Chapter Two: Strategy Is Complex
This is chapter two of the book Occupy Strategy – which is the third and concluding volume of the series titled Fanfare for the Future. In coming weeks we will follow up with more excerpts from this volume, but we hope many readers will order it from our Online Store for yourselves, and then to pass on to others.
We know strategy is contextual, changing with circumstances. Nonetheless, the common features of the starting societies of contemporary social change, the common features of the end points of contemporary social change, and the common characteristics of people and institutions as these typically and necessarily exist, do allow us to make at least a few often applicable strategic observations.
“Often applicable” means that there is a very high burden of proof needed to violate the observations or to expect results contrary to their logic. Such observations can usefully become a scaffolding around which to carefully develop what is in other respects contextual strategy.
In this chapter, then, we focus on seven areas of strategy with nearly universal applicability:
- the size of movements
- the types of demands movements need to develop
- the efficacy of institutional construction
- issues of power
- the value of spontaneity
- the organizational composition of movements, and
- the necessity of organization at all.
Agents of Revolution
“In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.”
– Alexis de Tocqueville
Who will be on the side of change? Who will oppose change? Answers to these questions are only approximate. If we said left handed people are likely on the side of change, it would mean we thought there was something about being left handed that gave people interests, inclinations, desires, and beliefs that would make them more often receptive to seeking change, so that, overall, we would find most left-handers seeking change once a movement for change was visible, serious, and growing. The movement would organically and naturally appeal to left-handers. If left-handers, as is undoubtedly the case, had no such shared propensities due to being left handed, then, as a group, their favoring social change would, instead, occur like it would for any random cross section of the whole population.
Suppose we do identify a group that is a likely agent of change, or of reaction. It doesn’t mean that everyone in the group aligns automatically one way or the other. It means only that there is a good probability of aligning one way or the other. If we orient our movements to inviting, welcoming, and empowering a constituency that is a likely agent, our effort will have considerable promise. If we, instead, invite those who are likely to oppose the movement, our effort will have little promise.
Once identifying a constituency that, by its roles in society’s institutions, has a high–or even a very high–probability of liking a movement’s aims and aligning with it, we have good reason to investigate what that constituency’s priorities are, what its hopes are, and what its agendas are, to listen to it, to work in solidarity with any efforts it already has underway, to welcome it to participate, and empower it to lead.
Okay, that’s the abstract situation. Since we are seeking to find likely potential agents of revolution because they are the constituency we should most powerfully relate to, we should not adopt manners, behaviors, values, and practices that intrinsically and needlessly alienate that constituency, but ones that welcome and empower it.
So, who are they? Different people give different answers. Suppose you think society rests on an economic base. You believe that what happens in the economy radiates influence so powerfully that all other parts of society will necessarily comply with its dictates.
You also believe that the economy divides people into classes with owners above and workers below. Owners defend existing relations to benefit themselves. Workers have the potential to favor new relations to benefit themselves. The fight over whose interests prevail is class struggle. More, if workers win over owners, and they transform the economy beyond capitalism, then, according to this view, all else in society will alter as well.
Thus you believe the agent of revolution is workers who must be cohered into a powerful movement force. Everything that divides workers–including, say, divisions over race, gender, sexuality, etc.–must be addressed whenever doing so can unite workers. It isn’t that you don’t want to eliminate racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., but that you believe the path to do that runs through class struggle, and that winning class struggle requires that the agent of change–workers–be unified in seeking economic transformation. A strategy emerges.
Now suppose, instead, that you think society rests on a kinship base. You believe that what happens in families–nurturance, socialization, etc.–radiates influence so powerfully that all other parts of society will necessarily comply with its dictates.
You also believe that kinship divides people into gender roles with men above and women below. Men defend existing relations that benefit themselves. Women have the potential to favor new relations and to fight to change the social dynamics involved. The fight over these and related matters such as gender definitions and roles and issues of living relations and relations between generations is called feminist struggle. If women and other advocates of feminism transform kinship beyond patriarchy, then all else in society will alter as well.
Thus you believe the agent of revolution is women, who must be cohered into a powerful movement force. Everything that divides women–including, say, divisions over race, class, etc.–must be addressed whenever doing so can unite women. It isn’t that you don’t want to eliminate racism, classism, etc. It is that you believe the path to that end runs through feminist struggle, and that winning feminist struggle requires that the agent of change–women–be unified in seeking kinship transformation. A strategy emerges. Different agents yield different movement agendas.
There are, of course, other possibilities, including the one that emerges from participatory theory as developed in Occupy Theory, volume one of Fanfare.
You might believe–with the authors–that society rests on the entwined relations of four spheres of social life, including economy, kinship, culture, and polity. We don’t know a priori which, if any, of these four is more dominant in defining social relations and possibilities than the others. They all could be centrally critical, something we think holds in our own societies, the U.S. and Spain, and indeed in most modern highly industrialized societies and even most societies of all types, at the present moment in history, including in this case each sphere of life being capable of reproducing the old characteristics of itself and the other three, even if the rest were temporarily changed.
You might believe–again with the authors–that each of the four spheres demarcate–by the implications of the roles they offer–contending groups in society which are typically arrayed in current societies in class, gender, community, and political hierarchies. In the event of mutual co-reproduction of the four spheres, or even short of that, in the event the dominant and dominated groups in the various hierarchies have sufficient interests and inclinations to act together and abet or disrupt efforts at change, you feel that there are many agents of change–those at the bottom of the hierarchies of power and wealth of the four spheres. In this case, too, a strategy emerges, but it diverges from what someone who thinks workers or women or blacks (say) or the politically disenfranchised are the only agent of revolution–instead encompassing all their priorities and others, as well, into one larger holistic approach.
The Numbers Game
“I have little patience with scientists who take a board of wood, look for its thinnest part, and drill a great number of holes where drilling is easy.”
– Albert Einstein
Without Outreach, No Victory
“Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died.”
– Leonard Cohen
Consciousness raising and commitment building entails communication with people who could become participants in social change. How many members must a movement for a participatory society have? How many members must become not only committed to the movement but very capable participants in its agendas? How many must understand its shared vision and strategy well enough to contribute to both? How many must energetically engage in associated actions and projects?
These questions have only contextual answers that can only be fully answered after the fact. Yet, even so, one can surely say that the more folks movements reach, the better. The more folks movements involve, the better. The more folks movements welcome to energetically contribute, the better.
And the observation that “more is better,” in turn, implies some obvious–yet often not well-respected–guidelines. If a movement for participatory change isn’t constantly applying energy and insight to the task of communicating with more people in ways likely to enhance their comprehension and commitment–it is not a serious movement. A priority, indeed the highest priority, must be both attracting new supporters and enlarging existing supporters’ involvement and commitment. To have a small number of supporters with growing commitment and insight is not enough. To have growing numbers of supporters whose commitment and insight are not enlarging, is also not enough.
Think of it as being like building a foundation for a large building. The foundation has to be big enough–but the foundation also has to be good enough, no matter how large it is. If the foundation is riddled with cracks and flaws, it doesn’t matter how big it is, and even how good it temporarily appears, a day will come when the flaws will bring down the whole edifice. Build sufficient scale. Build sufficient quality.
There is a slogan, “better fewer but better.” It is right. It is wrong. You need “better”–meaning more conscious and more committed–of course. But the idea that a few high quality members is sufficient is an abysmal mistake.
Wherever you are building a movement–on a campus, in a workplace, in a community, in a whole country–a handy, albeit rough, rule of thumb we favor is that one-third of the affected population needs to be on board. One-third needs to be committed and informed and involved if the movement is to be a really serious vehicle for lasting transformation of basic defining relations. Recruitment doesn’t stop at a third, but reaching a third puts one in a comfortable position to continue on and win. A movement with a third support is moving from the stage that might best be called predominantly consciousness raising and commitment building to the stage that continues with those efforts, but becomes predominantly contestation.
It follows that as a movement develops it must conceive methods of outreach, training, and commitment-building that can successfully engage a third of the associated population. That is no small number. And it is a rare effort, in today’s world, that has as its aim to reach at least a third–yet to implicitly or explicitly settle for less is pretty much to settle for a movement that will not win a participatory new world.
As an example, let’s consider a campus movement–but it could be a workplace movement, or a neighborhood movement. Suppose the campus has 10,000 people. Suppose the movement reaches 400 members. That’s a big meeting. It feels powerful. There is a justified sense of community and of accomplishment. To get to this point people have worked hard, going room to room, person to person, talking, agitating, spreading literature, having gatherings, etc. At 400 participants, meetings can be held. Projects can be undertaken.
Demonstrations can be called. We like our group. We stop reaching out as our foremost priority and start enjoying our community of like-minded activists. Now comes the bad news. Four hundred people is just 4% of your campus. If we only organize 4%, we are not serious about our task. That might sound harsh, but it is true. The absolute priority needs to be enlarging our group for some time to come. Perhaps at around 3,000 people, while we still want to keep growing more, our foremost focus might become fighting for gains–conceived, however, in considerable degree to further grow our community.
You can’t get to one-third serious, committed, informed membership without dramatically altering the consciousness of lots of people who would otherwise not be relating. At the outset, maybe a handful join, and maybe another one percent are amenable. Getting beyond that means, first and foremost, communicating with folks with whom one doesn’t ordinarily communicate. Put differently–and starkly–getting a nice but proportionately very low number and then acting in light of the views of that number, but no one else–and even acting in ways that will alienate others–is a recipe for disaster. It takes achievement and stifles it.
Without Stickiness, Defeat
“The machine guns are roaring
The puppets heave rocks
The fiends nail time bombs
To the hands of the clocks
Call me any name you like
I will never deny it
The sky is erupting
I must go where it’s quiet.”
– Bob Dylan
Suppose in light of the above awareness we create a movement and do terrific outreach to new people of diverse backgrounds whose views are changing, using whatever approaches work well where we are. And suppose as a result the number of participants is growing, as are the insights of the people joining. We seem to be succeeding at the numbers game.
But what if those who are leaving the movement equal, or even exceed, in number those who are joining the movement?
If we open a faucet to fill a tub, but we have an open drain simultaneously emptying the tub, the water retained is a contest between the entry and exit speeds. On balance, are we gaining new water or are we losing old water quicker?
The same holds for movements as for bathtubs. If movements aren’t sticky–which is to say, if, once people join and become involved, those people do not overwhelmingly remain involved–then even the most effective outreach won’t be enough for continual growth. Worse, when exit is faster than entry, we would have steady depletion ending in total defeat.
But why should a movement that is trying to make the world a better place have a significant exit of old members at all, much less have old members leaving even faster than new members join? After all, a movement trying to make the world a better place is composed of caring and committed people trying to fight injustice. If members have developed mechanisms for reaching out to their rightful constituencies and are successfully doing that as a foremost priority, why would they simultaneously suffer from even greater numbers of members leaving?
The first thing to realize is that this is not a paranoid fantasy. This happens over and over with social movements and organizations to such an extent that it is by some accounts the chief reason for the demise of movements.
As evidence, think about the number of people who have become at least somewhat involved with, or entwined with, or impressed by movements against various wars, green movements for ecological sanity, no nukes movements, movements against racism and for civil rights, movements against sexism and for women, labor movements, gay and lesbian movements, and neighborhood and consumer movements, among others, since, say, 1965. Add to that people who have taken courses from movement faculty, who have lived with movement members, and so on. In the past fifty years, such movements, projects, living units, school classes, etc., have very conservatively involved, at least to some degree, 15 million people in the U.S. alone, and similarly large numbers in other countries. Suppose that nearly all of those people–let’s say 12 million in the U.S. and comparable proportions elsewhere–once having gotten into the vicinity of social movements, were firmly and continuously attracted so that they became steadily more involved and committed. How would that matter?
At this moment, if our movements were all sticky, then not only would those 12 million people in the U.S. and comparable numbers elsewhere, currently be still actively in movements at a very high level of experience and commitment, but there would also be the effects of their work since they were first involved, in many cases decades ago. Thus they would have been attracting others who would have also have become seriously committed and attracted others. Thinking about this picture, considering stickiness over the past fifty years, say, makes it obvious that the problem of people leaving movements is, and always has been, paramount to prospects for societal change.
So the numbers game really does matter.
Whether we are talking about movements initially not doing the work needed to increase their tally of new participants, or then not doing what is necessary to prevent a steadily rising tally of ex-participants, the discussion is critical because the movement tub needs to be constantly filling. We need to open the spigot, but we also need to close the drain.
Think of the progressive/left community as a team fighting against both apathy and outright support for the status quo. Call it Team Change. Size isn’t the only variable affecting Team Change’s strength, but without numbers Team Change isn’t going far so we must reach out widely. But as we reach out and we attract people’s attention or even heartfelt involvement, do we then keep them committed? Call this the “Stickiness Problem.” Once Team Change has someone aboard, does the person stay aboard? Is our team sticky, or is it repulsive?
To win–and that is Team Change’s purpose, not solely to play well–Team Change needs to emanate a field of force that involves potential team members ever more strongly the closer it attracts them. First a person hears about some facet of Team Change. There is an attraction, however slight it may be. As the person is drawn closer the attraction must increase to offset pressures telling him or her to avoid Team Change. Otherwise, the person will drift off. Closer and closer many people orbit. The force should increase in accord. Once a person joins Team Change, the attraction he or she feels should sustain permanent membership.
Is this Team Change’s actual character, or is this stickiness a goal we are far from attaining? To decide, we can look at (1) the historical experience that Team Change has had with potential recruits in the past, and (2) the characteristics of Team Change to see whether its attractive force escalates as people get closer to full commitment.
If you think in terms of a year or two, then the outreach problem certainly seems paramount. How do we get beyond the choir? But even with our limited means of outreach, if you think about a decade–and certainly two or three decades–it is the stickiness problem that really demands attention. Look at our history and ask what the biggest problem is that we have to correct if our movements are to succeed. Our movement’s stickiness, or lack of it, jumps out.
We can come at the situation from another angle. Why should someone, once involved in the logic and dynamics and actual behavior of the progressive/left community, broaden and deepen their opposition stance and stick with it? And, conversely, why should people feel steadily less attachment for their opposition stance as time passes, only to finally return to the mainstream?
Well, think of a person getting more and more involved with progressive ideas and activity. Does this person merge into a growing community of people who make her feel more secure and appreciated? Does she get a growing sense of personal worth and of contribution to something valuable? Does she enjoy a sense of accomplishment, with regular uplifting feedback? Does she have his own needs better met than before? Does her life get better? Does it seem that she is making a contribution to improving other people’s lives?
Or, conversely, does this person meet a lot of other people who continually question her motives and behaviors, making her feel insecure and constantly criticized? Does she feel diminishing personal worth and doubt that what she is doing is making a difference for anyone? Does she suspect there is little accomplished, and have no daily, weekly, or monthly evidence of progress? Does she have needs that were previously met but are now unmet, and few new ones addressed? Is her life getting more frustrating and less enjoyable? Does it seem she is only bothering other people and rarely doing anything meaningful on their behalf?
Let’s stretch the Team Change analogy to the limits. Imagine a high school, college, or professional football, baseball, basketball, or soccer team. Suppose it doesn’t attain its goals, not even improving its results as time passes. At some point the coach looks at the choices made, the strategies used, the operational norms employed and says, hold on, we have to make changes.
Okay, our Team Change has no coach and needs to be participatory and democratic, so being self-critical is everyone’s responsibility. But Team Change must play to win. And that means we need to reassess how we organize ourselves, the culture of our movements, what we learn as we become more committed, how we interrelate, and what benefits and responsibilities we have due to our political involvements.
The alternative to doing much better regarding “movement stickiness” is another long season–two or three decades worth–which, unlike for inflexible high school, college, and pro sports teams, means hundreds of millions of lives unnecessarily stunted and terminated for want of our greater success and final victory.
Being right about what’s wrong with society, and even being able to convey our insights to wide audiences, is essential but not enough. Movements that can win need a degree of clarity about goals and strategy if they are to retain a sense of purpose, confidence, identity, and integrity in the face of critique. True enough. But they also have to be organized and function in ways that not only enlarge but retain membership, and in ways that not only contribute to change but do so clearly in all members’ eyes. Movements have to not only attack problems but also meet needs for members and populations more broadly, and they have to not only win victories that meet needs, but victories that create the conditions for winning still more victories to follow. The absence of all this is our stickiness problem.
So, again, regarding stickiness, regarding closing the drain that empties our movement, why might people leave a social movement, even after having become involved and thus agreeing with that movement’s stated aims?
Here are some key reasons.
“The mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye.
The more light you shine on it, the more it will contract.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Of course a key reason and, indeed, maybe even very nearly the only reason people join movements, is their horror at existing oppressions they or other people suffer. Movements exist to fight injustice. People join movements, overwhelmingly, with that aim.
Maybe it is an experience with sexism, heterosexism, racism, classism, or authoritarianism that causes a person to join. Maybe it is outrage at the pain around the issue–or perhaps most often around a combination of these issues. But here is one reason movements tend to not be sticky, but repulsive. Movements too often saddle members with the same frustrating, depressing, and outraging personal situation that propelled them to join in the first place.
Suppose I am outraged at patriarchal sexism and I join a movement that claims to oppose it. Suppose I then experience within that movement levels of sexism that approach or even exceed those I had experienced in society at large. I may try to endure this depressing condition. Maybe I am also for ending some war so strongly that I try to rationalize and otherwise alibi or ignore the sexist setting I have to occupy–which is made all the more painful by the hypocrisy of its claiming to be what it isn’t. But, for most people, a time comes when we are worn down–and we exit. The attractiveness of being opposed to injustice in name, and even in some deeds, is overcome by the repulsiveness of being a party to injustice–perhaps racism, sexism, classism, authoritarianism–in our own daily existence in a movement that claims to be so much better.
One can be eager to diminish and eliminate oppressive dynamics and structures inside one’s movement on moral grounds, to avoid hypocrisy, and no doubt for many other reasons as well. The point here, however, is that one must reduce and eliminate oppression inside movements or those movements will not be sticky–and therefore will not win.
The Class Problem
“When I rise it will be with the ?ranks and not from the ranks.”
