PPS-UK: what should it be?
Discussion of details sometimes lead to bigger issues. Recently, there has been some discussion in the PPS-UK about what decision-making procedures we should use, for example when national issues arise. How do we decide whether to affiliate with a national campaign? This led to a discussion of who should be able to vote in the PPS-UK, which in turn led to the idea that voting members should agree to organise around some more specific ideas and aims than we have at present in our basic organising framework,
and maybe to some other conditions. Finally this led to a discussion about what the PPS-UK is actually supposed to be, and how this impacts on what we demand of full members. People had different conceptions about this in the London chapter at least. Below, I lay down my own personal take on this issue to help facilitate discussion. If you don't feel like wading through the motivation, skip the first few sections.
Where I am Coming From
During the Iraq war I started to notice a lot of inconsistencies in the official line, and the reporting of it, and this led me to sites like Z communications and media lens. These days, my basic take on things is informed by figures such as Chomsky, Zinn, Albert and Hahnel, the libertarian socialist tradition, and some of the ideas that came out of the more recent struggles around globalisation and so on.
For everybody, the decision to joining a group committed to radical social change depends on personal circumstances and probably emotional predisposition. But, basically, I consider it a very reasonable thing to do given the facts. For example, the fact that today's political parties must first and foremost court big donors rather than voters. Or the fact that, in the world's media corporations, pressures of ownership, advertising, information sourcing and flak campaigns put profit at odds with accuracy. Or that, while around 36 million people a year die from hunger and malnutrition, about 1% of the world's military budget could make sure that everyone is fed, clothed, sheltered and educated to an adequate level, according to UN estimates. These and hundred other such facts, combined together with the most elementary reasoning, form the basis of the radical progressive worldview. They are better evidenced, if anything, than some of the most easily accepted facts, for instance that dinosaurs existed. And as in that case, presented with the facts only an ideological zealot could deny them. The only difference is that the interests of the powerful contradict the easy flow of this knowledge. Therefore, to be radical is to be reasonable, in my view.
Power never gave up anything without a fight. Ultimately, campaigns that seek to raise the costs of opposing social change to powerful elites, to the point where they are forced to back down, have often been effective. Without radical action of this sort, or the threat of it, almost all of the of the reforms we enjoy (things like having a weekend for example) would never have been won. And, although revolution has led to some bad, and some terrible, results (although in some places, and in some aspects like economic growth, not half as bad as we are led to believe) each time that a great number of people overthrow the existing order we gain new insights into how to arrange the underlying institutions of society in order live in accord with our values.
This is a condensed version of why I wanted to be part of "the social justice movement" and take an anticapitalist and anti-authoritarian stance. I want to be part of a social justice group so that I can play my part in positive social change. I'd like to be in a group that speaks the truth about the roles of capital and government, and helps to draw people to greater levels of understanding, empowerment and activity, wherever it was that they started from. My ideal group would also play its part in winning changes by their own actions, both to gain momentum towards greater gains and to help to spread the message of the group.
Why the PPS-UK?
I have been involved (to a greater or lesser extent) in the PPS-UK since for about 4 years. The three issues that primarily attracted me to the PPS-UK, rather than to other existing groups, were the following:
(1) Albert's no nonsense talk (in articles and books such as "Trajectory for Change") about the issues facing the social justice movement, such as disconnection of activists from the general community, unhelpful motivations (such as defining our own identities rather than working for real change) impeding our ability to win battles, and so on. The idea of reaching out to new people with a fresh, accessible, positive message and minimal dogma and jargon seemed very positive and a sharp contrast to some anti-capitalist groups.
However, the PPS-UK represents more than a "re-branding" of libertarian socialism.
