The Positive Dialectics of Four Hills and RevolutionZ (With No Apologies to Adorno)

Little Big Man. I can’t remember the book (Thomas Berger) exactly but I kind of remember the movie. Near the end Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) goes out, perhaps to the top of a hill…let’s just say that…and he takes Little Big Man (Dustin Hoffman) with him. He lies down, and to cut a long story short, says something like, “today is a good day to die”. He closes his eyes while Little Big Man watches. Thunder cracks (I actually can’t remember) and a rain drop hits Old Lodge Skins’ eye. He twitches, stirs, opens his eyes and admits that perhaps another day will have to do. In the book, I think, he just dies.

In the book She Said, by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, Ashley Judd says something similarly poignant,

““I have to know the hill on which I’m willing to die,” she told the group. “The equality of the sexes is that hill for me.””

In complimentary holism there is this notion that no sphere or area of society is more important than another and they have to operate in concert/harmony or tensions/frictions will appear, undermining societal stability,  pulling things in the more forceful, but not necessarily better direction until stability is restored.

There are essentially four of them…the political sphere, dealing with political systems, the economic sphere, obviously economics, the kinship sphere, concerning in part sex and gender relations and cultural community sphere where the fight against racism predominantly occurs. Within each one there are, today, serious problems to contend with but let’s just say each one revolves around equality, justice, fairness and ideas of democracy or  establishing some sort of truly open, transparent and fair participatory decision making process.

In the book Liberating Theory, concerning complimentary holism, they are called spheres, but I like hill now. One can easily visualise Ashley Judd standing on the hill upon which she is willing to die, the kinship hill, for equality of the sexes. One can see all the others in the world fighting for equality of the sexes and/or gender, whatever that may be, standing upon the same hill next to her, and imagine those from the past, like Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Suffragettes for instance, along with thousands of others, now all actually passed, buried beneath. The hill could be some symbolic kind of burial mound.

Now magine Judd and her friends staring across the skyline at other hills with large numbers of people standing upon them. To one side there’s the economic hill, with all those fighting for economic equality, justice and fairness, on the other, the cultural community hill with anti-racists and others fighting for equality, fairness and justice for minorities and oppressed groups, and out front, the political hill where others are doing much the same.

Something isn’t quite right. There is plenty of distance, of nothing, between each hill. One may even need binoculars to see individuals on other hills and one could even imagine jungle canyon rope bridges (channeling the ingenious English comedian Stewart Lee’s Scooby Doo and the Pirate Zombie Jungle Island), connected precariously to the hills or dangling uselessly down, broken and unattached. A sign of previous attempts at communication between the different hills.

I think the image is clear. Upon each hill, a huge monument and visceral testament to radical, revolutionary history are standing thousands and thousands, continuing the fight for change, the good fight, all of them willing to die but at the same time somewhat disconnected and isolated from the other hills that they can all see around them.

An interesting thing about that final get together at Gwyneth Paltrow’s house, in the book She Said, with the journalists and others who actively sort out and encouraged women to speak publicly or tell their story, is not the solidarity of the gathering and the fact that they are all on the same page. That’s a given and a great and necessary thing. What’s intriguing to me is the inequality in the room, admitted at times, but nonetheless set aside as if it is in fact just an aside (it’s not the concern of the book). That there is someone in the room fighting for equality of the sexes and/or gender and anti-discrimination rulings and laws etc., doing exactly the same as Ashley Judd and others, yet only earning ten dollars an hour, is telling.

In the context of the hills one could visualise the McDonald’s worker and activist (that I cannot remember her name directly, like I can the famous actors, is also telling in a different way) standing on the kinship hill, alongside Judd and the others at Gwyneth Paltrow’s, staring over at the economic hill realising the need for something that is perhaps lacking on the hill upon which she stands. Perhaps not totally, to be fair, but not always clearly evident nor sufficiently attended to. But she can also see, if she squints, those on the economic hill are predominantly male and white, not exclusively but predominantly and that there is much bickering. When she glances over at the cultural community hill she sees many skin shades and colours, what seem to be people of diverse beliefs, cultures, backgrounds and lifestyles, similarly animated. She wonders whether they and those on the economic hill are necessary allies, helpful others who could possibly aid and attend to the gaps and shortcomings that seem to exist on her own hill that go unacknowledged or get brushed aside.

