property have access to it. Also, intellectual property contributes to the polarization of wealth between rich and poor. On the one hand such rights make sure that those with intellectual property become even wealthier than they already tend to be, while on the other hand they siphon off income and wealth from those who wish to gain access to this technology. The principle at work is somewhat similar to that with productive material property (such as factories), except that there is a crucial difference with intellectual property in that it can be duplicated or reproduced far easier than material property can.

 

A transformation of how we perceive and treat useful knowledge could thus lead to a significant transformation of the technology sphere itself. Instead of perceiving useful knowledge as something that can be owned and sold, it needs to be seen as something which anyone has the right to use, as a right of all humans. This does not mean abolishing all notions of authorship and giving credit to the original inventor or writer. However, what should change are the rights the original inventor or writer has over their intellectual work.

 

The trends towards free software, open source software, generic products in medicine, and royalty free music are all trends that move in the direction of transforming useful knowledge from a notion of individual property to one of human inheritance and free (as in unrestricted) access.

 

Governance sphere – legitimate power – subsidiary and participatory

 

We now move on to the first sub-sphere of politics, that of governance. This sub-sphere regulates who is allowed to govern over whom. The lynch pin modern governance is the claim that those who have been democratically chosen to govern have the right to do so, within the limitations set by law. While this particular form of legitimate power is a significant advance over earlier forms, such as power bestowed by tradition and notions of God and the natural order, the limitations of representative democratic legitimacy are increasingly being recognized.

 

There are at least three ways in which representative democracy has become increasingly corrupted. First, representatives, especially in the U.S., but also in most other countries, are very dependent on campaign fundraising to get elected, where they raise millions from elite circles and are thus beholden to those circles. While it is certainly possible for legislatures to change the campaign fundraising system, the incentives to do so go in the opposite direction. A second problem with representative democracy is that elected representatives tend to be far removed from the electorate and are thus easily influenced by corporate lobbyists who tend to pursue interests diametrically opposed to those of the electorate. The third corruption of representative democracy occurs via the influence of the private mass media, which promote discourses and politicians that favor the interests of the elite and of the business sector. Polls, for example, consistently show that citizens are to the left of their elected representatives on a wide variety of issues. One of the reasons for this is precisely the removal of decision-makers from those affected by the decisions. The result of this hijacking is, once again, an increase in power and wealth for the already powerful and a limiting of freedom and social justice for those with less power and wealth.

 

A transformation of what is considered legitimate power towards the idea that the exercise of power is legitimated more by direct democratic decision-making and democratic participation would help undermine some of the problems of representative democracy. Such a participatory form of legitimate power, in which ordinary citizens participate and have more decision-making power, depending on the degree to which they are affected by the issue, would help circumvent the influence of powerful private interests.

 

Already, around the world, there are trends that are moving in this direction. Perhaps one of the most effective has been in Kerala, India. Others include the participatory budgeting process in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and the community planning councils in Venezuela. These processes have transformed the meaning and practice of legitimate power out of the recognition of the limitations of the concept of representative democracy.

 

Legal sphere – law – relative universals

 

The second sub-sphere of the political sphere-that of the legal system-is often thought of more in terms of how the struggle for the actual application of the legal sphere as it is supposed to function, not leaving much room for thinking about how to transform the legal sphere beyond its current ideal. That is, the legal sphere, which is governed by (presumably) rational laws in contemporary society, represents an advance over previous systems, in which laws were based on tradition and an explicit formal inequality between different classes of people (serfs, citizens, nobility, royalty). However, in a society with plenty of material inequality (or, a lack of social justice), the application of universal law, that is, of formal equality, generally results in increasing material inequality. The principle is quite simple, just as when two sports teams play against each other, the universal application of the game’s rules will assure that the stronger team wins. While this is the desired result in a sports game, in society it inevitably means more social injustice and less freedom for the less fortunate.

 

It is the recognition of this problem with universal law and formal equality that has led to affirmative action programs, in which those who are socially marginalized, such as women or ethnic or racial minorities receive preferential treatment in certain circumstances. In other words, the idea of universally applicable law needs to undergo a transformation towards a more relative universalism, in which the principle of social justice is raised to equal importance as the principles of formal equality and freedom.

 

One place where this has already happened in a very explicit form is Venezuela‘s 1999 constitution, which states that, “Venezuela constitutes itself as a democratic and social state of law and justice.” (Article 2) This stands in strong contrast to most of the world’s constitutions, which merely say that the state is ruled by [universal] law. In Venezuela, thus, the universal application of law must be measured against [social] justice. The implication is that applying law according to universalistic principles does not automatically lead to justice and that the two need to be balanced against each other for a better society to be possible.