(2) The innovative approach to radical social theory embodied in the work of Albert and Hahnel. Must I constantly refer back to Marx's "Capital" (or whatever other old book) in order to be an effective anti-capitalist? By way of analogy, consider the work of Newton, the most important intellectual figure at the genesis of what we call modern physics. If a group of physicists started calling themselves "Newtonists", endlessly referred back to Newton's original works, urged others to do so, and spent a lot of time attempting to show that Newton did have something worthwhile to say on this or that current issue, or trying to divine exactly what Newton thought (or would have thought) about some detail of theory, they would be laughed out of town, and quite rightly so. All the more so if they stuck to outmoded parts of Newton's thought that had since been made obsolete. As far as I can see, all of the reasons for this apply equally well to Marx — if anything there are even more reasons in this case. I was glad to see the PPS-UK taking a non-dogmatic and critical attitude, and organising around a more up-to-date, accessible and just plain better theory.
(3) I also like the decentralised nature of the PPS and its willingness to allow different currents which focus on different things and have different opinions, and to work closely with other groups in the same spirit. This endorsement of "solidarity with autonomy" is a prime reason to prefer the PPS-UK over groups who practice Leninist "democratic centralism" and don't allow different currents. Some may argue that you should join the biggest anticapitalist party to get "unity". But the movement will always be full of differences of opinion and diverse priorities — and that's a good thing. My take on it is that disallowing currents inside a party in the name of "unity" is the surest way to destroy whatever unity we might be able to achieve. Why turn a particular practical idea, made up by somebody organising in Tzarist Russia, into an inviolable principle for all time? This may suit people who want to build a clique or preserve a special leadership role, but not those that are clear-mindedly focused on winning positive social change. The fact that the proponents of democratic centralism are fragmented into 57 varieties, sometimes vocally opposed to each other, should make this obvious, and the bitter experiences passed on to me by many older members of the movement only add to my impressions here.
(4) Following on from its primary inspirational figures, another big focus of the PPS-UK is vision. This was maybe a less important draw for me than for some members, but still very significant for me. I do agree that the issue gets way less attention than it deserves, that it can be a new driving force behind strategy, and that parecon is the best thing on the table as far as economics goes. I like the 4-spheres model of society as a useful tool for activism, bearing in mind that, in a particular society at a particular time, the action of some sphere(s) might be more decisive than others for the achievement of positive social change.
PPS-UK: what shouldn't it be?
Here are a few things I don't think the PPS-UK should be (not that anyone is suggesting these alternatives, but to give some extremes within which to debate).
(1) A pressure group for parecon, participatory society, holistic "four-spheres" theory and strategy, whose sole purpose is reaching out to other radical progressives who are already interested in fundamental social change.
This to me is a very limited goal. Much of the work that the PPS-UK has done in its early days took this character, largely because the group still needed to attract membership, but this shouldn't be the end of the story. For me, the PPS-UK has to try to appeal more widely and act more visibly too. Any group that is failing to connect with people outside their own circles is in trouble. Any group that doesn't even attempt to do this in any effective way has lost the plot completely.
However, especially while the group is small and our ideas are not widely known, I understand that there's a good reason why this kind of activity takes up a lot of our time.
(2) An umbrella group for everyone that is interested some minimal core set of principles, be it simply progressive social change, anticapitalism, or willingness getting involved in grassroots participatory structures that will replace old political and economic forms.
This seems like (a) a big challenge, (b) a bit of a contradiction with pushing our knowledge/vision/strategy package and (c) presumptuously taking on a role that other organisations are bound to take part in. I think it is hard to reconcile pushing our theoretical package and taking in all-comers. It's also unrealistic to expect to envelop the whole social justice movement, let alone whilst sticking to our guns on everything in that package. We may optimistically imagine a time when a significant portion of radicals, or even of people in general, are organised in PPS chapters, but that is quite some way away at best. Inviting all-comers in at this early stage doesn't work as a strategy. Even if such a time does come, it is certain that other organisations with a claim to grassroots popular support will exist as well, filling various gaps in worker, neighbourhood and issue-based organising. Finally, there is little point in inventing a new group for this purpose (at least without the debate and involvement of a much wider selection of activists).