It goes without saying, if these three hills, upon which so many are willing to die, all connected themselves by building bridges far more sturdy and steady than the flimsy and wobbly jungle canyon rope bridges that seem to be already there or broken, the same could be done to the fourth hill, the political one. A hill upon which the McDonald’s worker and activist on ten dollars an hour can see predominantly Big Daddy White Geezers all bickering over how to politically rearrange this and that, anarchists and marxists, social democrats, democratic socialists and liberals arguing, yelling, kicking and screaming about the correct way to proceed and design a new political system.

Imagine all these hills connected with strong, sturdy bridges. Imagine all those standing and willing to die on one hill easily moving between all the other hills absorbing and utilising new and helpful ideas that inform and benefit those on their own hills and doing the same for the others. And imagine each hill standing their ground and refusing to withdraw from their own specific concerns because of the importance of them,  but not skirting issues or problems  that arise around them.  One can now imagine the issues pertaining to particular hills no longer existing in isolation and disconnected from those of other hills in ways that can only  benefit rather than hinder or thwart progress.

Imagine the power, the numbers, the solidarity within the diversity and imagine the to and fro of useful information and ideas that could bring resolution to long held sectarian disputes and that lead to better strategy, tactics and a sense of real community. All the hills connected, passionately discussing and debating the Real and Ideal, the Global and Local, Theory and Everyday Life, Revolution and Social Democracy, trying to find solutions and the best path forward. The buzz, the mayhem at times, even chaos and bickering that eventually gets resolved.

But most of all imagine the four hills upon which so many are willing to die all connected as if it was ONE BIG FUCKING HILL upon which EVERYONE WAS WILLING TO DIE, because that in fact is what we are all on…



Which brings me to something else…the Revolution Z podcast by Michael Albert. This podcast’s concerns are rooted in the idea of complimentary holism, the equal importance of all four hills, though in early episodes, but not all, Michael’s focus is predominantly the concern of those on one particular hill, the economic.

In most of those early episodes he outlines and elucidates the essential features of Participatory Economics, Parecon for short, an alternative economic system to capitalism, market socialism and central planning developed by himself and friend Robin Hahnel. He does it methodically, clearly and in simple understandable fashion starting from its foundation in a set of values – equity, solidarity, diversity and self-management – to its institutional structure, followed by responses to queries, questions and criticism.

I have to say, without doubt, that within the world of revolutionary politics and vision, I have rarely if ever come across such a methodical discussion around one of the most important questions that has plagued the revolutionary left for centuries: with what will it replace the current economic system? I say this unequivocally. Yes, there are those involved in similar projects doing similar things but there are none that truly drill down on such things as remuneration, corporate divisions of labour, self-management and the ills of market allocation like the authors of Parecon do, and Michael Albert does in his podcast.

And further to the point of this essay, he makes it clear to all that not only does he embrace critics and try to answer their every question, he has no illusions about the necessity of an alternative economy working efficiently and in concert with all the concerns of those radicals, revolutionaries and activists standing on the other three hills. Parecon was designed to promote and foster not just desired economic goals and outcomes, but the goals and desires of all other hills. He makes no bones about it. If Parecon was unable to foster the set of values that form its own foundation in accord with the desired aims of those on all other hills upon which many are willing to die, then it is back to the drawing board.

