[This is the sixteenth 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.]
The reason for movements needing a shared vision is in large part so movement efforts can lead where one wishes to wind up rather than elsewhere or endlessly reproduce the present. All activism involves campaigns, projects, and struggles including marches, boycotts, strikes, occupations, and much else, seeking to win various short run gains. Activism that seeks fundamental change also involves overarching priorities or themes we call strategy and tries to combine short-term efforts into a trajectory of change leading toward long-term goals.
Consider seeking higher wages in some workplace, or better work conditions, or more say over workplace decisions, or restrictions on corporations dumping waste or contributing to climate catastrophe, or increased taxes on the rich, or free education and health care.
All these efforts seek limited short-run gains called reforms. If battles for reforms seek only short-run gains, we call them reformist. You win and go home. But battles for reforms can also seek long-run gains. Win, or even lose for the moment, but keep struggling in ways that try to arrive, eventually, at fundamental change. Aside from short-term demands, and the choice of how to apply pressure to win them, once one’s goal includes continuing to seek more, three new facets of the process arise: Determining what lasting views and desires activism should foster beyond its immediate aims. Determining what lasting organization activism should create beyond temporary arrangements to raise pressures able to win gains immediately. And determining who activism should mainly involve, and in what manner. And these three facets are where activism gets strategic.
So what does favoring participatory socialist economics, which is what this series of essays has so far made a case for, say about these strategic aspects of activism?
Favoring participatory socialism says that when fighting for some immediately attainable gain we should address the involved issues in ways that establish understanding and arouse desires related to how our long run goal handle the same issues.
Fighting for higher wages we should develop desires for fully equitable wages, meaning, in the participatory socialist case, income for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work, and not for property, bargaining power, or even talents or tools or output more generally. Therefore fighting for higher wages for custodians in a university, or for technicians and cleaners in a hospital, we should ask why they get less than faculty or than doctors, say, and not just why they don’t get $15 an hour. The struggle then not only seeks valuable immediate gains, it arouses desires leading toward the ultimate goal. Current reality poses an immediate need of some constituency and reveals possible paths to applying sufficient pressures to win gains addressing that need. Shared vision presents the full values and assessments for related more complete gains we ultimately desire which we present in our organizing.
Fighting for additional say for workers in a plant, or removal of some controls over them, participatory socialism says we should also discuss self management and the desirability of workers councils.
Fighting for better work conditions, or for better relations for workers vis a vis coordinators, we should also discuss balanced job complexes.
Fighting for restraints on market madness, for example laws punishing anti-ecological dumping, we should also discuss participatory planning.
And finally fighting for an array of gains as, for example for the green new deal, we should talk about the array of still more radical features constituting participatory socialism. In every case we fight to win the sought short-run reform, but also to propel further struggle.
Favoring participatory socialism also says that when creating lasting organization we should seek to make it efficient and effective enough to win gains now. But it also says we should create organization able to teach about, to inspire support for, and ultimately to melt into what we desire for the future. In the case of participatory socialism this means we should create organization with balanced jobs and self management, and if we have paid positions, with equitable remuneration, and when working with others, with cooperative negotiation of joint efforts. This follows essentially the same logic as, for example, embodying feminist or anti racist relations in our organizations. Doing so ensures wider and more committed participation of affected consistencies rather than their exclusion or subordination, whether due to race, gender, or class. And it plants the seeds of the future in the present, providing a showcase (and avoiding hypocrisy), inspiring emulation, and providing a testing ground, as well.
As examples, consider a participatory socialist media project or electoral organization. In the media project to be participatory socialist there should be no owner calling the shots, no few empowered workers dominating the rest, equitable remuneration, and self managed decision making. In the electoral organization, the same holds to provide a testing ground for these structures, to remove from the work exploitative and authoritarian relations that sap creativity, and to avoid having internal class relations interfere with dealing with class relations in society more broadly, a very serious problem for both left media and left electoral work.
Finally, favoring participatory socialism says about outreach activism and organization need to involve workers in ways highlighting enlarging their confidence and decision making skills, and utilizing their leadership, again analogously to highlighting involving blacks, Latinx, and women. This entails taking account of working people’s circumstances and needs to ensure that movement organizations and events are accessible to them, for example providing services like daycare, transport, and other mutual aid when needed. It means orienting discussion, outreach, and of course demands in light of the need to involve working people including their becoming ever more empowered, but it also means attracting and including people in the coordinator class, but while challenging their sense of class entitlement.
These various themes may seem modest when spelled out as succinctly as above. But if you think of movement organizations, campaigns, and projects, as well as of what movements say to their audiences, how they say it, and who they actually seek out to address, my guess is you will see participatory socialism in fact proposes rather dramatic changes,as noted above.
The label socialism, as heard and used by people in the current surge of support for socialism, often refers to the whole society and not solely to a society’s economy. The labels participatory economy and participatory society avoid confusion by differentiating the two meanings, adding also participator polity, participatory kinship, and participatory culture. Since I am addressing the recent socialist surge in this essay series, I will take the label participatory socialism to refer to a whole new society, not just a new economy. And while I won’t pretend to have myself given near as much time, thought, or practice in exposition for that matter, to areas other than a better economy, I hope I have given enough to at least offer up some attention beyond economics in coming essays in this series. Doing so is important not only because we need vision for areas other than economy just as much as we do for economy, since the other areas are just as critical to the tasks of winning a new society and what it will look like, but also because in the past economy has been deemed prior and more important, and I wouldn’t want to abet that flawed orientation.