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Replying to Scipes


First, I thank Kim Scipes for his review of a recent book of mine- Practical Utopia – and for the many kind things he had to say about it. Writing about or commenting on other people’s work other than to somehow score points is pretty rare. So is addressing matters of strategy and vision. So I much appreciate Scipes taking time to do both. And while I might enjoy rehashing our agreements on strategy, underlying ideas, vision, and the motives and methods of writing, I will only comment on his disagreements.

Scipes notes that regarding goals, “the values [Albert] advances are solidarity, diversity, equity and self-management, with the latter principle holding whenever possible.”  But Practical Utopia actually presents those four values as guides for only economic vision, or parecon. It’s immediately prior chapter introduces not four but seven values for all of society: solidarity, diversity, justice (broader than its economic application, equity), self management, and also stewardship, internationalism, and participation.

In any case, after summarizing aspects of the book, Scipes lists six concerns.

(1) “There’s no real understanding of how our society got to where it is.”

I agree that Practical Utopia sleights U.S. much less world history. The book’s ideas derive from understanding the past, but appear without a long historical account. Scipes says that having not included details of long-term history means I miss that society’s hierarchies impose on its citizens many varied behavioral flaws and motives that affect how to organize.

He writes, “the point here is that we cannot assume that all people are similar, all good (nor all bad!), etc., but rather, we have to be prepared for the broad range of human behaviors. Thus, I’m arguing that we have to recognize that we live in a stratified society and that it has damaged many, albeit some more than others. This is the legacy we must address.”

I agree and I doubt anyone of any left persuasion, disagrees, and I don’t see where anything I have written suggests otherwise, so I am not sure what Scipes is concerned about beyond that in this particular work about seeking the future I did not write at length about history, though I did take history’s lessons and offer numerous strategic thoughts bearing on the matters he mentions.

(2) “[Albert’s] proposals are based on a functional model of society (i.e., all of the institutions in society serve social functions).”

If this means that when thinking about what we want, Scipes feels I seek out structures to accomplish social aims or “functions” which are in accord with preferred values, he is correct, I do. I think Scipes feels first that this means I think workplaces, or police, or whatever else, exist now and in the past simply to carry out innocuous or even essential social functions as compared to also and often even overwhelmingly to preserve and enlarge the dominance of elites at their helms, and second, that I don’t think people’s beliefs and behaviors also need to change.

If those are Scipes’ concerns in his reference to a “functional model,” then, first, when thinking about, say, workplaces, churches, schools, hospitals, or day care centers, Scipes is correct that I ask about each what functions do we want them to compatibly fulfill while also furthering our broad values – and conversely, I do not ask, what elite group do we want them to protect and serve (because, of course, the whole point is to escape that vile historical legacy). I doubt that when trying to think about goals, Scipes would prioritize thinking about institutions serving some narrow constituency as compared to their accomplishing worthy “functions.” And I also doubt he thinks I am unaware of the fact that existing institutions are largely structured to maintain social hierarchies. Of course what people believe, seek, and do needs to change, not just the institutions they confront. Indeed, affecting that is the point of the book’s every aspect. So I don’t get what our disagreement here is.

(3) “[Albert] bases his analysis on “institutions,” which he never defines.”

When talking about people or their views, terms highlighting interpersonal relations and motives are essential. But when talking about wanting healthy, free, confident, and caring people, is it a problem that terms describing institutions able to promote those humane outcomes become central?

In any case, as to my providing a definition for institutions, it happens beginning on the second page of the first chapter of the book. A few pages later, the discussion turns to beliefs, positive and harmful, that also impact what people do. The institutions of a society and what is in people’s heads and their intents – including needs and desires, as well as skills and capacities – obviously push and pull each other in any society. Oppressive, alienated institutions subvert human aims, restrict people’s views and intents, and express what mainly elites think and intend. Liberated institutions advance human aims, meet people’s needs and desires, and express what all people think and intend. I doubt Scipes would disagree with this, but, if he does, I am not clear why.

(4) “Ironically, in a work focusing on empowering people, there are really no people seriously discussed herein.”

People collectively, and also various constituencies, are in fact discussed, but not specific individual people. That is, Practical Utopia does not name names or celebrate heroes. But is this a failing? Doesn’t attention to individuals swamp attention to social relations in most left writing? Does the further comprehension and possibility?