With this said, it is important to acknowledge how important something like Parecon is to the world. There are not many visions that clearly set out minimally, broad institutional structure to achieve maximal benefit. A vision that coherently delivers ethical remuneration, endeavours to ameliorate problems wrought by hierarchical divisions of labour and achieve classlessness, defines self-management and what is necessary for it to effectively function, and offers an alternative to what is by most considered the only planning option to market allocation, central planning (Albert also illustrates problems surrounding mixed economies with some planning and some markets). An efficient and ecologically sound economy that operates in concert with the concerns of all other hills. A vision clearly rooted in radical history from Proudhon and Owen, Marx and Bakunin up to Antonie Pannekoek, Diego Abad de Santillan and Cornelius Castoriadis.

Many think that Michael Albert, Robin Hahnel and Parecon go a little too far. The word blueprint often comes up. I won’t press the point here and just say, it is sooo not a blueprint! Actually, in my opinion,  there are not many “blueprints” lying around to tell you the truth….whatever they are? For me, it is rather that most or all other visions do not go far enough. They are often thin on detail, avoid certain questions and immerse themselves in ideas of hope (we all do), notions of self-emergence and in words like commoning. All good things but things that have been around for centuries and yet capitalism continues to run rampant. There is much discussion of local community economics, building out from such things and vague terms like eco-socialism. Often in the context of some  theoretical ‘we’ that will build all these things together. A ‘we’ that will somehow naturally discover a better future as it proceeds, improvising and struggling up hills. The sort of thing exemplified by what I consider a rather misguided comment by activist John Jordan in A Post-Capitalist Politics by J K Gibson-Graham,

“Our movements are trying to create a politics that challenges all the certainties of traditional leftist politics, not by replacing them with new ones, but by dissolving any notion that we have answers, plans or strategies that are watertight or universal. . . . We are trying to build a politics . . . that acts in the moment, not to create something in the future but to build in the present, it’s the politics of the here and now.”

I am not meaning to pass judgement on Jordan himself, it’s just the statement I take issue with. Who is this we that Jordan speaks for and of? Is Michael Albert or myself included? I happen to like some of the old leftist politics and reckon Parecon is a damn fine idea. And whether the ‘traditional left’ has ever dealt with watertight certainties and answers is moot. More, one can never create in the future, one can only ever build in the present for the future. With the past gone and the future not yet, there is only ever the present and even it’s existence is tentative. And building in the present is never ever free of the accumulated knowledge, ways and traditions of the past (this is why Intellectual Property is a con job, no matter how some Nobel Laureate liberal economists wish to fix it…you don’t fix bullshit scams, you get rid of them…Parecon would).

What one hopes is that the present contains and builds on past successes while learning from failures. And the thing that local endeavours need is a vision that ties them together efficiently and coherently on a grander scale, in a way that fosters desired goals and values creating confidence that a socialist world, rather than just a local one, is possible. This is what Parecon, unashamedly rooted in radical left history and tradition, tries to do, in the present, from one sixtieth of a finger snap to the next. The way everything swims through or floats along with time.

It is not that these very practical and existing local experiments and successes aren’t necessary, they are. In fact they all are just natural occurrences and happenings in my opinion. There are always practical people who like to try new stuff, new ways of doing things. It’s just that they, like a green new deal, absolutely necessary now (another topic), do not tackle essential problems and issues in ways Parecon does.

Local community economics, alternative initiatives, coops etc., don’t necessarily provide wider economic institutional structure or vision that both resolves important problems and could also help many ordinary folk, not involved directly in any of this kind of activity, confidently imagine what socialism or eco-socialism actually is or could look like on a larger, regional, national or even global scale. Such initiatives are often seen as merely admirable experiments here and there, inside a shitty system, which may or may not be able to be expanded in terms of the consumption and production of larger federated regions (something de Santillan endeavoured to tackle during the Spanish revolution). And John Jordan’s statement offers little in this regard, which seems to be his point, it’s just not one I agree with.

