For purposes of exploration and debate with Parecon’s Michael Albert. See whole debate here.
The world we envision is one of adventure and possibility, of radically new relationships and potential forms of social and individual life that are difficult to imagine, much less describe, from the perspective of the present. Most of what will happen in a social-ecological future, whether at an environmental, personal, or communal level, will be spontaneous and creative – and these are things we can neither plan nor propose nor predict. Nevertheless, such spontaneous and creative unfolding of potentials will require both an institutional framework and an ethical vision if they are to become more than mere dreams. Thus we must turn our attention to the social structures that might make free nature and a free society more likely.
Social ecologists work toward a society structured around freedom, cooperation, and ecological and social diversity. Our vision of a better world draws on the practical proposals and utopian hopes raised throughout history by emancipatory movements from below. At the center of our vision of free communities is direct democracy. Direct democracy means people managing their own lives, consciously and collectively, for the good of the communities they are part of. Instead of handing over decision-making power to experts, professionals, representatives, or bureaucrats, social ecology foresees all people participating directly in the self-management of their communal affairs.
Because we oppose institutionalized forms of domination and hierarchy, social ecologists reject the state as such. Instead of positing a separate body that stands apart from society and makes decisions on its behalf, we envision a network of community assemblies as the basic decision-making body and as the primary venue for practicing direct democracy. These assemblies include all the residents of a local area (in cities at the neighborhood level and in rural areas at the township level), who meet at regular intervals to discuss and decide on the issues before them: political as well as economic decisions, indeed any social decision that affects the life of the community as a whole.
The popular assembly includes everybody who is willing to participate in it and provides a democratic forum for all community members to engage one another on an equal basis and actively shape social life. Ongoing interactions of this kind encourage a sense of shared responsibility and interdependence, as well as offering a public space for resolving disputes and disagreements in a rational and non-coercive way. Recognizing that people have differing interests, aspirations, and convictions, the neighborhood assembly and its accompanying civic ethos present an opportunity for reconciling particular and general objectives. Direct democracy, in this view, involves a commitment to the wellbeing of one’s neighbors.
Social ecology’s emphasis on face-to-face assemblies open to all is meant to encourage, not preclude, the creation of other libertarian and cooperative social forms. An enormous variety of spontaneous associations, living arrangements, workplaces, family structures, and so forth all have an important place in our vision of a free world. The only forms that are excluded are ones based on exploitation and oppression. In place of these, we propose a moral economy in which decisions about production and consumption form part of the civic life of the whole community.
In this scenario, workers’ councils play a crucial role in the day-to-day administration of production, while local assemblies have the final say in major economic decisions. All members of a given community participate in formulating economic policy, which is discussed, debated, and decided upon within the popular assembly. Social ecology foresees an extensive physical decentralization of production, so that workers at a particular enterprise will typically live in the same municipality where they work. We also foresee a continual voluntary rotation of jobs, tasks, and responsibilities and a radical redefinition of what ‘work’ means. Through the conscious transformation of labor into a free social activity that combines physical and intellectual skills, we envision the productive process as a fulfillment of personal and communal needs, articulated to their ecological context. Along with the rejection of bosses, profits, wages, and exchange value, we seek to overcome capitalism’s reduction of human beings to instruments of production and consumption. Social ecology’s assembly model encourages people to approach economic decisions not merely as workers and consumers, but as community members committed to an inclusive goal of social and ecological wellbeing.
While the broad outlines of communal production are established at the assembly level, they are implemented in practice by smaller collective bodies which also operate on an egalitarian, participatory, and democratic basis. Cooperative households and collective workplaces form an integral part of this process. Decisions that have regional impact are worked out by confederations of local assemblies, so that everybody affected by a decision can participate in making it. Specific tasks can be delegated to specialized committees, but substantive issues of public concern are subject to the discretion of each popular assembly. Direct democracy encourages the formation and contestation of competing views and arguments, so that for any given decision there will be several distinct options available, each of them crafted by the people who will carry them out. Assembly members consider these various proposals and debate their merits and implications; they are discussed, revised and amended as necessary. When no clear consensus emerges, a vote or series of votes can be held to determine which options have the most support.
Social ecology’s vision of a moral economy centers on libertarian communism, in which the fruits of common labor are freely available to all. This principle of from each according to ability and to each according to need is fleshed out by a civic ethic in which concern for the common welfare shapes individual choices. In the absence of markets, private property, class divisions, commodity production, exploitation of labor, and accumulation of capital, libertarian communism can become the distributive mechanism for social wealth and the economic counterpart to the transparent and humanly scaled political structures that social ecology proposes.
In such an arrangement, the interaction between smaller committees and working groups and the full assembly becomes crucially important to maintaining the democratic and participatory nature of this deliberative process. Preparing coherent proposals for presentation to the assembly will require both specialized work and scrupulous information gathering, as well as analysis and interpretation. Because these activities can subtly influence the eventual outcome of any decision, the responsibility for carrying them out should be a rotating task entrusted to a temporary commission chosen at random from the members of the assembly.
When the assembly has considered and debated and fine-tuned the various proposals before it and has agreed on an overall outline for the local economy, community members continue to refine and realize this outline while implementing it in their workplaces, residences, and elsewhere. If obstacles or disagreements arise that cannot be resolved at the immediate level of a single enterprise, institution, or household, they can be brought back to the full assembly for discussion and resolution. If some aspects of an agreed-upon policy are not fulfilled for whatever reason, this will quickly become apparent to community members, who can then alter or adapt the policy accordingly. While most of economic life will be carried out within smaller collectivities, in direct cooperation with co-workers, housemates, associates and neighbors, overarching matters of public economic direction will be worked out within the assembly of the entire community. When necessary, city-wide or regional issues will be addressed at the confederal level, with final decisions remaining in the hands of each local assembly.
The reason for this emphasis on assembly sovereignty is two-fold. First, the local assembly is the most accessible forum for practicing direct democracy and guarding against the re-emergence of power differentials and new forms of hierarchy. Since the assembly includes all members of the community on equal terms and operates through direct participation rather than representation, it offers the best opportunity for extending collective self-management to all spheres of social life. Second, the local assembly makes it possible for people to decide on their economic and political affairs in a comprehensive and coherent manner, through face to face discussion with the people they live with, play with, and work with. The popular assembly encourages a holistic approach to public matters, one that recognizes the myriad interconnections among economic, social, and ecological concerns.
Much of this vision will only be practicable in conjunction with a radical overhaul of the technological infrastructure, something which social ecologists support on environmental as well as democratic grounds. We foresee most production taking place locally, with specialized functions socialized and conceptual and manual labor integrated. Still, there will be some important social goods that cannot or should not be completely decentralized; advanced research institutes, for example, will serve large regions even though they will be hosted by one municipality. Thus confederation, which offsets parochialism and insularity, plays an essential role within social ecology’s political vision.
A confederal network of popular assemblies offers a practical way for all people to consciously direct their lives together and to pursue common goals as part of a project of social freedom. Bringing together solidarity and autonomy, we can re-create politics, the art of communal self-management, as the highest form of direct action. In such a world, economics as we know it today will no longer exist. When work becomes creative activity, when production becomes the harmonization of human and ecological potentials, when economics becomes collective self-determination and the conscious unfolding of social, natural, and ethical possibilities as yet unimagined, then we will have achieved a liberated society, and the ideas outlined here will take on concrete form as lived realities and direct experiences.