– Eugene Debs
When the women of Bread and Roses, an early feminist organization in the U.S. in the sixties, said to the antiwar movement, “Clean up your act or you won’t succeed,” they were right. When the Black Power component of the civil rights struggle said to the antiwar movement, “Clean up your own house or you won’t succeed,” they were right. We are for ending racism and sexism in society. We have learned that we must also persevere to reduce and finally end racial and sexual hierarchies inside our movements since otherwise:
We are hypocritical and uninspiring.
We suffer the ills of these oppressions ourselves.
Our movements will not attract, much less empower, women, people of color, and other oppressed groups.
We won’t retain our broader antiracist and anti-patriarchy priorities.
This is the race and gender instance of the more general oppression frustration problem mentioned above.
However, we are also for ending economic injustice and class hierarchy in society. And so we also need to patiently, calmly, and constructively restructure our movements so that they no longer replicate corporate divisions of labor, corporate hierarchies of decision making, and market norms of remuneration. This must become a patient but unrelenting priority if we are to avoid class-centered hypocrisy, become economically inspiring, not suffer class alienation ourselves, attract and empower working people in our efforts, and retain our economic justice priorities.
Class, which at various times in history has wrongly crowded race, gender, and sexual identity off our agendas, now needs to be re-worked in ways that address not only the ills of capital, but also the ills of decision-monopolizing coordinators, and the positive needs of labor.
For the moment, instead of battling these ills, many of our movements are often largely “coordinatorish.” They don’t attract and hold working people nearly as effectively as they need to for the same reason that movements disdainful of gender or race don’t attract and hold women and members of minority cultural communities nearly as effectively as they need to.
The issue of class and social change was, for many years, seen as just a matter of us versus them. We were on the side of labor. They were on the side of capital. Each side might have members coming from the other side by background (Engels opposing capital was an owner, cops aiding capital are workers) but the two sides were the only really important class teams that one could join. Of course, individual people weren’t personally homogenized into precisely two positions as locations on the class map were much more varied at the personal level. But collectively, when thinking in terms of overall prospects, class was bipolar.
The message of our new class analysis is that we need to reject a two-class formulation. And it isn’t just that there is a third consequential group. Anyone can see further differentiations among the people labeled capital and among the people labeled labor. There are big capitalists and little ones, industrial and financial ones, and so on. There are organized workers and unorganized ones, employed ones and unemployed ones, skilled and unskilled ones, and so on. Rather, it is that a movement could advocate on behalf of capital, could advocate on behalf of labor, or could instead advocate on behalf of a third class between those two, the coordinator class. There exists, that is, an economy elaborating the interests of each of the three classes as its central logic, not only an economy for two of them. The strategic problem is to develop a movement whose program, structures, and practices lead toward a truly classless future rather than toward a coordinator-dominated future.
It isn’t enough that many people want classlessness. Most of the rank and file in every past revolution wanted classlessness. Rank-and-file activists in the Soviet Union wanted classlessness. Attaining classlessness must be built into the logic of what people do and what they construct, not just into their rhetoric. This requires not only that we create movement institutions in accord with classlessness, but they also must have a more personal dimension.
If we questioned many typical activist audiences–with obvious exceptions, of course–we would often find widespread disdain for religion and for most sports. Try asking campus activists, as an example, about NASCAR or bowling, much less about football (in the U.S.), and watch the incredulous, dismissive reaction. Activists also disparage most TV shows, usually country-and-western music, as well as most restaurants where working people eat and most newspapers that working people read.
The fact that many leftists adopt daily preferences that are not only different from but that routinely disparage working people, with nary a nod toward comprehension of other peoples’ choices, is no accident. There are additional factors, case by case, but overall not seeing that these attitudes are significant derives from our having not yet comprehended that coordinator elitism is as prevalent and as vile as capitalist, racist, or sexist elitism.
We need to understand how people trying to carve out reasonably fulfilling situations in tightly constrained settings can highly value commodities and practices that other people living in different situations utterly disdain.
It is, partly, that sometimes many options are excluded by costs or accessibility, and that some options are made highly accessible or even essential. Why, for example, do many young black boys, and now often girls too, think that playing basketball makes more sense than reading books? Is this genetic? Obviously not. It is due to structural channeling, and those who are channeled are not doing anything stupid in making their choices, nor are they merely being tricked. They, in fact, see reality and act reasonably in light of what they see.
Why do leftists decry mainstream newspapers like the New York Times as horrendous lying machines, and then examine them for hours each day–ridiculing those who instead opt to read only a tabloid’s sports section, which is the one section that doesn’t lie? Is this wisdom? Or is it self delusion?
Once we open our eyes to seeing how a classist movement can make working people feel alienated, just like a racist or sexist movement can make blacks, Latinos, or women feel alienated, the relation of all this to the stickiness problem is obvious. If a movement doesn’t attract and hold enough working people it is typically because its projects, organizations, and campaigns are not welcoming and empowering for working people. They instead embody coordinator class tastes, values, behaviors, and structures.
Imagine an anti-racist movement mimicking the structure and culture of a southern slave plantation and ask yourself, would that be sticky for blacks? Extrapolate to class and the way some movement institutions mimic mainstream divisions of labor and distributions of circumstance, income, and power. The good news, however, is there is a clear path forward.
Ignoring Our Own Positive Needs
“Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.”
– Abbie Hoffman
The needs of people inside movements are not confined solely to not being oppressed by forms of injustice that are common throughout society. If people join a movement which talks about liberation, freedom, and fulfillment, but they feel no better than they felt before they joined, what does it say about the movement’s capacity to deliver a better life?
Movements often, rightly, focus their attention on the needs and potentials of oppressed constituencies in the broader society. So far so good. But they also often pay little or no attention to the needs and potentials of their own members. Members often do not find their lives enriched due to being part of the movement. They often do not enjoy more and deeper friendships. They often do not enjoy a greater sense of dignity and mutual aid. They often find more time for struggle, but not for well being. Indeed, they often do not have a better sex life, more intimacy, more caring, less hostility.
If you joined a club that was supposed to make people happier, more expansive and creative, and your life became less fulfilling, expansive, creative, and happy–what would you do? Well, unless you were a masochist, you would leave the club.
People leave movements not only because the movements feel hypocritical in not addressing internally what they say they will address externally, but also because members just feel crappy too much of the time. Their needs are rhetorically and intellectually aroused, but they often aren’t doing anything creative and engaging. They often aren’t getting any respect. They often aren’t enjoying deeper and better friends. They are even lonely. They give up. Ignoring our own needs is a ticket to movements not being sticky.
The alternative to ignoring our own needs, of course, is to build movements that pay serious attention to the well being of their members, providing services and means for socializing, learning, playing. A movement becoming a medium for mutual aid rather than a den of disparagement.
This doesn’t mean we simply say that having such things would be nice. It means that we give time and energy to making such things happen, in a sustained way, structurally, and as part of movement policy and program. Doing this should be prioritized as being essential to the well being and effectivity of projects, organizations, and movements.
TINA Syndrome and Hopelessness
“It is necessary, with bold spirit and in good conscience, to save civilization.
The bare and barren tree can be made green again. Are we not ready?”
– Antonio Gramsci
The belief that There Is No Alternative, TINA–enunciated perhaps most famously by Margaret Thatcher in the UK, but trumpeted over and over through the decades–limits our numbers in two ways. On the one hand, absence of vision, absence of a belief that our movements can actually win a new world, causes people to not join. On the other hand, people who do join, in time, feel a growing unease. Why am I doing this? It leads nowhere.
If we don’t know what we want, we can’t have a very good plan of how we are going to achieve it. If we don’t have compelling vision, we can’t have good strategy. How can movements lack worthy and workable vision? Shouldn’t everyone know what critics of capitalism want?
We need vision that is disseminated publicly and also subject to continual refinement. What else can promote real participation?
We need vision about economics, politics, law, families, kinship, culture, ecology, and international relations. What else can respect society’s complexity?
Activists have the mental faculties to propose vision. Activists have experiences from history and from our own lives to ground vision. Activists have mental and material means to test vision. Activists could, if we wished, invent, evaluate, refine, and, if need be, reinvent vision.
Through our diverse, often revamped phases of recent activism, not to mention assessing earlier history, surely we have created a store of experiences sufficient to inform credible, inspiring vision.
So why is it that among the many brilliant leftists who have tackled all kinds of problems, so few have generated, or even tried to generate, truly inspiring, easily accessible, factually and logically compelling, operationally worthy, and widely shared vision? Two hundred years of struggle and we have no widely shared institutional vision. It must be that we lack vision not because vision can’t or shouldn’t exist, but because we haven’t brought it into being–despite being able to. Our vision problem is of our own making.
Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine we made a pile from the past forty years of all the public talks, interviews, essays, articles, movies, songs, stories, and books that have been about what is wrong with modern society. How high would that pile climb? To the moon? Only to the top of Mount Everest? In any event, it would reach very high.
Next, imagine that instead we made a pile from the past forty years of all the public talks, interviews, essays, articles, movies, songs, stories, and books about institutions we want to have in a new society. How high would that pile climb? Fifty feet? Twenty feet? To our knees? In any case, not very high.
Yet when an activist talks with someone not on board the movement train, very often the first major query the person will have is, “What do you want?” And the prospective ally doesn’t mean, “Do you favor justice, do you favor freedom?” He or she means, “What new institutions do you want that would make life seriously different for everyone?”
We don’t have vision not because vision is impossible and not because it isn’t needed, but because–despite being both possible and needed–we haven’t given time to conceiving, sharing, and improving it. Huge numbers of people know that the basics of contemporary society are broken, or, more accurately, that they never worked humanely in the first place. But they don’t know, and often don’t believe, there is any alternative worth fighting for.
When we keep explaining how bad our society is and how powerful the agents of reaction are, ironically, we are largely telling people what they already know and, worse, we are feeding a main reason for their not lining up on behalf of change–the belief that change is impossible.
One of us had the following experience. During the run-up to the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan after 9/11, the computers we use for Z Magazine and ZNet had a major glitch. We had to call in help, and it arrived in the form of a young man who ran his own small computer repair firm. After a time working on our problem, he noticed wall hangings, issues of Z strewn about, and so on, and we began to chat about the work we do, the international situation, and the imminent bombing of Afghanistan.
We explained, first, that Washington doesn’t want the UN to handle the matter because that would legitimate international law, and then the U.S. might be subject to its dictates. Our computer repairer understood that argument quite easily. It made sense to him and we had no need to pursue the point further.
Second, we explained, Washington wants to assault Afghanistan because we need to show the world that no one can behave contrary to our requirements and Afghanistan is, in context of 9/11, the easiest available target to make the case. It is like the Mafia punishing someone who doesn’t pay a debt. Even if the Mafia couldn’t care less about the individual, the punishment must be meted out lest others fail to pay their debts. More, the Mafia boss doesn’t pick the most difficult target to punish, but opts for a target both unable to resist and widely hated. Our computer service person understood that argument, too. He was, by the way, a white male, with his own small company, who listened to Rush Limbaugh for entertainment. He had voted for Bush. He was the archetypal recruit of the Reagan revolution. It was just after 9/11, yet, one on one, talking calmly, it took no time for him to assent to an anti-imperialist analysis.
Next we described how all the aid agencies and UN officials in Afghanistan agreed that bombing might kill literally millions of people from a population that was one-third illiterate, that lived about fifty years on average, and that had, for the most part, never even heard of Osama bin Laden and barely heard of George Bush. Yet, despite and even because of all that, George Bush was going to go ahead and bomb them. For Bush, delegitimizing international law and demonstrating our resolve were paramount, and the lives of Afghan civilians didn’t matter. The small businessman not only got it, tears glistened in his eyes. But then he said to us, listen, you have to understand something. I don’t want to hear this, my wife doesn’t want to hear this, neither do my parents, my friends, or the people I work with. And when we replied, you don’t want to hear this like you don’t want to hear about the death and trauma of a hurricane or a tidal wave? He said, yes, that’s exactly right. There is nothing I, my wife, my parents, or my workmates can do about war. It is just the way it is. I can work hard and try to live well and help the people around me live well, but I can’t do anything beyond war that will matter. And when we said, but surely you can see that the U.S. can bomb or not, and that how the public organizes itself and acts could affect what happens? He said, maybe so, but if we don’t bomb Afghanistan, we will bomb somewhere else. War is a part of life, he argued, like cancer or aging. You live with it. You die with it. There is no point whining about it, much less railing against it. War isn’t like your family’s income, which you can perhaps affect.
This computer businessperson was not inhumane. He wasn’t enlarging his range of empire. He wasn’t cold to human suffering. He wept for the Afghans, just as he might weep for earthquake victims. But he wanted nothing to do with rolling rocks uphill only to get crushed when they slid back down. Without vision, a Left cannot enroll this man, or his family, friends, neighbors, or workmates.
And if by chance any of those folks are so put off by their surroundings that they enroll–out of anger, frustration, or despair–the odds are good that in time they will exit, as the absence of vision will gnaw away at their sense of efficacy. The point is that movements must make sharing vision and employing it in developing practical program a very high priority, if they are to win the numbers game.
More, and Better, Too
All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
If we have good outreach, we have new people joining, and our movement retains members, have we solved the numbers game? Almost, but not quite. We will have dealt with growing membership, but we also want membership whose quality keeps improving. Instead of Better Fewer, but Better, we want, Better More, and also Better.
But what is a better member? Put differently, if Sue or Sam is a member, what changes make Sue or Sam a better member, over time?
Once Sue develops a greater understanding of the theory, vision, and strategy of the organization–not simply as someone who can repeat it, but as someone who really understands and can evaluate it, apply it, and improve it–she becomes a better member.
Once Sam develops stronger ties to others in the organization and becomes more deeply involved in various aspects of the organization, as his life permits, he becomes a better member.
When a person joins, they shouldn’t just dangle in the wind with no ties and no implications. There should be a process that uplifts their knowledge, confidence, capacities, involvements, and connections.
Like meeting members’ needs with social programs, similarly enlarging members’ ties and capacities by way of training and welcoming involvements must be a priority. It doesn’t require deep analysis to understand this point. Historically, however, there does seem to be a serious level of commitment and clarity needed if a project, movement, or organization is to act on this point. Thus, it is advisable to have structured means to welcome new members, to share ideas with new members, to involve new members in decisions, events, and projects, to have programs of enrichment and development. All of this should be systematically undertaken as a priority. Then we will have growing numbers of members each of whose level of involvement becomes steadily better.
Dealing with Difference
“The world is big. Some people are unable to comprehend that simple fact. They want the world on their own terms, its peoples just like them and their friends, its places like the manicured patch on which they live.”
– Chinua Achebe
Around the world activists argue that we should show that “another world is possible.” We should be internationalist. We should generate solidarity. We should reduce racial, gender, sexual, political, and economic hierarchies. We should seek ecological sustainability. We should demand peace and justice.
But activists report: “We are fragmented. We are less effective than our cumulative size, energy, and wisdom warrant. People repeatedly, naggingly, and divisively dispute vision, strategy, and tactics with one another.”
Two values we all universally favor, solidarity and diversity, can speak to this problem.
Solidarity celebrates entwinement–we will both benefit if you and I empathize and act on behalf of one another. But solidarity also embraces the idea that we disinterestedly respect one another’s plights and possibilities out of a sense of human community. We all act on this considerably already, but to the extent that our natural empathetic inclinations have been worn down by vicious market competition–something that has certainly happened, to one degree or another, to everyone in modern societies–we can consciously nurture them back into prominence. A proviso, however, is that of course we should not pursue solidarity to the point of disallowing sober critical evaluation. Solidarity isn’t blind allegiance or unquestioning support of one another, but we should certainly put a high burden on refusing to offer aid and logistical support to other radical and progressive actors. Informed and reasoned solidarity is mutual aid.
Diversity means that in pursuing our own agendas we also pay attention to preserving and exploring options that others favor, even when we have doubts about their logic or efficacy. We shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket, lest we misjudge, and, having explored no other options, leave ourselves powerless, disarmed, and otherwise inadequately prepared to redress our error. Whether, individually or in organizations, we should celebrate differences and, when possible, we should keep alive varied approaches so that everyone benefits from lessons and accomplishments others attain. That is, we understand an “insurance” logic to favoring diversity to ward off making grave errors. We also understand an “exploratory” logic to seeking diversity, so that we gain benefits from many more paths explored than we can ourselves embark on. We shouldn’t diversify into micro-fragmentation, but we should pursue diversity well beyond homogenized unity.
We understand the immense benefits of mutual aid. We need to transcend the dehumanizing ills of aloof individualism.
We understand the gains of avoiding uniform approaches. We need to welcome the positive educational and vicarious implications of advocating varied explorations.
Can we massage these insights into explicit ways to deal with movement difference?
One kind of difference that plagues movements is about focus. Prioritize race. No, prioritize gender. You are both wrong, prioritize class. Authority? No, I prefer sustainability. War and peace? No, I prefer gay liberation. For every major area there are folks who think it is primary. They think everything else should be understood in reference to it. If you don’t see things their way, then you aren’t their ally. Advocates of different focuses butt heads. Why? And what’s the solution?
People butt heads this way because we live in a multi-dimensioned world in which different aspects of life profoundly and very differently impact our possibilities. Some people identify primarily via their roles and circumstances in one part of life. Others situate themselves primarily in reference to another part. We get feminists, nationalists, labor organizers, peace workers, environmentalists, gay activists, disability activists, and so on. This partitioning of priority for individuals is not going to go away. And, in fact, this partitioning of priorities for individuals is desirable because individual people have different priorities due to their different life experiences, conditions, and insights. They are experientially attuned to address different aspects of life with their organizing energies. In any event, regardless of whether we like this or not, there is no point bemoaning it. It will not cease.
There are two widely proposed solutions to the ensuing fragmentation, but in practice it turns out that they are not solutions at all.
The first approach to unifying is for someone to say, hey, the conflicts are no problem. We should all do our own thing, but we should all also recognize that one thing (and it always turns out to be the speaker’s thing, of course) is above the rest. My thing is the organizing principle, the heart of the matter, the core of concern. We may each address everything, that’s fine–or only part of it all, that’s fine too–but we should all do whichever we prefer in light of the defining, foundational priority that I espouse and which you all need to agree with me on.
And then the speaker says this central priority that should contour how we understand everything else should be smashing the state. Or perhaps the speaker says it should be uprooting patriarchy. No, it should be transcending capitalism, or attaining peace, or winning multi-culturalism, or sustainability, says the speaker.
