Chapter 5 of Occupy Vision: InterCommunalism
This is the chapter five of Occupy Vision, which is the second volume of the three volume set titled Fanfare for the Future. In coming days we will post the book’s eight chapters. You can find out more about Occupy Theory, Occupy Vision, and Occupy Strategy, as well as how to purchase the books in print or for ebook reading, at Z’s book page for them – which is at: https://zcomm.org/the-fanfare-series/
“American means white, and Africanist people struggle
to make the term applicable to themselves with ethnicity
and hyphen after hyphen after hyphen.”
– Toni Morrison
As we discussed in developing our overall conceptual toolbox, humans tend to create diverse communities bound by shared cultures that differ from one another in their artistic, linguistic, and spiritual allegiances and preferences. The problem of cultural communities is not this diversity, per se, but that cultural communities can exploit one another, attack one another, or even obliterate one another. As Noam Chomsky summarizes one case:
“In the US…it was necessary to find some justification for eliminating the indigenous population and running the economy on slavery (including the economy of the north in the early days; cotton was the oil of the 19th century industrial revolution). And the only way to justify having your boot on someone’s neck is that you are uniquely magnificent and they are uniquely awful.”
In a good society, presumably this type of largely one way or sometimes mutual intercommunity assault and destruction would of course be eliminated.
What kinds of cultural relations would we like to have in a good society?
“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way, the social and political equality of the white and black races. I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
– Abraham Lincoln
We will not be magically reborn in a desirable society, free of our past and unaware of our historical roots. On the contrary, our historical memory, sensitivity to past and present social process, and understanding of our own and of our society’s history will all very likely be enhanced during the process of reaching a desirable society. Rather than our diverse cultural roots being submerged, on the road to a better world, they will grow in prominence.
So while as Einstein very pithily put it, in its current incarnations, “nationalism is an infantile sickness. It is the measles of the human race.” Still, the point of cultural vision is not to erase diverse cultures or to reduce them to a least common denominator.
As Arundhati Roy argued, referring to fundamentalist inclinations to homogenize India:
“Once the Muslims have been ‘shown their place’, will milk and Coca-Cola flow across the land? Once the Ram Mandir is built, will there be a shirt on every back and a roti in every belly? Will every tear be wiped from every eye? Can we expect an anniversary celebration next year? Or will there be someone else to hate by then? Alphabetically: Adivasis, Buddhists, Christians, Dalits, Parsis, Sikhs? Those who wear jeans, or speak English, or those who have thick lips, or curly hair? We won’t have to wait long… What kind of depraved vision can even imagine India without the range and beauty and spectacular anarchy of all these cultures? India would become a tomb and smell like a crematorium.”
In other words, instead of homogenizing cultures, in the transition to a better world the historical contributions of different communities should be more appreciated than ever before with greater means for their further development, without destructive mutual hostilities.
Trying to prevent the horrors of genocide, imperialism, racism, jingoism, ethnocentrism, and religious persecution by attempting to integrate distinct historical communities into one cultural niche has proved almost as destructive as the nightmares this approach sought to expunge.
“Cultural homogenization” – whether racist, fundamentalist, or even leftist – ignores the positive aspects of cultural differences that give people a sense of who they are and where they come from. Cultural homogenization offers few opportunities for variety and cultural self-management, and is self-defeating in any event since it heightens exactly the community anxieties and antagonisms it seeks to overcome.
In a competitive and otherwise mutually hostile environment, religious, racial, ethnic, and national communities often develop into sectarian camps, each concerned with defending itself from real and imagined threats, even waging war on others to do so.
And yes, in other contexts, more subtle and less overt racist expressions occur as Al Sharpton notes when commenting on racism’s changing face in the U.S. after the gains of the civil rights movement: “We’ve gotten to an era where people are much more subtle and more manicured. Jim Crow is now James Crow, Jr., Esquire.”
But the near ubiquitous presence of racial and other cultural hierarchies throughout society and history no more means we should eliminate cultural diversity than the existence of gender, sexual, economic, or political hierarchies means we should eliminate diversity in those realms. The task is to remove oppression and achieve liberating conditions, not to obliterate difference.
Racism often has a very crass and material component. Consider Desmond Tutu commenting on the South African experience:
“When they arrived, we had the land and they had the Bible and they told us to close our eyes to pray. When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible.”
But theft is not always the dominant theme of cultural violation and – even when it is highly operative – it is generally only one part of the whole cultural picture. Most of racism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, and religious bigotry is based on cultural definitions and beliefs pushing and extending beyond material differences.
