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Practical Utopia


I recently published a new book titled Practical Utopia with PM Press who I thank for accepting it and doing such a nice job of producing it. I just received my advance copies in the mail. Noam Chomsky did the preface and had this to say in it:

“It is true that ‘the new cannot be born yet’. But the forms it might assume depend on actions taken now and the visions of a future that animate them. Few have thought as long and hard about these matters as Michael Albert, along with constructive efforts at ‘planting the seeds of the future in the present.’ What he presents here is the distillation of a life of searching thought and dedicated activism that merits great respect and close attention.”

Bill Fletcher, quoted on the cover wrote about the book:

Practical Utopia speaks to many of the questions faced by grassroots activists who want to create a dynamic movement that can bring a just world into existence.”

I hope their assessments are fair and accurate. But the only way to know is to consider the book itself and I hope you will.

Everyone thinks writing a book is really hard and that finishing one is, itself, a big accomplishment. There is some truth to that. It  takes a whole lot of time and patience. You have to plug away, and away, and away. Depending on the type of book you may have to do research or dream up characters and situations and content. Still, I think the real issue is not writing a book, nor producing it, but getting a book read, and then creating an atmosphere and means for people to share their reactions to it, whatever those reactions may be.

My point is, the measure of any act is rarely if ever the act itself. It is not having done it, nor even  even how much one likes it on having finished. The measure of any act – particularly an act aimed at accomplishing social good, is more often what it in turn provokes and achieves. For a book, a million sales and no actual serious readers, no sharing of ideas, no advance of thought and deed percolating through populations – is no big deal. A thousand sales and a thousand serious readers, much sharing of ideas, and much advance of thought and deed  percolating further – yes, that is a big deal. So it is hard to write a book. Very hard to get sales. And still much harder to get constructive involvement.

I used to be a book publisher and had a hand in preparing and distributing roughly 200 books. I have also written a bit over twenty of my own, then, and since. As publisher, we chose the books we did from submissions. We worked on them with authors. In those days we endlessly prepared them by old fashioned incredibly time consuming means. And then we tried, despite a paucity of resources, to get them seen and assessed. The last was by far the hardest step – even in those days of endless typesetting. After all, having accepted a submission, we never failed to prepare the book, get it printed, and get it shipped. Sadly, relative to what the writing and thinking within the pages warranted, we often failed to attract sufficient readers much less engagement among readers.

I am now largely divorced from the book publishing industry, though I still write one every so often. When I set out to write a book, nearly every time I get it done. But when I then try to help the book get read and discussed, I have a much lower success rate.

As to the current situation, my impression is that even with all the new technology and connectivity and all the rest, the specific situation I have referenced has in the past few decades changed little for either publishers or writers, and maybe for the worse. Book after book, like article after article, gets written and appears. On the left, perhaps more publishing occurs by volume of manuscripts than ever, though that is just an impression. Nonetheless, declining numbers of people, I think, buy these efforts, at least on average, and still lower numbers read these efforts end to end or cover to cover. What is worse, even in that diminishing universe of actual readers, fewer and fewer relay, debate, and refine with others their thoughts about what they read.

So my hope for Practical Utopia is that you not only get a copy, but that you read it, and that you not only read it, but you convey to others your reactions and hear their’s in turn. You would all be speaking to “many of the questions faced by grassroots activists who want to create a dynamic movement that can bring a just world into existence,” and surely that is something we can all benefit from.

Feel free to append comments, criticisms, extensions, and reactions to this blog post – but about the book – or, if you have the energy and time for it, to post your own review of the book which I and others can in turn engage with.

 

11 Comments

  1. avatar
    Paulo Rodriguez August 10, 2017 12:13 am 

    Hi Mike!

    Bought the book at Amazon to give it a go but it will only be released in September. No worries though, barely any time to read at the moment. Doesn’t mean I’m not curious about it.

    Hope you are doing well.

  2. avatar
    James August 9, 2017 10:49 pm 

    A comparative look at Practical Utopia and Reversing Inequality. For better or worse.

    When one reads things like Reversing Inequality, published by the Next System Project, one gets a very different feeling than when reading Practical Utopia. Most of the papers on next systems put out by the NSP seem to be quite similar. They all operate from the now without any real clear picture of some new alternative economic destination. Practical Utopia seems premised on a very specific alternative economic destination. It’s also as if the NSP is getting on with things while Practical Utopia and Parecon advocates are by themselves, playing a waiting game…just a feeling.

    Reversing Inequality seems equivocal when it comes to capitalism or at least aspects of it and markets. What is needed are practical measures in the now to remedy the negative and foster or maintain and improve the positive aspects of these institutions without making definitive statements about them one way or another unless clearly obvious. Practical Utopia, in particular in regard to the vision offered, Parecon, seems far less ambiguous when it comes to future structural change and what it will look like…particularly markets and remuneration.

    In this sense, the strategy for change, the way forward, opted for by those in the Parecon camp may differ somewhat to that taken by those in the NSP camp?…the latter, it seems to me, being less supportive of something as definitive as Parecon, if not at times, even dismissive (for instance, the belief that aspects of it it are not feasible, something Alperovitz told me personally).

    I wonder what strategies in Reversing Inequality would be compatible with something a Parecon advocate, Albert, would like to see, . The main difference here being that a Parecon is a very specific economic system to head for while Reversing Inequality doesn’t seem to be aiming at anything particular other than offering up changes for the now that lead toward better outcomes for the future but leave the end goal open as to what it may look like or be structurally.

