Socialism: Community and Culture

 [This is the seventeenth essay in a multipart series addressing the surge in interest in and support for socialism, what the surge means, what it seeks or will seek, where it might extend, and how it might unfold.]

Beyond economy, beyond polity, humans tend to create diverse communities bound by shared cultures that differ from one another in their artistic, linguistic, and spiritual allegiances and preferences. The problem of cultural communities is not this diversity per se, but that cultural communities can exploit one another, attack one another, or even obliterate one another. In a good society, presumably this type of largely one way or sometimes mutual intercommunity assault and destruction would be eliminated. What kinds of cultural relations would we like to have in a good society?


Community Vision

We will not be magically reborn in a desirable society, free of our past and unaware of our historical roots. On the contrary, our historical memory, sensitivity to past and present social process, and understanding of our own and of our society’s history will all very likely be enhanced during the process of reaching a desirable society. Rather than our diverse cultural roots being submerged on the road to a better world, they will grow in prominence.

Instead of homogenizing cultures, in the transition to a better world the historical contributions of different communities should be more appreciated than ever before with greater means for their further development, without destructive mutual hostilities.

Trying to prevent the horrors of genocide, imperialism, racism, jingoism, ethnocentrism, and religious persecution by attempting to integrate distinct historical communities into one cultural niche has proved almost as destructive as the nightmares this approach sought to expunge.

“Cultural homogenization” – whether racist, fundamentalist, or leftist – ignores the positive aspects of cultural differences that give people a sense of who they are and where they come from. Cultural homogenization offers few opportunities for variety and cultural self-management, and is self-defeating in any event since it heightens exactly the community anxieties and antagonisms it seeks to overcome.

In a competitive and otherwise mutually hostile environment, religious, racial, ethnic, and national communities often develop into sectarian camps, each concerned with defending itself from real and imagined threats, even waging war on others to do so. But the near ubiquitous presence of racial and other cultural hierarchies throughout society and history no more means we should eliminate cultural diversity than the existence of gender, sexual, economic, or political hierarchies means we should eliminate diversity in those realms. The task is to remove oppression and achieve liberating conditions, not to obliterate difference.

Racism often has a very crass and material component. Consider Desmond Tutu commenting on the South African experience: “When they arrived, we had the land and they had the Bible and they told us to close our eyes to pray. When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible.”

But theft is not always the dominant theme of cultural violation and – even when it is highly operative – it is generally only one part of the whole cultural picture. Most of racism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, and religious bigotry is based on cultural definitions and beliefs pushing and extending beyond material differences. Dominant community groups rationalize their positions of privilege with myths about their own superiority and the presumed inferiority of those they oppress. But these often materially motivated myths, in time, attain a life of their own, often transcending material relations. The effects are brutal. For the oppressed, in the American novelist Ralph Ellison’s words, “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

Some sectors within oppressed communities internalize myths of their inferiority and attempt to imitate or at least accommodate dominant cultures. Others in oppressed communities respond by defending the integrity of their own cultural traditions while combating as best they can the racist ideologies used to justify their oppression. But as W.E.B. Dubois notes, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Cultural salvation does not lie in trying to obliterate the distinctions between communities but in eliminating racist institutions, dispelling racist ideologies, and changing the environments within which historical communities relate so that they might maintain and celebrate difference without violating solidarity. An alternative is, therefore, what we might call “intercommunalism” which emphasizes respecting and preserving the multiplicity of community forms by guaranteeing each sufficient material and social resources to confidently reproduce itself.

Not only does each culture possess particular wisdoms that are unique products of its own historical experience, but the interaction of different cultures via intercommunalist relations enhances the characteristics of each culture and provides a richness that no single approach could ever hope to attain. The point is: negative intercommunity relations must be replaced by positive ones. The key is eliminating the threat of cultural extinction that so many communities fear by guaranteeing that every community has the means to carry on their traditions and self definitions. 

In accord with self management, individuals should choose the cultural communities they prefer, rather than elders or others of any description defining their choices for them, particularly on the basis of prejudice. And while those outside a community should be free to criticize cultural practices that, in their opinion, violate humane norms, external intervention that goes beyond criticism should not be permitted except when absolutely required to guarantee that all members of every community have the right of dissent, including the right to leave the community with no material or broader social loss.

Until a lengthy history of autonomy and solidarity has overcome suspicion and fear between communities, the choice of which community should give ground in disputes should be determined according to which of the two is the more powerful and therefore, realistically, the least threatened. The more powerful community that has less reason to fear domination would be responsible to unilaterally begin the process of de-escalating the dispute. When needed, oversight and enforcement could occur by way of an intercommunal legal apparatus specializing in conflict resolution and including balanced job complexes and equitable remuneration.

Given the historical legacy of negative intercommunity relations, it is delusional to believe all this can be achieved overnight. Perhaps even more so than in other areas, intercommunalist relations will have to be slowly constructed, step by step, until a different historical legacy and set of behavioral expectations are established. For example, it will not always be easy to decide what constitutes the “necessary means” that communities should be guaranteed for cultural reproduction, and what development free from “unwarranted outside interference” means in particular situations. The intercommunalist criterion for judging different views on these matters seems likely to be that every community should be guaranteed sufficient material and communication means to self-define and self-develop its own cultural traditions and to represent its culture to all other communities in the context of limited aggregate means and equal rights to those means for all – just as all of its members, by virtue of participatory economic, political, and kin relations, are equitably remunerated and self managing.