The idea of marching behind one banner that elevates one focus–even as everyone can also focus on their own personal priorities–doesn’t work because every constituency wants its domain to be the elevated one. Worse, people in each constituency, rightly, realize that the minute some other focus than theirs is elevated, theirs will be subordinated. Passions run high. Unity will not emerge via even the most broadminded exaltation of one focus above all others.
The second approach to unifying disputing actors is called coalition building. We do not get behind the banner of one school of thought and practice–not even if we each retain our own autonomy and focus but must prioritize another’s conceptual and programmatic priorities all the time, above ours. No, we all instead get behind one tiny morsel of thought and practice that we can all enthusiastically support. We join hands for ending a particular war, or for pursuing some other mutually acceptable short-term aim that we can all agree on, and we are silent, when in each other’s presence, regarding everything else. We avoid rocking the coalition boat. We practice least common denominator politics. The aim we all share, we steadfastly share. The rest, we studiously ignore. It isn’t that coalitions are worthless. It is that coalitions, on their own, don’t produce lasting, mutually supportive unity. In fact, to a considerable extent, they institutionalize separation.
Here is an alternative to trying to get folks to accept one overarching banner or to only celebrate a least common denominator coalition. We build a bloc.
We take the left, the whole broad left–and we will see how it is defined in a moment–and we call it a bloc. If your group wants to be in it, fine, it has to assent to providing people-power and other support for the bloc’s overall agenda while also, autonomously, developing and pursuing its own focused agenda as well. The same holds for my group. The same holds for every other group. The peace movement pursues peace and supports the whole bloc. The movement against racism, patriarchy, whatever, pursues its agenda, and supports the bloc agenda as well. And what is the agenda of the whole bloc? It is the sum of the agendas of all its components. It is their greatest common sum–not least common denominator–including all the differences.
This is not as odd as it might at first seem. It is precisely what a society is, after all–the totality of all its components, differences and all. In our case, we just add that the totality’s components–when we are speaking of the totality of activists–must be mutually respectful and supportive, even about their differences. The resulting bloc, this new amalgamation, is the active left. Maybe some people or groups think they are part of the left but just can’t abide being part of the bloc. Okay, but in fact, you are in the bloc, or you aren’t, and the bloc is, or aspires to be the active left. Maybe some people or groups aren’t welcome. Their commitments are clearly contrary to the bloc’s central allegiances. Fine. It happens.
Those in the bloc operate in it as an encompassing combination of components: a movement of movements. The anti-racists get aid and benefit from the energies and assets of the gay liberationists and the peace activists. The peace activists get aid and benefit from the energies and assets of the environmentalists and the anti-capitalists. And so on, around and around, for all those in the bloc, each getting mutual aid from all others in the bloc. In contrast, those outside go it alone, which gives them a big incentive to join, of course.
The leadership for the emergence of agendas in each facet of life comes from the people who are most affected by that facet of life, which means from those most attuned to it, those most focused on it–not the individuals, but rather large and representative movements. Everyone appends the insights of the rest of the bloc to their own insights in the totality of their thinking. Friction is abided. Difference is part of life and of activism too. Unity of this broad type is deemed so beneficial that attaining it dwarfs any worries about differences–save for the most egregious. And at the same time, differences aren’t confused, ignored, or made either subterranean or put destructively forefront. They are instead treated to serious, informed, and often vigorous debate, and abided in their place.
Is there a mindset that can sustain such commitments among folks with different priority focuses? We think there are two, at least.
The first will be held by only some folks, most likely, but we strongly advocate it and would like to see more people adopt it. It says, in accord with Occupy Theory, that society is a product of the impact of different spheres of institutions and contexts–economy, polity, culture, kinship, international relations, ecology–each powerfully influencing all our life prospects while dividing people into different and often opposed constituencies. There is no a priori assertion of the importance of one focus as compared to any other–of economy as compared to polity, culture, or kinship, or vice versa–but instead their relative effects on life and their centrality to efforts at change are determined only in practice. In societies like the U.S., the evidence is seen as overwhelmingly indicating that all these spheres of life and their influences are fundamental, and that all of them generate defining influences and pressures that mold the rest of society and contour possibilities so greatly that to dramatically transcend the limits of any one of these phenomena requires that we address them all. With this attitude, the need to combine autonomy and solidarity in our organization and movement building seems self-evident. We have no choice. We arrive at the bloc.
Luckily, a second viewpoint exists that could support this bloc approach and which can be held even by people who themselves continue to believe that one particular sphere of influence is fundamental. This second view can be held, that is, by people who believe that women in homes should address kinship prioritizing implications for class struggle, or that workers in firms should address pay scales firstly prioritizing women’s liberation, or that peace activists should address wars with prioritizing attending to race, or vice versa, each favoring one sphere above all others as the central focus for strategic calculation, whichever the operationally dominant focus might be.
The mitigating view is to realize that solidarity without a preferred prioritization (be it around class, or gender, or race, or whatever) is vastly superior to seeking universal prioritization around a preferred focus and failing miserably to attain that prioritization.
If I think patriarchy (or capitalism, or racism, or war, or whatever) should be the main underlying organizing focus even on other issues–if I have this additional understanding–it doesn’t matter to my attitude toward being part of a bloc. The fact is that I understand that not everyone is going to agree with me, so that requiring that everyone must agree with me in my prioritization of one sphere of life above all others as the only route to solidarity will not yield solidarity.
It doesn’t matter if I think that were we to get solidarity based on my prioritization we’d be in better shape, because I know it isn’t going to happen. And, likewise, I know that while forming coalitions will sometimes have merit, coalitions will not yield full solidarity either. So I should argue for my beliefs when people are interested in discussing such matters, but I should prefer that people with other views help each other and help me, and that I, in turn, help them as they help each other–rather than that we all compete. This type of thinking, can, if sincere, support the bloc approach.
One of the things that can prevent such insights from becoming majoritarian is that typically an advocate of prioritizing class or race or any other particular focus not only thinks they are right, which is fair enough, but also actually wants to be right and wants others to be wrong more than they want to win change. This desire is what breeds real trouble.
We should all want a better world. If you say the route to a better world is by way of paying priority attention to class, and she says, no, we should prioritize gender, and he says, no, it ought to be race, and so on… still, we should all want some approach to succeed way more than we want our own viewpoint to be advocated if it isn’t succeeding.
Isn’t the best way forward–supposing that more than anything else we all want to succeed–to insure against the error of our all adopting one wrong approach. Therefore, shouldn’t we advocate an overall design that preserves and explores many approaches, even as we personally argue the benefits of whatever one we most favor?
In other words, it turns out that even if I think a single focus approach would be intellectually best, so long as I am sufficiently humble to respect the possibility that I could be wrong about my favored sphere’s priority, then I ought to favor the bloc approach. In any event, if I am remotely realistic, I ought to advocate the bloc approach because the real world alternative to the bloc is not my preferred idea of unity behind my banner, which simply won’t happen whatever banner I may favor, but no unity at all.
Reform or Revolution
Still, the above isn’t an end to all causes of sectarianism. Different activists can pursue different ultimate aims or visions, not just different priorities, and we might reasonably intuit that this too would be a primary source of differences that can cause conflict.
However, for the moment, the only serious dividing line over what we want for these areas is typically over whether we seek to ameliorate the ills of existing institutions while taking their permanence for granted (therefore being reformist); or whether we seek to replace existing institutions with new ones that accomplish needed functions in fundamentally new ways (therefore being revolutionary).
Some feminists and gay rights activists want new institutions for socialization, nurturance, and family life. Others think modest variations of the existing family, marriage, and living arrangements–plus changes in mindsets–will be sufficient.
Some anti-racists feel that new community structures are required to eliminate root causes of oppressive cultural relations. Others feel some new laws and changed mindsets within the rubric of existing defining relations will relieve suffering as much as it can be relieved.
Similarly, some argue that our government institutions for adjudication, legislation, and collective implementation of shared aims are corrupted by the ills of other spheres of life and need only some revisions and corrections to be optimal. Others argue that we need new ways of accomplishing essential political functions that in their underlying logic propel rather than trample our most impassioned values.
Some say we have to treat the ecology differently within the rubric of existing structures. Others say that treating the ecology differently requires new structures.
In short, some want to patch up society while maintaining its defining features. Others want to transcend society’s defining features to attain a new structure. Is this difference an unbridgeable chasm or can the two camps constructively interact?
If the reformists are intent upon preserving existing relations on behalf of existing elites and are only interested in ameliorating suffering when doing so is consistent with enlarging the continued benefit of those elites, then their conflicts with honest revolutionaries will be hard to bridge. The revolutionaries will rightly repudiate the reformists’ elevation of the rights of elites to primary position and reject these type of reformists’ bottom-line callousness to the conditions of the poor and oppressed.
However, if the reformists sincerely believe that ameliorative change can eliminate harsh ills and are intent on accomplishing that without regard for preserving elite advantages–thinking only that the preservation of elite advantages is likely, but not favoring it–then it should to be possible to work together and have mutual respect. These types of reformists and revolutionaries should each respect the other’s honest concern and informed opinions, and seek gains when possible together, and, quite importantly, the reformists should not want to be right, but should instead hope that it will turn out that more desirable changes than they anticipate are possible.
Likewise, if the revolutionaries seek fundamental changes without attention to the impact on those most afflicted and if they are callous to short and middle term gains, then their conflicts with honest and caring reformists will be hard to bridge. The reformists will rightly repudiate this type of revolutionaries’ callousness to fighting to improve the immediate conditions of the poor and oppressed. But if the revolutionaries sincerely believe in the possibility and desirability of fundamental change but also respect and seek immediate gains for those suffering most now–trying to bring both agendas into mutual accord but never losing track of the immediate needs of the downtrodden–then it should be possible to work together with mutual respect and benefit.
Worthy revolutionaries want near-term higher wages, better work conditions, affirmative action, a shorter work week, immigration reform, equal access to quality eduction, legal reform, free childcare, free health care, paid maternity and paternity leave, shorter work weeks, new housing, clean air, climate sanity, peace, a change in the rules of international exchange, and so on and so forth, just as do well-meaning reformists.
The difference is that when the reformist fights for such gains it is not part of a project to transform defining institutions. The reformist feels that to seek fundamental change is futile, or unnecessary, or even worse, that it would disrupt interests of elites held in high priority. But the sincere reformist who believes fundamental change is not on the agenda but who would certainly celebrate if it were achieved, should of course not be scared that others pursue such change and should not pray for their failure. And similarly, the sincere revolutionary should not disdain reforms, per se, and should not pursue fundamental change in a manner callous to the immediate potentials of people suffering the ills of today’s policies and institutions. If these conditions are met on both sides, then even though the difference in outlook and aims are profound, mutual work and mutual dialog ought to be possible. If the conditions aren’t met, then mutuality is unlikely, and rightly so.
What makes it possible for reformists and revolutionaries to meet these conditions?
First, the humility of each side to respect that, after all, it could be wrong.
Second, the recognition of each side that, in fact, the other side really is also motivated to reduce injustice and to increase fulfillment.
What will be the nature of operational differences?
Reformists will consider it a misuse of energy to talk about basic institutional dynamics and to advocate their replacement. They will feel that talking about revolution will reduce energies for seeking truly possible change and perhaps even obstruct some folks’ allegiances to efforts at needed change.
Revolutionaries will talk not only about an immediate goal, but also about basic institutions and will offer long-term vision and try to develop lasting infrastructure to pursue continuing gains leading to larger and larger movements. They will feel that to forgo these focuses not only reduces the likelihood of long-term revolution, but even undercuts prospects for immediate reforms. Revolutionaries will deny, that is, that application of energies to future aims as well as to immediate ones distracts from winning gains now, and will feel instead that without hope for continuing trajectories of change all the way to a new society, most people will be unlikely to join campaigns for just immediate gains, feeling that even if such campaigns are won they will in time be rolled back as underlying defining relations reassert themselves.
Is this difference intractable?
An advocate of the ideas developed in Fanfare would not only advocate for higher wages or a shorter work week or peace, but also develop consciousness of underlying structural causes of associated ills, plus allegiance to inspiring visions, hope and desire for fundamental changes, awareness of long-term strategy, and increases in movement organization and infrastructure.
In contrast, the honest reformist would put all his or her energies solely into describing a reform and building activism on behalf of the immediate change to benefit those suffering.
The differences are intractable at the level of ideas, values, and even aims, but are not so intractable that each activist has to regard the other as an enemy. Each can welcome the extent of the other’s contribution. Each can avoid arrogantly suggesting that the other should not even exist.
Okay, but beyond differences over reform and revolution, what about the existence of different visions of what institutions we should have in the future? When there are different visions, with different advocates for each, is that a difference we can handle constructively?
Again, there is no universal answer. The issues are to what extent two different visions yield two different short term agendas. And to what extent do the differences represent different understandings of how to attain essentially the same just conditions of fulfillment, or to what extent do they represent different definitions of what fulfillment is, and even about who to fulfill?
As an example, suppose an advocate of market socialism says I seek markets, councils, remuneration for output, public ownership of productive property, and workers’ control all on behalf of equity, diversity, solidarity and self-management, including classlessness.
In contrast, an advocate of participatory economics, as per Occupy Vision, says I seek participatory planning, councils, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, collective ownership of productive property, balanced job complexes, and worker and consumer self-management on behalf of equity, diversity, solidarity, and self-management, including classlessness.
The former says of the latter that she strives for more than is possible, giving up too much output and risking incursions on privacy, etc. The latter says of the former that he seeks contradictory aims settling for institutions that fall short of his values.
This is an honest disagreement. It can be intense, of course, but there is no reason for it to yield unbridgeable hostility. It can occur regarding economy, as in this example, or regarding any other dimension of social life. Different visions that arise to attain essentially the same state of grace via different institutional allegiances can compete for support and validation through partial implementation, via their direct appeals and, of course, by their logical arguments.
A person advocating one such visionary approach should not be upset if it turns out that the values she seeks to attain require another’s institutional recommendations. Our values are principled. Institutions are means to ends. Conflicting visionaries, while the issue of which vision is to be implemented is undecided, will seek many and varied short term gains, and these will overlap greatly, affording the possibility not only of debate but also cooperation.
Suppose instead of the above happy situation, the advocate of what he calls market socialism pursues the stated institutions on behalf of elevating those who have a monopoly on training, education, empowering tasks, and the levers of day-to-day decision making power–what we call the coordinator class–to a dominant position in the economy. This advocate of “market socialism” wants to eliminate capitalist rule to replace it with coordinator class rule.
The advocate of participatory planning, in contrast, wants to eliminate not only the source of capitalist rule, but also the source of coordinator rule. For the market socialist, the economic vision serves firstly managers, engineers, and others who monopolize decision making skills and levers, and then serves other workers secondarily. For the pareconist, the economic vision serves all who work, with no class differentiation. This is a different kind of difference than favoring different institutions with the same values in mind. It is more basic than a dispute over what institutions can achieve shared values. In this more intractable case, difference is rooted in the underlying values themselves, not in different understandings of the logic of particular institutions or aims for attaining shared values. It isn’t analysis in question, but rather class allegiances.
It would be delusional to deny that this second kind of visionary difference constitutes big trouble for unity. But so it should. Dealing with difference doesn’t mean papering over disputes about our defining, central values. Those differences have to be admitted and, when intractable, they should be labeled as such. We can still communicate rationally rather than in some kind of verbal joust mode. We can still address evidence and logic rather than constructing personal assaults. But what is unbridgeable is… unbridgeable.
Many differences among activists are about what we should be doing in the present or over some span of time leading to a better future. Such differences are about activist strategy and tactics, not about vision.
Strategy is our view of the broad process of gathering support for change and developing means of manifesting that support to win a sequence of alterations in society and to finally attain new defining institutions. Part of strategy is deciding our focus–not just issues but constituencies to organize. Another part of strategy, however, is deciding on organizational structure, whether to operate locally or nationally, whether to work in electoral arenas or not, and so on.
Tactics are the methods we employ to attain short term parts of strategy. Tactics include demonstrations, strikes, leafleting, modes of presentation and communication, conferences, polling or get out the vote methods, civil disobedience, and so on.
Confusing the issue further, people who have different focus or vision may agree about aspects of strategy and tactics. On the other hand, people who agree on vision and focus can disagree about strategy or tactics. Regrettably, when differences over strategy and tactics exist, they often become debilitating. Our own strategic commitments will emerge as we proceed with the rest of this book. Still, for the purpose of addressing sectarianism, we will raise some strategic matters and related concerns–albeit without much supporting discussion–immediately below.
Strategy and Tactics
For example, suppose we have two activist camps. They each advocate the same values–let’s say those of participatory society as outlined in this book’s introduction–and that they also advocate the same long-term institutions to attain these values. Regarding what they ultimately want, they are united.
One camp, however, says that in fighting against the mental and behavioral dictates of current structures, and to overcome opposition, it is essential–even though they wish it wasn’t–to utilize what they call democratic centralism, an approach to organization which in practice bears a huge resemblance, they admit, to the organizational structure of the Ford Motor Company. They say we need to use this ugly methodology to win, otherwise we will be disjointed and easily fragmented and trampled. They don’t worship this type of organization, they just think conditions make it necessary.
The other camp argues, instead, that such hierarchy is not a powerful aid to winning classless goals and will also be uncongenial to and disempower working people, as well as instill the wrong values and inclinations in our movements. Contextually it is a loser, in addition to having damaging side effects, says this advocate of the second approach.
In other words, there is a dispute over what is called Leninist organization. It could be a debate over goals–if one side thought this structure was good for the long haul–but, as noted in the case indicated here, it could also be solely about means. One side says the means will subvert the end. The other side, however, says rejecting the means will subvert the end. We have to use it, and aggressively prevent it from trampling our aims. What do we do?
We think the answer is dictated by reality. We explore both options. Trying both will be the reality, since both inclinations strongly exist, so we might as well celebrate trying both. Two camps, two approaches. The key thing is that we should all hope that one works. We should see which works by trying both. It is that simple. There is no reason for either side to want to be right, to feel it is important that they be right. What matters is to find out what is, in fact, right. If both sides are being honest, both should hope that an approach which avoids the use of authoritarian structures will prove viable and effective. After all, both views want a society without such structures. If both sides are honest, both should agree that if a new world can’t be attained without using interim authoritarian structures, at least to a degree, then such structures will have to be utilized–with their ills carefully guarded against. On two sides of this divide, people feel very strongly. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be mutually respectful. If the difference is strategic, as in the case when there are shared long run aims, as described above, there is no reason to be anything but respectful. Of course if the difference is really over vision, then we may be back to an intractable situation.
