The Renewal of Radical Politics

            In the past two decades, the project of radically transforming capitalist societies in order to create communities that are in some sense "socialist" has undergone a profound crisis. This crisis has sometimes looked like a complete collapse of the radical Left, especially in Canada and the United States, where the socialist Left has always been comparatively weak. It is worth stopping to ask why socialism, once so powerful in its mass appeal, in every corner of the globe, has now fallen into such widespread disrepute and popular repudiation.

            There are those, especially on the political right, who regard this turn of events as symptomatic of socialism’s sheer impossibility. According to this view, the inability of socialist economic institutions to solve the complex coordination problems confronting modern societies has been exposed for all to see.

            But another interpretation is ultimately more plausible. Far from the socialist project having strayed too far from capitalism, to the point of unworkability, the problem has been nearly the opposite of that. The roots of the Left’s crisis are to be found, not in the distance that separates socialism from capitalism, but in the proximity that makes them too difficult to distinguish from one another. To be sure, there are very real differences between profit-motivated, privately owned capitalist enterprises and the sort of public sector ownership forms favored by real-world variants of socialism in the 20th century (notably, the statist "central planning" of Eastern Europe and the welfare-state expansionism of Western social democracy and "Eurocommunism"). But these variants of socialism have nonetheless been widely rejected as alternatives to capitalism because they have tended systematically to replicate the least attractive elements of the social order they purport to reject. The socialist Left turned against capitalism at the level of property forms, even as it embraced capitalism’s bureaucratic model of governance, its technocratic approach to designing and implementing public policy, its hierarchical and autocratic forms of workplace organization, its Realpolitik norms of international relations, its glorification of production and accumulation as ends in themselves, and its elitist understanding of who is best able to exercise political power and spearhead social change.

The result has been a kind of paradox of anti-capitalism: the very considerations that generate distaste for capitalism – hostility to its inequality, elitism, authoritarianism, and alienation – generate at the same time a suspicion of many real-world socialist initiatives. And this suspicion reflects an insight into the Left’s very real concessions to capitalism, not a failure on the part of the masses to grasp their true interests, or to see capitalism for what it really is. Securing "public ownership of the means of production" is, plainly, not equivalent to the self-emancipation of the exploited and oppressed from the evils and injuries they endure under capitalism. And the Left has paid a terrible price in diminished credibility for its tendency to treat a necessary condition for transcending capitalism (wresting economic power away from capitalist firms in favor of some sort of public ownership) as if it were a sufficient condition for doing so. In the minds of most working people, the identification of socialism with the project of democratic and egalitarian self-liberation has been broken.

And yet, there are stirrings today of something new, early glimpses, perhaps, of a re-emergence of the radical Left, even here in North America where the Left is weaker than almost any other place on earth.

But the signs of a possible resurgence do nothing to encourage a faith in the prospects for a reassertion of the declining variants of the former Left – the small Leninist organizations, the anarchist Black Blocs, or the reform-minded social-democratic electoral machines. Rather, they suggest new sources of vitality, arising in unfamiliar forms from unexpected locations.

A number of recent (and admittedly still-marginal) grassroots initiatives have been launched by North American radicals hoping to re-invent the radical Left under the banner of participatory democracy. It is, of course, an old term, embraced by some North American radicals at least since the early 1960s. But it has acquired today an importantly new significance. The key difference lies in the fact that, whereas in the past "participation" figured mainly as a proposed alternative to the alienation and cynicism of the elite-dominated system of representative democracy typical of advanced capitalist societies, in today’s emerging participatory Left the ideal of participatory democracy has much more of a double function. Participatory democracy has gone from being simply a label for naming certain features of the radical project, to being at the same time a formula used to delineate the constraints on admissible processes deployed in pursuit of that project. It is about means as much as it is about ends, methods as much as goals.

The Left that is beginning to emerge from under this banner is one that eschews both the bureaucratic conception of socialism typified by the East European model, and the uncritical stance of many social democrats toward the political and economic institutions of capitalism, notably "representative" democracy and the market economy. The emerging participatory Left wants to embody, in practice and right now, the characteristics that the Left has always claimed to regard as worth wanting in a post-capitalist future. It wants, in short, to be egalitarian, anti-elitist, non-statist, and participatory.