As I commented already, people have varied opinions and priorities. If we endorse a particular package of ideas (and I think we should) we can't expect all anticapitalists in the UK to join up, let alone wider society. As far as being the "seeds of a future society", I agree that we should be a model of good participatory organising, but not that the end-game should necessarily be PPS-UK chapters forming all of the councils of a new polity. Who knows who things will play out. There are already resident's committees, unions (the rank-and-file movements in the regular unions, and the syndicalists), some assemblies and other political groups around that may fill such roles. The PPS-UK should form a current in the social justice movement. We should seek to draw others to our ideas but we shouldn't expect or even desire to absorb the whole thing. As far as building such a movement goes, the most valuable thing we can do is to push our strategy for how the social justice movement interacts within itself.
My picture of the PPS-UK
If it was up to me, here's what I'd like the PPS-UK to be like.
(1) The participatory ideas toolbox: It should be a group that endorses, promotes, and acts on the participatory theory/vision/strategy package. Members should be people who agree to organise around this package.
There is not very much out there in the UK in terms of New Left organising. There are gaps in thinking that need to be filled and debilitating old ideas that need to be transcended. The PPS-UK needs to plug this gap. I think this is what the founding members intended with the founding documents we have now (without wishing to sound like a tea-partier!), and is what we all signed up to, although maybe this should be clarified.
(2) Part of the Movement: It should form a current inside and strongly connected to the larger social justice movement.
(3) Solidarity with autonomy: It should allow different priorities amongst members, and different opinions within the package of ideas we organise around. One of the strengths of the holistic theory is that is room in the framework for this. We should even allow currents that seek to alter the package in the light of new evidence and ideas (with a high degree of agreement). As just one part of the movement, commitment to a specific "new left" package of ideas is not in contradiction to solidarity with autonomy.
(4) Outward-looking attitude: As a group we should explicitly seek not to be dogmatic, jargon-laden, inward-looking, overly academic in approach, cliquey or culturally divorced from most people (I think we're doing comparatively well on this so far, even though we have a few new words for people to learn…).
Here's what I'd like to see the PPS-UK doing at the present moment in history:
(1) We should be promoting our ideas, within radical groups (e.g. anti-capitalists, feminist groups especially socialist-feminist groups, etc.), within the wider movement, and in the wider community. The aim should be to draw people inwards through these groups to greater levels of involvement, knowledge and empowerment. I think that the outward-looking attitude mentioned above gives as a critical advantage for us in outreach work. Different approaches are required for all these groups, but the substance of the message can be appealing to people from many different backgrounds.
(2) We should consciously try to empower members with less experience or confidence, and put in place norms and rules of thumb that allow this to happen when necessary. We should consciously nurture a space for critical debate while maintaining a supportive and positive atmosphere in the group (avoiding unnecessary personal criticism, remembering to say if we think someone has done a good job of something etc.) and put in place rules to help this to happen where necessary.
(3) We should act to move society towards ParSoc, by engaging with resistance and reform campaigns, and with alternative institutions that prefigure ParSoc.
(a) Duel membership will help us to make connections, spread ideas and strengthen our own organisation. This could be with issue-based reform campaigns (e.g. anti-sweatshop, environmental, anti-poverty, feminist reform groups), groups that exist to protest member interests (unions, residents associations and even credit unions) and other political groups.
(b) Alignment with umbrellas like the Coalition of Resistance may be a good idea, where we should press for more openness, member participation in decision-making, and toleration of different currents who nonetheless work together as closely as possible. As long as such groups organise somewhere close to our ideals we can be involved (I won't try to define the line at which we must withdraw support).
(c) We should unashamedly endorse and argue for the most successful path of resistance, which is changing the facts on the ground. That means: making it easier for oppressed groups to act for themselves, and experience empowerment and solidarity; making it harder for elites to reap benefits from injustice, hopefully to an intolerable level that forces their hand. No social justice campaign ever got anywhere without this.
(3) and(2) are both integral to (1): the message is more attractive if backed up by actions and example. Besides this, socially concerned people involved in reform campaigns, or worried by issues such as cuts, austerity or war, are likely to be receptive to what we are saying. Further, being involved in reform campaigns is a crucial part of the actions of any social justice group. What relevance do we have if we do not speak to the concerns of ordinary people in our neighbourhoods and communities? We cannot hope to win wider support without this. This means advocating for worthy reforms and resistance against regressive measures even as we point towards the larger goal of the participatory society. The two things go hand in hand. Those familiar with the problems of the current society are one step closer to identifying root causes and acting to replace them.