Take another example. Do we choose in our demonstrations violent confrontations, civil disobedience, or peaceful legal displays without any conflict at all? These alternatives do not reflect abiding principles. With very few exceptions, everyone agrees that all of these approaches could make sense in some cases, and also might not make sense in some other cases.
We have a strike. We picket. Scabs arrive. It may make sense to block their entry to the firm by non-violently clogging up routes of axis or perhaps even to block them forcefully. Very few leftists think that to advocate such choices reveals oneself to be unworthy. Likewise, very few think that someone who argues that such an approach, in a given context, is unwise because it overextends our means, invites repression that we can’t ward off, and will alienate potential allies, is unworthy for thinking such thoughts. The matter is contextual, not universal. That’s what characterizes tactics. There can be a large onus against a certain option on grounds that the option has intrinsic qualities that typically tend to be counter productive. But ultimately each issue is, nonetheless, its own issue.
What if there is a disagreement? For example, what if there is to be a large demonstration and some people want violent confrontation, some want active civil disobedience, some want passive civil disobedience, and some want peaceful legal marching? Then what? The issue isn’t what single way of thinking about such choices is right. The main issue is to realize that diverse ways of thinking are going to exist, and thus to determine what attitude, in light of that diverse reality, is most constructive.
And the answer is what it has been throughout this discussion. We understand solidarity. We understand diversity. We know the price of fragmentation. We know the price of all eggs in one broken basket. So we all agree that celebrating different strokes for different folks–whether we like all the strokes that folks might opt for or not–makes more sense than seeking homogeneity.
On the other hand, your stroke shouldn’t trump my stroke, or vice versa. The goal is to manifest our energies in ways that build a movement and raise social costs able to win sought ends. If we all agree on that, we may disagree on how any particular tactic contributes to or even hurts the cause. But the idea that one approach should imperially displace other’s that are also highly valued and supported should be obscene to everyone, even those favoring that particular approach.
One stroke for all violates diversity just as surely as ruling out options from the top violates diversity. So, we can all easily see that we have to have a multi-tactic movement, just as we have to have a multi-focus movement. There is no other route to significant unity. Multi-tactic doesn’t mean, however, that we all choose what we like with no attention to the implications our choice has for others. If my choosing tactic x would preclude your choosing tactic y which you prefer, then we need to negotiate so that I can do x and you can do y and the two undertakings can not only both occur, but, to the extent possible, can mutually benefit.
Of course, negotiating like this can be difficult, but as a first step, agreeing that we ought to do so can’t hurt and may well lead to the obvious insight that actions can occur at different times, in different places, with different preparations.
Other types of difference may be more difficult to reconcile. You look out the window and see blue and green. I look out the same window and see maroon and yellow. We are trying to describe for the same audience what we see out there.
For example, you look and see Milosevic, Hussein, and Ghadafi, as relatively good guys or even heroes, plus you also see grotesque U.S. violence and intervention. I look out and see Milosevic, Hussein, and Ghadafi as awful thugs, plus I see grotesque U.S. violence and intervention. We want to address the same audience about the Balkans, Iraq, or Libya. What makes the problem big? You think calling Milosevic, Hussein, and Ghadafi thugs plays into the hands of attacking their countries. I think denying the evil of these folks, much less extolling them, undercuts the legitimacy of the antiwar movement and thereby hurts efforts to prevent attacks on their countries.
Big problems over different perceptions of what is going on arise, that is, when different activist camps see reality in ways that are so at odds that each camp thinks the other’s way of talking about reality is incomplete, confused, and even obstructs political awareness and progress. The part the two camps more or less agree about may even lead to similar desires about what they should be doing, for example–what demonstrations to be calling or what broad organizing to be doing. But the part they disagree about may lead to very different and sometimes even incompatible ways of pursuing the similar ends–what to say at the demonstrations, who to have speak, what to demand.
As long as the world appears so dramatically different to us, our messages will be dramatically different, and much else is likely to be dramatically different, as well. Is there any hope for civil, much less cordial, relations? Maybe.
Again there is a crucial condition. For any kind of civility to emerge despite the differences, it must be that we are both more interested in making progress than we are in having been right about our analysis. We should each be far happier if the other is right and great progress ensues, than if we prove correct and slow or no progress ensues. If we have our motives clear in this respect, and again if we also have even the most minimal degree of humility, then an obvious if somewhat difficult way of operating arises. We live and let live even as we as also argue as forthrightly as we can for the views we think are correct.
Rather than waste time assaulting one another, we each face, instead, the whole population. We bring them our different messages and we see what happens. We don’t try to stop the contrary advocate from presenting their case in exchange for them not trying to stop us. We each realize that it is better for both to proceed without each attacking the other, then for both to waste energy in mutual attack and, as well, for all broader communication to be hurt by the overarching mutual hostility. If we can, at times, join together, we do so. If we can’t, we don’t. Debate is fine. Mutual aid is fine. Mutual or one way assault isn’t.
We all know sectarianism when we see it–at least in folks other than ourselves. But defining sectarianism is not so simple. Some might say sectarianism is feeling some view or value really strongly. Or that it is holding strong views without sufficient evidence. Or that it is being willing to strongly argue one’s views or to say that others’ views are wrong, dumb, or harmful. But sectarianism obviously can’t be any of those features. We all believe various things strongly. We all believe some views are wrong, dumb, or even harmful. Everyone sometimes turns out to have believed something without sufficient evidence. We are all happy to argue for our beliefs. None of this in itself implies that we are sectarian.
Some say sectarianism is solely a political phenomenon. Others say it is only a phenomenon of a particular ideology. But we know that all kinds of folks can be sectarian, not only diverse political types–Leninists, anarchists, feminists, etc.–but also religious folks, or economists, and so on.
Maybe sectarianism is another name for religion. But it can’t be because we know that being sectarian doesn’t mean that one is religious, nor does being religious mean that one is inevitably sectarian. The same goes, by the way, for any political persuasion. Some in each persuasion are sectarian, some aren’t. As a matter of fact, the same person can be sectarian sometimes, and yet the height of flexible sobriety other times.
We know that when a person is sectarian, logic, evidence, reason, empathy, mutual regard, and respect become only weakly operative, if present at all. What is symptomatic of sectarianism is, instead, inflexibility, dogmatism, and imperial disregard.
So, again, what is sectarianism? Perhaps sectarianism occurs when a person comes to feel a subset of their views to be their identity. We get sectarian mostly about views that do double duty as views and also as our identity. When we take our views to be who we are, any criticism of our views feels like an attack on our essence. Someone says I think your view of the need for Leninist organization, or to prioritize gender first, or on behalf of absolute non-violence, or against markets, or for small scale organization, or in favor of consensus, or whatever… is dead wrong and even harmful. If we feel the view in question as a core feature of our very identity, as part of the essence of our being, as a component of our integrity and who we are–then we tend to perceive in the criticism of our views not just words of disagreement about ideas, but a deadly attack on our personhood. We promptly assume the posture appropriate to warding off a deadly attack, and we strike back. Our rebuttal likely includes some harsh rejection of the critic’s “defining” views. Now our critic feels assaulted just as we did, and prepares for further verbal, if not physical, conflict.
To us the spiral of defensive/aggressive behavior characterizing sectarian conflict stems largely from feeling disagreement with our views as an assault on our identity. It isn’t only that we believe something deeply. It isn’t only that we argue for it strongly. It isn’t only that we think some other views are wrong, dumb, or harmful, nor is it just that we might be wrong. If someone tells me the population of the U.S. is less than the population of Chile, I don’t get berserk about it even though I hold my contrary view strongly and think their view is nonsense. If someone tells me a view upon which I premise my identity is wrong–berserk is what I may become. In sectarian exchange we aren’t really arguing about ideas and evidence so much as we are protecting our identity and even our very existence.
It is pretty easy to come to this conclusion when you watch a particular brand of sect member redefine themselves to the point of dressing and talking like one another and in the imagined manner of their politically preferred deity, whether that is Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, or even, sad to say, Bakunin. The sects in question have all the earmarks of cults, but at the same time they were ultimately built around what was once a reasoned adherence by each member, for however short a time, to actual values, views, and aims–which may even have had great validity and been meritorious. The increasing identification of the values, views, and aims with members’ personal definitions of self, however, seems to jettison reason and auger in–even against people’s better judgment–inflexible, arrogant, dismissive, defensive, aggressive, out of touch, and sometimes drunkenly psychotic sectarianism. We have very likely all drifted into it, at least to some extent, at some time or other, and so we all know the phenomenon personally. Some are stuck in it, however, with a vengeance.
A remedy for this, we believe, is to try to look inward to de-link our identity and our beliefs. We accomplish this not by reducing how passionately we hold our beliefs, but by understanding that our beliefs are, after all, contingent, and that we are at all times more than our contingent beliefs, and that we should never want to cling to contingent beliefs at the cost of reality, effectiveness, and our true and even deeper identity.
We suggest, that is, that we try to defuse unproductive sectarian confrontations by trying to draw a very clear distinction between another person’s ideas, values, and aims that we wish to question, and the identity and worth of the actual person who we are engaging with. It appears very simple, as stated. It appears to be platitudes, really. But nonetheless, achieving this partitioning between person and beliefs will help reduce or even eliminate needless division, infighting, and sectarianism–which is, in turn, part of attaining a movement that people stick with.
Paralysis of Analysis or
Action Faction Subtraction
“Strong reasons make strong actions.”
– William Shakespeare
There is often a tendency to overthink things to the point of interfering with getting things done. More, the extra thought itself is, in such cases, typically fruitless. Long after what can be assessed is on the table and debated, people bring up disputes about matters that cannot be fully known, or details that transcend need to know, or byways of debate that reflect academic extrapolation, and anything else other than serious attention to what needs doing and how to do it. We all know this happens, but what does it actually imply we should do instead?
First, the solution is obviously not to forego thinking, which is just the flip side of analysis paralysis. The world is a mess, we must act. Stop all the palaver, get on with it, and do so before anyone has any chance to offer any assessments at all. Act on impulse. Forego thought.
What do these mirror image problems have to do with the numbers game? It is simple. Movements lose members when participation in them seems either a useless pastime due to endless intellectual debate without action, or due to perpetual action without taking the time to assess, plan, and choose wisely. Sensible people see the first dynamic as a waste of their time, and, at least if they manage to give it even a little thought, see the second as unlikely to chart useful paths forward.
But where does over analysis or under analysis come from? There are numerous factors but one, in particular, is insecurity.
There is an old Chinese saying, “Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win.” What does that mean? Why would one have to dare to win, or even to struggle (other than fear of losing)? The answer is, because of fear of error. It feels like a massive responsibility to struggle for change and to take steps instituting change–and morally sound people feel trepidation.
Fear of error can and often does cause a kind of avoidance of acting–which takes the form, in order to appear willful and not fearful, of the paralysis of analysis.
That is one slope toward that failing. A second is similar. Insecurity can lead directly to questioning, re-questioning, and simply not ever winding up with an analysis, again for fear of being wrong. Add to this that some folks just like analysis, and the seeds for endless disputation about minutiae emerge.
How does insecurity bear on the action faction? They seem to be impulsive, eager, primed for activity. Well, sometimes, their readiness is just that and nothing more. But sometimes, and perhaps more often, it is that this group thinks if there is debate and discussion, then what they prefer will not occur. Their insecurity arises from feeling that they will not be able to convince others of the efficacy of their inclinations, once those inclinations are subject to discussion, so it is better to just rush their views into practice. This is not only precipitous and arrogant, forestalling assessment, but also undemocratic–much less contrary to participation and self-management.
At any rate, whatever the roots of these dual problems may be, a solution is evident, albeit sometimes difficult. First, create movements in which there is sufficient mutual aid, respect, and, especially, development of speaking skills and political awareness in all participants, so that all have faith that a general discussion followed by a decision will be better than rushing to judgement. And second, have clear procedures which are organizationally followed each time, for developing program and discussing and choosing tactics, and which a) prevent endless exploration of the inessential, but also, b) ensure sufficient assessment so that good ideas surface and all who are involved feel informed and confident that important issues have been aired, and finally, c) whenever possible, also enact alternative plans of action, to preserve options and avoid a mistake being disastrous.
The Personal Is and Isn’t Political
“I ain’t lookin’ to compete with you
Beat or cheat or mistreat you.”
– Bob Dylan
The phrase “the personal is political” first arose from the women’s movement of the 1960s. In the 1950s to mid-1960s, there was sexism, racism, and poverty, but little public recognition of these oppressions. Folks assumed each individual’s plight was of their own making. To improve one’s lot meant to overcome one’s personal character inadequacies. The civil rights movement then demonstrated that many of the conditions that each black person faced were duplicated in the conditions most other black people faced. From blacks seeking food in restaurants to seats on buses to votes in elections, the public revelations of the era propelled new insights. The enemy was no longer one’s own inadequacies. The enemy became systemic and was called “institutional racism” and, later, “white supremacy.”
During the same period, spurred by civil rights momentum, a new resurgence of socialists–with Michael Harrington’s book The Other America in the most visible position–showed that hunger and poverty were not personal prices that people paid for faulty preferences they harbored, but were systemic outcomes operating against people’s higher aspirations. Poverty wasn’t a personal failure. It was systemic. The enemy became not self, but capitalism.
The antiwar movement, in turn, revealed the causation and commonality in the patterns of U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia and throughout the world. Bombs weren’t beneficent nor were they dropped due to the poor choices of the targeted victims. We weren’t entangled overseas due to largesse. American foreign policy was greed and power writ large. The enemy became not U.S. errors or excess concern, much less the behavior of those blown to bits, but imperialism.
The 1960s women’s movement came together, in part, when women in both the antiwar and civil rights movements noticed that their exclusion from leadership and their exploitation doing the most tedious work was not uniquely individual but was, instead, shared. Through consciousness-raising groups in which women told each other their life stories, women discovered that their situations in marriage, child-rearing, sex, work, culture, and even language were not unique but strikingly similar, and that the cause of their suffering was not themselves but something systemic and political. The enemy became not self, but patriarchy.
In each instance, activism uncovered that “the personal is political.” That is, the experiences, feelings, and possibilities of our personal lives were not just due to personal preferences but were overwhelmingly limited, molded, and defined by a broader social setting. Our problems felt personal, but their broad texture was systemic. They were imposed on us, not caused by us. In this sense, a central contribution of the New Left was to say that we suffer a “totality of oppressions” that is systemically based, mutually entwined, and that all needs to be overcome by a revolution in existing institutions and the creation of liberating alternatives. In other words, “the personal is political” meant that our personal lives were, in considerable part, politically determined. Improving our personal experiences required collectively addressing political structures.
Time passes. A new generation picks up the phrase but reverses it to mean that our personal choices have political implications. Big deal, you might say. That’s true, too. The personal choice to support an activist project certainly has political implications. What’s wrong with saying so? But redefining the phrase went further to imply that all the personal choices we make, even the ones that seem totally apolitical, have political implications and that those are especially important and even paramount. You choose to wear makeup or not, to watch TV or not, to eat this or that fish, to wear this or that pair of sneakers, to use a bank or not. These are personal decisions, but they are also political acts, was the new apex of insight.
The idea that personal choices have political implications was, and is, true and certainly has some explanatory power and informative value. But the reversal of meaning went further. The most telling and instructive meaning of “the personal is political” became, in the 1990s and since, a feeling that the key thing for each individual to be concerned with in being political was to be personal in the “correct” way. Dress right, eat right, talk right, look right, read right, consume right, play right. That is how to be the best person, politically, that you can hope to be. “The personal is political” instead of meaning that personal outcomes are largely a product of systemic relations and of impositions on us by structures way beyond the reach of each individual acting alone, came to mean, instead, that all political phenomena arise from the accumulated personal choices of individuals acting alone. What needed to be addressed to win better conditions were primarily people’s personal choices.
This trend has been partially embodied in many sides of contemporary thought and activism, not least, for example, in elements of what is called “third wave feminism,” “identity politics,” “food politics,” “lifestyle politics,” and so on.
Consider vegetarian activists insulting others who eat meat; anti-imperialists sneering at others who root for a football team deemed militaristic; anti-capitalists putting down a small businessperson; feminists, socialists, and all manner of leftists criticizing others who enjoy elements of popular culture; mighty left intellectuals putting themselves above others who read “lowbrow” materials.
It is true that we need to try to live our lives in accord with our values. But it is also true that our values need careful assessment for their own biases and that our own ways of orienting our lives to our values have to be understood not as the only ways to do it, or the best ways to do it, but most often just as our particular way to do it. We need to abide and respect others who find other ways to live out good values. We can have patience and respect for those who are carving out ways of living in less (or more) propitious circumstances than we enjoy.
More, the impetus to wise, isolated, personal choices cannot replace the need for joining in collective acts and structures. “The personal is political” should mean society largely imposes our personal lives on us. We can change our personal lives only through collective action against unjust social relations.
And what does this have to do with movement stickiness? If you join a project–much less a movement to make a better world–and then a large part of your existence becomes being hassled and hassling others for their personal choices, moralistically judging and being judged, most often abstractly, without sympathy, without understanding, how long does it take to get fed up and move on? Not long. And what are your chances of attracting lots of people to join you? Not good.
And what is to be done about it? Common sense and mutual respect. You wear my shoes, I will wear yours, before we claim we are debasing our beings by making constrained choices in complex settings. Let’s bring back the real meaning of the personal is political, and jettison the judgmental meaning.
Reform Can Be Strategic
“For reforms ameliorate the situation of the working class, they lighten the weight of the chains labour is burdened with by capitalism, but they are not sufficient to crush ?capitalism and to emancipate the workers ?from their tyranny.”
– Clara Zetkin
One of the abiding issues of political, and particularly, revolutionary strategy, is how to relate to reforms. To see if there are any near universal insights on the matter, first we need to get clear about some definitions.
