What is Real Utopia?

Real Utopia: 
Participatory Society for the 21st  Century

Paper Back
ISBN: 9781904859789
Publisher/Buy: AK Press

UTOPIAS HAVE A LONG, mixed history in Left movements. Sometimes they have propelled our imagination  toward what better worlds might look like. Other times they have trumpeted heaven on earth, a world for angels rather than mortals, a far fetched leap to the impossible, where birds can play guitar and human beings are able to flap their arms to fly. Utopia, the word, has its origins in Greek, meaning "nowhere," suggesting that it doesn’t—and maybe cannot—exist. Still, it has been conceived as an island perfectly designed in all ways societal and moral, and an ideal place or state of being where no wrong can be done. Where utopia offers vision escaping reality it has rightly been rejected by serious Leftists. But even when vision is not pie in the sky, objections are made that any long-term goals can become a blueprint that carries inherent danger of authoritarianism with people reacting as spellbound children naively following the Pied Piper. In this book,1 we hope to transcend all such problems by drawing from history and real-world conditions, offering vision and strategy for what is possible in transforming society’s defining institutions and in revolutionizing human existence in all spheres of life.


 The book’s contributors are a diverse range of novice and veteran activists, organizers, writers, and intellectuals. The content is derived from and addresses many different regions of the world: from Africa, Asia, and Europe, as well as North and South America. Real Utopia addresses politics, economics, gender, sexuality, parenting, culture, race, education, technology, ecology, cities and architecture, art, history, theory and practice, as well as institutions and movements. Taken together the content shows how classlessness, self-management, diversity, and solidarity are all desirable and attainable. "Another world is possible!" does not have to be a vague claim never solidifying compelling visions of a better world, nor a demand glossing over the structural roots of capitalism, patriarchy, racism, imperialism, and un-sustainability. Instead we need and should want convincing vision and strategy that reaches into the roots of today’s problems and seeks to replace them with emancipatory alternatives. The proposals in this book are only partial, and require effort by all who care, to further develop and refine mutually agreed upon and widely shared vision of a future participatory society and world.



Where Does this Book Come From? Why Now?


We want to attain victory in the 21st Century and luckily for us 21st Century movements are born with a silver spoon in our mouths in so far as we are poised to draw from the wealth of experience offered by Classical and New Left revolutionaries who have come before us. We do not have to reinvent their wheel. Nor do we have to repeat their mistakes. We hope to leave behind our forbearers’ baggage but carry forward their wisdom and courage. Our efforts are made easier by both the gains previous struggles have won as well as their previous failures. We owe it to our forbearers, ourselves, and future generations to carry past progress forward to victory. So where do we start in this new century, to identify what still needs to be done, un-done, and redone? When looking back, we only need to turn to a period as recent as last century when movements that sought to change the world were predominantly concerned with class struggle and transformation of the economic system. Class was considered by many as the lone focus that could yield progressive social change. This conception was held by many on the Left and articulated primarily by orthodox Marxists. And though the 60s and 70s saw the emergence of "neo-Marxists," even these variations on Marxism still emphasized a core of economics with class struggle being the driving force of history and society.


In the last third of the 20th Century many social movements arose whose principle concerns were in other spheres of social life including the women’s and gay liberation movements, and the civil rights and Third World national liberation struggles. These movements did not fit so easily into Marxist conceptual frameworks, at least not without considerable overhaul, with results yielding something little resembling the old Marxism. For those of us concerned with societal transformation and emancipation, the best of these New Left efforts yielded new social formations, experiences, and insights which some in turn used to inform their vision and strategy. The worst of this period, despite being rightly disillusioned with deterministic and mechanical approaches toward social change, wrongly jettisoned emancipatory aspirations and attempts to seek out understandings guiding us to a better future; and in some cases even consciously rejected truth, reason, and rationality, claiming these concepts were actually part of the problem (post-modernism).


