Reply to Marko Re Vision…

Marko has two large reasons for not only disliking my advocacy of parecon and vision in general, but for thinking that such advocacy by myself and others is downright harmful. Moreover, these reasons are not unique to Marko, but prevent a great many anarchists and libertarian activists from even looking at proposed visions, much less working on creating, elaborating, or advocating them. I therefore much appreciate Marko enunciating his reasons so clearly and openly, and Indymedia UK publishing them online.

The first reason Marko offers is that pursuing vision can’t yield useful results. We can’t generate worthy vision because we don’t know enough about humans and social institutions. Pursuing vision inevitably oversteps existing or even possible knowledge.

The second reason Marko offers is that to produce vision is an elitist undertaking, likely dominated by a narrow group of elite figures. Moreover, it will replace and otherwise obstruct the truly essential process of having movement aims emerge from the widest possible practice and participation.

To be very clear – I agree with Marko that IF thinking about, presenting, debating, elaborating, refining, and finally advocating vision is (a) ignorant and futile, and (b) elitist and likely to impede essential popular processes, then no one should do it. But I think both these claims are false.

First, can vision have merit and be useful?

I and others claim that movements need compelling descriptions of central institutions for various parts of social life for two central reasons.

(1) We need vision to inspire hope against cynicism.

People who think there is no alternative to capitalism, racism, sexism, and authoritarianism, will often see entreaties to fight these ills the way we see entreaties to blow against the wind or to fight gravity or aging: as being a fool’s errand. They know these systems oppress us, but they take them as inevitable and they see our opposition as futile. They tell us to grow up, face reality, get a life. It is what we might say to someone telling us to join their movement against aging. Vision can provide reason for struggle and the absence of vision clearly causes hopelessness. 

(2) We need vision to provide insight for criticizing and transcending ill conceived aims and strategy as well as to orient our own strategies so that they lead where we desire to wind up, rather than causing us to wind up somewhere we would rather never have gone.

Movement struggle isn’t undertaken simply for the sake of struggle, nor even to be able to face ourselves in the mirror, nor to fight the good fight. We engage in struggle to win liberation by way of changing structures and relations in society. But what changes should we seek, and by what means?

Vision can help us see how our modes of organizing and reaching out, how our values and analyses, and how our organizations and demands fit into a trajectory of change taking society in a new direction. In contrast, lacking vision and lacking analysis of how our acts tend to propel movements and institutions in new directions, there is every possibility we will go in circles or will create great change that leads to new systems barely better or even worse than those we now endure.

If vision exists but is held privately, and if it fact celebrates oppressive ends, of course the danger is even greater. But if we have publicly and widely shared and regularly updated visions, and if we understand the necessity that our daily, weekly, and yearly tactical and strategic choices should embody and lead toward our visions, then the likelihood that our movements will take society to draconian ends or even to other than the ends we seek, will be greatly reduced.

Second, regarding process, I and others who urge the need for vision claim that arriving at vision needs to be a public, open, transparent process. The idea is for visions that bear on different sides of life to be offered, debated, etc. They must be presented clearly and made easily available. They need to disseminate widely, if worthy, so that they are finally owned by whole movements, including having been refined and adapted, rejected or accepted, and continually modified in light of collective lessons with everyone understanding their logic and able to contribute to their refinement and advocacy. We claim that if this type of broad and open interaction and shared result doesn’t occur, then, as in the past, the rank and file membership of movements will aspire to wonderful values while leaders will tend to hold essentially secret aims that are horribly contrary.

My disagreement with Marko should be clear. I think people can conceive worthy vision and that it can help us in diverse ways. And I think the process of conception, debate, refinement, and advocacy can be open and collective – and indeed, that it will only be that if it is undertaken, of course.

Okay, so disputing these arguments, Marko quotes me saying that “the advocates of long term vision aren’t looking for everyone to conceive and advocate institutional alternatives for a new society, we are only arguing that some people ought to do it.” He fails to note, however, that in context this particular statement is pointing out that while I think it is important for people to do vision, I am not saying it is the only important thing people can do so that everyone ought to drop everything else to do it.

I repeatedly urge that we need vision for economics, politics, culture, and kinship – and probably regarding narrower domains as well. We don’t need (nor could anyone sensibly produce) blueprints, but we do need broad vision that encompasses key defining institutions. It ought to be utterly obvious that of course not everyone is going to work on first drafts of such visions, nor is any one person likely to work seriously on visions for every domain. That seems evident. But Marko fails to note that I also repeatedly point out that those who do work on offering vision have a responsibility to set out their views in clear and straightforward language so that broad movements and indeed, if after refinement the visions prove worthy of it, the whole public can assess, revise, or reject them, as the case may be.