 

Civil society sphere – solidarity – global

 

The core idea of the sphere of civil society is solidarity, which defines the boundaries of one’s sympathy. While progressives generally believe that one’s sense of solidarity should extend beyond one’s own gender, ethnic group, and country, it is often forgotten that many of one’s fellow citizens do not necessarily feel this way. A civil society that feels solidarity only with its fellow citizens or only with its own ethnic group, will not be in a position to promote liberty, equality, and social justice for all, across the globe. Also, the preservation of the world’s eco-sphere could require us to feel solidarity not only with humans, but with all life on earth.

Progressives thus need to recognize that civil society and the idea of solidarity must be expanded far beyond where it currently finds itself in most societies. Luckily, the emergence of a global civil society indicates (even if we do not agree with the goals of much of that civil society) that solidarity is in the process of extending beyond national borders.

 

Communication Sphere – message/language – peer-to-peer (P2P)

 

One of the most important spheres is that of communication. The underlying core feature organizing communication, at its most basic level, is language. Language is what enables us to formulate and make sense of messages and thus allows us to make sense of our world and to coordinate our actions in it. Something so fundamental as language, though, while evolving, changes very slowly and is thus perhaps not a focus for progressive social change except in a few limited areas (such as in the introduction of gender-neutral terms in many languages). More likely to bring about larger social change is the transformation of how messages function.

 

The form that messages take in contemporary society shapes the way we communicate and the kinds of meaning we make. That is, we are bombarded with messages from all sides all of the time and must constantly select which messages are important to us and are worth our attention. Generally, the messages that are considered most important in contemporary society are those that come from a central authority. For example, for decades, especially since the advent of broadcast mass media such as radio television, the most important messages came from central governments or powerful economic actors. Here one can clearly see the impact technology has on the form of communication, which for a long time favored centralized broadcasting (such as via radio or TV).

 

This type of centralized broadcasting plays into the hands of the powerful and helps maintain social injustice and thus unfreedom. Centralized broadcasters, which are almost always privately owned transnational corporations, present their messages only in ways that favors their particular interest, which is to maintain their privileges.

 

However, with the advent of computer technology and the internet, communication, and thus the meaning and use of messages, is in the process of being transformed from centralized to decentralized forms. The best example of this is, of course, the internet, which allows practically anyone to set up a website, which can then be read by practically anyone with access to the requisite technology. Messages are thus less tied to the importance or centrality of the broadcaster and more related to the personal significance the message has to the receiver. The proliferation of wireless technology, which allows users to tap into the internet almost anywhere and at anytime further accelerates people’s independence from centralized systems of communication. The main paradigm for this type of communication is “peer-to-peer networking,” which means that people connect to each other directly, without powerful intermediaries who could distort or control the message.

 

The implications for this transformation are great in all of the other spheres, allowing an acceleration of the transformations already mentioned. For example, peer-to-peer communication helps tremendously with the transformation of the political sphere, especially in terms of facilitating participatory forms of governance. It also aids in the transformation of the techno-sphere itself, as can be seen in the ways in which free and open source software have spread and facilitate the development of global programming networks for software development, as has been the case with the Linux operating system, for example. Peer-to-peer communication also tremendously aids the transformation of the sphere of exchange, making it much easier to introduce alternative currencies, which do not depend on a centralized state for their creation. Peer-to-peer forms of communication also aid the expansion of solidarity to a global level, in that activists can now communicate with other activists around the globe more easily and far more directly than was ever possible before, thereby expanding their sense of solidarity.

 

Conclusion

 

The above discussion is not meant as a blueprint for a better society. Rather, it is meant to push our thinking into new directions in as many social spheres as possible and to show how the different social spheres and alternative (and hopefully post-capitalist) projects can be linked together. Since this is not a blueprint, one should keep in mind that the projects identified here still require much trial and error experimentation, in order to see if and exactly how they might work.

 

The key claims of this rough outline is that, first, we need a more comprehensive theory of society if we want to develop a more comprehensive vision of what a better society might look like. It is not good enough to just have a vision of the better society without a good understanding of the terrain we need to cross-the existing society and its potentials-to get there.

 

Second, while we all might agree that we want more democracy and self-determination, what is it we would argue in favor of if we had more democracy? What would we try to persuade others of if, for example, we were to democratically decide on new principles to govern the use and distribution of intellectual property? The discussion here claims that some ways of deciding such issues are better than others if we want to achieve liberty, equality, and social justice.

 

Third, when discussing social change we cannot just focus on the new social structures we would like to see, but we also have to take into consideration the existing and new ways of understanding social relations. That is, we need to pay equal attention to culture (or meaning-making) and social structure (or relations). We need to find the underlying defining and directed aspects of spheres of life, and address those.

 

Fourth, as we pay attention to the existing social conditions and potentials in formulating our vision, a focus on and support of existing positive trends, in the direction of our ideal, makes much more sense than pushing for an abstract goal that is divorced from existing social conditions and trends.

 

Fifth, our vision of a better society ought to see this new society as the result of a historical social development that needs freedom, equality, and social justice in order to proceed. Likewise, these three principles need further social development for their fuller realization.

 

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