Race in a Participatory Society

If a participatory economy exists in a society that has cultural hierarchies of race, religion, and other communities, what does it contribute? If it exists within a society that has desirable communities without hierarchies, what then? In general, does a participatory economy’s requirements regarding economic life impose any constraints on cultures? Does a participatory polity or kinship sphere?

If we change the U.S. economy, for example, to be participatory without altering the racial, religious, and ethnic landscape, there will be a sharp contradiction. Existent racial and other dynamics in this hypothetical society will pit groups against one another and give people expectations of superiority and inferiority. The participatory economy, however, will provide income and circumstances contrary to residual cultural hierarchies. It will tend to overthrow the cultural hierarchies by the empowerment and material means that it affords to those at the bottom of any and all hierarchies.

People in a participatory economy won’t – and indeed can’t – systemically economically exploit racism and other cultural injustices. Individuals could try to do this, of course, and they could harbor horrible attitudes, of course, but there are no mechanisms for racists to accrue undo economic power or wealth – even as separate individuals, much less as members of some community.

If you are black or white, Latino or Italian American, Jewish or Muslim, Presbyterian or Catholic, southerner or northerner – regardless of cultural hierarchies that may exist in the broader society – in a participatory economy you have a balanced job complex and a just income and self managing power over your conditions. There just isn’t any lower position to be shoved into.

Lingering – or even continually reproduced racism or other cultural injustices – could penetrate a participatory economy in the role definitions of actors, but could not do so in a manner that would bestow economic power, material wealth, or economic comforts unfairly. Thus blacks, Latinos, Asians, etc. in a transformed U.S. might have statistically different characteristics in their balanced job complexes, but the differences could not violate the balance of those complexes. Such disproportionately distributed job features might have otherwise denigrating attributes, it is true, though one would think that if they did, the self managing dynamics of the economy would tend to undo those injustices too.

Indeed, one can imagine that in a participatory economy members of minority communities in workplaces would have means to meet together in (what are typically called) caucuses to assess events and situations precisely to collectively guard against racial or other denigrating dynamics. Or to fight against those that are present as residues from the past or as outgrowths of other spheres of social life. This would seem to be about the best one can ask of an economy regarding it intrinsically obstructing cultural injustices.

But what about a participatory economy and desirable cultures in a desirable society? There is no reason why cultural norms established in other parts of society cannot impact economic life in a participatory economy, and we can predict that they will. The daily practices of people from different cultural communities could certainly differ not only in what holidays their members take off from work, say, but in their daily practices during work or consumption such as arranging periods of prayer or disproportionately engaging in particular types of activity that are culturally proscribed or preferred. There could be whole industries or sectors of the economy that members of a community would culturally avoid, as with the Amish in the U.S., for example.

One possibility is that in more demanding cases it might make sense for members of a workplace to nearly all be from one community so that they can easily have shared holidays, workday schedules, and norms about various daily practices that others would find impossible to abide. Self management doesn’t preclude such arrangements and may sometimes make them ideal.

Alternatively, a workplace may incorporate members of many diverse communities, as will larger (and sometimes also smaller) consumer units. In such cases there may be minor mutual accommodations – some members celebrate Christmas and others celebrate Hanukkah or some other holiday, and schedules are accorded. Or perhaps there are more extensive accommodations having to do with more frequent differences in schedule or with other practices affecting what type of work some people can undertake.

The point is, participatory economy workplaces, consumer units, and planning processes are very flexible infrastructures whose defining features are designed to be classless, but whose details can vary in endless permutations – including accommodating diverse cultural impositions due to people’s community practices and beliefs. 

Finally, do the needs and requirements of the roles of worker, consumer, and participant in participatory planning in a participatory economy put limits on what practices a culture can elevate in its own internal affairs?

The answer is in some sense, yes, they do. Cultural communities in a society with a participatory economy cannot, without great friction, incorporate internal norms and arrangements that call for material advantages or great power for a few at the expense of many others.

A culture could exist, say, that would elevate some small sector of priests or artists or soothsayers, or elders, or whoever else, and that required all other members to obey them in particular respects, or to shower them with gifts. But the likelihood that such a cultural community would persist for long would be quite low alongside a participatory economy.

The reason is the people involved will be spending their economic time in environments that produce inclinations for equity, solidarity, self-management, and diversity, and that “teach” them to respect but not passively obey, others. Why would they submit to inequitable conditions and skewed decision making norms in another part of their life?

Assuming that in a good society people will be free to leave cultures – since people would have both the economic wherewithal, education, and disposition to manage themselves – we guess that many would exercise that freedom to leave any cultural community that denied them the fruits of their labors or denied them their self managing say.

This could also be expected for the connection between a participatory polity or participatory kinship, and culture. The analysis is completely parallel. These other parts of a desirable society, just like its economy, will also impose only equity and self management and solidarity on culture, and will take from cultures that which is compatible with those values. There are no means for oppressive cultural relations to be legitimately and naturally manifested in kin or political relations because the roles available in those relations do not include ones seriously subordinate or superior to others. Similarly, while the details of a set of participatory kinship relations or parpolity relations would likely reflect cultural commitments of participants – with a different mix of features in light of different cultural commitments – these refinements would not undo or restrict the key defining attributes of these spheres of life.

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