    Are these approaches compatible and if not could they split a movement or at least hinder them from working together more closely?

  3. avatar
    James August 6, 2017 12:46 am 

    Reluctant to comment but…read the book, as I have the Fanfare series…still a little uncertain as to what the “bloc” actually is but…read Lakey’s essay Organizing for Structure, which seems to me at least, a good appendage to Albert’s book…assuming Lakey’s movement of movements is the same as Albert’s bloc. I get the feeling the NSP is on a similar path…my feeling however is that while Albert, Lakey and the NSP seem to be spouting similar ideas they exist separate from one another, Albert here, Lakey over there and the NSP having lunch at the Democracy Collaborative…how do the three come together to form the beginnings of a bloc? Further if Practical Utopia’s ideas are to be spoken to ordinary folk, others outside the choir, perhaps they need to be taken up by unions or those with strong union connections…I don’t know…just some thoughts nervously offered.

    • avatar
      James August 13, 2017 12:34 am 

      “The influence of our wishes upon our beliefs is a matter of common knowledge and observation, yet the nature of this influence is very generally misconceived. It is customary to suppose that the bulk of our beliefs are derived from some rational ground, and that desire is only an occasional disturbing force. The exact opposite of this would be nearer the truth: the great mass of beliefs by which we are supported in our daily life is merely the bodying forth of desire, corrected here and there, at isolated points, by the rude shock of fact. Man is essentially a dreamer, wakened sometimes for a moment by some peculiarly obtrusive element in the outer world, but lapsing again quickly into the happy somnolence of imagination. Freud has shown how largely our dreams at night are the pictured fulfilment of our wishes; he has, with an equal measure of truth, said the same of day-dreams; and he might have included the day-dreams which we call beliefs.”

  4. avatar
    Michael Albert July 21, 2017 6:37 pm 

    Hi Jon.

    I am not up on economincs within MIT nowadays, sorry…but my guess would be that it is a bunch of arcane mathematical manipulation (to justify the high salaries, win awards, etc. ) which says little beyond the obvious – and not much of that, at least about the real world, much less about a better future. Only a guess…

    I doubt that trials run anywhere to test ideas prominent at MIT are going to prove valuable beyond winning academic prizes and maintaining tenure – other than to elites trying to extract wealth and maintain power. Of course there could be an exception, I suppose. For example, imagine MIT hired someone who became (unexpectedly, after tenure) an advocate of participatory planning for economic liberation. So the person proposes a study of various planning procedures, financed by international agencies, conducted in a way to deliver short run benefits to poor constituencies but also to gain important evidence about the costs and benefits of certain institutional choices.

    Okay, that could be good supposing the parties involved could maintain their integrity against ridicule and the allure of cooptation.

    I guess the point is, there is a very strong burden of proof on undertaking such endeavors in the name of social justice and change – as compared to doing them, say, for self advance….

    • Jon Servello July 24, 2017 12:01 pm 

      Thanks Michael. This is the kind of criticism I needed to read. Some of the trials I’ve read about are pretty convincing for small-scale reform of institutions and evaluating specific programmes, i.e. studies that indicate the best places to target money and resources to alleviate the worst symptoms of poverty.

      It’s also true that I’ve come across papers using complex mathematics and novel methods to illustrate points that would be fairly plain to activists.

      I do believe there is scope to run exactly the kind of studies you describe, though. Trials on workplace environment seem to happen mainly for occupational/public health research. I’m also aware of some of the economic analyses of worker co-operatives. I do not know of any trials that proactively introduce and compare different planning procedures, though. I guess there is good reason for this, as you point out, with those capable pressured out or discouraged early in their careers.

      Look forward to reading Practical Utopia.

  5. Tomislav B June 20, 2017 3:54 pm 

    Hi Michael,

    Could you provide an excerpt, or the outline?

    Is there a vendor other than Amazon selling the book under circumstances which are more favourable to you?

    Thanks for everything,
    Tom

    • avatar
      Michael Albert June 20, 2017 5:42 pm 

      Works out the same for me, regardless. I’ll send an excerpt soon – we are getting the mail system corrected at the moment.

      • Jon Servello July 11, 2017 3:27 pm 

        Hi Michael, about the mail system: I was hoping to reach you with a question unrelated to Practical Utopia, but rather something which came about while reading Remembering Tomorrow.

        Is there a more appropriate way to contact you until the mail system is fixed?

        Thanks,
        Jon

        • avatar
          Michael Albert July 14, 2017 3:11 pm 

          The mail system is just us bulk mailing outward – my email receives fine…You can put your question here, though, if you like.

          • Jon Servello July 19, 2017 2:13 pm 

            Great, alright. Remember Tomorrow raised some criticisms of economics as a discipline, as well as the culture of MIT and elite universities. I’m wondering if you had any thoughts on the field of development economics, especially the kind taught at MIT?

            There seems to be a push within the MIT Economics department to rely less on idealised market models and more on other techniques like randomised controlled trials and statistical analysis to test policy. Could the results of such research help in advocating parecon?

            A secondary question I’m also interested in is: do you think it’s ethical to conduct this research in poor countries with funding from the World Bank, WTO, IMF, and so on?

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