Dominant community groups rationalize their positions of privilege with myths about their own superiority and the presumed inferiority of those they oppress. But these often materially motivated myths, in time, attain a life of their own, often transcending material relations. The effects are brutal. For the oppressed, in the American novelist Ralph Ellison’s words, “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, everything and anything except me.”
Some sectors within oppressed communities internalize myths of their inferiority and attempt to imitate or at least accommodate dominant cultures. Einstein wrote: “it seems to be a universal fact that minorities–especially when the individuals composing them are distinguished by physical peculiarities–are treated by the majorities among whom they live as an inferior order of beings. The tragedy of such a fate lies not merely in the unfair treatment to which these minorities are automatically subjected in social and economic matters, but also in the fact that under the suggestive influence of the majority most of the victims themselves succumb to the same prejudice and regard their brethren as inferior beings.” Or as Native American activist Ward Churchill more aggressively explained, “White domination is so complete that even American Indian children want to be cowboys. It’s as if Jewish children wanted to play Nazis.”
Others in oppressed communities respond by defending the integrity of their own cultural traditions while combating as best they can the racist ideologies used to justify their oppression. But as W.E.B. Dubois notes, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
And as Frederick Douglass wrote in another context:
“For a white man to defend his friend unto blood is praiseworthy but for a black man to do precisely the same thing is a crime. It was glorious for Americans to drench the soil and crimson the sea with blood to escape payment of three penny tax upon tea; but it is a crime to shoot down a monster in defense of the liberty of a black man and to save him from bondage one minute of which (in the language of Jefferson) is worse than ages of that which our fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.”
In any event, cultural salvation does not lie in trying to obliterate the distinctions between communities but in eliminating racist institutions, dispelling racist ideologies, and changing the environments within which historical communities relate so that they might maintain and celebrate difference without violating solidarity. An alternative is, therefore, what we might call “intercommunalism” which emphasizes respecting and preserving the multiplicity of community forms by guaranteeing each sufficient material and social resources to confidently reproduce itself.
Not only does each culture possess particular wisdoms that are unique products of its own historical experience, but the interaction of different cultures via intercommunalist relations enhances the characteristics of each culture and provides a richness that no single approach could ever hope to attain. The point is: negative intercommunity relations must be replaced by positive ones. The key is eliminating the threat of cultural extinction that so many communities feel by guaranteeing that every community has the means necessary to carry on their traditions and self definitions. In accord with self management, individuals should choose the cultural communities they prefer, rather than elders or others of any description defining their choices for them, particularly on the basis of prejudice. And while those outside a community should be free to criticize cultural practices that, in their opinion, violate humane norms, external intervention that goes beyond criticism should not be permitted except when absolutely required to guarantee that all members of every community have the right of dissent, including to leave the community with no material or broader social loss.
Until a lengthy history of autonomy and solidarity has overcome suspicion and fear between communities, the choice of which community should give ground in disputes should be determined according to which of the two is the more powerful and therefore, realistically, the least threatened. Intercommunalism would make it incumbent on the more powerful community that has less reason to fear domination to unilaterally begin the process of de-escalating the dispute. This simple rule is obvious and reasonable, despite being seldom practiced to date. When needed, oversight and enforcement could occur by way of an intercommunal legal apparatus specializing in conflict resolution – of course including balanced job complexes and equitable remuneration. The goal is to create an environment in which no community will feel threatened and each community will feel free to learn from and share with others.
Given the historical legacy of negative intercommunity relations, it is delusional to believe this can be achieved overnight. Perhaps even more so than in other areas, intercommunalist relations will have to be slowly constructed, step by step, until a different historical legacy and set of behavioral expectations are established. For example, it will not always be easy to decide what constitutes the “necessary means” that communities should be guaranteed for cultural reproduction, and what development free from “unwarranted outside interference” means in particular situations. The intercommunalist criterion for judging different views on these matters seems likely to be that every community should be guaranteed sufficient material and communication means to self-define and self-develop its own cultural traditions and to represent its culture to all other communities in the context of limited aggregate means and equal rights to those means for all – just as all of its members, by virtue of participatory economic, political, and kin relations, are equitably remunerated, self managing, etc.
Race and Capitalism
“Segregation is the adultery of an illicit
intercourse between injustice and immorality.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
Contrary to some leftist pronouncements, there is nothing in capitalism’s defining institutions that says that people in one cultural community should be treated by the economy differently than people in any other, any more than there is anything in capitalism’s defining institutions that says people of different height, or with different pitch voices should be treated differently.