In line with the best of this period, one approach retaining much value for today’s social movements, and prefiguring the kind of thinking that people will need to use to reach a future good society, was articulated first in the book Liberating Theory2 (SEP, 1986) collectively authored by Michael Albert, Leslie Cagan, Noam Chomsky, Robin Hahnel, Mel King, Lydia Sargent, and Holly Sklar. As the book’s description says, the authors attempted to "…combine and transcend various theories of history (marxism, anarchism, feminism, and nationalism) to develop an alternative conceptual framework…." And apply "this framework to questions of economics, politics, gender, race, and culture for… understanding society and strategizing its transformation."3


This conceptual re-working, largely a response to overly mechanical and economistic approaches of the past, offers today’s movements insight to draw from, however, we should avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water. Class analysis is something offered by Classical and New Left anti-capitalist theory to understand society and history. Yet, class analyses is largely absent among today’s social movements, and to the extent that it is present, is usually a variation not straying too far from classical two-class economic determinism. Oddly, the forward moving debates about class analysis in the 60s and 70s, which saw many reformulations and innovations (albeit some better than others), has been largely set aside. One such debate, mostly overlooked at the time and since, was captured in Between Labor and Capital, a book organized around the lead essay "The Professional-Managerial Class" by Barbara and John Ehrenreich.4 The Professional-Managerial Class (PMC), as the Ehrenreichs saw it, was a third class between capitalists and workers with its own relations and interests. 5 The PMC approach differed from popular notions of the "middle class," in that it saw this third class as being structurally as important as capitalists and workers. The PMC as the Ehrenreichs describe it, includes doctors, managers, "cultural workers," teachers, and others who do largely conceptual and empowering work. The PMC thus differs from capitalists who own and control society’s productive assets, as well as from workers who do mostly manual labor on assembly lines, agricultural work, sales, busing tables, etc. The relations and antagonisms between these three classes persist and, according to the Ehrenreichs, cause us to need to consider "the historical alternative of a society in which mental and manual work are re-united to create whole people."6 What is consequential, but rarely if ever stated, is that, this insight provides a framework for envisioning how work can be re-organized for a classless society where the division of labor is balanced for both empowerment and desirability.


Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel made their own contribution to the same book, "A Ticket to Ride: More Locations on the Class Map," where they first outlined their proposal for a three-class analysis introducing what they call the "Coordinator Class," thereby laying the groundwork for what would become their vision of a classless and participatory economic system. Paraphrasing Albert and Hahnel’s essay, the Coordinator Class, like the PMC, is positioned above workers who do rote and un-empowering tasks, who want higher wages, better working conditions, more control over their work, etc., and below capitalists who own the means of production and want to lower wages while extracting more labor and progressively weaken the bargaining power of workers in order to gain more profit. Standard two-class analysis, concerned mostly with class struggle as the propelling force shaping society and history, not only abstracts away core concerns of divers racial and ethnic groups, gender and sexuality, as well as power and political considerations, but also, ironically, overlooks strategic actors within its own realm of economics: the coordinator class. On the one hand, coordinators have authority and power over workers. They do mostly empowering and conceptual work, and so benefit from their elite position. On the other hand, workers below them do mostly rote and executionary work. This matters, not only in the unjust distribution of desirable work, but also in so far as the kinds of work we do help shape and inform our skills and capacities for decision-making and participation both in our work places as well as in the institutions of society more broadly. Again, the thrust of this recognition pushes towards seeking classlessness, not only regarding ownership relations, but also relations of power and empowerment. This in turn bears upon how social movements perceive their own organizational structures today as well as regarding what we seek to win. Standing fast in seeking a classless society necessitates holding a modern day three-class analysis highlighting relations between workers, coordinators, and capitalists. Putting a three-class analysis in the conceptual tool box of today’s social movements is only one of the many tasks critical to developing widely shared vision and strategy for the kind of classless and participatory society proposed in this book.


Another change indicative of our times is that today’s social movements are seemingly much more adept at relating to one another than in the past, not just by avoiding conflicts among movements and not compromising the needs and interests of any for others, but by positively acknowledging and accepting diverse concerns and strategies, and acting out of solidarity. However, this is more due to intuition and lingering gains made by the New Left than to any explicit and widely shared understanding of autonomy, mutual aid, and solidarity for societal transformation.


