Excerpted from the Zed Press Book Realizing Hope
Humans tend to create diverse communities bound by shared cultures that differ from one another in their artistic, linguistic, and spiritual allegiances and preferences. The problem of cultural communities is not this diversity per se, but that cultural communities can exploit one another, attack one another, or even obliterates one another. As
In a good society, presumably this type of largely one way or sometimes mutual inter community assault and destruction would be eliminated.
What relation does economics and in particular parecon have to the existence of cultural communities, whether those cultural communities are warring or are mutually respectful?
First let’s consider, however briefly, what kinds of cultural relations we would like to have in a good society. Then we can try to say something useful about the relations of economics and cultural communities both now and in the future.
We will not be magically reborn in a desirable society, free of our past and unaware of our historical roots. On the contrary, our historical memory, our sensitivity to past and present social process, and our understanding of our own and our society’s history will all be enhanced during the process of reaching a desirable society. Rather than our diverse cultural roots being submerged, therefore, they will grow in prominence.
So while as Einstein very pithily put it, in its current incarnations, "nationalism is an infantile sickness. It is the measles of the human race," still, the point of cultural vision is not to erase diverse cultures or to reduce them to a least common denominator. As Arundhati
In other words, instead of homogenizing cultures, in the transition to a better world the historical contributions of different communities should be more appreciated than ever before and there must be greater rather than lesser means for their further development, occurring, however, without destructive mutual hostilities.
Trying to prevent the horrors of genocide, imperialism, racism, jingoism, ethnocentrism, and religious persecution by attempting to integrate distinct historical communities into one cultural niche has proved almost as destructive as the nightmares this approach sought to expunge.
"Cultural homogenization" whether racist, fundamentalist, or even leftist ignores the positive aspects of cultural differences that give people a sense of who they are and where they come from. Cultural homogenization offers few opportunities for variety and cultural self-management and proves self-defeating in any event since it heightens exactly the community anxieties and antagonisms it seeks to overcome.
Yes, in a competitive and otherwise mutually hostile environment, religious, racial, ethnic, and national communities often develop into sectarian camps, each concerned first and foremost with defending itself from real and imagined threats, if necessary even waging war on others to do so.
And yes, in other contexts, more subtle and less overt racist expressions occur as Al Sharpton notes, commenting on racism’s changing face in the
But the near ubiquitous presence of racial and other cultural hierarchies throughout society and history no more means we should eliminate cultural diversity than the existence of gender, sexual, economic, or political hierarchies means we should eliminate diversity in those realms. The task is to remove oppression not obliterate difference.
Racism certainly often has a very crass and material component. Consider Desmond Tutu commenting on the South African experience, "When they arrived, we had the land and they had the Bible and they told us to close our eyes to pray. When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible." But theft is not always the dominant theme of cultural violation and, even when it is highly operative, it is generally only one part of the whole cultural picture. Much and even most of racism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, and religious bigotry is based on and reproduced by cultural definitions and beliefs other than and even beyond material differences.
Dominant community groups rationalize their positions of privilege with myths about their own superiority and the presumed inferiority of those they oppress. But these often materially motivated myths in time attain a life of their own, often transcending changing material relations. The effects are brutal. For the oppressed, in the American novelist Ralph Ellison’s words, "I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, everything and anything except me."
Some sectors within oppressed communities internalize myths of their inferiority, and attempt to imitate or at least accommodate dominant cultures. Einstein wrote, "it seems to be a universal fact that minorities–especially when the individuals composing them are distinguished by physical peculiarities–are treated by the majorities among whom they live as an inferior order of beings. The tragedy of such a fate lies not merely in the unfair treatment to which these minorities are automatically subjected in social and economic matters, but also in the fact that under the suggestive influence of the majority most of the victims themselves succumb to the same prejudice and regard their brethren as inferior beings." Or as Native American activist Ward Churchill more aggressively explained "White domination is so complete that even American Indian children want to be cowboys. It’s as if Jewish children wanted to play Nazis."
Others in oppressed communities respond by defending the integrity of their own cultural traditions while combating as best they can the racist ideologies used to justify their oppression. But as W.E.B. Dubois notes, "It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." And as Frederick Douglass wrote in another context, "For a white man to defend his friend unto blood is praiseworthy but for a black man to do precisely the same thing is a crime. It was glorious for Americans to drench the soil and crimson the sea with blood to escape payment of three penny tax upon tea; but it is a crime to shoot down a monster in defense of the liberty of a black man and to save him from bondage one minute of which (in the language of Jefferson) is worse than ages of that which our fathers rose in rebellion to oppose."
