Porous Borders of Anarchist Vision and Strategy

This is a Draft of an essay that will appear in the book Anarchist Economics edited by John Asimakopoulos, Anthony J. Nocella, II, and Deric Shannon, to be published by AK Press this Winter. I will try to incorporate ideas bloggers offer in the final version, but this must occur quite soon – my apologies for that, as deadline time is upon me!

Any distinctive political perspective will strongly favor particular shared claims about vision and strategy while people of contrary perspectives will reject or at least largely doubt those claims.

isking excess brevity, I want to argue that participatory economics and participatory society provide a worthy, viable, and even necessary and potentially sufficient revolutionary vision for anarchists to share.

I also want to argue, however, that anarchists sensibly sharing strategy is a much more complex and delicate undertaking than their sensibly sharing vision.

Finally, I will highlight two themes central to anarchism: (1) the need to strategically plant the seeds of the future in the present, and (2) the at first seemingly somewhat contrary need to recognize that future people should freely and diversely decide their own future lives rather than today’s activists arrogantly and intrusively deciding future peoples’ lives for them.


Anarchist Vision

Anarchism is about reducing to a minimum fixed hierarchies that institutionally systematically privilege some people over others. Men should not enjoy advantages as compared to women, nor heterosexuals as compared to homosexuals, nor members of any one racial, ethnic, or cultural community as compared to members of some other, nor members of any political party or group as compared to members of some other political party or group, nor members of any one class in the economy as compared to members of some other class in the economy.

Anarchism doesn’t require that we all do the same things, which would be a ludicrously unattainable and boring condition, or even that we all enjoy the same levels of happiness, which would be an impossibly intrusive and repressive condition. But Anarchism does mean that society should not systematically privilege some people materially or socially over others.

In an anarchist society, people should freely fulfill themselves and those they love without being systematically subordinate to or systematically superior to other people. Indeed, people should act in mutual aid with other people where all citizens should enjoy the same structural opportunities where each person gains from the gains other people enjoy.

Simultaneously, however, anarchism also favors future people deciding their own future lives, and this makes many anarchists reject the idea of anarchist institutional vision. In this view, anarchists should seek classlessness, solidarity, equity, justice, diversity, self-management, and other broad and general values – but anarchists shouldn’t seek any specific institutional arrangements as being essential to attaining those values. Rather than seeking specific institutional goals, anarchists should see that all institutional choices are contextual emphasizing that institutional choices are for future citizens to decide in a myriad of ways that future people themselves determine.

Some anarchists, employing the above logic, say they believe in a “values yes, institutions no,” approach to vision. These anarchists urge that there should be no specific institutional aims required to be part of a new society if that society is to be deemed anarchist. Instead, these anarchists think anarchists should only advocate that future citizens, by whatever means they choose, themselves diversely implement the values that all anarchists favor.

I believe that while this view is of course well motivated and in considerable degree insightful, nonetheless a “values yes, institutions no,” stance goes too far.

First, anarchism is not “anything goes.” The freedom of anarchism, and of future citizens, should not include the freedom to own slaves or the freedom to hire wage slaves, as but two of countless conditions we can likely easily agree anarchism must rule out.

But second, must anarchism rule anything in? Are there social components or features that a future society must incorporate if it is to be deemed anarchist?

In other words, even as we want to immediately advocate and aggressively seek only the most minimal array of future features lest we trample the freedom of future citizens to make their own choices, are there some centrally important visionary features we must unrelentingly seek right from the outset – some centrally important features that are not merely contextual, but unavoidably central?

We shouldn’t say, for example, that in the future people must eat these foods, wear these clothes, or solve various problems as we now deem they ought to be solved, such as deciding the size of workplaces or what products to produce in what balance as we prescribe – because for us to make such determinations now would merely manifest our current tastes, current preferences, and current thinking as developed in conditions we are currently familiar with but that will not pertain in the future – and because such choices of course would rarely be, as best we can judge, intrinsically and unavoidably essential to attaining the values of anarchism.