On the contrary, capitalism, unto itself, is what we might call an equal opportunity exploiter. If you have the requisite luck, brutality or, in rare instances, talent plus the needed callousness to rise in power and income, then regardless of any cultural or biological features, you get to own and to profit. Or, one notch down, you get to monopolize empowering circumstances and enjoy the fruits of being in the coordinator rather than the working class.
On the other hand, if you have none of the requisites of success in capitalism, again regardless of your race, nationality, religion, etc., you get to sell yourself as a wage slave doing overwhelmingly rote and obedient work, taking orders and pocketing only small change.
The less derogatory presentation of this insight is made by the Noble prize-winning economist Milton Friedman when he says,
“The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy. It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate each other to deal with one another and help one another.”
The first part of Friedman’s observation is true of capitalism, per se, but not of capitalism amidst people who, for other reasons, hate each other – which makes the second part of his statement a manipulative lie.
The wrinkle in Friedman’s analysis is that capitalism is not race blind, or religion blind, or ethnicity blind, or blind to any other cultural feature whenever a society’s broader social structures outside the economy consign the holder of that feature to a subordinate cultural position or convey to them a dominant cultural position. In such cases, the economic logic of capitalism will notice the extra-economic differentials and will operate in accord with them rather than ignore them. Hate outside the economy is not overcome by capitalism, as Friedman implies, but is reproduced and enlarged by capitalism.
If racism in a society – or religious bigotry, or whatever else – consigns some community to having less status and influence, than in the capitalist economy members of that community will not – in general – be elevated above their “superiors” but will, instead, be made subordinate to them. The economy will use the existing expectations of community members – such as the expectation that whites are superior to blacks – to enforce and enlarge its own economic hierarchies of exploitation. It will not violate those external hierarchies at the potential expense of its own operations.
Thus, the capitalist employer, even one who is personally free of racist beliefs or even hostile to racism, will, in general, when racism is ascendant in the broader society, not hire blacks to rule over whites as managers – or in other positions of relative respect and influence – even when they would be more productive. This is ruled out if racism is sufficiently operative, because it risks disobedience and dissension. Capitalism, in other words, uses accustomed patterns from cultural life to enhance desired patterns inside the economy.
Similarly, if, due to its cultural position, a community can be paid less, it will be paid less in light of market competition to reduce costs – again even if this is against some employer’s personal preferences.
At the same time, it is also true that to the extent growing opposition to racism begins to make racial hierarchies discordant with expectations and desires and conducive to dissent and resistance, capitalist employers reverse their actions and shy away from more overt exploitation of race, even as they continue to try to extract any pound of flesh that they can get away with when selling products or when buying people’s ability to work. Thus, in the case of heightened opposition to racism in society, we will see a shift from Jim Crow racism to James Crow Esquire Jr. racism, as noted by Sharpton earlier.
The statistics and other accountings of racism and of other cultural oppressions and economic life are well known and well revealed in countless studies and sources. How does a desirable society reverse such phenomena?
Race in a Participatory Society
“Communism, instead of making them leap forward with fire in their hearts to become masters of ideas and life, had frozen them at an even lower level of ignorance than had been theirs before they met Communism.”
– Richard Wright
If a parecon exists in a society that has cultural hierarchies of race, religion, and other communities, what does it contribute? If it exists within a society that has desirable communities without hierarchies, what then? In general, does a parecon’s needs regarding economic life impose any constraints on cultures? Does a participatory polity or kinship sphere?
If we change the U.S. economy, for example, to a parecon without altering the racial, religious, and ethnic landscape, there will be a sharp contradiction. Existent racial and other dynamics in this hypothetical society will pit groups against one another and give people expectations of superiority and inferiority. The participatory economy, however, will provide income and circumstances inconsistent with residual cultural hierarchies. It will tend to overthrow the cultural hierarchies by the empowerment and material means that it affords to those at the bottom of any and all hierarchies.
People in a participatory economy won’t – and indeed can’t – systemically economically exploit racism and other cultural injustices. Individuals in a parecon could try to do this, of course, and they could harbor horrible attitudes, of course, but there are no mechanisms for racists to accrue undo economic power or wealth – even as separate individuals, much less as members of some community.
If you are black or white, Latino or Italian American, Jewish or Muslim, Presbyterian or Catholic, southerner or northerner – regardless of cultural hierarchies that may exist in the broader society – in a parecon you have a balanced job complex and a just income and self managing power over your conditions. There just isn’t any lower position to be shoved into.
