ParPolity: Political Vision for a Good Society

(This draft benefited from conversations with many people, but especially Michael Albert and  Cynthia Peters, and from feedback at a panel discussion in Porto Alegre on political vision and from very helpful comments from students at the Z Media Institute. I particularly profited from an essay posted in ZNet’s ParEcon Forum by Gar Lipow, that grappled with the question of political vision, sometimes coming to the same conclusions as me, sometimes not. None of these people are responsible for any of the views expressed here.)

The relevance of political vision


1.1 Why should we be interested in thinking about what the political system of a good society might look like? There are two main reasons.


1.2 First, because you needs to know where you want to end up if you want to know which path to take. Every political activist chooses strategy and tactics based on whether or not they bring us closer to our goal. Therefore, if we are to choose the appropriate strategy and tactics, we will need to have some rough idea of the goal to which we aspire.


1.3 Second, we need to show people that an alternative is possible. One of the most powerful arguments in favor of the status quo is that “there is no alternative.” Unless we can demonstrate that society can be organized to realize our values, it will be impossible to convince people to make the commitment and sacrifices necessary to challenge that status quo.


1.4 Several arguments have been advanced against thinking about political vision (or any vision, for that matter).


1.5 One such argument is that it is arrogant and elitist for a few individuals to put forward a vision for the rest of us.


1.6 Certainly it would be elitist and downright dictatorial for a few to impose a vision on. But no one is imposing anything on anyone. An attempt at formulating a plausible, but attractive vision is being made. It is offered up for discussion. If it is not discarded and replaced with something else better, then it will surely be modified, many times and in substantial ways. But if no one offers up anything for discussion, then the discussion never takes place. I give specifics, just to show that the goals we want are possible, but this doesn’t mean that the specifics are the final word. They are meant to begin the conversation on vision, not end it.


1.7 A second argument is that ideas come from practice, from struggle, from real activities, not from theorizing from the top of a mountain.


1.8 Of course they do, and that’s where my ideas come from, from my own experiences and my reading of the experiences of others. And of course any proposed visions have to be measured against what we learn from new struggles and from new social experiments – and revised or rejected accordingly. But the fact that a vision was not issued as a communiqué from a revolutionary struggle somewhere does not invalidate it: it needs to be invalidated – or validated – on its merits. Moreover, since the political vision described here presupposes a compatible economic vision and a long-term context, there are not likely to be many relevant real-world experiences. The much-studied experience of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, for example, as valuable as it is, exists within an environment of extreme economic inequality; naturally, what is needed and what will work in an environment of great inequality is far different from what is needed and can work in an environment with basic equality. Other examples are often short-lived experiences that, however inspiring, cannot tell us much about what is possible on a long-term basis. So, as important as real-world experiences are, they are not sufficient alone without some theorizing as well.


1.9 Similar to the previous objection, it might be asked how can we in 2005 be proposing vision for a new society that is decades away?


1.10 It’s quite true that we can’t expect a vision put forward today to be appropriate and compelling many years hence. But consider an analogy. Scientists put forward theories about the cosmos, about subatomic particles, about the human genome based on very little data. As more data became available, those theories were revised or sometimes discarded entirely. But no one would have thought to say to the scientists “don’t theorize today because your theories will be revised when there is more data in the future.” As political activists our situation requires at least as much theorizing as is done by natural scientists. If astronomers held off their theorizing about the nature of the universe until vastly larger amounts of data were in, not much would be affected. But if we don’t theorize about our goals, our ability to gain adherents to our cause or to choose appropriate strategy and tactics will be compromised. To be sure, our strategy and tactics will probably not be optimal (because the vision we are now measuring it by will probably be substantially modified), but our best judgment of our vision today will give us the best chance of pursuing appropriate strategy and tactics.


1.11 A final objection asks “OK, but how do you get there?”


1.12 Clearly this is an important question. But one essay cannot deal with everything. It doesn’t seem illogical to figure out where you would like to go and then see how to get there. Obviously, if it is later shown that there is no way to get there, then the destination has to be rejected. This is true even when considering far more modest changes. Say we are unhappy with the current health care system. The first thing we would do is inquire if some form of national health care is desirable and feasible. If our answer to these questions is yes, then we would inquire as to whether we can get there from here. That’s an important question, but it is logically subsequent to our being able to describe a desirable and feasible alternative.

A political system that is appropriate for ParEcon


2.1 The political system of a good society is only one aspect of that society. Every society needs to deal as well with economics, family life, international relations, and so on. By focusing on politics here there is no implication that these other matters are unimportant. They are in fact critical. However, one essay cannot cover everything.


2.2 In any vision of a good society, the various components – economics, politics, family, etc. – would have to be compatible. I am going to take as a given that the economy will be run according to the principles of Participatory Economics, or ParEcon for short. (See Michael Albert, Parecon: Life After Capitalism, London: Verso, 2003, for the latest elaboration of this model.) I choose this because, one, I personally find it to be the most compelling vision currently put forward, and, two, because it seems to be compatible in terms of basic values and structures with the political vision I describe.


2.3 The basic features of a participatory economy are (1) goods and services are produced according to a plan developed by an iterative procedure of democratic, participatory planning by consumers and producers councils; (2) people are remunerated not for capital or skills or output, but for effort; and (3) everyone has a balanced job complex – a mix of empowering and disempowering jobs – so as to share the burdens and benefits of each.