A reform is a change in society that doesn’t alter basic defining institutional relations. Getting higher wages is a reform. So is affirmative action. So is ending a war, changing tax rates, and so on.
Reformism, by contrast, is an approach to social change that takes for granted that basic defining relations are not going to change. Reformism seeks to win reforms, maybe lots of them, and reforms are the only sought end of reformism.
Rejecting Reform Means No Victory
“You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.”
– Wayne Gretzky
To reject reforms as being insubstantial, insufficient, ignorant, etc., is to take a callous, uncaring, and even heartless stance for insubstantial and insufficient reasons. Yes, that is certainly a harsh judgement. And, yes, we know that rejecting reforms is an almost reflex position of many of the most committed and courageous activists currently engaged on the world stage. Nonetheless, we contend it is horribly wrong. Why?
To be against reforms is to say I am against demonstrating to end a particular war. It is to be against strikes to win better wages or conditions. It is to be against campaigns against pollution or global warming. It is to be against rallies for affirmative action or reparations. Very few who say they are against reforms are, in fact, against reforms. Virtually all of them would celebrate any victory of the sort just listed–even when no change of basic social relations occurred. But, by saying they are against reforms–by calling those who seek reforms ignorant or uncommitted–these same people exude a feeling of aloof callousness, as if they believe that reducing suffering is beneath their attention and unworthy of their effort. So, to be against reforms–even if unintentionally and unknowingly–can be callous.
It is also insubstantial, meaning, it is based on literally nothing of demonstrable weight. It typically arises, instead, from feeling that to be for a reform means one cannot be, now–or even ever–for more thorough and complete transformation.
To favor reform, the feeling runs, negates any potential for favoring revolution. There is, however, zero logical or experiential evidence for such a claim. Of course some people who favor reforms don’t favor revolution. Some people who favor Facebook don’t favor revolution, also. Does that mean to favor Facebook precludes favoring revolution. Some people who favor free access to clean water don’t favor revolution. Does that mean to favor free access to clean water precludes favoring revolution?
Of course not. There is no connection between favoring Facebook or clean water and not favoring revolution. But, what is the connection between favoring an end to a war, a higher wage for some workforce, or affirmative action or reparations, and not favoring revolution? Of course some who favor clean water reject revolution. Some who favor Facebook reject revolution. Some who favor reform reject revolution. Favoring clean water is probably completely neutral vis a vis favoring revolution. Favoring things like an end to war, higher wages for workers, affirmative action, pollution controls, etc., is arguably one component of favoring revolution, or very nearly so. In other words, the link between favoring reforms and not favoring revolution is insubstantial, as is the rejection of reforms on that basis.
People do not typically arrive at rejecting society’s fundamental institutions in one giant leap. It often involves steps, or stages, during which one learns about society, and about oneself, very often by way of movements seeking to win reforms–anti-war movements, women’s movements, labor movements, no nukes movements, civil rights movements, etc. It is often not until one has experience in these movements and explores the limitations of their goals that one decides the whole system is rotten to the core and needs to be replaced. If no one was seeking reforms–and no one ever had–then virtually no one would be revolutionary.
So, to reject reforms is not only callous and insubstantial, it is also tantamount to rejecting revolution by rejecting aspects of the processes by which revolutionary movements are born, tempered, strengthened, and educated.
Advocating Reformism Also Means No Victory
“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you.
Then they fight you. Then you win.”
– Mohandas Gandhi
However, the real reason activists reject reforms and use the word pejoratively, is not because they reject reform, but because they rightly reject reformism. But they wrongly lump that very astute stance into a bundle with a self defeating stance that rejects reforms themselves.
Reformism, by definition, rejects revolution. It says we are seeking to end to a war, and then go home. We are seeking higher wages, and to then go home. We are seeking to shut down one coal plant, or to force employers to hire minorities, or to get wheelchair access in some public buildings, and to then go home. Reformism says society’s basic institutions are here to stay. They are a given, the firmament of reality. We cannot touch them. Reformism says the only gains possible are ones which take for granted those institutions. In fact, reformism typically says that to seek to alter those institutions is counter productive. It drains energy from seeking to win specific reforms in a hopeless Sysyphean pursuit of the impossible.
Reformism comes in many shapes and forms, but we can perhaps best differentiate two main ones. The first truly believes what it is saying–which is that basic institutions will last forever and that the only way to better the lot of society’s worst off is to ameliorate their pains with reforms. And here is what many revolutionaries do not want to hear. People who think this can be just as caring, have just as fine values, and be just as courageous as the finest revolutionaries–and, indeed, can even be more caring and courageous.
To care about oppression doesn’t imply believing basic institutions can be replaced. To have wonderful values doesn’t imply believing basic institutions can be replaced. To be courageous doesn’t imply believing basic institutions can be replaced. In fact, I can believe basic institutions cannot be replaced –despite that I wish more than anything it wasn’t true–and have fine values, and be courageous, including working hard to win reforms and, again depending on my sincere beliefs, even literally opposing attempts at revolution. To be disdainful even of reformists, is, again, insubstantial and ignorant, because the reformist one is disdainful of may be of the type just described–which most probably are. We should also note that the fact that these caring, motivated, and courageous folks are not revolutionaries is, ironically, a commentary not on them, but on revolutionaries’ failures to make a compelling case for the possibility of systemic transformation.
So is the activist pejorative inclination about reformists completely idiotic? No, because the second type of reformist may care and be courageous, but not have fine values, and be ultimately dishonest. This type of reformist rejects the possibility of revolution. Perhaps it is out of fear of revolution. It could be not liking that revolution would run contrary to the person’s own interests. It could be allegiance to a dominant constituency or class that bends the person’s beliefs. But the point is, the person doesn’t wish that basic institutions could be altered. He or she doesn’t adopt a reformist stance only because revolution sincerely appears to him or her utterly impossible, though he or she would be ecstatic to be proved wrong. Rather, the person doesn’t want to rock the boat, or want new basic institutions, but just wants to ameliorate some of the worst pains–often only to ward off resistance and dissent, not out of true solidarity.
This latter type of reformism is what revolutionary activists rebel against, but often in a hamhanded manner that indiscriminately includes unworthy targets–which is to say, sincere reformists. Still, it is certainly true that to become reformist, for whatever reason, means one is not seeking to transform basic institutions so that, by definition, advocating reformism means rejecting revolution.
Non-Reformist Reform Struggle Contributes To Victory
“Revolution is not a onetime event.”
– Audre Lorde
So, if it is revolutionary suicide to reject reforms but it is also revolutionary suicide to be reformist, what is the solution?
It is to reject reformism–and embrace changing basic institutions. But it is also to fight for reforms in a way that seeks to change basic institutions. What does that mean?
For almost any reform, one can fight for it in a reformist manner that assumes preservation of the surrounding defining institutions. You demand the reform, raise consciousness about it–but about nothing more–and form organizations geared to winning it–but to winning nothing more. You work until you have generated sufficient power for the reform– at which point you go home.
Conversely, it is also possible to fight for almost any reform in a manner that is not reformist, but, instead, radical or revolutionary. You not only demand the reform and raise consciousness about it, you also raise correlated issues that engender system-defying attitudes and understanding. You form organizations geared to winning the reform but also to persisting long after it is won. You work until you have generated sufficient power to win the reform, and then you fight for further gains in a trajectory leading to a whole new social structure.
Sometimes a reform itself–what is demanded–can be better or worse from the perspective of long term gains and winning a new system. And, likewise, also for choices made and practices undertaken in the campaign to win the reform. For example, take fighting against a particular war. Do you, in the process, build opposition to the imperial causes of war and to the underlying economic and political and social institutions that propel war policies? Do you, in the process, build movement allegiance and organization that will persist when the opposed war ends? These are no small matters. On this difference hinges the difference between acting on caring, good values, and courage, and having an impact that lasts, or doing the same but having an impact that dissipates.
Seeds of the Future in the Present
“One cannot in the nature of things expect a little tree that has been turned into a club to put forth leaves.”
– Martin Buber
There is a well known anarchist slogan that says we need to plant the seeds of the future in the present. This is another strategic insight that is virtually universally applicable. What does it mean? It means, build structures and projects and organizations in the present that incorporate as many key aspects as possible of the future you hope to win. But what does this mean, more specifically? And why is this advisable?
What it means depends on what your long term goals are–on your vision. Why it is advisable is basically because you want to attain those goals, not goals you don’t seek. The idea is that attaining our goals requires that we have sufficient informed, committed support. And it requires that we actually implement changes consistent with the goals–about which we learn more, as we proceed–by building as we go.
“Nothing in all the world is more
dangerous than sincere ignorance…”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
We incorporate structures in our projects, movements, and campaigns that embody aspects of our future aims in part to learn whether our ideas have merit. It is not a pure test because we only have a part of our future embodied, because we are not yet future people, because the rest of the environment of the test is typically hostile to it. Nonetheless, if we are careful, patient, and take account of variables, we can learn about the merits, or the failings, of our ideas.
Consider participatory economics. With that guiding our choices, we could implement elements of, or even a full version of, balanced job complexes in our work, in some project, or a movement office, etc. Having done so, we understand that people have backgrounds that are contrary to it, that they have constant pressures all around that are contrary to it, including persistent markets, for example. But we can still learn about its merits. And the same holds for other structural features we may advocate attaining. So, we plant seeds to learn the properties of the emergent plants and, if we discover problems, we fix them.
To Grow and Empower
“For a revolutionary, failure is a springboard. As a source of theory it is richer than victory: it accumulates experience and knowledge.”
– Regis Debray
Part of our vision is participation and empowerment. This is, however, also essential for movements in struggle. If future structures are meant to convey those results to people in the future, why can’t employing those structures, however partially, convey those results to us in the present? We have to try it to know if it will work, but it is surely a good bet. For example, we want a movement that is culturally welcoming for all communities, in which women are full participants, in which men are not made “macho,” in which there is classlessness, and so on. Part of why we try to incorporate future structures now is precisely because we want the worthy results those structures are meant to convey in the future, and we want those results, as best we can get them, now.
The idea is simple enough. If our vision has merit, even its partial implementation–planting its seeds–should convey some of its benefits, not just later, but now. This will enrich the lives of people in our movements, give them more reason to stay, make them better able to attract others, and reason well and without bias, and so on. So we plant tomorrow’s seeds today so our movements can enjoy some of the fruits of the future, now.
What fruits? Equity, solidarity, mutual aid, diversity, and self-management. Our movements, for example, can borrow from the approaches in our visions to handling responsibilities, to disbursing benefits, to making decisions.
“And in today already walks tomorrow.”
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge
When activists say they despise oppression and seek liberation, why should anyone believe us? When we say another world is possible, again, why should anyone believe us? Every politician on the planet says these things and we, the left, say, they lie. When we say these things, why shouldn’t people deduce that we lie?
Well, actually, when someone says they are against oppression, when they say another world is possible, look at their practice, and what they advocate and call desirable. See if it is part of the current world, part of oppression. If so, do not believe their claim. The advocate of slave owning in the name of freedom, is not worthy of belief. The advocate of wage slavery in the name of plenty, is not worthy of belief. But, if someone claims to be against oppression and argues that another world is possible, and the person advocates institutions consistent with that claim, and seeks to embody seeds of those institutions even in the present, then there is reason to listen carefully, look closely, and perhaps even believe.
A reason for incorporating the seeds of the future in the present is, in part, to inspire hope, trust, and desire.
To Get Where We Want to Go
“It is good to have an end to journey toward;
but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
– Ursula K. LeGuin
Suppose we do not embody the seeds of the future in our endeavors. We get to the point of actually winning against opponents of change. Then what? We have no practice with new ways of organizing life. We have no experience with new ways of living. We know how to struggle, but not how to live in new ways. We haven’t embodied in our efforts new structures meant for a new society.
There is a great danger we will carry over the entrenched forms within our movements of struggle–which did not embody the seeds of a better future–into the new future we want to create. We will squander victory, turning it into failure.
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are people who want crops without plowing the ground. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.”
– Frederick Douglass
The issue in this section is how should movements deal with issues of power and its dispersal within the movement, as well as with power outside the movement. Are there any general insights that are universally valid, or nearly so, so that the advisories they imply are powerful and ought to be abided?
“There is no greater fallacy than the belief that aims and purposes are one thing, while methods and tactics are another.”
– Emma Goldman
The famous formulation that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is often repeated, but rarely fully understood or effectively acted on. Its claim is clear enough. But why does power corrupt?
There are three broad avenues of answer.
- The first is that power conveys the ability to enrich self and that is an enticement that few can resist. Thus, with power comes a shift of attention away from broad and worthy aims toward self advancement. This interpretation says, well, we need to vest power in particular people–so the solution is to erect barriers that prevent power’s misuse for personal gain. This, when done well–which is hard to accomplish given that the powerful tend to obstruct the effort–can reduce corruption, etc. But even when done well, it does not solve the more basic problems.
- Second, imagine that considerable power rests in a few hands. They have that power, in everyone’s view–including those holding power–not for personal aggrandizement, and not to benefit some small constituency, but for the greater good. Whether the argument is efficiency, coherence, or the brilliance and integrity of the relative few holding considerable power, the idea is that it is done to benefit the whole society. But, this leads to those with power feeling their having the power is critically important. Challenges to it are anti-society. The mentality that emerges is not a flexible willingness and eagerness for participation and change, but a bunker-like defensiveness warding off participation and change. The corruption is the elevation of self above society–even if it is done in the name of society and with full belief that society, not self, is the beneficiary.
- Third–and this one is perhaps least discussed and most germane in many instances–having disproportionate power leaves the holder with a problem. Looking in the mirror, how does he or she explain it? One explanation–the power isn’t really for me, I am just holding it, temporarily, for all–may at first sustain the person’s humility. But, in time, it becomes clear that this isn’t enough of an explanation. Why am I holding it? The answer becomes, not that I am lucky. Not that I grabbed it. But that I deserve to hold it. I am smarter and more worthy. This is power corrupting by leading to delusions of personal grandeur. The inflated self perceptions then fuel greater and greater excesses, and the bunker and aggrandizing issues arise.
And, of course, all that is only about the trajectory from having some power in a few hands, to more power in those few hands and how this leads to a distortion of motives and actions by the powerful. However, even in the rare instance that the distortions don’t arise, there is still a fundamental problem–the loss of power and participation and eventually wherewithal of those at the top. This has two harmful effects. First, any inadequacies of thinking and insight by those relative few with power goes less and less challenged. And second, the wisdom of the populace is excluded, which means most people are not having a say in the decisions that affect them. They are not just excluded, but subordinated and ruled. The escalating centralization of power destroys not only self-management, but democracy of any sort.
The corrective advisory, of course, is to try to avoid centralizing power in a few hands, particularly for any extended time. Dispersing power consistent with people’s levels of involvement, commitment, and the extent they are affected by decisions is obviously ideal in any project, organization, event, etc. But, when that is impossible, due to outside pressures, lack of time, lack of preparedness, or whatever else, there should still be a high burden of proof on deviations from self-management and great care–when deviations must be implemented–that they are done in ways which protect individuals and movements from too long a time enduring corrupting influences. Likewise, the structural defense of dissidence, challenge, and debate, as well as provisions for recall and replacement of those overly powerful, need to be strong.
“You have to believe in yourself, that’s the secret…
Without it, you go down to defeat.”
– Charlie Chaplin
If power corrupts, and it does tend to do so, it is also true that weakness debilitates. There is only so long that a movement can function well when it is not affecting broader outcomes. People begin to doubt the efficacy of their efforts. This questioning tends to look within for a manageable opponent whenever those outside the movement seem too big to affect. Or whenever questioning leads to doubt, depression, and exodus from involvement. But the reality is that a movement, especially when starting out, doesn’t have the strength to affect broader outcomes. So what can be done to prevent the ills of feeling weak?
The odd answer is: set aims that are attainable, albeit difficult, and use accomplishing those aims as the basis for evaluation. But, also have as aims alterations that lead toward influencing society more broadly, however modestly at first. This includes, of course, recruitment and the enriching of commitment of those already involved–both very real achievements on the road to further changes.
The short of it is this, if strategy involves consciousness raising, construction, and contestation, then whatever stage one is at, whatever mix of those themes one is pursuing, judgements must focus there–not on distant aims that aren’t yet in range.
Weakness should debilitate–but not misestimated weakness. Weakness is relative to where one ought to be at the moment, not to where one seeks to be later. If the current agenda is grow from tiny to small, generate some organizational structure, generate some fledgling projects–and the goal is a new society–then measuring one’s achievements against winning a new society now is simply suicidal. The gap will be enormous, appearing even larger as one tries to measure and judge, and the debilitation will be profound. Measuring against the immediate agenda, however, should yield feelings of achievement and, sometimes, when falling short, should inform new choices.
There is one caveat. After all the above that was said about what is and what isn’t weakness, and the need to measure against what is possible/sensible in the present, one must also always have in mind the ultimate element. Vision needs to inform the current agenda. So the psychologically hard part is to have in mind long term aims–one’s vision–yet not feel depleted by the distance to reach it.
Having such a mindset, in practice, proves difficult. And the number of folks who either jettison vision completely–being brought down by its distance from achievement and wanting to eliminate that downer–or who retain vision but become debilitated by feelings of weakness, are usually very high. Addressing this head on, to avoid the problem, is a wise part of building movement.
Finally, a movement that ignores power, even as it grows, and that never invests the agenda of the moment with efforts to exert power in changing immediate conditions, is a movement that, eventually, will succumb to debilitation. Power corrupts, but the absence of power debilitates. Sometimes this debilitation is unwarranted due to being based on false expectations and not seeing what, in fact, at the stage one is at, constitutes worthy achievement. Other times, however, the debilitation is real. Despite ample time for development, despite considerable successes in growth and construction of project and organization, despite long and informed efforts, still, there is nary a sign that the movement can affect outcomes, improve lives, alter conditions to not only be less oppressive but also begin a better stage for further gain. This type of powerlessness should feel horrible and we should not construct movements in a manner that leads to it.
Worthy Power Empowers
“When I rise it will be with the ranks and not from the ranks.”
– Eugene Debs
Suppose we look not at the whole movement, but at individuals–who are, after all, the locus of the power corrupts insight. Can the individual have power, but not be corrupted by it? And is influence the same as power?