(5) “There’s no real integration of the environment in the book (to me, it reads as an “add-on”).”

There is a chapter, in the goals section, on participatory ecology, just like there is one on economy, one on polity, and so on, in accord with the ecological value elevated at the book’s outset. The chapter is short, I agree, but is the brevity due to a paucity of knowledge on my part, or even to not caring? Or does the brevity reflect that a desirable ecology doesn’t require as much description of defining features as, say, a desirable economy? Others can decide, but whether it is sound or not is really a question of whether the ideas, strategy, and vision offered are consistent with optimal and wise attention to ecology. It is true the ecological discussion doesn’t get into future details of solar versus wind versus fusion, etc., nor should it. It instead proposes structures that facilitate people deciding such matters, as situations arise, in light of full social and ecological implications. If the goals offered don’t achieve that, okay, why – and how can we do better? Of course, meantime we need movements seeking ecological sanity, but I can’t imagine Scipes thinks I doubt that.

(6) “And there’s no real understanding of empire.”

Well, again it is true that there is only a short chapter on sought international relations that are in tune with the internationalist value elevated at the book’s outset. My general feeling is international relations among participatory societies would have the same key features as specific societies, writ larger. The question what society do we want pretty much deals with what world do we want. The internationalist discussion doesn’t get into future details of social connections between societies beyond broad matters, nor should it. It instead proposes structures that facilitate people deciding such matters, as situations arise, in light of their full implications. If the goals offered don’t do that, okay, why – and how can we do better?

Scipes writes, “I think were [Albert] to take on these concerns in the next iteration of his work, they would greatly strengthen it.” Iagree that if I did so and didn’t usurp future people’s creativity and rights by moving from features needed for them to decides for themselves into a blueprint of my own preferences, it might. But I am sure it would also make the book much longer, something I was trying to avoid.

Scipes says., “Albert sees society based on institutions – which he really does not define, and certainly not adequately for the importance throughout that he gives them – and these societal institutions ‘exist to fulfill some functions.’  That’s one way to look at it, but it’s an ahistorical approach.”

Institutions as defined at the outset of the book are agglomerations of social relations with accomplishing some particular set of functions defining their connection. In familiar societies the function is often largely elevating some elite constituency (class, race, gender, etc.). In a good society that would be gone, and the unifying aims of institutions would be facilitating social achievements like producing things, educating, nurturing the next generation, or curing the sick, and so on, while advancing the well being and potentials of everyone. Institutions of course change over time but also provide an array of pressures which tend to preserve various core defining features. I don’t get what is ahistorical about that.

Scipes spends considerable time discussing U.S. relations to the world. For the most part, again, I am not sure why what he offers constitutes a concern about this book. I think he is saying, since I did not do similarly, at great length, I could not arrive at clear and useful insights about strategy, or perhaps vision, and that instead my views on such matters must be flawed. Okay, if so, what flaws did my short shrift  to describing and excoriating U.S. international policies introduce into the sections on strategy and vision, which themselves are broad, of course, no detailed?

Similarly, Scipes seems upset that I didn’t spend considerable time elucidating and warning of climate and other ecological catastrophes. Again, I am not sure why. Part of the problem may be the book’s audience. I was under zero illusion that Practical Utopia would be read far and wide – for example by people not already deeply leftist, by people ignorant of history, empire, and ecological nightmare. For me, writing about all that for my likely audience would merely repeat what they have read countless times already. I tried to address matters that get short shrift in such audience’s libraries, not what they already agree about. More, even for a broad not yet radical audience, I do not think spending major time enumerating the pain, suffering, and deadly dangers we face, and little time on vision and strategy, is likely to yield sufficient activism to win. It tells people society is a mess – and I think few disagree – but it also tends to add to cynicism that anything better is possible, a view which is already prevalent and disastrous.