Consider, first, the re-founding (in January of 2006) of the campus-based Students for a Democratic Society. The "New SDS" bears a familiar name, at least to those well-versed in 1960s radicalism in the U.S.A. But in many ways it has departed sharply from its namesake. Today’s SDS has over 120 chapters on campuses across the United States. Its name has perhaps attracted a degree of news media attention that a radical direct action student group would normally not be accorded. But what makes it important, in the present context, is not its size or its relatively high profile, but its aspiration to make a qualitative break with earlier models of organizing. Although SDS has struggled to develop a coherent organizational structure, this weakness is in part symptomatic of a crucial secret to its success: SDS has not seen such matters as strictly issues of efficacy or efficiency, but has treated them as inextricably bound up with the question of what it means to organize in the present for a radically democratic society in the future. SDS members have refused to disengage questions of process from questions of project.

A similar insistence on process/project consistency has animated a distinct, but parallel radical initiative: the project for a participatory society, which emerged out of the popular ZNet website, associated with Z Magazine. First, some background. In recent years, the vision for an egalitarian post-capitalist economy proposed by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, known as "participatory economics," has become increasingly influential on the North American far Left. Hahnel and Albert took the longstanding socialist claim that a radically democratic economy was possible, and backed it up with detailed institutional proposals for replacing market economics with a process they call "participatory planning." This process would be based on deliberative councils of workers in the workplace and consumers in neighbourhoods and regions, coordinated by a process of iterative negotiation, using "indicative prices," but substituting participatory and deliberative procedures for the blind rule of market forces.

As these economic proposals grew in influence, a group of likeminded writers and activists began to join Hahnel and Albert in elaborating a broader, more expansive vision of a post-capitalist participatory society. Political scientist Stephen Shalom began to articulate a conception of a post-capitalist "participatory polity." Radical journalist and academic Justin Podur proposed a vision of a "participatory culture." Feminist activist and writer Cynthia Peters explored the possibility of a transformation of gender roles and kinship structures within a participatory democratic society. Most recently, Matt Halling has tried to develop a conception of a participatory-democratic legal system. As this notion of a participatory society began to take shape, advocates of the new project began to get organized, first with a conference on strategies and visions for a participatory-democratic movement (in June of 2006), and then with the formation of the (no longer active) International Network for a Participatory Society (IPPS), later that year.

The IPPS was intended to serve as a centre for advocacy and collaboration among activists and intellectuals committed to the ideal of a participatory society. But, just as important, the appearance of the IPPS quickly stimulated the formation of a series of locally rooted anti-capitalist NGOs (grassroots and non-governmental community organizations), such as the London Project for a Participatory Society (in Ontario, Canada), the Austin Project for a Participatory Society (in Texas), joining the already active Vancouver ParEcon Collective, and the Chicago Area Participatory Economics Society. Internationally, a number of such "PPS" groups emerged, including the ‘Hellenic PPS‘ in Greece, the ‘PPS Down Under‘ in Australia, the African PPS, and the PPS-UK. Arguably, this may prove to be one of the most enduring achievements of the larger "participatory society" project: the formation of locally rooted, grassroots anti-capitalist NGOs, engaged in a wide array of broadly political, but wholly non-statist activities, including public advocacy, popular mobilization, and prefigurative institution-building. What is striking in all of this is the emergence of a new idea of what a radical organization can be: not a political party, but an NGO; not seeking to conquer power through the state, but seeking to subvert capitalism from a position within civil society; not a coalition focusing on a single issue or theme, but a broad-based project to work for the displacement of capitalist civilization by a new, post-capitalist participatory society.