What Marko is upset by is setting vision to paper. He thinks it should emerge from activity without having percolated through minds and unto pages with authors. It is as though if something gets written down it means it didn’t arise from collective insight. Why is that?

Take Parecon…the economic vision that I advocate. Yes, it was first written down by two people. But it is of course a distillation and presentation of insights gleaned by looking at a century of practice as well as via direct participation in a few decades of practice, including not only movement opposition but also the creation of alternative institutions. Writing down ideas that emerge from all that, after thinking long and hard about them and their presentation, is but a little tiny step in a long long process. And what that tiny step does, in fact, is to facilitate subsequent debate and discussion, not curb it. What would curb debate and discussion, is to have vision or anything else written only in abstruse academic language, or to have it not written at all, but only discussed by narrow circles in their private enclaves. But to work aggressively for the widest possible presentation fosters the collective participation Marko rightly desires.

So I wonder why Marko fails to mention that I repeatedly urge that if vision isn’t being set out for public debate and assessment, then it will exist privately in the hands of a few, as has been the case in the past. The choice is not for movements to have some vision or to have no vision — because we know there will be vision. The choice is whether to have vision that is widely and openly assessed and owned, or vision that resides only in the hands of a few — a Vanguard. How does publishing and disseminating vision proposals curtail debate about vision, I wonder?

So what is Marko’s case. First, Marko says that we can’t answer questions about what we want because “our knowledge of human nature and the massive complexity of human societies do not permit us to answer that question satisfactorily.”

Maybe that is so, contrary to my beliefs, but if it is so, then Marko and others should have no trouble showing how Participatory Economics, or, for that matter, any vision offered for economics or for any other sphere of social life — polity, culture, kinship — overextend our knowledge and flimsily fall apart when scrutinized. That would be a compelling thing for Marko to provide, but he doesn’t.

Yes, I agree that if someone were to put forth some kind of gigantic detailed blueprint asserting that every feature was perfectly conceived and essential, it would not only overextend what we can plausibly foresee, it would also be an act of gargantuan hubris, which, if unchecked, might well cut off exploration to everyone’s detriment.

But for us to say here is our alternative to private ownership of productive property, to markets, to corporate divisions of labor, and to remuneration for property and power — here is our alternative to capitalist economics — isn’t to go too far, I believe.

But how can we determine that it doesn’t go too far?

Well, one possibility is when someone puts forward such an alternative publicly, Marko and others could look at it, think on it, and indicate where it is making unwarranted or even outrageous assumptions that transcend our knowledge. But, if they can’t find such problems, then shouldn’t they be pleased that it is possible to generate vision, and shouldn’t they turn to the problem of how to have movement members participate in elaborating and utilizing worthy vision, both to rally interest and support and to orient strategy, rather than having only tiny groups monopolize vision.

But Marko says, a priori, that we can’t do it. He doesn’t’ say he has an intuition that we probably can’t do it. He asserts that no one should even try.

It is Marko, in other words, who is saying I know something – that human nature and society are too complex for vision to be anything but hubris — and because of this knowledge that I assert without even a sentence of justification for the claim, I know that anyone who dares to try to answer such questions must be foolish or ill motivated. Marko doesn’t care to look at what is offered to see its merits or its failings. He knows, a priori. Moreover, he tells everyone else they should have the same dismissive attitude toward vision. I agree that someone in this exchange is overstepping the bounds of what people currently know, but I think it is Marko.

Marko quotes me saying…”if we have long term economic vision, however, we can say…here is how we could accomplish economic productivity and distribution in a new society without profit seeking and without markets. Here are viable economic institutions that can accomplish production and allocation…”

He replies “Notice that this is something Albert, and others, cannot achieve.” He tells us that “to do so we need a detailed social theory; of how human nature and our innate sociality enables us to formulate complex societies and the manner in which we do so. No such social theory has been formulated, and is even near being formulated. It is highly likely that it’s not in principle something that humans can formulate.”

Okay, this is a viewpoint. The key to it is the assertion that offering up a worthy vision has as a prerequisite possessing a master social theory, which prerequisite can’t be met. Of course this is just an assertion — there is no argument showing why such level of comprehension is required — but, okay, it is on the table.

I reply that there is no such need. One can develop a broad vision of defining institutions in various spheres of life without having an all powerful theory of humans or of social institutions. We need have some understanding of social institutions and of people, yes, of course,  but not omniscience by any means.

Isn’t my reply just as much a statement without evidence as Marko’s claim. Yes, except I do on to say…here is parecon, a vision for economics. Let’s test your claims and mine. If you are right, Marko, you should be able to show, quite easily, where parecon relies impossible to know things, where it ignorantly oversteps realism, and thus why what I have offered is horribly flawed. But Marko doesn’t bother to do this. He feels he doesn’t even need to look at parecon or any other vision. He can say — without looking — all vision is beyond our ken.