Scipes says my spending relatively few pages on international relations, empire, and ecological calamities makes Practical Utopia insufficiently radical. He says, instead, “first, we must take a global approach to understanding what the US elites are doing.  And then, we must center our climate change/environmental destruction in our thinking.” It seems to me that taking a global approach and emphasizing ecological dangers has been predominant in left writing and thinking for decades. On the other hand, carefully developing and proposing vision and related strategy bearing on those matters, and others, has been scarce, to put it gently. But, even setting that in my view incredibly harmful imbalance aside, okay, what different ideas, vision, and strategy, bearing on creating sustained activism for a new society, would emerge from focusing more of this short book on empire and ecology? The truth is, I am highly focussed on both, over the course of my life, so whatever Scipes thinks is missing, it isn’t for want of such concerns.

Scipes says, “I argue that we have to drastically reduce production and we have to drastically reduce our fossil fuel-based transportation system.” Okay, countless people say that, in fact, almost everyone on the left says something like that, and many not on the left as well, but what is the obstacle? Isn’t it largely structures that propel exactly the opposite outcomes? And don’t we need to address those structures, and how to replace them? I again wonder what Scipes thinks our disagreements are?

As Scipes says, “Yet, we still need food, shelter, clothing, education, culture, etc.:  how are we going to organize this?” He answers that he thinks “we have to shift to a concept of bio-regions, where people organize themselves on the basis of their habitat instead of currently existing political borders.  And it’s here–in the respective bio-regions–that we have to build the new, libertory societies.  And it’s here that much of Albert’s thinking is not only applicable, but desirable.”

I suspect we do have a considerable difference here. In contrast to Scipes, I don’t think we should “reduce production as much as possible, reorganize what’s left that’s important and needed on the basis of bio-regions, with inter-regional trade limited to necessities, and organize production in ways that are participatory, empowering and shared equally,” because I don’t agree that small is beautiful or even that in many instances small or regional is ecologically superior, though I of course do agree production ought to be “participatory, empowering and shared equally”.  I have written quite a lot on this before but consider just two brief points. Reducing production as much as possible, means, what – no violins, no air conditioning, and on and on? Limiting trade to necessities means, what, folks in cold climates can’t have oranges?  And this is all somehow a matter of principle not an issue of weighing off the human, social, and ecological benefits of some item versus the human, social, and ecological costs of its production? For me, instead of saying as a kind of axiom, let’s have less, and let’s have small units, our aim should be to have economic and other institutions that reveal what scale of operations, what level of output, what types of output, and what level of social integration, are most in tune with the values we hold dear, which in my case is the seven values that I offered on grounds that those afford people the means and wherewithal to themselves decide what they desire. If Scipes is right that in the future minimized output and localized self sufficiency is optimal, than that is what such institutions would allow and facilitate future citizens deciding. If I am right that there are countless products that benefit humanity even though we could theoretically do without them, and that distribution across regions, zones, and the world are sometimes ecologically or otherwise unsound, but are often highly desirable, then that is what future citizens would freely settle on. It is not for us now to make their decisions for their future situations, having neither the right nor the information needed to do so. It is our task, now, instead, to conceive and win institutions that facilitate future citizens freedom, wisdom, and wherewithal to live well.

1 comment

  1. Fred Bourgault-Christie July 31, 2018 10:41 pm 

    Wow. The “functional” quote, as if functionalism is a scare word rather than a legitimate method of sociological inquiry, is impressively silly, and I’m sure is not representative of Scipes’ analysis.

    All institutions perform functions. Do they perform them perfectly? No. No duh. Can they have functions at odds with their publicly proclaimed functions? Yep! No duh. Can they have their functions hijacked by factors not endogenous to them? Of course! A church that once served its congregation can be taken over by a criminal charlatan who uses it to enrich himself.

    Indeed, conflict analysts don’t argue that institutions don’t perform functions. They say that those functions aren’t what are claimed by the institutions themselves, and that what appears to serving all of society isn’t. For example: the Nazi state clearly posed as if it wasn’t enriching its elites, but it was.

    So the only sense in which this can be a relevant criticism is if one believes, a priori, that there is no possible way that any institution could aim to serve good functions and do so.

    But not even conflict theorists think that.

    You call this out but it’s so silly, and i think i proves your point that vision is necessary.

    I also winced at the idea that you didn’t name people in it. Ummm… yeah? Does the Constitution name individuals? Not even the CCNRs of a local neighborhood do so. That’s not because we don’t think about human beings. It’s because we anticipate that new human beings will, wonderfully, be joining us, by birth, by movement.

    What a silly red herring. I think Scipes should d

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