First, what corrupts is having more power than warranted, and then (a) rationalizing it with an inflated view of self and a deflated view of others, and (b) feeling one is not only responsible to enact good things, but better able to do so than others, so that one must forcefully protect one’s excessive power against criticism and dissent.
The answer to our first question seems clear enough. A person can have power up to the point of curtailing the comparable power of others. A person can influence events in proportion as they are affected by them, which permits others to do likewise. Worthy power, then, is that we each have decision making options and responsibilities that are self-managing and that respect that everyone should be welcomed to, prepared for, and expected to self-manage.
But what if you are fine with all that, but lots of others abstain. They don’t yet participate fully, or even at all. Or, even more so, suppose you have an organization but it is just getting by–it has members, but way less than it will have. This tends to leave your vote having more weight than it ought to, or would in the future. The responsibility, in that case, is twofold. You can’t magically force others to join immediately, or even jump in more fully. But you can work to make it so. You can see it as a priority, facilitate it, and understand it as the measure of your success in your own participation. And, so long as it hasn’t yet occurred, your other responsibility is to not simply exercise your vote in terms of your own desires. First, you might opt to hold decisions to a minimum, pending more people being involved. Second, if there are going to be decisions, your responsibility, to take an example, is to not take advantage of minority participation in decisions or low membership to cause things to go precisely where you might want. You can try, instead, to represent not only your own views, but those of people who are missing but who should be and will, you hope, in time be involved.
These priorities, if held and acted on by a person who is participating and voting, will diminish the likelihood of their following the corruption path, and will help empower others. Of course, there is a danger one will begin to think one can speak for others, but that too can be held in check. Worthy power, empowers.
But what about influence? Here there is often some confusion. It is true that if Ted has more influence than others, then outcomes that Ted desires are more likely to be implemented than outcomes that others desire. But influence is not always power.
Power is that I get what I want simply because I want it–my will dominates not because others hear and agree, but due to demand. Influence is that I get what I want because after due deliberation, including hearing my views on it, others want it too. The former is forceful. The latter can be, but may not be. What is the difference?
Well, the issue really is, why am I more influential? If it is because I have some kind of structural advantage that others lack and cannot have, and the advantage is constantly in play–then this is power. Suppose, for example, I have work that gives me greater skill, knowledge, contacts, etc. So then when it is time to deliberate I have opinions and others do not have opinions. Decisions become choices about my views only. In this case, I have not just influence, but power, because this is structurally asymmetrical, and not just in the moment, but over long periods of time, from decision to decision.
Now take a different situation. Everyone is welcomed and facilitated in ways that ensure that they are able to participate, understand issues, have opinions, etc. But an issue comes up and because it is your area of involvement, you have more experience, etc. So you are more influential in the deliberations because others see your opinion and information as being quite relevant. This influence is not general power. And trying to eliminate this kind of influence differential is incredibly counter productive.
What if someone is just good at thinking things through and so in a free and open discussion, the person’s views predominate more often than other people’s? This is not power, it is influence. Yet it can be problematic if we get so used to it that we take for granted the person will be right and stop our own thinking, or if the person comes to feel he or she deserves obedience, etc. But it is not structural power, and attentiveness should be enough to offset negative potentials. We don’t want to curtail good ideas, of course, but we want to be sure other ideas have opportunity to surface.
As a stark example, you go to the doctor and get a diagnosis. The doctor’s knowledge, etc., means that his influence on your choice of medical regimen will be great–greater, perhaps, than your own, even. But this influence is warranted, and if it does not aggrandize the doctor, or get translated into material or other benefits, and is not generalizable to other issues, it is desirable–of course, assuming that the actual decisions are self-managed, albeit highly influenced by the doctor’s insights. On the other hand, if the doctor utilizes his or her excess of experience and knowledge in medicine to control general outcomes, or to unduly aggrandize self or selected others, then there is a power issue.
Similarly, suppose in some workplace someone is really good at and communicates clearly about policy issues. At meetings everyone may want to hear from that person, and that person’s observations may often percolate through discussions into compatible policy choices. Again, this is influence, not power, so long as it is not due to the person occupying roles that constantly convey greater knowledge and decision associated skills, so long as room for other views is not diminished, so long as there are no “voting” advantages, and so long as no material or structural benefits arise.
So the task is–as we have done with vision–to be sure that our strategies allow movements and organizations to benefit from highly informed participants who may, as a result, sometimes be more influential, and yet to preserve self-managing say, disallow personal aggrandizement, and ensure that all participants, while not equally informed about all things, nonetheless are adequately informed and confident, in general, to arrive at and express their own desires.
The Movement & Government
“Cruel leaders are replaced only to have new leaders turn cruel!”
– Che Guevara
All the above leads to the big strategic issue bearing on power. How should a movement relate to existing governments–not a movement that is literally creating a new polity with new virtues after having won and transformed society–but rather a movement considering the possibility of entering into and having to in part maintain an existing government, using its existing mechanisms, and try to enlarge public benefits through those mechanisms–which were, of course, constructed for entirely different aims.
First, what are the central factors. Addressing only the most prominent, the first factor is the possibility that participating in existing governance–much less running it, whatever benefits it may deliver–can corrupt and make authoritarian those directly involved. Even just running for office can, of course, have these effects since the process involves pumping up your own qualifications and perhaps running a party organization in which people follow your lead and serve your candidacy.
The second factor, as addressed above, is that not participating can marginalize and weaken.
The third factor is quite different. Existing governments have to, in part, maintain existing systems of political stability and viability. So, whether participating in or running an existing government, part of the task–which must be done at risk of failing to maintain relations that need to be maintained for people’s well being–is to administer existing structures unless or until transformed structures exist. This task, however, has virtually nothing to do with changing society, even if it meets needs. And it can take away from trying to change society by using up energies and people in maintenance, and, even worse, by causing people to become what they do–maintainers, not transformers, reformers not revolutionaries.
Thus, getting involved in government distracts from agendas of change to the extent it involves mainly maintenance instead of dissent and new construction, which it almost always does. As just one example, in Brazil the Workers’ Party was a very powerful grassroots entity working for change, dissenting, demonstrating, and building. Then, starting in a couple of cities and a particular Brazilian state, the Workers’ Party won government office–including mayor and governor, and associated positions. Responsibility for the day-to-day affairs of governance–now in the old government structures–channeled most of the highly experienced movement actors into roles of maintenance, not opposition, of delivery not change. The result was a loss of their energies, a loss of touch with radical emotion and desire, and a burgeoning commitment to system stability. By the time the Workers’ Party founding member Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva Lula won the presidency, there was a very stark indicator of what it might bring. His party, and movement, was, in that same election, voted out of power in the state they had been ruling for some time. In other words, even as they advanced nationally, in popularity, locally, where they were administering the existing state, and where they had been strongest, they lost support. The reason was they lost their roots, ties, and agenda, and could not deliver much using the old structures. This same scenario may be unfolding in Bolivia over the past few years.
In Venezuela, in contrast, the third factor seems like perhaps it is being addressed/avoided, as the government continues to aid and promote the construction of new social relations, rather than entrenching those of the past. On the other hand, the issues of corruption (misuse of powers) and authoritarianism seem also to exist. There is the strange situation of steady gains in structures of participation, alongside steady growth of central power–with benefits due to the agenda being pursued but debits due to the dangers of entrenchment and elitism, even sectarianism, dogmatism, and authoritarianism.
Typically, a movement can choose to relate to a government in many ways.
It can become part of it, or at least try–typically by running for office. This has the serious debits mentioned above.
It can also advise a government by making suggestions to it, in a way trying to communicate via reason, etc. This has those same debits, a bit less so, and another as well–delusion about the motives of existing elites. They do not care about our good sense, morals, etc. They have structural agendas.
Trying to force a government by making demands and seeking to compel the government to comply–even though it would not, on its own, do so–does not, intrinsically, have any of the above debits, and is a natural path to exercising some power and influence–winning some changes, however modest–even at a point of a movement having relatively small size. Later, when movements are far more powerful, getting major changes via coercing existing government (rather than becoming part of it or advising it) intrinsically carries none of the dangers mentioned. But it also doesn’t provide a direct kind of power that may be desired to enact changes.
There are no ironclad rules that will always apply. Different situations can make these options have different costs and dangers or different benefits and prospects. The best we can say, we think, is that to rule out or rule in approaches a priori is mistaken. To argue about participating or not as if it is a mark of being for a better future or not, is mistaken. But, there is a considerable burden of proof on taking up electoral participation–or participation in government itself. Developing movements that can compel existing governments to make desired changes is a somewhat safer path.
Here is a somewhat unusual example of a still different approach to government. Imagine the next presidential elections in the U.S. are over. Short of massive social transformations, the new president, minutely different from or still the old president, is waiting eagerly to commit domestic and international mayhem on behalf of his favored elite constituencies.
Suppose during the campaign movement candidates also ran–not to win, but to educate. Suppose they did pretty well, say, garnering 5% of the vote, with many more who liked them best, but who voted for a likely winner. Could that participation have been a worthwhile endeavor? The upside would have been, up to the day of the election, some education, perhaps during debates, public speeches, etc., for larger than otherwise accessible audiences. The downside would have been the possible corruption of key participants, hierarchicalization of the movement around them, and channeling of energies and focus into the election, not grassroots activism. If the left candidates basically stopped their activity on election day, and if the organizing in various states led to no lasting structures, odds are it wasn’t worth it. But what if a different approach was in mind and pursued.
Let’s make it more real. What if after the 2012 presidential election in the U.S., Green presidential candidate Jill Stein and vice presidential candidate Cheri Honkala, and the Green Party candidates for Congress and organizers, having run a campaign that inspired large audiences all across the U.S.–including having built apparatuses in many states–announced that it was establishing a shadow government, with Stein and Honkala at the head? They also announce a set of cabinet members (secretary of state, labor, etc.), a staff (press secretary, etc.), and a list of senators across the country–all worked out with the Green movement, and whatever other movements may have been centrally involved in the prior campaigns. They announce a web site that includes not only the biographies of the shadow officials and a statement by each regarding his or her aims and priorities, but also forums for on-going discussion, a sign-up mechanism to receive future communications, and an extensive, compelling display of on-going shadow government policy priorities and positions contrasted to those of the actual government.
Then suppose, every week, starting with the inauguration in January, the shadow government web site is augmented with at least three types of material:
- Commentary on the major U.S. government undertakings for that week, and what the shadow government would have done differently on those matters–not constrained but operating precisely as it would if it were in power throughout the government–and the estimated difference in impact between the shadow choices and those of Washington.
- A presentation of what the shadow government would have undertaken/initiated differently from the actual government, explaining why the Washington government is unlikely to embark on similar actions, and what the public gains would have been had the shadow government been able to pursue its very different aims.
- A summary contrasting the overall impact of the two governments for the week–plus a cumulative summary of major differences for the year to date.
Of course, the site could have sections relating to various spheres of social life–the economy, politics, cultural issues, family matters, foreign policy, and the ecology, for example. There could be sections for each person in the cabinet, for the president’s staff and the senate. There could also be new appointments for the Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory agencies, as well as for financial institutions, courts, and so on.
There could be a section for a state of the week speech, given by Stein, with a press conference that would be broadcast on diverse independent radio stations as well as available on the web site.
Special events could also occur, such as a shadow inauguration, shadow state of the nation address, shadow press conferences broadcast over the site and to the press directly, shadow Senate votes, shadow Supreme Court appointments, shadow budget presentations and hearings, and even shadow White House cultural events, etc.
The shadow government site could include audio speeches and texts as well as on-going dialogue between shadow government officials and the public in cumulative forum systems and live chat sessions. There could also be live speeches, live town hall meetings, gatherings of groups to discuss and make proposals, and so on.
The whole operation could educate the public on what the U.S. government actually does, on what its impact is, and especially on what an alternative progressive government would have done were it in office and free to pursue truly popular policies. The site would provide a record on which dissident candidates could run next time around. The site, press conferences and public campaigns, demonstrations, teach-ins, and other events would be a thorn in the side of elite government and, more important, an educational resource and organizing tool in the U.S.–and probably around the world–to create movements for pushing the actual government.
Now let’s ramp it up. Imagine it was all fueled at every level by the kinds of views espoused in Fanfare. In that case, while it might start as noted above, quickly it would incorporate as a key aspect another set of aims–accountability, participation, self-management. The structures employed would bend toward local assemblies and means of voting and otherwise developing views that are participatory. Not only would the endeavor be about revealing the horrors of the incumbent officials within existing structures, they would also be about building new contrasting structures and thus planting the seeds of the future in the present.
Would all this replace getting out and organizing? Of course not. But the idea of a shadow government with shadow events, policies, statements, and results so people can judge if they want something far more radical than Washington offers, and then even with new structures and methods exemplifying more revolutionary aims, has a democratic, participatory, and engaging aura about it. The potential for developing in diverse directions is obvious, including public debates and teach-ins around the shadow government material, and related activist challenges to the real government, to media, and to other institutions seeking the type of change people desire, and the construction of assemblies, etc.
What would be the obstacle to doing this? Well, the technology is easy enough. There is effort and creativity required, a lot of energy and ingenuity, but the project wouldn’t have to cost too much in dollars and could even involve recompense for those giving lots of time. Since there is no dearth of good people to fill the cabinet posts, presidential staff, courts, joint chiefs, even the whole Senate, the only real difficulty is (a) do we have the desire to do it, and (b) getting along, coming to agreements, and being okay about going with “x” when some people prefer “y” or even “z.”
If we are going to win social change, eventually our movements will need to generate coherence, at least about short-term critique of events and immediate positive programs. Wouldn’t this be an invigorating and productive way to do it?
There are lots of procedures that could be used. Even the worst option would probably be better than nothing: Stein, or whoever, appointing “from the top” all the officials and having the kind of overarching influence on choices that a real president does. Not ideal, with many risks of the sort discussed earlier. It would be better still, of course, for various parts of the undertaking to be overseen by appropriate grass-roots organizations and projects interacting together democratically and with relative autonomy in their own domains and then literally constructing new structures, in essence, creating not a shadow government–but a new kind of polity.
In any event, the first step would likely be, given the potentials as they now are, for movements to decide they want to do it, for the movements to settle on candidates for high office and to choose a cabinet and other central appointments, and for the new shadow cabinet and as many other appointed officials as possible to together decide how to deal with each week’s critical postings and policy and other determinations.
The above is merely one attempt at thinking through a possible way of relating to elections and government, in this case, trying to avoid debits and maximize benefits. Does it make sense? This is not an abstract question–it would, or wouldn’t, depending on actual conditions at the time. Can the dissident candidates garner 5% vote? Can a shadow government be formed with coherence? Would its ideas galvanize support, educate and mobilize? Would those voting for it immediately be positive about it, including donating some regular amount each month to help fund its operations? Would it be able to take the next step, from good policies to new and vastly better political structures?
Deciding on any approach to power is contextual, though with certain insights about dangers and benefits highly likely to be relevant.
No Organization, No Victory
How many care to seek only for precedents? How many fiery innovators are mere copycats of bygone revolutionaries?
– Peter Kropotkin
Social change is very rarely dependent on individuals acting largely, much less fully, alone. Rather, it depends on large groups, typically called movements. But for groups to have collective impact they have to operate with cohesion, at least in their major undertakings. This means when choices arise, movements have to arrive at shared decisions and enact those decisions collectively, likely with many different responsibilities for different members. They also have to have what we might call memory. Lessons learned need to be applied, which means they need to be preserved from one day, week, month, and year, to the next. That way each new participant doesn’t start from a state of ignorance, but, are able to quickly imbibe the insights prior participants have amassed. Without memory, there is no learning and no improving. Without cohesion, no power.
All of this is abetted, indeed made possible, by organization. Without organization, little can be achieved. With it, much can be achieved. But what attributes must desirable organization embody?
What To Attain
“Errors, like straws, upon the surface flow;
He who would search for pearls must dive below.”
– John Dryden
This depends on the purpose. What does the group desire to accomplish? Suppose it is a one-off endeavor where the group wishes to build something quite limited, or block something, or disrupt something–what have you–one time. The organization can obviously be quite minimal. There is not much cohesion and unity, not much memory needed, as the effort is not very complex and lasts a relatively short time.
But suppose, instead, the group wishes to engage in a sustained, long term project, with much complexity and great need for effective action based on powerful insights. Now the situation is very different. Somehow the group must share an agenda and insights, for the present as program and over the long haul as vision. Memory is now critical. So too is the means to dispute differences and arrive at shared choices and views about what is sought and how to attain it.
Efforts to create a new society are quite obviously of the second type. So they need means of making decisions, of working, of learning, and of preserving insights–and they need these means to be well suited to their agenda, rather than having implications contrary to it. They need shared tools of conception and implementation based on clarity about current situations and on sought after vision.
This all may seem obvious, but the above advisory is rarely so explicitly stated and acted upon as here, despite being of fundamental importance.
Since our particular endeavor–as it is emerging from the flow of Fanfare–is to create a new participatory society, with a parecon, parpolity, participatory kinship, and participatory culture (as per volume two of Fanfare, Occupy Vision), this means we need an organization that will facilitate and even melt into the institutional and consciousness aims we have for society.
So, the resulting organizational advisory is for us to have a movement institution with roles that–by their implications for our behavior–promote diversity, solidarity, justice, equity, self-management, sustainability, and internationalism and that will sustain program doing the same. And it is to have a movement institution with roles that–by their implications for behaviors–generate and sustain feminist, intercommunalist, anti authoritarian–or, perhaps better put, self-managing–and classlessness-seeking consciousness both for its members and for those encountered outside.
This means having an organization that plants the seeds of the future in the present. One that, therefore, has a sufficient visionary commitment to know what constitutes seeds of the future and what doesn’t, and an organization that–even as it has to deal with the historical legacy of the past, and has to overcome the obstructions that existing institutions and harmful consciousness impose on current choices–constantly pushes toward its sought after shared future vision as best as circumstances permit.
This would be an organization that challenges external hierarchies by its operations, and that excludes them in its own internal composition. An organization that has self-managing means of decision making and that has mechanisms to preserve and benefit from diversity of views and actions. An organization that develops internally the structures it advocates for the society outside, and that has means to school its members in using all these congenially and effectively. An organization able to share sufficient insights and lessons from the past, and to preserve sufficient differences of opinion and paths, for the entire operation to, in sum, move forward steadily, without getting mired in or blocked by obstructions.
