Participatory Socialism: There is an Alternative

Peter Bohmer,  

Faculty in Economics and Political Economy

The Evergreen State College

Olympia, Washington, United States

Delivered in Thessaloniki, Greece, September 9, 2010 at the A-Fest, Festival of the Anti-Authoritarians


Thank you for inviting me. I am honored to be with you in Greece at the festival in Thessaloniki put on by the anti-authoritarians. Although you are suffering severe economic hardship, you are providing hope for those around the world fighting back against unemployment, against cutbacks in social programs and poverty and who are committed to creating a better world where the dignity of all people is its organizing principle. I hope my talk will provide some useful insights into alternatives.  


Capitalism is a failing and destructive system as can be so clearly seen from the global crisis in general and the crisis in Greece in particular. However, it will not  collapse  on its own and if does, the alternative is unlikely to be liberatory unless we have  developed in theory and practice some real alternatives to it, and movements powerful enough to transform and revolutionize society.


To criticize and resist capitalism and the many problems it causes is necessary but without an alternative is insufficient. We, radicals, have spent too much time on developing excellent analyses of its exploitative and oppressive nature, of the limits in reforming it but not enough on what we want and how to get there.  Developing alternatives are necessary for revolutionary change as of course are strategies to connect our critique of capitalism to our vision of an alternative.  I will focus mainly on what we want and need although I will include some comments on strategy.


                                             There is An Alternative!


Since the late 1970’s, the dominant mainstream ideology is that There is No Alternative (TINA), or that no qualitatively different way of organizing society is possible. Without an alternative, we can’t answer how to solve  major economic and social problem such as alienated labor, unemployment, poverty, global warming, discrimination, imperialism  and poverty or we often are limited to bad or insufficient choices, which are even more restricted by global capitalism. For example, if we demand a living wage for all and a work week of 20 hours, we face the likelihood that employers will move their capital to another country, and that imports will rise and exports fall worsening the balance of payments. This would cause this major reform to be undone.


TINA or There is No Alternative is used in three different senses. The first and the most common was the way it was used by British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in 1979 when she said   “there is no alternative to globalization” that  meant  there is no alternative to neoliberalism or neoliberal  capitalism. This is the most restrictive sense of TINA. That there is no worthwhile and workable alternative to free market fundamentalism is the position  of the European Commission, of international financial institutions such as the IMF, World Bank and the World Trade Organization, and seemingly of Prime Minister George Papandreou and my President, Barack Obama.  


As a response to the financial crisis and the high rate of unemployment around the world, many are calling, instead for a regulated form of capitalism, a Keynesian or social democratic variant, e.g. Joe Stiglitz and George Soros.  In this perspective, there should be strong  regulations on financial institutions, environmental regulations, and  government spending sufficient for there to be high employment. There is a significant social safety net and some level of progressive taxes to make after tax income more equal than before tax income. Production is primarily organized for profit, by private corporations and through the market.   In this social democratic perspective, there are no alternatives to capitalism but there is a desirable variant to neoliberal capitalism. I consider social democracy to be a form of capitalism because it is a society dominated by capital and most people who produce goods and services are wage laborers.  So this is the second variant of TINA—there is an alternative to neoliberalism but not to capitalism.


Within the socialist tradition, there is a third variant of TINA. Yes, there are alternatives to capitalism,  but there are only two possible socialist variants for an entire society:   central planning or market socialism. Both of these alternatives are severely flawed but there is a feasible and desirable socialist or liberatory alternative, which I call participatory socialism.  One reason for the belief in TINA is that no alternate society exists that we can point to and say this is what we want to create. I will make comments about Venezuela as a society that although still capitalist is moving in some ways towards a participatory socialism and direct democracy.


Both within the Marxist and anarchist tradition, there has been a hesitance to develop visions of a different  society. There are many reasons why activists and social movements do not usually propose alternatives to capitalism–from not wanting to be called utopian to fears that projecting an alternative will be seen as social engineering or vanguardism.  