In any event, cultural salvation does not lie in trying to obliterate the distinctions between communities. Instead the only lasting solution lies in eliminating racist institutions, dispelling racist ideologies, and changing the environments within which historical communities relate so that they might maintain and celebrate difference without violating solidarity.
An alternative to racism, ethnocentrism, religious bigotry and other forms of community oppression is therefore what we might call "intercommunalism" or "multiculturalism" which emphasizes respecting and preserving the multiplicity of community forms we are blessed with precisely by guaranteeing each sufficient material and social resources to confidently reproduce itself.
Not only does each culture possess particular wisdoms that are unique products of its own historical experience, but the interaction of different cultures via intercommunalist relations enhances the internal characteristics of each and provides a richness that no single approach could ever hope to attain. The point is that negative inter-community relations must be replaced by positive ones. The key is eliminating the threat of cultural extinction that so many communities feel by guaranteeing that every community has the means necessary to carry on their traditions and self definitions.
Individuals should choose the cultural communities they prefer rather than have elders or others of any description define their choice for them, particularly on the basis of prejudice. And while those outside a community should be free to criticize cultural practices that in their opinion violate humane norms, external intervention that goes beyond criticism should not be permitted except to guarantee that all members of every community have the right of dissent and to leave at no material or broader social loss.
Most important, until a lengthy history of autonomy and solidarity has overcome suspicion and fear between communities, the choice of which community should give ground in disputes between two should be determined according to which of the two is the more powerful and therefore, realistically, the least threatened.
Intercommunalism of the sort envisioned here, therefore, would make it incumbent on the more powerful community with less reason to fear domination to unilaterally begin the process of de-escalation of disputes. This simple rule is obvious and reasonable, despite being seldom practiced to date.
The goal is to create an environment in which no community will feel threatened so that each community will feel free to learn from and share with others. But given the historical legacy of negative intercommunity relations, it is delusional to believe this can be achieved overnight. Perhaps even more so than in other areas, intercommunalist relations will have to be slowly constructed, step by step, until a different historical legacy and set of behavioral expectations are established. Nor will it always be easy to decide what constitutes the "necessary means" that communities should be guaranteed for cultural reproduction, and what development free from "unwarranted outside interference" means in particular situations.
But the intercommunalist criterion for judging different views on these matters seems to me likely to be that every community should be guaranteed sufficient material and communication means to self-define and self-develop its own cultural traditions, and to represent its culture to all other communities in the context of limited aggregate means and equal rights to those means for all.
Race and Capitalism
There is nothing in capitalism’s defining institutions that says that people in one cultural community should be treated by the economy differently than people in any other any more than there is anything in capitalism’s defining institutions that says people of different heights, or with different pitch voices should be treated differently.
On the contrary, capitalism, unto itself, is what we might call an equal opportunity exploiter. If you have the requisite luck, brutality, or in rare instances talents plus the needed callousness to rise in power and income, then regardless of any cultural or biological features, you get to own and to profit, or, one notch down, you get to monopolize empowering circumstances and enjoy the fruits of being in the coordinator rather than the working class.
On the other hand, if you have none of the requisites of success in capitalism, regardless of your race, nationality, religion, etc., you get to sell yourself as a wage slave doing overwhelmingly rote and obedient work, taking orders and pocketing only small change.
The less derogatory presentation of this insight is made, for example, by the Noble prize-winning economist Milton Friedman when he says, "The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy. It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate each other to deal with one another and help one another."
The first part of Friedman’s observation is true of capitalism per se, but not of capitalism amidst people who hate each other, which makes the second part of his statement a manipulative lie.
The wrinkle in Friedman’s analysis is that capitalism is not race blind, or religion blind, or ethnicity blind, or blind to any other cultural feature whenever a society’s broader social structures outside the economy consign the holder of the feature to a subordinate cultural position or convey to them a dominant cultural position. In such cases, the economic logic of capitalism will notice the extra-economic differentials and will operate in light of them rather than ignoring them. Hate outside the economy is not overcome by capitalism, as Friedman implies, but is reproduced and enlarged by capitalism.
If racism in a society, for example, or religious bigotry, or whatever else, consigns some community to having less status and influence, then in the capitalist economy members of that community will not in general be elevated above their "superiors" but will, instead, generally be made subordinate to them. The economy will use the existing expectations of community members such as the expectation that whites are superior to blacks to enforce and even where possible to enlarge its own economic hierarchies of exploitation. It will not instead violate those external hierarchies at the potential expense of its own operations.