Lingering – or even continually reproduced racism or other cultural injustices – could perhaps penetrate a parecon in the role definitions of actors, but they could not do so in a manner that would bestow economic power, material wealth, or economic comforts unfairly. Thus blacks, Latinos, Asians, etc. in a transformed U.S. might have statistically different characteristics in their balanced job complexes, but the differences could not violate the balance of those complexes. Such disproportionately distributed job features might have otherwise denigrating attributes, it is true, though one would think that if they did, the self managing dynamics of the economy would tend to undo those injustices too.
Indeed, one can imagine that in a parecon members of minority communities in workplaces would have means to meet together in (what are typically called) caucuses to assess events and situations precisely to collectively guard against racial or other denigrating dynamics. Or to fight against those that are present as residues from the past or as outgrowths of other spheres of social life. This would seem to be about the best one can ask of an economy regarding it intrinsically obstructing cultural injustices.
But what about a participatory economy and desirable cultures in a desirable society? There is no reason why cultural norms established in other parts of society cannot impact economic life in a parecon, and we can predict that they will. The daily practices of people from different cultural communities could certainly differ not only in what holidays their members take off from work, say, but in their daily practices during work or consumption such as arranging periods of prayer or disproportionately engaging in particular types of activity that are culturally proscribed or culturally preferred. There could be whole industries or sectors of the economy that members of a community would culturally avoid, as with the Amish in the U.S., for example.
In a participatory economy the limits on such cultural impositions on the economy would be that the special economic needs of cultural communities would have to be consistent with the self-managing desires of those inside and outside those communities.
One possibility, for example, is that in more demanding cases it might make sense for members of a workplace to nearly all be from one community so that they can easily have shared holidays, workday schedules, and norms about various daily practices that others would find impossible to abide. Self management doesn’t preclude such arrangements and may sometimes make them ideal.
Alternatively, a workplace may incorporate members of many diverse communities, as will larger (and sometimes also smaller) consumer units. In such cases there may be minor mutual accommodations – some members celebrate Christmas and others celebrate Hanukkah or some other holiday, and schedules are accorded. Or perhaps there are more extensive accommodations having to do with more frequent differences in schedule or with other practices affecting what type of work some people can undertake.
The point is, parecon’s workplaces, consumer units, and planning processes are very flexible infrastructures whose defining features are designed to be classless, but whose details can vary in endless permutations – including accommodating diverse cultural impositions due to people’s community practices and beliefs.
Finally, do the needs and requirements of the roles of worker, consumer, and participant in participatory planning in a parecon put limits on what practices a culture can elevate in its own internal affairs?
The answer is in some sense, yes, they do. Cultural communities in a society with a parecon cannot, without great friction, incorporate internal norms and arrangements that call for material advantages or great power for a few at the expense of many others.
A culture could exist, say, that would elevate some small sector of priests or artists or soothsayers, or elders, or whoever else, and that required all other members to obey them in particular respects, or to shower them with gifts, etc. But the likelihood that such a cultural community would persist for long would be quite low alongside a parecon.
The reason is because the people involved will be spending their economic time in environments that produce inclinations for equity, solidarity, and self-management, as well as diversity, and that “teach” them to respect but not passively obey, others. Why would they submit to inequitable conditions and skewed decision making norms in another part of their life?
Assuming that in a good society people will be free to leave cultures – since people would have both the economic wherewithal, education, and disposition to manage themselves – we guess that many would exercise that freedom to leave any cultural community that denied them the fruits of their labors or denied them their self managing say.
This could also be expected for the connection between a participatory polity or kinship, and culture. The analysis is completely parallel. These other parts of a desirable society, just like its economy, will also impose only equity and self management and solidarity on culture, and will take from cultures that which is compatible with those values. There are no means for oppressive cultural relations to be legitimately and naturally manifested in kin or political relations because the roles available do not include ones seriously subordinate or superior to others. Similarly, while the details of a set of participatory kinship relations or parpolity relations would likely reflect cultural commitments of participants – with a different mix of features in light of different cultural commitments – these refinements would not undo or restrict the key defining attributes of these spheres of life. Rather than rehash the discussion of economics and race, simply replacing references to workplaces, consumption, and allocation with references to legislative councils or living units, it will likely be more revealing to address one of the potentially more controversial of the related implications.
Addendum: Religion and the Left
“Today is the parent of tomorrow. The present casts its shadow far into the future. That is the law of life, individual and social. Revolution that divests itself of ethical values thereby lays the foundation of injustice, deceit, and oppression for the future society. The means used to prepare the future become its cornerstone.”