There is also another difference today that makes having widely shared vision and strategy for a new world necessary. Here in the U.S., across North America, Western Europe, and in many parts of the world, the passion for radical societal transformation is not present in our social movements. We are not excited about the prospects of human liberation, of fundamentally altering society’s core defining institutions—of Revolution. Where is this passion among today’s movements? Does the international anti-corporate globalization movement have a widely shared desire not only to fundamentally transform corporate hierarchies, markets, class structures, and property relations, but also to develop complementary vision and strategy regarding emancipatory transformation in other spheres of life? Where is this desire among our anti-war, labor, or other social movements? Does anyone believe, as they should, that we can transcend the policies and institutions which warp our society in racist, sexist, and classist ways?


To illustrate the point, consider Venezuela. The Venezuelan population is excited about the massive structural reforms leading them to more control over the institutions which affect their lives. Nobody knows where it will lead. It could all unravel and fall apart next month. But right now Venezuelans are aroused about the possibility of winning a new society. It is not just in Venezuela, but wherever structural transformation empowers the population hopes and desires surface. Passion seemingly deepens and spreads as moves toward empowerment and structural change deepen and spread. Venezuelans believe they can win.7 Our own efforts should also propose vision and strategy able to inspire our movements so that we too believe we can win, one of the many reasons for Real Utopia.


When conceiving of this book, I wanted it to be useful, in the sense that it should serve a practical purpose and rise from a movement need: the need for vision and strategy. My hope is that it can empower us and enable us to make insightful decisions, to be open to others, learn from mistakes, and move forward. I hope it will shed new light on history, society, and human beings. I hope it will help us become more of a self-conscious movement.


In choosing essays for this book, one of the goals was to assure that Real Utopia would be broadly accessible. If we are going to achieve social transformation in accord with widely held vision, for many people to participate in shaping that vision, proposals offered in these pages had to be easily understood, simple to grasp, and feasibly employed. Having vision and strategy which only a small group of people understand, no matter how class, race, gender conscious, and participatory that movement is, runs high risk of a small group gaining, retaining, and exercising disproportionate power and control over the trajectory of our movements. Consciousness and good will alone will not protect us against the potential rise of elite rule. We need vision and strategy that we all can understand, that is user friendly, so that everyone is able to participate in the process of self-consciously affecting the course of our social movements.



Totality: A Holistic Approach


Our vision and strategy should inform our understanding of who the agents of social change are, what guides and shapes them, and not send us down a century long dead end. Looking back, the predominant view among Left movements of the 20th Century was historical materialism, that class struggle was the lone driving force shaping history, society, and people. We want our vision and strategy to incorporate a modern understanding of class struggle, enriching the insights of class analysis, but also accounting for other factors that shape people and society. Therefore this book aspires to present vision for all spheres of a future participatory society on equal footing.


To contrast, a monist approach would look at one sphere of society and attribute primary importance to how that sphere affects the rest of social life. Someone looking at the economy might say we need to focus on class struggle because it is the primary force affecting all other spheres—gender, cultural, political relations, and so on.


Alternatively, someone looking at power and culture would use a pluralist approach combining the political and cultural spheres seeing authoritarianism and racism as the primary forces shaping society. The same pluralist approach could be applied again using any other two focuses, say kinship and economics, to see class struggle and patriarchy as the determining factors shaping society.


A third approach, and the one guiding this book, argues for a complementary and holistic orientation which does not a priori assume the primary dominance of any of the spheres over any of the others, but instead seeks to understand how parts of the whole are interdependent and relate to one another. It understands that a variety of interactions among the different spheres can occur and that careful observation and assessment will often reveal differing results from society to society.8



A Note on ParEcon


Of all the visions presented in this book, the Participatory Economics model proposed by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel is most developed. Nothing in this book is final and all requires further elaboration. However, the other work presented in Part 1 "Defining Spheres of a Participatory Society," and Part 2 "Revolutionizing Everyday Life," should been seen as preliminary sketches. Much more work needs to be done developing and experimenting in these areas. The Parecon model, on the other hand, has already undergone much assessment. That is not to say that it should be embraced without critical consideration. On the contrary, more assessment is precisely what is needed to gather popular approval and acceptance. If you are a reader not already familiar with parecon this book will serve as an introduction but it is highly recommended that you also check out any of the many other books fully outlining participatory economics.9 If, on the other hand, you are a reader already well versed in parecon’s underlying values and defining institutions than you will find this book a useful refresher and accessible orientation to how parecon overlaps and has complementary relations with other spheres of societal life.