Well, okay, I guess he is entitled to that opinion. But I wonder where the real hubris lies. Is it me, saying that it is critically important for folks to utilize our best accumulated insights about social institutions and human needs and capacities to work on and then to offer vision, clearly and openly for movements to assess it, test it, refine it, reject it, or advocate it? Or is it Marko saying no, no one should do that, because I know it won’t work and it will be elitist?

Marko has some more arguments to offer. He says a vision offered with the best of intentions can lead to horrible outcomes. That’s true enough. But the solution isn’t for there to be no vision, or, more likely, a vision only held by those insensitive to the problems of power and hierarchy. The solution is for there to be open, continually challenged and improved vision.

Moreover, in the grotesque cases of anti-capitalist movements yielding horrible subsequent relations that Marko alludes to, it wasn’t libertarian vision that was at fault. In fact, those movements got what they sought: one party states and coordinator ruled economies. The movement rank and file wanted real liberation, to be sure, but the guiding concepts and vision of their movements led elsewhere, not by mistake or by accident, but because that’s where they were aimed. The injustices of the past aren’t an argument for anarchists and others to forego vision — leaving it, again, to those with less liberatory intentions. They are an argument to grab hold of vision, challenge it, refine it, advocate it widely, and make it the property of everyone in our movements.

Marko notes that I admit, in fact that I assert that even without vision we are warranted in struggling against injustice. True, I do. But I add that without vision we are far less compelling and insightful about our own choices than we would be with vision. The question isn’t should someone who asks us, what do you want? and who gets no answer immediately join our movements anyway, out of pure oppositional energy. The question is what do we do about the fact that most people won’t rush to join a visionless movement and will instead be hindered by their doubts of any alternative better world being attainable. I think what we should do is produce worthy, collectively tested and refined, widely shared, compelling vision.

Next Marko says parecon was first put to paper by two folks. How can what two folks wrote be seriously proposed as a vision for a country, or many countries, or a world, he wonders? Well, if something offered were to be jammed down the throats of humanity, that would be horrendous, of course. But that something is offered for evaluation and refinement, is different. Yes, two people put the proposed vision to paper, but a century and more of activists labored and analyzed to arrive at the accumulated insights that informed the effort.

Marko says vision won’t come from the populations of poor countries, or communities. I don’t know how he knows this. But even if it was true…it would be all the more reason for those in other parts of the world or in communities who were, for whatever reason, able to do so, to offer vision openly and clearly — rather than to hold it close to the vest until implementation time. But the fact is, as I never tire of indicating, generating vision doesn’t require elaborate tools or resources. Nor does it require particularly great knowledge. The only hard part is delinking oneself from the familiar, and, I have to say, overcoming opposition to even trying.

Marko says, “For Michael Albert everything is to be participatory except the vision itself; I want to live in a society where I have decided its contours in free association with others. I don’t want to live in a society whose detailed architecture has been drawn up by ‘some people’.

I can’t for the life of me understand why someone, anyone, putting forth in print a proposal for a vision – and doing so clearly and in simple language, and urging the need for widespread discussion and refinement, and trying to provoke and facilitate that, and noting that if what is offered is shown unworthy, folks should go back to the drawing board, and noting that the only vision that matters is vision that goes through wide assessment and becomes collectively elaborated and advocated by participatory and freely associating movements — is somehow doing something inconsistent with Marko’s wish. Marko, your deciding the contours in free association with others doesn’t require and isn’t even abetted by no one ever setting out in print proposed visions. It would be hurt by that, in fact.

Marko says, “Anarcho-Syndicalism demands that the detailed thinking about a future economy is to be decided by the liberated working class itself, not by a prior group of intellectuals. That is working class “self-emancipation.”

When should working people start deliberating the issues – after their councils are obliterated by leaders with a vision contrary to their interests? Certainly not. Okay, then how about their doing so as early as possible in the development of movements and struggle? Isn’t that facilitated by vision being set forth clearly and openly?

Marko feels that a vision like Parecon will only be discussed by intellectuals and will be their property, inevitably. Ironically, with this particular vision, parecon, getting “intellectuals” to pay attention at all is almost impossible. And the reason is evident: the vision eliminates the class perks that some intellectuals hold dear. Parecon is the antithesis of a program for what I call the coordinator class, including elite academics.

Finally, I hope others will look at parecon and other offered visions for themselves. My great worry, a kind of ironic flip side of Marko’s concerns, is that most anti-authoritarians will continue to forego attention to vision, for Marko’s reasons or others, and as a result, like in past years vision will be conceived by people with far less concern about power and hierarchy who then hold their vision privately and  implement it over the far more liberatory aspirations of whole movements.


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