But while we can all rightly agree that blueprinting the future would be an inappropriate overreach, I do believe that precisely because we seek for future citizens to freely, diversely, creatively, and knowledgeably decide their own social lives, we should realize that to advocate an anarchist future requires some institutional vision. We can now know based on history’s accumulated experience and knowledge, that future people will operate with at least some social relations that we can predict now in place or that they will not operate freely. More, because of their necessity to freedom, we should ourselves now begin seeking these particular social relations so that indeed future people will be able to freely experiment with and make diverse choices about all other options, adapting these as they choose, as well.

In other words, to be very clear about this, current anarchist institutional vision should be limited to precisely those relatively few positive institutional commitments we are confident future people must have in place if they are to have the information, circumstances, inclinations, opportunity, and even the responsibility to creatively and knowledgeably self manage their own situations. Positive institutional vision should not extend further than that minimum, but nor should it be stop short of that minimum.

Putting the same point more positively, we need to strongly advocate and tirelessly seek the minimum necessary institutional vision to overcome cynicism, to inspire hope and creativity, and to inform strategy as well as to be sure we will establish the basis for future self managed outcomes – without, however, over extending our claims and actions into settling domains that we can’t know reliably or that transcend our right to currently decide.

As an example, consider the economy.

When I say in many talks, essays, etc., that I think participatory economics (or parecon for short) is an anarchist economic vision, I mean I think parecon includes the minimum economic attributes a future economy must embody if future economic actors are to equitably self manage their own lives, fulfill their own desires, mutually aid one another, etc.

Pareconish self-management, for example, is the idea that people should have a say in decisions proportionate to the degree those decisions affect them. This is an ideal, of course, since no social accounting can be numerically precise, and in specific moments and cases there will and even should be temporary divergences.

The larger point is that there should be no systematic and snowballing divergences. There should be no condition of some people enjoying more than proportionate say and of others suffering less, as a fixed or even steadily worsening condition, and thus of some people repeatedly and systematically dominating other people’s life choices and conditions.

Over time, therefore, we should each and all have a proportionate say over social choices that affect us, which doesn’t mean we should all always get our way, which would be obviously impossible given the diversity of human interests, but does mean that we should all always have a just and fair say.

Equity, a second central value of parecon, is the idea that citizens should have a claim on society’s economic product that increases if they do socially valued work longer or more intensely or at worse conditions. We should not receive income for property or bargaining power or even output, but we should receive income only for the intensity, duration, and onerousness of our socially valued labor.

This remunerative norm accords with anarchism’s respect for human rights and responsibilities and with anarchism’s conception of solidarity, while it also operates as a desirable incentive system engendering work that meets real needs while attaining socially optimal levels of labor and leisure.

Solidarity, Parecon’s third central value, is the idea that people should care about one another’s well being – rather than each of us trampling the rest or at the very least turning the other cheek to others’ difficulties.

Instead of “nice guys finishing last” because society’s institutions guarantee that economics is a war of each against where callousness is a prerequisite for success, in a good economy each of us succeeding should require that we each also aid others. Our own gains and other people’s gains should be mutually supporting not mutually exclusive.

Diversity, a fourth central Parecon value, is the idea that people should have a wide range of options available and that when making choices diverse paths forward should be kept available or even experimented with. This is desirable both to enjoy unexpected benefits from paths we might otherwise have arrogantly ignored, and also to have insurance against unexpected difficulties on paths we wrongly thought would be optimal.

Finally, as the fifth and sixth parecon values, beyond the obvious need for sustainability, environmental husbandry is the idea that humans and the rest of the environment ultimately constitute an entwined community in which humans have to take responsibility for the impact of our choices on ourselves but also on the rest of nature’s domain – and, in turn, efficiency is the related idea that economic activity should produce what people seek for fulfillment and development without wasting assets we value but also while furthering rather than obstructing self management, equity, solidarity, diversity, and husbandry.