Now, On with the Show!


People throughout civilization have related to one another so as to carry out certain social functions seeking to get their needs, wants, and desires met. To aid this people have created institutions to facilitate their religious, spiritual, and cultural identifications and beliefs; procreation, child rearing and socialization of future generations; political adjudication, law making and legislation; and economic production, consumption, and allocation of the material means of life. All of this rests on an ecological foundation which all species interact with and rely on.


Society’s core defining institutions thus span the spheres of Culture and Community, Kinship, the Polity, and the Economy; providing interrelated roles and relationships which establish patterns of reoccurring behaviors and outcomes. Over time, these patterns shape human beings and generate a wide array of social groupings, producing and re-producing race and culture, gender and sexuality, class, and political outcomes with both desired and un-desired characteristics. The outcomes can be more or less sexist, more or less racist, more or less equitable, and so on. An emancipatory world would eliminate the totality of oppressions that afflict us today and, as Real Utopia attempts, focus on producing liberation in all spheres, not any one alone.


Part 1 of this book, "Defining Spheres of a Participatory Society," opens with me interviewing Michael Albert, outlining Participatory Economics, explaining briefly how parecon handles production, consumption, and allocation, where it comes from, and its implications for today. Next, Steve Shalom presents his model of "ParPolity," a political system designed as a nested council structure complimentary to parecon handling disputes, lawmaking, adjudication, legislation, and society’s political matters more broadly. Cynthia Peters offers vision for Kinship in a better world, in particular ideas about family, sexuality, and caregiving. "Polyculturalism" is the subject of Justin Podur’s essay, where he explores possible interactions between different cultures and identities in accordance with the principles of participatory society. This section wraps with me interviewing Robin Hahnel about how a participatory economy would handle ecological considerations in a sustainable and judicious way.


Part 2, "Revolutionizing Everyday Life," begins with Jerry Fresia’s call to action for Artists to support parecon while also looking at how parecon would handle Art. Tom Wetzel examines what a self-managed city might look like as well as strategic implications. Technology and civil engineering of the new society is explored by Nikos Raptis. Barbara Ehrenreich interviews Michael Albert about the day-to-day intricacies of parecon’s decentralized participatory planning process. I interview Noam Chomsky about "Education for a Participatory Society" to close this section.


"Assessing ParEcon Internationally," part 3, presents a wide array of international movements and assessments of revolutionary possibilities opening the 21st Century. Africa, post-colonial theory and development is examined by Mandisi Majavu, who discusses the implications of pan-Africanism, black nationalism, black Marxism, and more generally the relationship between race, class, and gender for vision and strategy in Africa. Richard Franke overviews village level public good planning in Kerala, a southwestern province of India with a population of 32 million.10 Then, a two-part interview between Andrej Grubacic and Michael Albert on Participatory Society vs. Civil Society in the Balkans, as well as the relevance of parecon for workers in a Serbian pharmaceutical factory struggling to take back their workplace. Anders Sandström of Stockholm uses the parecon model to assess the strategic direction of the Central Organization of the Workers of Sweden (SAC), a union based on libertarian socialist values with approximately 8,000 members. Mark Evans is interviewed about the Project for a Participatory Society—United Kingdome. Marie Trigona takes a close look at Argentina‘s movement of worker-run factories and their example for workers around the world. Also in South America, and closing this section, Michael Albert presents his assessment of the national transformation unfolding in Venezuela based on his visit to that country in 2005.