What To Avoid
“Anytime you continue to carry on the same kind of organization you say you are fighting against, you can’t prove to me that you have made any change in your thinking.”
– Ella Baker
What to avoid is obviously the mirror image of what to attain. In general, one wants to avoid having an organization whose roles are ill suited to achieving its goals due to:
- the roles’ adverse impact on member’s views or actions,
- the roles’ incapacity to generate cohesion,
- the roles’ inability to preserve insights or apply them,
- the roles obstructing have shared vision and broad focus for orientation and cohesion,
- the roles permitting or facilitating having shared vision and broad focus, which are, however, inadvertently or intentionally contrary to sought values.
In our case, then, we want to avoid an organization whose logic and operations reproduces features of society and social hierarchies we are aiming to replace, or others that we might have in the future but do not want. We want to avoid, therefore, structures or views with racist and sexist implications, classist implications, authoritarian implications, ones that stifle diversity, diminish solidarity, prevent self-management, obstruct equity.
Again, it is all obvious enough, yet rarely made into a very explicit advisory that we must abide. What happens when we do that–when we say, okay, with an organization that has attributes we need to avoid, we lose, but with an organization that has attributes we want to attain, we may win. Therefore, we must have an organization that has attributes we wish to attain, and not attributes we wish to avoid, however hard it may be to establish and sustain.
Organization for Tomorrow
“Freedom is always, and exclusively,
freedom for the one who thinks differently.”
– Rosa Luxemburg
Fanfare for the Future means to provide theory, vision, and strategy, sufficient to at least initiate and perhaps sustain such a needed organization.
Here, then, is an entreaty to motivate moving from ideas to actions, and, second, notice of a set of initial ideas which are, as we write these pages, currently guiding the very early construction of a new organization described in an Appendix to this book and which will, no doubt, in time, be amended and refined–assuming that such a structure does come into existence and that its members establish and take charge of its definition. The entreaty was actually first made at an international meeting in 2006 with the formulation of proposed organizational guiding ideas emerging in 2011.
For the purposes of this book, the organizational entreaty and formulation embody many of the insights or advisories of the two brief sections above on organization (and of the whole of Occupy Theory and Occupy Vision, and much of this book, Occupy Strategy) in ways meant to appeal to a broad range of activists.
An Organizational Entreaty
“The trouble ain’t that there is too many fools,
but that the lightning ain’t distributed right.”
– Mark Twain
Here are ten claims taking off from the vision and strategy of participatory economics but consistent with those of participatory society. We believe each claim is true. We also believe each claim is important enough that projects, organizations, and movements seeking a better world ought to embrace the ten claims to help inspire and orient our efforts. Our priority in this list is not to address all possible claims about participatory movement building, much less about movement building in its entirety. Nor is our priority to recount all reasons for advocating the few claims that we do offer or to address all possible doubts people may have. Instead we hope to inspire people to explore and act on collective reactions, perhaps coming to some shared agreement or at least clarity about disagreement. And that will hopefully help motivate the rest of this chapter.
Claim 1: We need shared institutional vision to inspire hope, incorporate the seeds of the future in the present, and guide gains that will take us to where we want to wind up. We must create such vision.
The idea that “there is no alternative” cements reaction. First, uprooting this cynical view requires a convincing case for an alternative. Second, we cannot incorporate seeds of an unknown future in our present endeavors. To prefigure the future, we need shared vision. Finally, third, we cannot contour our demands and procedures to lead where we want to arrive if we don’t know where that is. Strategy certainly has to pay attention to existing relations, lest it exceed or fall short of possibilities. But strategy also has to pay attention to sought vision, lest it run in circles or, worse, lead away from a desirable destination.
No one who rejects developing and sharing vision rebuts these simple arguments. Instead, opponents of the importance of vision emphasize that a proposed vision can inflexibly exclude new insights. A proposed vision can fuel sectarianism. A proposed vision can overextend into details that aren’t knowable, consequential, or a matter for prior determination. It can become frivolous and divert attention from more important concerns. Worst of all, a proposed vision can be monopolized as a bludgeon to aggrandize power.
Such worries shouldn’t be dismissed. They do constitute a real and present danger. But the correct implication is not to reject having shared vision. The correct implication is to arrive at and hold vision flexibly. It is to welcome constructive criticism and seek continual innovation regarding vision. It is to focus on essentials and not overextend. It is to share results widely, openly, and without elite jargon or posturing.
Finally, a non elitist, flexible way of having vision and of using it to inform activism will be difficult to achieve. But this is no more an argument against trying, then the fact that having participatory political organizations, forceful struggles, informative and inspiring analyses, worthy and winnable demands, and effective tactics–all without being sectarian, over extended, or elitist–will be difficult implies that we should forego seeking to have these also necessary components of making change.
Claim 2: Classlessness ought to be part of our economic goal. We must not only end the rule of the capitalist class over labor, but we must also end the rule of the coordinator class over the working class.
To have classes means to have groups which, by their position in the economy, have different access to income and influence, including benefiting at one another’s expense. Attaining classlessness, instead, means establishing an economy in which everyone by their economic position is equally able to participate, utilize capacities, accrue income, etc.
We cannot eliminate the distinction between those who own means of production and those who do not own means of production, unless no one owns means of production, or, conversely–and what amounts to the same thing–unless everyone owns means of production equally. That much is an obvious tenet of advocating a new classless economy beyond capitalism. All socialists, for example, accept this view.
But class division can also arise due to a division of labor which affords some producers, who we call the coordinator class, far greater influence and income than other producers, who we call the working class. Claim 2 focuses on this latter point, which many socialists do not accept.
A modern capitalist economy has owners or what we call capitalists. It also has people who have no economically structurally built-in power other than owning their own ability to do work. These people, who must sell that ability, are called workers. The controversial/important thing about Claim 2 is that it notices that capitalism also has a third class, the coordinator class, who, though they sell their ability to do work like workers, they also, unlike workers, have great power and standing built into their position in the economic division of labor. These coordinator class members–lawyers, doctors, engineers, managers, accountants, elite professors, and so on–do mostly empowering tasks for their labor. By their position in the economy they accrue information, skills, confidence, energy, and access to means of influencing daily outcomes. They largely control their own tasks and define, design, determine, control, or constrain the tasks of workers below. They utilize their empowering conditions to enhance their position at the expense of workers below and in conflict with capitalists above.
Capitalism, by this parecon account, is a three class system. Seeking classlessness, therefore, means not just eliminating capitalist rule, but also not constructing coordinator class rule in its place. “Out with the old boss in with the new boss” does not end having bosses. To eliminate private ownership but retain the distinction between the coordinator class and working class ensures, by the structure of the coordinator/worker relationship, that the coordinator class will rule the working class. This type of change can end capitalism–and has done so, on occasion, historically–but will not attain classlessness, and it has not once done so.
Claim 2 says our aims must take us beyond what have been called market socialism and centrally planned socialism (which have elevated the coordinator class to ruling status). Our movements and projects must not only be anti-capitalist, they must be pro-classlessness. They must prioritize eliminating the monopoly of capitalists on productive property and the monopoly of coordinators on empowering work.
Claim 3: Beyond classlessness for the economy, we also need positive economic values including equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, ecological balance, and economic efficiency in utilizing assets to meet needs and develop potentials.
To be against something bad–such as class division and class rule–is very desirable, of course. But rejecting bad features does not generate clear standards for positive goals. To transcend dissent and become constructive, we need positive values that we can measure new institutions against.
Our first value is equity. Economics affects how much we each get from what we all produce. We want equitable outcomes and what’s equitable is that each person who is able to work receives back from society in proportion to what they expend at a cost to themselves in production. We should be remunerated, that is, for the duration, intensity, and, when it varies from person to person, the onerousness of our socially valued work. This is a matter of preference, of course, not proof, but it is certainly consistent with the most morally enlightened left thought. And, more, remunerating effort and sacrifice is also economically sound. It provides appropriate incentives to elicit what each individual has the ability to in fact withhold or provide: his or her socially valuable time, intensity, and willingness to endure hardship.
Our second value is solidarity. Economics affects relations among people. Most people would presumably prefer to have people concerned with and caring about one another in a cooperative social partnership–rather than seeking to fleece one another in an anti-social competitive shoot out.
Our third value is diversity. Economics affects our range of available options. We are limited beings who have neither time nor means to each do everything. We are also social beings who can enjoy, vicariously, what others do that we cannot. And, finally, we are thinking and pragmatic beings who can benefit from avoiding over-dependence on narrow options that leave us stranded if some of those limited options are flawed. Homogeneity of options limits possibilities and risks over-dependence on flawed scenarios. Diversity of options enriches possibilities and protects against errors.
Our fourth value is self-management. Economics affects how much say we each have over what is produced, in what quantities, by what methods, with what apportionment of people to tasks, and with what product allotted to people. Economic decisions determine outcomes that, in turn, affect us. For that matter, the act of decision making itself also affects us by influencing our mood, our sense of involvement and efficacy, and our sense of personal worth.
Except in exceptional cases, there is no moral or operational reason any one person should have excessive say compared to how much they are affected, nor is there any moral or operational reason for any one person to have insufficient say compared to how much they are affected. One decision-making norm can apply to all people equally, exceptional cases aside, yet can also respect the variation of specific operational needs from case to case. Using this pattern of thought we arrive at a fourth value, self-management. We should each have a say in decisions in proportion as those decisions affect us. The means of developing, discussing, debating, tallying, and acting on preferences are context dependent. No single approach such as majority vote, two-thirds vote, consensus, and various methods of information dissemination and deliberation will work optimally in all cases. What will suit all cases, however, is the overarching self-management norm by which we choose among possible means of decision making in each instance.
Economics affects how we relate to our natural surroundings. An economy should not compel us to destroy our natural habitat leaving ourselves a decrepit environment to endure. Nor should an economy compel us to so protect the natural habitat that we are left with no means to fulfill ourselves. What an economy should do is reveal the full and true social costs and benefits of contending choices–including accounting for their impact on ecology–and convey to workers and consumers control over what choices to finally implement. In that way we can cooperatively care for both our environment and ourselves, in relative proportions that we freely choose. Our fifth value is, therefore, ecological balance, understood in this broad manner of incorporating ecological information and attentiveness into economic calculation and decision.
Economics, finally, affects the social output we have available for people to enjoy. That is, indeed, the reason economies exist. If an economy abides the above preferred values but wastes our energy and resources by producing output that fails to meet needs and develop potentials, or produces harmful byproducts that offset the benefits of intended products, or splurges on what is valuable using inefficient methods that waste assets needlessly, it diminishes our prospects. Even as an economy operates in accord with equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, and ecological balance, it should also efficiently utilize available natural, social, and personal assets without undue waste or misdirection of purpose.
These values go beyond seeking classlessness to provide positive guidelines for institutional choices. For example, Claim 3 is that, other things equal, in any economy more equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, ecological balance, and productive efficiency is good–and less of any or all of these qualities is bad. Economic institutions should by their operations as well as their outcomes advance these qualities, not violate, much less obliterate them.
Claim 4: While economics is profoundly important–which is why we seek to build a pareconish movement–we do not live by economics alone. Economics is not alone important. A participatory agenda for movement building must address other central sides of social life consistently with parecon’s economic structure–but also respectful of equally prioritized agendas seeking to revolutionize those other sides of life.
A new and better world will include new and better economics, yes, but also new and better relations of kin and family, religion, race, culture, law, adjudication, collective action, ecological arrangement, and international relations, as well as more specific parts of life such as science, art, education, health, and so on.
We therefore need shared vision to learn, inspire, rebut cynicism, and guide practice not only for economics, but for love and family relations and socializing, cultural and community relations, legislative and juridical relations, ecology, and international relations.
More, just as our economic vision and strategies provide a context that feminist vision and strategy, cultural vision and strategy, political vision and strategy, ecological vision and strategy, and global relations vision and strategy must abide and augment, so too, in reverse, feminist, cultural, political, ecological, and global relations vision and strategy provide a context that pareconish economic vision and strategy must abide and augment.
In every case, new arrangements in one realm will have to fit compatibly with new arrangements in other realms. Movements for a new world will have to combine vision and strategy across spheres of social life. They should not prioritize one area of focus above the rest as that would be morally bankrupt and strategically suicidal.
It follows that insofar as we develop a pareconish vision and strategy for economic life, to be worthy it must incorporate not only the seeds of the future economy, but also the seeds of the future vision we share for other defining parts of life. The same urgency and standards that we apply to economy we must apply as well to other domains, fulfilling the need for compatible activism.
Claim 5: Seeking classlessness as in Claim 2 as well as the positive values of Claim 3 as well as accommodating economy to gains in other spheres of social life and vice versa as in Claim 4, compels us to reject private ownership of productive property, corporate divisions of labor, top down decision making, markets, and central planning.
Without belaboring the obvious, each of these institutional possibilities–ubiquitous in the world around us–intrinsically violates one or more (and usually all) of the norms above. For example, noting even just the most obvious violations, private ownership obliterates solidarity by producing capitalist class rule over coordinators and workers. It obliterates equity by remunerating property and power. It obliterates self-management by vesting primary power in the hands of owners.
Corporate divisions of labor produce coordinator class rule over workers. They negate self-management by disempowering some and aggrandizing power to others, as does top-down decision making.
Markets obscure true social costs and benefits of all items that involve positive or negative effects that extend beyond immediate buyers and sellers. They lead to incredible misallocation of assets, particularly ecological, not to mention orienting output to maximizing surpluses rather than human well being. Markets also impose anti social behavior, nice guys finish last, and produce class division between coordinators and workers. Elevating coordinator class rule–the only subtle assertion about markets–occurs because firms must compete by cutting costs and to do so firms hire an elite that is freed from the implications of their cost cutting choices and that is callous to the immediate human implications of their choices.
Central planning also intrinsically violates self-management and imposes coordinator class rule to ensure obedience. Central planning typically also aggrandizes the ruling coordinator class at the expense of workers below, including centralizing control in ways that yield economic and ecological imbalance.
For all these economic institutions, the propensity to produce class division, in turn, homogenizes options within classes which violates diversity and creates a war of class against class, which violates solidarity.
Beyond economics, capitalist relations also aggravate hierarchies of power, status, and wealth generated by other spheres of social life, for example aggravating and exploiting sexual, gender, racial, and political hierarchies born of extra-economic relations. Capitalism likewise produces ecological imbalance and even violates ecological sustainability. It produces a competitive rat race that, writ large, internationally unleashes colonialism, imperialism, neo-colonialism, empire, extreme destitution, and war.
The point of Claim 5, therefore, is that if we are serious about classlessness, economic equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, ecological balance, and socially oriented efficiency, and about broader positive aspirations for race, gender, political power, ecology, and peace, we must reject typically available economic institutions as violating our values. We must seek alternatives.
Claim 6: Claims 1 to 5 leave us needing to advocate new economic institutions, such as the defining structures of participatory economics which are self-managing workers and consumers councils, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning.
For workers and consumers to influence decisions in proportion as they are affected by those decisions requires venues through which they can express and tally their preferences. We call these venues self-managing councils, the first defining institutional component of participatory economics.
Equity requires fair remuneration under workers and consumers’ own auspices and in accord with accurate valuations. It is parecon’s second defining institutional component. It has two primary purposes. On the one hand, ethically, workers are remunerated in compensation for the cost of their participation in time, intensity of effort, and harshness of conditions. On the other hand, economically, remunerated work must be socially useful, which ensures that workers and firms have incentives consistent with eliciting fulfilling output.
Self-Managed decisions require confident preparation, relevant capacity, and appropriate participation. Self-Managed decisions, therefore, require parecon’s third defining institutional feature, balanced job complexes, in which each actor has a fair share of empowering work so that no group monopolizes empowering work while others are left disempowered and unable to even arrive at, much less manifest, a will of their own. Balanced job complexes eliminate the monopoly on empowering labor that differentiates coordinators from workers and ensures that all workers are enabled by their work-related conditions to participate in self-management.
All the economic values of Claim 3 plus classlessness from Claim 2, imply that allocation should be accomplished in accord with the freely expressed will of self-managing workers and consumers and that it should be undertaken not to competitively aggrandize a ruling class against its subordinates but by cooperative and informed negotiation in which all people’s wills are proportionately actualized and in which operations, mindsets, and structures further the logic of self-managing councils, balanced job complexes, and equitable remuneration rather than violating each. All this implies the fourth and last defining institutional feature of participatory economics, participatory planning.
Insofar as workers and consumers self-managing councils, equitable remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning treat all actors economically identically they also counter any possible hierarchies among actors generated outside the economy. Insofar as councils properly value ecological effects and convey decision making power to those affected, and insofar as writ large, internationally, they progressively eliminate inequality of wealth and power between nations, parecon seems well oriented to accommodate and even augment aims for other spheres of social life, though this is a determination which can only be fully evaluated when vision and strategy for those other domains exists in sufficient detail to permit evaluation of mutual compatibility.
Claim 7: Requirements for our own projects, organizations, and movements ought to include patiently incorporating the seeds of the future in the present, including self-managed decision making, balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, and cooperative negotiated planning, as well as central features of other dimensions of the new world we seek.
Creating institutions in the present that incorporate seeds of the future makes sense as an experiment to learn, as a model to inspire, as a way to do the best possible job now, for current fulfillment, for consistency, and to begin developing tomorrow’s infrastructure today.
Of course we need to keep in mind that we cannot have perfect future structures now, both because of surrounding pressures and because of our own emotional and behavioral baggage. But the fact that we need a sense of proportion about what future seeds we can experimentally harvest now is not the same as calling for entirely rejecting immediate harvesting. Just as movements should foreshadow a future that is feminist, polycultural, and also politically free and just–lest they are internally compromised in their values, incapable of inspiring diverse constituencies or even prone to alienate them, incapable of overcoming cynicism, and weak in their comprehension even of current flaws and potentials–so should movements, for the same reasons, foreshadow a future that is classless, including incorporating council organization, balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, and self-management.