This brings me to my third example of the emerging participatory Left. Obviously, the whole thrust of what I’ve been saying so far is that the participatory Left does not believe in putting off until tomorrow what it can do today. And so it is that the participatory economics movement has found practical expression in a series of real-world experiments in post-capitalist economic institution-building. As Robin Hahnel points out in his book, Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation (2005, p. 368):

[T]here are a handful of collectives in the United States and Canada that are not only owned and managed entirely by their members, but organized self-consciously according to the principles of participatory economics. These collectives…promote participatory economic goals, seek to relate to other progressive organizations on a cooperative rather than commercial basis, and explicitly agitate for replacing capitalism with a participatory economy.

Examples of such participatory workplaces include two publishing firms, South End Press and Arbeiter Ring publishers, a bookstore and café called the Mondragon Bookstore, a bicycle repair shop called Natural Cycle, a now-defunct online newspaper called the New Standard, and a number of others as well. As part of the larger solidarity economy, but also as a living expression of the aims and principles of the participatory society project, these institutions are a key part of the emerging participatory Left.

            We can see, then, that what is new about today’s emerging new forms of radical politics is the way in which today’s radicals have begun to relate their processes to their project. They treat processes, not simply as means to an end, to be assessed in terms of their efficacy and efficiency, but as objects of ongoing political assessment, susceptible to the same kind of critical scrutiny to which the processes and practices of capitalism are subjected.

If, as I claim, the participatory Left can be expected to displace the declining social-democratic strategy for radical change, and the largely exhausted vanguardist revolutionary strategy, what might we expect the next Left to look like, in the years to come?

First, it will be a Left whose most visible manifestation will be the prominent role assigned to prefigurative pilot projects: that is, anticipatory institutions and practices that embody participatory-democratic principles, and that stand opposed to the core principles and leading characteristics of capitalism. The obvious example is participatory workplaces and enterprises, like those mentioned above. But other examples include local participatory budgeting initiatives, participatory-democratic consumer and housing cooperatives, and all manner of experiments with participatory-democratic decision-making.

Second, the emerging Left will be a form of radicalism in which the classical organizational model of the political party, aspiring to exercise state power, will have been displaced by the new model of the anti-capitalist NGO, aspiring to subvert capitalism, and to promote alternatives to it, from outside the state, within a combatively oppositional civil society. Such NGOs will view the market and the state, not as vehicles for advancing progressive aims, but as adversaries to be discredited and displaced, as far as possible.

Third, it will be a Left in which political action and economic institution-building will co-evolve with a reciprocally supporting series of what I want to call counter-capitalist cultural practices. That is to say, the political activism of the next Left will be rooted in lifestyles and value systems that repudiate the cultural bases of pro-capitalist behaviors and aspirations. This follows from the principle that how we live today should be consistent with the kind of society we aspire to create.

All three of these characteristics – post-capitalist pilot projects, anti-capitalist NGOs, and counter-capitalist cultural practices – are rooted in the core principle of project/process consistency. There is, however, a gaping absence in this vision of a renewed radical participatory Left. I have painted a picture of a participatory Left with only a handful of actual participants. But a participatory Left without mass participation is obviously bound to remain on the sidelines of social change and contemporary history.

In the face of this sobering thought, we must acknowledge that the prospects for re-inventing the radical Left, on the basis of a thoroughgoing commitment to participatory democracy, depend largely on the capacity of today’s grassroots participatory democratic organizations to merge with larger processes of political mobilization in revitalized social movements organizing for social and environmental justice, and for political and economic democracy. True, these mass mobilizations have yet to occur, on anything like the scale that is needed. But nothing less than such a broad-based resurgence of community-based "movement" activism can lay the groundwork for a re-emergence of the radical Left as a vital political force.

In the meantime, radicals need to support those organizing efforts which – far from discarding the values and principles of the classical Left – cling to those values and principles with an unprecedented attentiveness to the importance of consistency between the project we aspire to realize, and the processes by means of which we pursue that project. And the principle of participatory democracy can serve as a crucial bridge, for the emerging new radicalism, between how we struggle and what we struggle for.

(Steve D’Arcy is an activist in London, Ontario, and a member of the London Project for a Participatory Society. He can be reached at steve.darcy [at] gmail.com)


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