Socialism or Participatory Society

 [This is the nineteenth 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.]

We now have some of the key components of a vision for new, desirable institutions for a new, desirable society. What do we call it? Many will call it participatory society. Many others will call it participatory socialism. Why two names?

Our vision fulfills the stated aspirations of socialists, anarchists, feminists, intercommunalists and, really, everyone who stands for justice and freedom. Grassroots socialists typically want justice, people controlling their own lives, classlessness, feminism, cultural diversity, and so on. So our vision suits them. Why not call it socialism?

Well, that name has historically been claimed for a specific mix of institutions lumped under the terms Twentieth Century Socialism, market socialism, centrally planned, socialism, really existing socialism, and so on. The terms refer to the old Soviet Union, China, etc. These systems, however, no more fulfill the values we have put forth than the U.S. system fulfills the values its advocates say they favor: diversity, freedom, democracy, fairness, and so on. The systems that have usurped the name socialism have not been very feminist, not at all intercommunalist (almost the opposite), not self managing (but at best harshly authoritarian), and not classless (but ruled by a coordinator class).

Take the economy – which is what socialists mainly emphasize. Currently socialism in practice and even in well formulated descriptions has included, at best, powerless councils (often after real ones have been destroyed from above), remuneration for output and power, a corporate division of labor, allocation by markets, central planning, or a combination of the two – and, due to all that, coordinator class rule. To my perception, these critical assertions are only denied for psychological reasons of wanting to be part of a heritage or identifying with its stated but not implemented imputed. The material reality or “facts on the ground” of what has been called socialism, regardless of the intent of most socialists, has been irrefutably class ruled, sexist, racist/homogenized, and authoritarian – albeit sometimes more or less so.

In contrast, participatory economics has self-managing worker and consumer councils as the vehicles of decision making, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor as the basis of income, balanced job complexes for work definitions, and allocation by participatory planning – and, due to all that, classlessness. This difference between what has gone under the name socialism and what we have advocated is not apples and oranges. It is more like arsenic and nutrition.

Okay, so we might not want to call our vision “socialism” for fear of wrongly implying it has anything in common with the old Soviet Union. However, most grass-roots socialists around the world also reject – at least in theory – the same failings. And they also typically favor essentially the same values we do. And many have already even indicated support for participatory institutions. However, even among that set, some still want to keep touch with the heritage of socialism – not out of loyalty to horrendous institutional choices of the past, but out of allegiance to the memory of all the grassroots activists who had their dreams subverted rather than fulfilled.

Can we accommodate that desire? Maybe. Perhaps calling our economic vision participatory economics – not market or centrally planned socialism – while calling our kinship, cultural, and political visions, participatory kinship, intercommunalism, and participatory polity – plus calling the amalgamation of it all participatory socialism – is enough to retain ties but make the distinction. For those who think it is, and who want to continue the legacy not of one party states, class rule, incomplete feminism, and cultural homogenization, but of truly socialist values, calling the vision participatory socialism will make sense. For those who worry about confusing differences with the past, and who don’t want any potential for doubt about their commitments, calling it participatory society will make sense. Which name will emerge as most prevelant, time will tell. In either case, the system in mind is the same. Another world by any other name is still another world.


  1. avatar
    Michael Albert May 14, 2019 2:52 pm 

    I have never understood why lots of people think it is important to reclaim the word socialism – at least until a recent reason arose – that is, because so many are currently doing so.

    If we set that reason aside, I don’t see it. So let me make a case against, which I didn’t really do in the essay because I was taking account of that recent reason, and perhaps you can tell me where I am wrong.

    Socialism, as you say, has been overwhelmingly a term for an economic system. As such, it has meant, in practice and in serious descriptions, a system with markets or central planning, with a corporate division of labor, and with remuneration for output among other features. These are all components of a coordinator ruled economy, not a classless economy.

    Yes, many who call themselves socialist don’t favor that outcome, and instead favor something much more like participatory economy – but this is at the level of values and hopes, not specified institutions. I don’t think there are any, certainly no more than a handful of specifications of socialist economic institutions that can deliver the values. In these respects it is not so different than someone saying they favor freedom, initiative, democracy, opportunity, etc, and then saying that’s capitalism Capitalism isn’t the rhetoric, even if sometimes heartfelt. It is the institutions. Same goes for “socialism.”

    Beyond that argument there is also the history, which is consistent with the above, and even much worse in various cases, and which use of the word tends to align with. You want to use the word to align with positive aspirations, values, but others hear use of the word to mean favoring harsh outcomes. So how does using the word achievie what you seek in using it – to clearly convey values much less institutional aims, to people who don’t already agree?

    Since a better society by any other name is still a better society, why not use a name that at a minimum doesn’t mislead/confuse the aim, and at a maximum, doesn’t literally specify outcomes we don’t seek?

    Again, the only reason I can see is that however confused or incomplete their awareness may still be, many people are now using the word, and maybe one should just go with that tide. But what if that tide, joyful at the moment, leads toward less joyful semantic and actual confusion not far off?

  2. avatar
    Michael May 14, 2019 12:36 pm 

    Socialism is certainly an economic perspective or idea. But at its core it is a vision of a decent, fair, and responsible society and world. It is a philosophy of how people are treated and respected. We need to understand these dimensions and get past the polemical and misleading condemnation of socialism that is so much a part of US history and policies. We must refuse to surrender the use of the word “socialism” because of its misappropriation and difficulties. Michael Albert is, of course, right when he says, “…Another world by any other name is still another world.” and we better find it fast while we still have one!

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