Okay, why can’t anarchist economic vision be that list of values – however modified, augmented, or refined – without proposing any specific institutions? The answer is twofold.

First, worthy economic values are essential but not alone convincing. People don’t doubt the possibility of an alternative economic arrangement mainly because they doubt the morality of left values, but mainly because they doubt that those values can be implemented. Thus, we can fully dispel people’s skepticism not only by asserting worthy values, but only if we also describe institutions consistent with those preferred values.

And second, worthy values alone do not provide needed orientation for strategy and tactics. The distance between worthy values and well conceived demands that we can productively struggle for as well as organizational structures we can usefully build, is very large. Demands and organization are conceived in light of institutional aims, as well. Insights that move us toward effective strategic choices need to be shared and built upon, rather than having each actor have to repeatedly start over as if no one had thought matters through before.

In light of the above, parecon proposes a minimalist institutional vision for establishing economic conditions that will permit future people to self manage their own economic lives.

For example, if future people are to self manage the economy, then workers and consumers will need venues where they can meet, discuss, and finally decide their preferences and actions. This is workers and consumers councils or assemblies, in turn federated at diverse levels, and all using self-managing procedures. Such self-managing councils can and should be part of our economic vision.

However, the detailed arrangement of such councils and of their daily internal relations and their specific methods of dispersing and discussing information and tallying preferences in different situations will be up to their participants and will take many forms in light of different contexts and desires. We certainly don’t know enough to have strong attitudes about all those details, nor is it our right to decide such details for future folks in any case, nor, for that matter, is there only one right or acceptable or optimal way to settle on details.

The details of future implementations of self-managing councils are for those who are affected to contextually decide in the future. On the other hand, that we must generate self-managing councils in a new society if that new society is to be anarchist is a bare bones essential aim.

Okay, let’s assume we develop worthy councils with self managed decision making procedures. Nonetheless, disparities in income and wealth could easily disrupt council members’ having a fair say over decisions affecting their lives. Given that possibility, we cannot have people earn income for their property, their bargaining power, or even for their output, since each of these means of earning income would introduce wide disparities in wealth which would in turn disrupt equitable power relations. Instead, so that both moral and material conditions of freedom will exist, parecon proposes that remuneration will need to be for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work, with allowance for those who cannot work, of course.

But how would we arrnange equitable remuneration from industry to industry, given each industry’s unique characteristics, and even from one workplace to the next, given different worker preferences? We can make some guesses about various ways this might occur, but we don’t and can’t know, now, which patterns will prevail. Indeed, the details of future diverse implementations of equitable remuneration are relevant to us today at most insofar as we describe some possible choices future people could make in order to demonstrate that equitable remuneration can indeed be achieved. Knowledge arising from future experimentation plus emerging and as yet unknowable preferences and circumstances of future people in different countries, industries, and even different firms within industries, will of course inform the choices of future people on how they wish to implement the equity norm, including, for example how closely they will want to measure variables like duration and intensity, or what indices they want to collect and consult data about, and so on. However, when we say that the future is diverse, still, the diversity we have in mind doesn’t include remuneration for property, power, or output – and it does include remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor.

Continuing, if pareconish self management and equity are to persist in a new economy, thereby preserving the conditions of freedom and participation for all actors, it can’t be that some actors are consistently and greatly empowered by their daily economic activities while other actors are consistently exhausted and disempowered by theirs, as is typical of corporate divisions of labor. The reason we can’t have this disparity in the average and overall empowerment effects of work on workers is because if the disparity exists then the set of people who have a kind of monopoly on knowledge, skills, confidence and energy for decision making will dominate the people who will lack all those prerequisites of participation. To have freedom means we can’t have that sort of class hierarchy, but in that case, what must we seek in place of familiar corporate divisions of labor?