As well as advocating for our more specific package of views, the PPS would be strengthened by awareness of facts and analysis present in the movement for radical social change (again, dual membership helps here). After all, we know that information on such topics is not presented fairly in the media and elsewhere due to systematic pressures. So we are already expecting that many unexamined assumptions of our own will need to be overturned by further critical analysis. For example, the more we understand about the history of social change the better able we'll be to choose our actions. The more we understand about the views of other social justice groups (whether we come to agree with them or not) the better we'll be able to interact with them and modify our own stances. This means that, say, before anyone who was attracted to the group on more economic grounds concludes that radical feminists "might have gone too far", it's necessary to read about it in their own words and learn from people who know more about the issues.
Back to the original question. Who the group is meant to include is an important an issue discussed above, and so membership requirements are clearly an issue. Membership infers right to vote in the Chapters, and as we expand our structures, at regional and national levels. It also gives right to organise projects, I think. Non-members wouldn't be doing website maintenance or leaflet writing for the group, for instance.
I think that the main requirement for membership should be that the individual agrees to organise around a specific document that broadly adheres to the knowledge/vision/strategy package of ideas mentioned above, something like the IOPS statement. For now I think we should keep dues voluntary but strongly suggest that people pay 2 quid a month if they are low income, a fiver if they have a reasonable job (comparatively speaking of course — few if any jobs available are really reasonable!) and 10 or 15 or more if they are co-ordinator class.
At present I don't support any other restrictions. As far as knowledge etc. goes I think that instead of requirements at the outset we should put in place the means to gain knowledge easily. We should build up our own system of workshops, teach-ins and perhaps "mentoring'' or "buddies'' (is there no word for this that does not sound horrible?). People can self-select on this basis whether they are ready to organise around our ideas. And as for involvement I think attending more than one or maybe two meetings should be enough to vote.
People who don't know the package of ideas well enough to endorse it, or choose not to organise around it for other reasons, can still be "supporters", who would come to workshops and events, meet socially with members, be part of any PPS groups at protests and do any of the knowledge building exercises we set up (any of course donate if they wanted to!). They wouldn't come to executive meetings unless they wanted to sit in. But massive effort should go into further involving these people. Better to generate one new member than to save time and do it yourself only to have to do it again on your own next time. On the other hand, agreeing to the statement would confer full membership immediately. At worst, I suppose you might say that you have to attend one or two meetings before you can vote.
Like I said, I think all the organising up until now has been very promising, and it's been amazing to me to see the great efforts that founding members put into getting the thing up and running.
However, I do feel that, even with our limited numbers, we could do more in terms of general outreach and networking. Our numbers could and should be growing more quickly, and this signifies that we should change something to me. This is issue of outreach is crucially important. Getting out there at events and protests with the leaflets and the cards, producing attractive and accessible literature, getting into dual membership, and so on, will make a real difference to this I hope.
As one example, I think that insufficient effort was put into keeping hold of new people that we met at the time of the Michael Albert tour, even considering our limited numbers and so on — not that I am saying I personally did any better than any other member in this regard. An encouraging e-mail here, or a message on the site there, or offers to talk about the PPS-UK informally, or continuing informal and larger events… Not all of these things require much time or effort, just a conscious commitment and a bit of organisation. These are things we can improve on next time.
Hopes for 2011
The current political climate in the UK is dire, but also fraught with energy for radical dissent. I hope that in the coming months we make the most of this crucial times, forging links with other groups who are reaching out so actively right now for help, support and ideas. I also hope we manage to mobilise some people who are new to the movement, and bring ourselves new members, get hits on the website, and get people talking about our ideas. I also hope we are able to reach out to worried and outraged people who have never been involved with politics, and let them know that there are people they can work together with to win some control and dignity in their lives, and maybe to turn over the current agenda and win one big step on the way towards a bossless society.