Thus, the capitalist employer, even one who is personally free of racist beliefs or even personally hostile to racism, will, in general, if racism is ascendant in the broader society, to that extent not hire blacks to rule over whites as managers or in other positions of relative respect and influence, but will instead hire whites over blacks. The first choice is ruled out because it risks disobedience and dissension. Capitalism, in other words, uses accustomed patterns from cultural life to enhance desired patterns inside the economy.
Similarly, if due to its cultural position a community can be paid less, it will be paid less in light of market competition to reduce costs, again even against some employer’s personal preferences.
At the same time, it is also true that to the extent that growing opposition to racism begins to make racial hierarchies discordant with expectations and desires and conducive to dissent and resistance, capitalist employers will shy away from their more overt exploitation of race but will continue to try to extract any pound of flesh that they can get away with when selling products or when buying people’s ability to work. Thus in the case of heightened opposition to racism in society, we will see a shift from Jim Crow racism to James Crow Esquire Jr. racism, as noted by Sharpton earlier.
The statistics and other accountings of racism and of other cultural oppressions and economic life are well known and well revealed in countless studies and sources. How does a desirable economy reverse such phenomena?
Race and Parecon
If a parecon exists in a society that has cultural hierarchies of race, religion, etc., what does it contribute? If it instead exists within a society that has desirable communities without hierarchies, what then? In general, does a parecon’s needs regarding its own operations impose any constraints on cultures?
Parecon provides income and circumstances inconsistent with cultural hierarchies. It tends to overthrow cultural hierarchies by the empowerment and material means that it affords to those at the bottom of any and all hierarchies.
People in a parecon won’t and indeed can’t systemically economically exploit racism and other cultural injustices. Individuals in a parecon could try to do this, of course, and they could harbor horrible attitudes, of course, but there is no mechanism for racists to accrue undo power or wealth even as individuals much less as members of some community.
If you are black or white, Latino or Italian American, Jewish or Muslim, Presbyterian or Catholic, southerner or northerner, or what have you–regardless of cultural hierarchies that may exist in the broader society, in a parecon you have a balanced job complex and a just income and self managing power over your conditions, all like everyone else. There just isn’t any lower position to be shoved into.
Lingering or even continually reproduced racism or other cultural injustices could perhaps penetrate a parecon in the role definitions of actors, but they could not do so in a manner that would bestow economic power or material wealth or economic comforts unfairly. Thus, blacks, Latinos, Asians, etc. in a transformed
Indeed, one can imagine and even anticipate that in a parecon members of minority communities in workplaces would have means to meet together in what are typically called caucuses to assess events and situations to collectively guard against racial or other denigrating dynamics that might otherwise tend to arise, or to fight against those that are present as residues from the past or as outgrowths of other spheres of social life. This would seem to be about the best one can ask of an economy regarding it obstructing the continuation or emergence of cultural injustices.
But what about parecon and desirable cultures in a desirable society? There is no reason why cultural norms established in other parts of society cannot impact economic life in a parecon and we can predict, I think, that they will. The daily practices of people from different cultural communities who have different customs, religions, ways of celebrating, and moral beliefs, could certainly differ not only in what holidays their members take off from work, say, but in their daily practices during work or consumption such as arranging periods of prayer, or disproportionately engaging in particular types of activity that are culturally proscribed or culturally preferred. There could be whole industries or sectors of the economy that members of a community would culturally avoid, as with the Amish in the
In a parecon the limits on such cultural impositions on the economy would be that the special economic needs of cultural communities would have to be consistent with the self managing desires of those outside those communities as well as of those within them.
One possibility, for example, is that in more demanding cases it might make sense for members of a workplace to nearly all be from one community so that they can easily have shared holidays, workday schedules, and norms about various daily practices that others would find impossible to abide. Self management doesn’t preclude such arrangements and may sometimes make them ideal.
Alternatively, a workplace may incorporate members of many diverse communities, as will larger and sometimes also smaller consumer units. In such cases there may be minor mutual accommodations–some members celebrate Christmas and others celebrate Hanukkah or some other holidays, and schedules are accorded–or perhaps there are more extensive accommodations having to do with more frequent differences in schedule or with other practices affecting what type work some people can undertake.
The point is, parecon’s workplaces, consumer units, and planning processes are very flexible infrastructures whose defining features are designed to be classless, but whose details can vary in endless permutations including accommodating diverse cultural impositions due to people’s community practices and beliefs.
Finally, how does parecon impose on cultures? Do the needs and requirements of the roles of worker, consumer, and planner in a parecon put limits on what practices a culture can elevate in its own internal affairs?
The answer is in some sense, yes, it does. Cultural communities in a society with a parecon cannot without great friction incorporate internal norms and arrangements that call for material advantages or great power for a few at the expense of many others.