Put strategically, constructing movements that embody coordinator class assumptions, mannerisms, and aspirations would violate our aims and cripple our prospects just as horrifically as constructing movements that embody sexist, racist, or authoritarian assumptions, mannerisms, and aspirations cripples our prospects. Just as we do regarding visions for gender, race, culture, politics, ecology, and international relations, we should incorporate as best we can in our current economic projects, organizations, and movements, relations we desire for the future. Our movements should not slavishly reproduce the features of a class divided economy, any more than they should of racist, sexist, or authoritarian structures, but should instead patiently and carefully adopt the features of classlessness.
Claim 8: Seeking participatory economic institutions requires that we not only create in the present pareconish institutions as described by Claim 7 (as well as in fuller descriptions elsewhere), but that we also fight for changes in capitalist institutions. Demands made against existing institutions ought to enhance people’s lives, advance the likelihood of further successful struggle, and advance the consciousness and organizational capacity to pursue those further aims. These provide the yardsticks for measuring success.
As valuable as experiments in creating pareconish (or gender, race, or politically inspired) organization in the present are, to only prioritize creating forward oriented experiments in our present activism would consign those who work in existing institutions to peripheral observer status as well as callously ignore pressing needs of the moment. The path to a better future includes creating experiments in its image in the present, yes, but it also includes a long march through existing institutions, battling for changes that improve people’s lives today–even as they auger and prepare for more changes tomorrow.
Changes in existing institutions which do not replace them down to their defining core are reforms, however the effort to win reforms need not accept that only reform is possible. On the contrary, efforts to win reforms can presume that we seek desired economic changes as part of a process to win a new economy. Efforts to win reforms can choose demands, language, organization, and methods, all in accord not only with winning short term gains that improve people’s lives in the present, but also with increasing the inclination and capacity of people to seek still more victories in the future–up to winning a new economic order. Rather than presuming system maintenance, battles around income, organization, decision-making, allocation, and other facets of economic life should be undertaken to enlarge and empower future-oriented desires and capacities. The rhetoric should advance comprehension of ultimate values. The organization should embody its norms and last to fight anew. The same should hold for economics as for other spheres of life, and vice versa. Win now not only to enjoy the benefits, but also to win more later. This is a non-reformist approach to winning reforms.
Claim 9: At some point in the future vast movements will have features such as those noted above–as well as many others, of course–and will, on the basis of their merits, become vehicles toward winning and help compose the infrastructure of a new world. This will not happen, however, until people make it happen.
This last claim is a truism, but it is also arguably the most powerful point of all. Change will not come via an unfolding inevitable tendency in current relations that sweeps us, uncomprehending, into a better future. Changes will come only via self conscious actions by huge numbers of people bringing to bear their creativity and energy in a largely unified and coherent manner that will have overarching shared aims and steadfast purpose.
It we travel into the future in our minds, and we imagine looking into the past, we will see a relatively brief period, at some point, during which people in one nation or another, or in many at once, form projects, organizations, and movements that thereafter persist to become centrally important vehicles for fighting for, constructing, and merging into a new world.
Whether we look forward, or imagine looking back, we can reasonably ask what attributes such a lasting project, organization, or movement would incorporate. We can also reasonably act on our answers, once we feel we have them more or less in hand, to try to create such vehicles of change. Might we get these efforts all wrong? Yes, we might. But if we don’t try, then we have no chance of getting it right. And if we do get it wrong, we can take lessons from our mistakes, and try again.
The implication seems to be that building such vehicles not just for opposition, but for self conscious creation of a new world, must become our agenda. We should act without exaggerated images of instant success, of course, but we should also refuse to succumb to cynical or excessively patient delay.
Claim 10: When a capable and caring group agrees on Claims 1 through 9, it becomes incumbent on them to collectively seek wider agreement from a still larger group and to solidify their inspiring intellectual unity into a more practical organizational and programmatic unity, in accord with all the claims.
If not now, when?
And, indeed, as we write this book there is an effort underway to create an organization of the sort discussed here. We offer some of the documents regarding that organization’s definition and commitments as an appendix to this volume.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand.
It never did and it never will.”
– Frederick Douglas
By way of seeing how some of the above ideas merge into some strategic assessments, here is an attempt to grapple, briefly, with some matters of strategy as seen by, and bearing on, an anarchist agenda. We choose to address anarchism, in particular, since it is so close in general, and even more so in some particular instances, to the ideas of this book.
Assume some set of anarchists adopt, as their goal, something very much like the vision set out in the prior volume of Fanfare, Occupy Vision, including participatory economics, polity, kinship, and culture. These particular anarchists, then, will have set aside any qualms they may have had about having institutional vision at all.
Then, however, comes another need. Having settled on a participatory vision, these anarchists would also, at least by the logic of this book, need to set aside any tendencies to feel that a rather sharp and strong set of strategic attachments are critical to being an anarchist.
Of course sharing strategic insights is generally good–and we are not questioning that–it is one of our main guiding threads. Indeed, it is the purpose of this book. What we worry about, rather, is the extent to which some anarchists, like many people of other political stances, tend to think that momentary strategic commitments should be matters of unbridgeable principle. What can a strategic commitment mean?
It could mean that I think democratic centralism or consensus, or the use of violence or its rejection, or organizing inside unions or totally avoiding them, or rejecting electoral focus or prioritizing it, or creating self-managing institutions of our own now or rejecting doing so as premature, or whatever other strategic commitments we might want to list, is deemed essential as an organizing approach all the time.
Or it could mean that I think any of these or other commitments is very likely to be essential (though recognizing there could be exceptions), so there is a high burden of proof on not using it.
Or it could mean I think any of these or other commitments has horrible implications so it is very likely to be counter productive and there is a high burden of proof on using it.
Or it could mean that I think any of the these is despicable and should never be used, period.
Our view is that the first and fourth stances are both virtually always ill-conceived because there is virtually no such thing as a strategic commitment, positive or negative, that should be a principled touchstone and therefore unbridgeable in all times and places. Rather, the most we can say, in general, about strategic commitments will almost always take the form of a burden of proof formulation.
To clarify, let’s take a few examples that might arise for at least some anarchists. For example, some anarchists might say presidential electoral campaigning is not just suspect–entailing a high burden of proof to justify anyone emphasizing such activity as a strategic priority, say, which we would agree with–but that presidential politics is actually forbidden for anarchists. These folks might then tend to argue that the downside of such activity is ubiquitous, immense, and unavoidable. If you are for an electoral focus, even only in some situations and not in others, they deduce that you are not really anarchist. There is no situation, they say, warranting a presidential electoral focus by an anarchist. To us, saying that an anarchist vision must reject markets and include some type of cooperative negotiation of inputs and outputs and must reject a corporate division of labor and include some type of balanced job complexes, or, if not, then it isn’t anarchist because it won’t have classless relations, makes sense. But to say that an anarchist must totally reject all presidential electoral involvement by erecting a binding stop sign saying it is simply and always anti anarchist to prioritize such activity, is ill advised.
Yes, it certainly does make sense to point out the likely or even just possible debits of electoral work–of which there are many–and it also makes sense to have an understanding of those debits as part of the shared conceptual strategic agreement of anarchists. But then, even having that broad understanding, it nonetheless makes sense–and is in fact necessary–to consider any specific proposal for prioritizing electoral activity to see if there aren’t mitigating factors which make the proposal desirable, even for an anarchist agenda. To say it can never make anarchist sense to be involved in presidential electoral politics is not just inflexible and sectarian, it is also wrong.
For example, suppose that winning a presidential election would clearly create a context vastly more welcoming to and productive for all kinds of local and national anarchist activity, whereas losing the same election would curtail all that activism. Or imagine an even more peculiar–to an anarchist–situation, where a national candidate for president who stands far to the anarchist side of the political spectrum and is eager to use the presidency to propel the population toward consciousness and activism that will enhance popular power and participation, foster council formation and prioritization, overcome old local and state governmental structures, and finally also overcome even old national political structures. Could electing this person be problematic? Yes, maybe. For example, one might claim all those allegiances are lies, or that despite those allegiances the person will have no wiggle room, or that the process will subvert her sincere desires, etc. But would someone thinking that such a campaign could be positive due to thinking the potential problems could be surmounted and the benefits enormous, automatically mark that person as not anarchist, or not radical, or even as a supporter of the status quo? Of course not.
We need to accept that people can sincerely differ about centrally important strategic matters without it indicating that one or the other of the disputants has sold out or has otherwise lost their liberatory sense that political infighting often forgets. The truth is that leftists often disagree due to honest differences over complex circumstances and not solely due to one or the other being an enemy of change and an agent of reaction.
As another example, take implementing workers’ control in workplaces. An anarchist might reasonably say, and we would agree, that in general this is a very high priority goal. The anarchist might then, however, go a step beyond what we would urge, saying that as a result of its importance whenever instituting self-management can be done, it ought to be done, forthrightly and rapidly, and that there can be no exception to this injunction. To waffle about implementing workers self-management, this anarchist might say, is always anti anarchist.
Of course, there is no doubt it could be true in a particular situation that waffling about implementing workers’ self-management demonstrates anti anarchist leanings. But the more interesting question is could there be a situation in which opposing self-management isn’t anti anarchist at all, and in which, instead, pursuing workers self-management in some particular plant or industry would impede an overall anarchist agenda?
Oddly, the answer is yes. For example, consider a situation where in the early stages of a transition process seeking self-management throughout society, the easiest place to initiate massive rapid innovations is in the oil industry, where the workers are, already, by far the best paid and most comfortable workers in the country, and where oil industry surpluses finance the country’s innovations for other sectors and communities, and where oil workers self-managing their industry could lead to their taking more of the oil surplus for themselves at the expense of others. Oddly, in such a situation, if the oil workers’ consciousness was not yet very advanced, enacting self-management in the largest industry in the country, oil, before establishing norms of equitable remuneration, could actually set back the overall project of attaining self-management throughout the whole society. Thus seeking self-management whenever and wherever you can would, in this case, be potentially counter productive rather than absolutely essential.
Let’s take an even more unusual example. Suppose a country is in a massive project to transform, with the federal government and various grass-roots movements strongly on the side of change, but many old mayors, governors, owners, media moguls, and local police forces still opposing, obstructing, and sabotaging efforts at change. Suppose those old police forces are largely corrupt and by their theft and violence create a climate of fear that seriously impedes federal efforts to facilitate local creation of people’s participatory communes and people’s popular power. What should be done about the police?
Can you imagine an anarchist saying, in this unusual context, “Well, since the army is steadfastly in favor of the revolutionary process, how about if we use the army to discipline and, if need be, to replace the police, thus removing the latter as an obstacle to change, eliminating the climate of fear that the police produce, and proceeding with the transition? All of this accomplished as quickly and with as little violence as possible thanks to the army.” Of course, says the anarchist, I realize using the army domestically is a very dangerous choice, but, that said, letting the police persist in their corruption and violence risks total disaster. More, given the work that has been done throughout the army to date, and the very serious community and organizational controls we can impose on the proposed military efforts, I think we can make this work.
Our point is we can imagine an anarchist proposing that. In fact, one of us suggested such a path as a possibility in Venezuela, where the described conditions do indeed exist–just as the conditions of the prior examples exist in Venezuela as well. Someone making such a suggestion, whether wise or not, would not mean he or she had thrown in with state power, or had abdicated a belief in grassroots self-management, or had become a fan of coercion, but, instead, it would mean only that in a rather unusual context, this approach seemed most likely to have the positive consequences that any anarchist advocate of real freedom would want to achieve, whereas other approaches would accomplish less, with even more risk.
The point of these strange examples, and many more that the reader can no doubt conceive is, first, that they are not in fact all that strange. Actual social struggle is complex and diverse with specific features arising that often make knee-jerk application of political beliefs very dangerous. All of the above situations could plausibly exist in broadly similar form in other countries than Venezuela, even in, say, the U.S. at some future date. But second, for the same reasons, one thing we can certainly know is that there is no strategic injunction that is universally binding in all times, places, and situations.
We think it can make sense to say about a particular political approach, such as anarchism, that to forswear a central goal implies rejecting the perspective. But we think it does not make sense to say about a particular approach, such as anarchism, that to propose something contrary to its most frequent strategic commitments implies rejecting the perspective.
Finally, here is a reverse example. Anarchists typically reject democratic centralism as a means of making decisions in a revolutionary project. This could mean: (1) that anarchists think democratic centralism should never be employed and that to employ it is always a sign that one is a not an anarchist or even an anti anarchist–or it could mean (2) that anarchists think democratic centralism typically has horrible byproducts and a debilitating internal logic that together tend to subvert anarchist aims so that there is a very high burden of proof on utilizing such decision procedures.
To us, unless one nuances it very finely, stance (1) is insupportable. Suppose, for example, that anarchists are having a demonstration that is going to feature a big rally, speeches, a march that spins off from the rally, and then a major building occupation that spins off from the march. The target for the occupation is secret and, in fact, the wrong target has even been leaked so that the police will occupy that wrong building with all their attention. There is a need for flexibility as well as secrecy, so the movement chooses/elects a tactical leadership committee that is empowered to unilaterally decide as the march unfolds what actual target makes most sense to occupy and when to run for it, etc.
This is essentially a democratic centralist approach, but it is one which could, in context, further the anarchist agenda, and which, given that the tactical committee forms, acts, and then disbands, would arguably have little in the way of negative lasting repercussions–though, yes, the mindset involved is of concern and if the same people were always the tactical leaders whenever such a committee was needed, that would be a serious risk. So, would advocating this use of secret flexible leadership make one an anti-anarchist? Did making similar choices make Bakunin, among others, an anti-anarchist? Of course not.
So what’s the point?
We think and hope that with further investigation anarchists will agree that participatory economics and participatory society provide an economic and an emerging–but still far from fully conceived–social vision, each of which are compatible with and indeed also fulfill the aspirations of the long heritage called anarchism. But each of which also avoid over-specifying a future that we can’t yet know and which, in any event, it is for future people to determine.
We also think there are many strategic insights that anarchists can very reasonably share as part of their overall perspective, including those developed so far, and in coming chapters, in this book. These could include:
- the need to plant seeds of the future in the present, including balanced job complexes and self-managed decision making
- the need to have demands, language, and organizational structure and procedures that not only meet current needs on behalf of suffering constituencies but also propel escalating desires that lead toward preferred goals
- the need to win currently sought reforms in ways that develop means of winning still more gains in the future
- the need to measure success by assessing gains in consciousness, organization, and in circumstances and fulfillment, not merely attaining some short term aim
- the high burden of proof on employing violence or on employing any long term top down structures and methods such as persisting democratic centralism
- and the criticality of overcoming not only capitalist but also coordinator mentalities and structures in our own projects and in society writ large.
But more, to avoid sectarianism, arrogance, and knee-jerk calculations–as well as to be on track toward the better world we all desire–we think it is central to realize that having a minimalist but compelling and inspiring anarchist institutional vision is essential. In contrast, regarding strategy, we need to prioritize understanding that there is no single virtuous or effective anarchist–or feminist or anti-capitalist or anti racist or green or internationalist–strategy such that one size fits all. Instead, there is a need for sincere and well meaning debate and disagreement, even about pivotal issues and possibilities, undertaken without casting aspersions on motives and values, and even trying to experiment with minority conceptions rather than only implementing those that are most favored.
“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
Our first collection of insights bearing on strategy is complete. There is more to assemble in coming chapters if we are to have a conceptual toolbox to aid activist choices and actions, but what do we have so far, beyond the theory toolbox of volume one of Fanfare and the vision toolbox of volume two?
Regarding the agents of revolution, we understand that theory does not reveal many truths without investigation. It tells us economy, polity, kinship, and culture are centrally important to social life, that each may yield hierarchies of situation and benefit, and that within these hierarchies we may find groups, defined by their shared roles, who are highly inclined–or highly disinclined–to favor fundamental changes.
It does not tell us, in advance, a priori, whether relations in those spheres of life are so entwined they mutually reproduce, so that all must be changed to permanently change any, or whether, instead, some can be transformed independently of changing the rest.
For reasons of our need to address those elements of society that are capable of preserving or reintroducing the past instead of ushering in a better future, and for reasons of our need to develop movements seeking that better future that are ample and unified, it is wise to initially assume, unless there is very considerable counter evidence, that in societies that exist now in our world, agents are those whose position gives them powerful interests in attaining new social relations in one or more of the four domains mentioned above. Thus, agents of revolution are expected to be workers (beneath coordinators and capitalists in economic hierarchies), order takers (beneath order givers in political hierarchies), women and gays, lesbians, bisexuals and youth and any others who challenge old gender relations (beneath men and heterosexuals and adults in kinship hierarchies), and oppressed national, racial, ethnic, religious and other communities (beneath racist and otherwise dominant cultural communities).
Regarding the size of movements, we understand the need to expand movement membership and deepen knowledge and commitment of movement members by communicating with folks one doesn’t ordinarily communicate with, and steadily advancing the skills, knowledge, and confidence of those who come on board. This, in turn, not only means reaching out effectively, but also solving the stickiness problem including
- dealing with oppression within the movement
- addressing classism in all its forms
- supporting the positive needs of members
- limiting and even eliminating dogmatism and sectarianism by dealing diversely with difference
- avoiding the paralysis of analysis or action faction reactions
- understanding how the personal is and is not political, and
- overcoming the TINA syndrome with shared vision.
The watchword and achievement is–better, more but better.
Regarding the types of demands movements need to develop, we understand rejecting reforms is a horrendous mistake, but so too is reformism, which seeks them as the only end. We fight for changes that benefit people now, and we do it in ways that empower and inspire constituencies not to go home, but to seek more gains on top of those that are already won. Sometimes this is in the substance of the victory–its winning better terrain from which to proceed. Mostly, however, it is in the methods of struggle, how they yield new organization and membership, greater commitment and desire.
Regarding the efficacy of institutional construction, we understand the need to plant the seeds of the future in the present: to learn about their implications and refine our understanding, to grow and empower by way of their structural benefits, and to inspire others by example.
Regarding issues of power, we understand the negative corruption and authority-inducing implications of power, but also that weakness debilitates. We understand that the only worthy power empowers others. And we understand the likely dynamics associated with participating in governments and thus the burden of proof required for doing so.
Regarding the organizational composition of movements, we understand the necessity of organization, including broadly what to attain and what to avoid, and we even have a tentative organizational agenda including key associated visionary, organizational, and programmatic guidelines.
In the next chapter, we offer some hopefully uncontroversial and nearly universal tactical insights. The thinking involved mirrors and applies the thinking developed above.