Real Utopia Review

Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century, edited by Chris Spannos. Oakland, California: AK Press, 2008. Paper, $21.95. Pp. 416.

Real Utopia is a collection of 33 articles and interviews devoted to the theory and praxis of participatory anti-capitalism. As such, it can function as a primer both to the literature on participatory economics, and to the work and activism of groups around the world that have advocated not just for a participatory economy but also for the redesign of non-economic institutions in accordance with the principles of equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, and environmental sustainability. The volume includes contributions from well known names in the American left (such as Michael Albert, Robin Hahnel and Noam Chomsky) and a number of other academic and activist advocates of a more participatory society.

As the editor’s introduction to the volume makes clear, the conception of a participatory society promoted by the various authors is rooted in a "holistic" approach, which distinguishes four main institutional spheres of any given society: the economy, the polity, the kinship system and the cultural sphere. These are seen as interdependent and interacting with each other, with none viewed as analytically prior to or more fundamental than any other. Moreover, the institutional spheres operate within the constraints of natural ecosystems as well as the international context.

In positing an interaction between the various institutional spheres of society, the advocates of this holistic approach see themselves as avoiding the economistic excesses of Marxist thinking or the tendency of some feminists to focus on some (the economic and kinship systems), but not all, institutional spheres. Just as Marxism is viewed as an example of "monistic" thinking, the work of these (unnamed) feminists is held as an example of the "pluralist approach" (7).

It is of course debatable whether the charges of monism and reductionism do justice to Marxism, especially in view of the work on "overdetermination" of such Marxist theorists as Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff. In any case, the holistic approach emphasizes that the different institutional spheres give rise to different forms of oppression. Theorists of participatory society tend to think of classes as the groups defined by inequalities in the economic sphere. In doing so, they end up defining other forms of oppression as non-economic, thus viewing gender inequalities as generated within the kinship sphere and racial inequalities as generated within the cultural (or, as it is also sometimes referred to, community) sphere. Participatory theorists view themselves as non-economistic because they believe each form of inequality can give rise to social struggles that turn oppressed groups into makers of history.

Part I of Real Utopia contains five articles on the economy, the polity, the kinship system, the cultural sphere, and the environment. Part II amplifies this discussion by rethinking various dimensions of everyday life in view of the values that a participatory society would seek to implement. The topics include the implications of a participatory society for art, cities, technology and education.

If Parts I and II (along with Part VI) have a more theoretical emphasis, Parts III-V focus on historical and empirical instantiations of the participatory anti-capitalist project. Part IH contains a number of articles on lessons to be drawn from the experience of countries and movements around the world. These articles touch both on Europe (for example, the Balkans, the UK, and Sweden) and on non-European parts of the world, including postcolonial Africa, the Kerala experiment in India, the worker-operated factory movement in Argentina, and Venezuela’s experimentation with more participatory forms of democratic government.

Part IV turns to the historical record for lessons that could be drawn by the participatory anti-capitalist movement today. It contains articles on the Russian and Spanish revolutions, as well as a critical revaluation of the achievements and limitations of 20th-century social democracy and libertarian socialism. Part V rounds out the more empirically focused part of the volume with the experience of alternative institutions in the United States and Canada that not only advocate for a more participatory society but also try to prefigure it through the way they have organized their operations internally. Finally the contributions in Part VI focus on political strategy: how a transition could be envisaged from the capitalist present to a participatory non-capitalist society.

Judging the collection as a whole, there is a certain unevenness in the level of insight offered by the various contributions. Because of the large number of articles, many are too short to delve into their respective topics deeply enough. In this respect, greater selectiveness (and more thorough copyediting) might have helped.

At the same time, the volume does give expression to the main contributions of participatory anti-capitalism to radical thought. These include a rigorous critique of the outcomes (including the supposed efficiency) of markets and a model of how a non-capitalist society could function without markets. Perhaps even more importantly, participatory anti-capitalism represents an attempt to learn from the history of "socialist" revolutions degenerating into undemocratic regimes that ended up oppressing the very people they were supposed to liberate.

The key requirement here is abolition of the division of the population between a "coordinator" elite that monopolizes empowering tasks such as the organization of production and a majority that is confined to repetitive and disempowering tasks that simply implement the decisions of coordinators. This division is rightly seen as preventing the possibility of meaningful self-management by workers and citizens. To prevent this, participatory anticapitalists advocate "balanced job complexes" that would preserve a technical division of labor within workplaces (and revolutionary organizations) even as it made sure that both empowering and disempowering tasks are distributed equally.

In this respect, this volume does contribute to the project of rethinking and organizing for alternatives to capitalism. One comes away with a sense of hope, especially in view of the ample participation of young people both in the theoretical discussions and in the activist organizing initiatives that the book describes.

[Author Affiliation]
Department of Social Science
Na mm 611
Neiu York City College of Technology (CUNY)
Brooklyn, NY 11201

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