A culture could exist, say, that would elevate some small sector of priests or artists or soothsayers, or elders, or whoever else, and that required all other members to obey them in particular respects, or to shower them with gifts, etc. But the likelihood that such a cultural community would long persist would be quite low in a parecon.
The reason is because the people involved will be spending their economic time in environments that produce inclinations for equity, solidarity, and self-management, as well as diversity, and that school them in respecting but not obeying others. Why would they then submit to inequitable conditions and skewed decision making norms in another part of their life?
Assuming that in a good society people will be free to leave cultures, and it is hard to imagine a parecon arising in a society that forbid such personal freedom, since people would have both the economic wherewithal, education, and disposition to manage themselves, we might guess that many would exercise that freedom to leave any cultural community that denied them the fruits of their labors or denied them their self managing say. That, at least, would be my expectation.
Addendum: Religion and the Left
Before closing this chapter, I would like to comment very briefly on the relation between religion and parecon and between religion and the good society.
The interface between religion and parecon adds no complications to what has been said above about relations between culture more generally and parecon. Whatever religions exist in a society that has a parecon, their members will of course be treated by the parecon just as those of every other religion and cultural community will be treated. They will have a balanced job complex, enjoy just remuneration, have self managing decision making influence, etc.
A parecon will have no economic reason or means to elevate or denigrate people on the basis of any cultural commitments they may have, nor will it be easy, or even possible, for people with hostile cultural intents to manifest them in a parecon. Likewise, there is nothing in a parecon that will militate against the economy respecting holidays and practices of particular communities within the broader framework of attaining economic cooperation. But the question of religions and a good society, as compared to the question of religions in a good society and a parecon, is more complex.
Many on the left think this combination is simply impossible. They believe that religion is intrinsically contrary to justice, equity, and particularly self management. For these critics of religion, parecon won’t interface with good religions in a good society, because in a good society there won’t be any religions at all, good or otherwise.
The anti-religion argument first looks at history and finds an endless scroll of religious violations of humane behavior–and no one can deny this sad story. Then the critics, depending on which ones we consider, may or may not go another step and look at various scriptures showing all manner of explicitly ugly prescriptions and claims. The critics may then proceed as well to highlight instances of religion obstructing reason or art, violating not only free social relations but also honesty and dignity. And finally, at their strongest the critics will claim to clinch their case by arguing that once one invests extreme powers in a god and requires of oneself and of others obedience unto those powers, it is but a short and inexorable step to counterpoising one’s own god against others’ gods and counterpoising one’s own fellow believers against believers of some other faith, and finally to moving from obedience to a god to obedience to agents of a god and finally to obedience to authorities of all kinds.
This argument, one has to admit, is not weak either in its predictive logic or its historical explanatory power or evidentiary verification, but I think it is also, in the end, overstated because it extrapolates from some religions to all religions as well as from organized authoritarian religions to spirituality of all kinds.
My own inclination is to think that a good society will have good religion rather than no religion, just as a good society will have good economics rather than no economics, good political forms rather than no political forms, and so on.
As to what shape such good religions will have–I would imagine they will vary widely and broadly, emerging from religions we now know as well as arising in original and new forms, but generally having in common a desire to establish morals and a sense of place in the universe without, however, violating the morals and the agreed roles of the rest of a just society.
I can’t even begin to say more about what that will likely look like, but though it is a bit outside the bounds of this chapter and it is certainly an area where my views are far from carefully developed and tested, still, I should like to say one more thing here about religion and the left.
In my view a movement in the U.S., and no doubt in many other countries around the world as well, in which members are dismissive and even hostile toward religion per se, much less a movement that denigrates those who are religious, is, put simply, a losing movement.
Even if one isn’t convinced oneself that a good religion in a good society will be a positive thing in many people’s lives and thinks instead that the best stance will be agnostic or even highly critical of religion in any form, and even if one is not humble enough to hold that view and yet simultaneously respect that others will differ and deserve respect in doing so, surely a serious leftist ought to be able to see that denigrating all things religious is strategically suicidal in a society as religious as the U.S. Whatever views one may have, if one wants to help build a large participatory and self managing movement, one must find a way to function at least congenially and mutually respectfully with those who celebrate and worship in a religious manner. The alternative is to close off not only religion, but a huge proportion of the population that one is presumably trying to relate to. Trying to be an organizer in the
In any event, even short of having a full convincing vision for the future cultural sphere of life, it seems we can at least deduce with rather good confidence that participatory economics will compatibly foster and benefit from such innovations, rather than obstructing them.