– Emma Goldman
As expected from the above discussion, the relation between religion and a participatory economy would add no complications to what has been said about relations between culture and parecon. Whatever religions exist in a society that has a parecon, their members will, of course, be treated by the parecon just as those of every other religion and cultural community will be treated. They will have a balanced job complex, enjoy just remuneration, have self-managing decision-making influence, etc.
Of course, if there was a religion that said that jobs should be unequal, or incomes hierarchical, that would be a problem. But such a religion would not remain viable for long in a participatory society since those relegated to inferior positions would be in position to resist or exit.
The situation for a religion and kinship or polity is quite similar, though we can more easily conceive of tensions. The polity or kinship institutions will not mistreat people due to their being in different cultures, nor could communities array hierarchically and expect the polity or kinship to abide it. Then again, if a culture said women must be subordinate, or gays, whether in legislation, adjudication, or daily life relations, that would be a problem, and not long viable in a participatory society since, again, people would freely exit and such cultures would lose support.
A parecon, participatory family or school, participatory neighborhood or regional councils or court, will have no economic, kin, or political reason or means to elevate or denigrate people on the basis of any cultural commitments they may have, nor will it be easy, or even possible, for people with hostile cultural intents to manifest them in a parecon, parpolity, or parkinship. Likewise, there is nothing in a participatory economy, kinship, or polity that will militate against these realms respecting holidays and practices of particular communities within the broader framework of attaining solidarity, equity, justice, and self management, though the latter caveat isn’t minor. But the question of religions and a good society per se, as compared to the question of religions in a good society, is more complex and controversial.
Many on the left think this combination is simply impossible. They believe that religion is intrinsically contrary to justice, equity, and particularly self management. For these critics of religion, participatory institutions won’t interface well with good religions in a good society, because in a good society there won’t be any religions at all, good or otherwise.
The anti-religion argument first looks at history and finds an endless record of religious violations of humane behavior – and no one can deny this sad story. Then the critics – depending on which religions we consider – may or may not go another step and look at various scriptures showing all manner of explicitly ugly prescriptions and claims. The critics may then highlight instances of religion obstructing reason or art, violating not only free social relations but also honesty and dignity. And finally, at their strongest, the critics will claim to clinch their case by arguing that once one invests extreme powers in a god and requires of oneself and of others obedience unto those powers, it is but a short and inexorable step to counterpoising one god against others, and counterpoising one’s own fellow believers against believers of some other faith, finally moving from obedience to a god to obedience to agents of a god, and, by extension, to obedience to authorities of all kinds.
This argument, one has to admit, is not weak either in its predictive logic or its historical explanatory power or evidentiary verification. But it is also, in the end, overstated because it extrapolates from some religions to all religions, as well as from organized authoritarian religions to spirituality of all kinds.
Our inclination is to think that a good society will have good religion rather than no religion, just as a good society will have good economics rather than no economics, good political forms rather than no political forms, and so on.
As to what shape such good religions will have, they will likely vary widely and broadly, emerging from religions we now know – as well as arising in original and new forms – but generally having in common a desire to establish morals and a sense of place in the universe without violating the morals and roles of the rest of a just society.
In our view, a movement in the U.S. – and no doubt in many other countries around the world – in which members are dismissive and even hostile toward religion, much less a movement that denigrates those who are religious simply due to their being religious, is a losing movement.
Even if one isn’t convinced that a good religion in a good society will be a positive thing in many people’s lives and thinks instead that the best stance will be agnostic or even highly critical of religion in any form, and even if one is not humble enough to hold that view and yet simultaneously respect that others will differ and deserve respect in doing so, surely a serious leftist ought to be able to see that denigrating all things religious is strategically suicidal in a society as religious as the U.S. Whatever views one may have, if one wants to help build a large, participatory, and self managing movement, one must find a way to function congenially and respectfully with those who celebrate and worship in a religious manner, which is a large minority – or more often a large majority of the population.
Trying to be an organizer in the U.S., while exuding disdain for religion is not much wiser than trying to be an organizer in France if you dislike people who speak French. The acerbic wit H. L. Mencken says: “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.” No ridicule. One retains one’s own perceptions, but respects, as well, those of others, even when different. The time for opposition only arises if there is oppression and subservience – and even then it takes the form only of criticizing those failings.
In any event, even short of having a full and convincing vision for the future cultural sphere of life, it seems we can at least deduce that participatory economy, polity, and kinship will compatibly foster and benefit from such innovations, rather than obstructing them.