I urge us to be  utopian—to be willing to go beyond what has existed, to go beyond what we have been told is impossible, to dream and to act on it. Be utopian, not in the sense of an idea without a feasible strategy but rather utopian in going beyond what exists, to struggle for another world that is necessary and possible, to think big and creatively!  Otherwise we don’t have a chance to create the world we want and need.


We do not need blueprints but rather ideas of the how an economy and society could meet human needs and be feasible; how its institutions and organization of society would further the values we consider most important. To avoid the danger of social engineering by an intellectual or technocratic elite, this evolving vision needs to be experimented with concrete examples within the existing society, and interact with and be continually altered by social movements and organizations struggling for fundamental change. Our vision must be culturally and historically specific; one size does not fit all.




I will sketch key elements of a participatory socialist society. The name is not important, the essence  is.

Other names besides participatory socialist are decentralized socialist, libertarian socialist, participatory economy, participatory society, socialism for the 21st century, council communism, democratic socialism,  and many forms of   anarchism. Occasionally it goes by the name of economic democracy although that also covers many versions of reformed capitalism. The ideas are most developed  in the  writings of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. I am indebted to them for the following although I differ in a few aspects.


I use the word socialism because  it represents a tradition worth maintaining although critically.  I hold on to this term because in so many places around the world, socialism has represented and represents the  aspirations of oppressed people and workers for liberation and human dignity.  It carries a  lot of baggage from its association with the repressive nature of the Soviet Union, particularly after the rise of Stalin, to the history of socialist parties when in power supporting imperialism and being reformist;  to socialist groups and parties not making central the oppression of women, or the oppression of indigenous people and sexual minorities, or being bureaucratic not making democracy and popular power central, or prioritizing economic growth over all other goals. So I suggest considering ourselves part of this tradition while not defending many of the parties, groups, and societies who have called themselves socialist.


Also, unlike a capitalist economy, a socialist  economy has the possibility of being environmentally sustainable, of making central as the Iroquois or Haudenasaunee indigenous people say, considering the impact of decisions, seven generations into the future. If this is made a central goal of a socialist or participatory planned society, and operationalizing the long term  is part of all decision-making, sustainability can be a reality and not just a marketing tool. On the other hand if socialism focuses on economic growth as the primary goal, the results may be no better, environmentally, than a capitalist society.


 It is time to overcome the division and divides between Marxists and anarchists. Their coming together with insights from other frameworks such as more indigenous centered ones can help forge richer critiques, strategies and visions of where we want to go. Non-Leninist Marxists and non-individualist and movement building anarchists and the related groups have enough in common to work together in unity with the totality being greater than the sum of the individual groups and perspectives. We can build stronger and more insightful organizations this way.    


By socialism, I mean  the popular control of the production and use of the societal surplus of society or a clear movement in this direction. Ending private ownership and control of the surplus is necessary but not sufficient for socialism. It  is much more than nationalization. Hierarchically managed nationalized enterprises are not socialist enterprises. This concept of socialism requires the following four interrelated parts:

          1) Self-management, worker control at the level of the workplace.

               2) Democratic and popular control of the society as a whole. .

              3)  Production organized to meet human needs, needs not for profit

              4)  Democratic planning


So socialism when fully developed means democracy, both at micro level of the workplace and also at the society or political level.  Similarly, democracy in the sense of popular control over the major economic and political decisions if fully developed also means socialism. Socialism and democracy may have different starting points but one implies the other, they are intertwined. Central to socialism is equality and substantive and direct democracy.


Also central to this understanding is that capitalism cannot be reformed but must be totally ended and transformed.  The power of capital to exploit workers, to hire and  fire,  to determine our livelihoods, to shape the state, to hold our communities hostage for tax breaks and low wages must be ended. The concept revolution as both a process but also a fundamental transformation of society, that of the majority of the population rising up and taking power from those who have monopolized it, revolution is still a relevant concept. My focus is on liberation and qualitative change from the bottom up.  It is not necessarily violent.


Before I outline a participatory socialist society, I will briefly criticize some other possible variants of socialism.