To quote Andrew Kliman, a Marxist who it seems has spent some time thinking about Marx and his relationship with post-capitalist systems, in an essay published at the Marxist Humanist Initiative,

“Parecon can look like a blueprint spun out of the heads of two intellectuals, but I think this is largely due to Albert and Hahnel’s tendency to give us their conclusions rather than exhibiting the process of thinking that led them to these conclusions. In fact, the specificity of parecon results largely from their attempt to work through the tensions and contradictions that arise when one thinks about how to break the logic of capital. Their purpose, it seems to me, is not to build castles in the air, but to formulate an alternative that will not revert back to capitalism because it has its own self-sustaining logic.” (Doug Lain interview with Andrew Kliman on his “Alternatives to Capitalism: What happens after the revolution?” July 24, 2011)

It is not entirely true that Albert and Hahnel tend to give conclusions rather than exhibiting the process of thinking that led them to conclusions. In fact, in an long essay entitled Thinking Forward (no longer to be found at ZNet but I have a copy), they do exactly that. But at least Kliman acknowledges the importance of and need for something like Parecon and what it can bring to the revolutionary table. Something Marx was reluctant to do, according to Peter Hudis,

“Marx’s reticence about indulging in detailed speculation about the future society – in place of what the proletariat itself is and is compelled to do – is closely connected to his opposition to the subject-predicate inversion.  Posing a vision of the new society for the proletariat, or irrespective of what it is, amounts to foisting a product of intelligence or imagination upon the actual subject of history. Much of what Marx has criticised in capitalism in his early writings centres on the tendency to foist the products of human development upon the subject, irrespective of its own needs and desires. Why would he now favour promoting a vision of the new society irrespective of the proletariat’s needs and desires?…Indulging in speculation about the future, irrespective of the subjective force that can realise the ideal, amounts to a violation of one of Marx’s primary normative standpoints.” (Pp78-79, Peter Hudis, Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism).

Ye olde subject-predicate inversion the working classes are always tediously going on about at the local, eh! And well we wouldn’t want to foist “a product of intelligence and imagination upon the actual subject of history” (I assume that’s the proletariate), now would we. Well, I reckon there’s actually nothing wrong with doing so. You don’t have to “foist” it upon anyone, you offer it up gently yet assertively as something worthy of considering.

Again, it’s not that Parecon is the answer (Kliman, like Gar Alperovitz and others, even Noam, aren’t convinced of its feasibility which does not nor should not in any way undermine its importance…and because, well, they could be wrong), because it is only one call from only one hill but it is a call that recognises, respects and listens to all calls from other hills. It was designed with that in mind.

But further, at the Revolution Z Podcast, there is something about the way that Michael Albert addresses criticisms and concerns that pulls one in.

It’s the way he takes to the questions posed by Barbara Ehrenreich and the ideas of Noam Chomsky, both good friends. It’s in the manner in which he calmly explains and answers criticisms, outlines why Parecon contains the institutions it does and is structured the way it is (exactly what Kliman says he and Hahnel tend not to do). Michael Albert’s answers illustrate clearly what is required to develop a participatory socialist economy that works beyond just the local, in a maximal and minimal way. One that achieves desired outcomes, in concert with all hills, without impinging on the rights and decision making of present and future generations . It is a clear vision that provides a coherent answer to the question with what to replace capitalism, not just “castles in the air”.

In pretty much all my readings over the last couple of decades on alternatives to market capitalism I have found no equal, as far as explanations for what Parecon sets out to achieve, in reasoning, clarity and coherence, than in the work of Albert and Hahnel. Most other alternatives are purposefully vague, on principle. Ideas devised by those reticent to go too far in visualising what they want, like Marx was, I think mistakenly and somewhat conceitedly.

And what the left wants is essentially embedded both in the set of values Parecon is founded on, and in the maxim expounded by most socialists, from each according to ability to each according to need. But this maxim, like the phrase eco-socialism, is merely an idea that tells one little about how to achieve anything. In order to put such a maxim into practice there are many questions that require answering and tangled issues that require unravelling, and I would argue that in Parecon, a call from one particular hill, and in the Revolution Z podcast, most if not all those questions get attended to if not an answer without denying the importance of all other hills and those who are willing to die upon them.

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