2.4 So what political system – what kind of polity — would be appropriate for such a society? For convenience, though certainly not elegance, I will call this political system ParPolity.

Why do we need a political system at all?


3.1 The first question to be addressed, however, is why there is a need for a political system at all. Many of the conflicts in capitalist societies today can be traced to the economic system. This has led some critics of capitalism to argue that once the capitalists are expropriated, there will be no more divergent class interests, and hence no need for parties, and indeed no need for politics.


3.2 Many of those working against racism, sexism, and heterosexism would argue that class is not the only source of clashing interests. In principle, we can imagine a society that has eliminated capitalism, but yet has conflicts over racial, ethnic, gender, or sexuality issues. It might be replied that the struggle to overcome capitalism will necessarily be anti-racist, anti-sexist, and so on (or else it won’t succeed), and thus inequalities based on race or gender will disappear at the same time as those based on class – not automatically, but as a natural result of a struggle that combines all these concerns.


3.3 One would hope this were true, but even if so, there will still be many issues that will divide people in a good society. These issues may not be as fundamental as those that were integral to capitalism, or even to capitalism overlain with patriarchy, institutional racism, and the like, but they are issues that have evoked passionate controversies on the left, that is among those who are agreed on the need to end patriarchal, racist, capitalism. Here are just a few issues that will continue to vex us in “life after capitalism”:


·         animal rights (should meat-eating be outlawed as immoral?)

·         pornography (is it inherently oppressive to women or an expression of individual autonomy?)

·         prostitution (in a society without economic exploitation is it possible for someone to “choose” to be a sex worker?)

·         deep ecology (to what extent should we treat the environment not just as something to be protected so that it can continue to sustain us in the future, but as something of value independent of all human benefit?)

·         drug legalization

·         multilingualism

·         children’s rights

·         allocation of expensive or scarce medical resources, like heart transplants

·         cloning

·         surrogate motherhood

·         euthanasia

·         single-sex schools

·         religious freedom when the religions violate other important societal values, like gender equity.


3.4 On top of this, there are issues that are generally supported by the Left, but not universally so, and about which we can imagine continuing debates in a good society: for example, the extent to which we should recognize abortion rights or preferential policies for members of previously oppressed groups.


3.5 And then there are issues that would arise from the fact that the whole world may not become “a good society” all at once – what might be called the “socialism in one country” problem. How will we deal with questions of foreign policy, trade, or immigration?


3.6 In short, even in a society that had solved the problem of economic exploitation and eliminated hierarchies of race, class, and gender, many controversies – many deep controversies – would still remain. Hence, any good society will have to address issues of politics and will need some sort of political system, a polity.

What values do we want for our political system?


4.1 The values that we want from a good political system are similar to those of ParEcon.


4.2 Liberty. We want the policies that affect us to correspond as much as possible to our own desires, but without intruding on any one else’s ability to have policies that correspond to their desires.


4.3 Justice. we want a fair society, one that treats each human being equally.


4.4 Participation. We want a political system that doesn’t just produce results that benefit us, but one in which we participate in the decisions that affect our lives. Why? Because self-management makes us more fully human. Politics is not just a means of attaining our ends but is also a means of defining who we are and hence what our ends are. Moreover, no political system is likely to produce results that benefit us unless there is some means of knowing what it is that benefits us, and this is not given, but emerges only after public deliberation. Our participation helps to define and create our preferences, which is what the polity is seeking to address.


4.4.1 Now this can be overdone. Political activists should not assume that everyone has the same enthusiasm for politics – for meetings, for debates, for reading about politics – as they do. Just as people vary in their preferences and capacities for music or crafts or mathematics, so too will they vary in their attitude toward and talent for politics. So we don’t want a polity that requires everyone to value political participation as much as full-time political activists do today, or that penalizes those without a flair or an interest in politics by somehow denying their interests equal consideration. But some degree of participation – less than that of political fanatics, but more than that of most citizens of capitalist democracies – is essential.


4.4.2 Moreover. participation takes time, and time spent participating takes away from time that can be spent on other things. So while participation is important for us all, we want to make sure that it doesn’t impose excessive time demands upon us.


4.3 Solidarity. We want a political system that allows and encourages us to take account of our common interests with others, that promotes cooperation, and that helps us see how our lives and interests are intertwined with those of others.


4.4 Tolerance. Because people have different views of the good life, a good political system should promote diversity, allowing as many different visions of the good life as possible, so long as they don’t deny that same tolerance to others.


5.0 Any political system has to accomplish some basic functions: it has to have some means of making group decisions; it has to have a way to carry out those decisions; and it has to have means of resolving disputes. These functions are typically called legislative, executive, and judicial functions, respectively.

Legislative Functions

5.1 I propose that legislative functions be carried out by a system of nested councils. Here is one way that such a system might function.


5.2 There would be primary-level councils that would include every adult in the society. The number of members in these primary-level councils would be somewhere between 25-50. Each primary-level council would choose a delegate to a second-level council. (Each second-level council would be composed of 20-50 delegates, probably the same size as the primary councils, but not necessarily so.) Likewise, each second-level council would  choose delegates to third-level councils, and so on, until there was one single top-level council for the entire society.

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