Part 4, "Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards: History’s Lessons for the Future" tours some of the high water marks of 20th Century Left history. Dave Markland looks at the Spanish Revolution through a participatory lens, Tom Wetzel reviews workers’ power and the Russian Revolution, and Robin Hahnel weighs the shortcomings as well as the strengths of Libertarian Socialism and Social Democracy in the 20th Century.


Efforts to implement and build participatory structures and movements are presented in part 5, "Theory & Practice: Institutions & Movement Building." Lydia Sar- gent outlines the origins of the book publishing house South End Press as well as of Z, with its print magazine, website, and other media operations. Paul Burrows draws both theoretical and practical insights from his experience working in a non-hierarchical worker-run bookstore and restaurant in Winnipeg, Canada. Jessica Azulay passes along lessons learned and process defined at the hard hitting, but ultimately under financed, alternative news wire service, The NewStandard. Marla Renn overviews four years of grassroots parecon organizing by the Vancouver Parecon Collective. Matt McBride, Lloyd Philbrook, and Mitchell Szczepanczyk overview the Chicago Area Participatory Economics Society and the work they do, including having organized a "Chicago School of Participatory Economics" at that university’s neo-liberal breeding ground. Down in Texas, the efforts of the Austin Project for a Participatory Society are presented by Marcus Denton, along with a discussion of the role he hopes it can play within Left movements of today.


Getting from here to there, part 6 "Moving Toward a Participatory Society" is opened by Madeline Gardner and Joshua Kahn Russell who write about today’s youth movement, this century’s SDS, and the strategic relation between theory and practice claiming, "praxis makes perfect." Ezequiel Adamovsky explores the potential of Assembly Organizing as a strategic vehicle for emancipation. The U.S. held its first ever national Social Forum in 2007 where Marcus Denton presented a vision and strategy proposal for the 2010 U.S. SF at the closing Peoples Movement Assembly. Pat Korte and Brian Kelly offer vision and strategy for a revolutionary youth and student movement. John J. Cronan Jr. argues that Left movements of today are afflicted by class crisis, highlighting the consequences for today’s youth, students, and young adults while outlining the three-class analysis explaining relations between workers, coordinators, and capitalists. Brian Dominick proposes steps "From Here to Parecon" utilizing a grassroots dual power strategy. The final chapter in this section, and of the entire book, presents ten claims offered by Michael Albert about the vision and strategy of participatory economics and the implications for building a "ParEconish movement." Finally, it is my hope that this book, my first, will contribute to the growth and development of a movement aspiring to win a participatory society in this century.





1 This book, although unrelated to neither "The Real Utopias Project," nor Erik Olin Wright’s

forthcoming book Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso), and our proposals are quite different, they

are motivated by similar concerns.

2 Michael Albert, Leslie Cagan, Noam Chomsky, Robin Hahnel, Mel King, Lydia Sargent, and

Holly Sklar Liberating Theory (South End Press, 1986)

3 Ibid.

4 Pat Walker, ed., Between Labor and Capital (South End Press, 1979)

5 In fact, early opposition to orthodox Marxism’s two class analysis can be found in Bakunin,

who not only critiqued the workplace division of labor between mental and manual labor, but

also predicted the rise of the "Red Bureaucracy" in revolutionary Russia.

6 Ibid.: 17

7 See the contribution by Michael Albert on Venezuela in Part 3 of this book.

8 There is much more to be said about using a complimentary and holistic approach and this

book can only provide an introduction. See Michael Albert, Leslie Cagan, Noam Chomsky,

Robin Hahnel, Mel King, Lydia Sargent, and Holly Sklar Liberating Theory (South End Press,

1986) Also Michael Albert Thought Dreams: Radical Theory for the 21st Century (Arbeiter Ring

Publishing, 2004) and Michael Albert Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism (Zed Books,


9 Michael Albert & Robin Hahnel Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty First

Century (South End Press, 1991) See also Albert & Hahnel’s companion volume for a technical

explanation of the same ideas aimed at economists, The Political Economy of Participatory Economics

(Princeton University Press, 1991) Michael Albert Parecon: Life After Capitalism (Verso,

2003) Also Robin Hahnel Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation

(Routledge, 2005)

10 2007 estimates.

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