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December 2003
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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.

Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.

Buying Dreams: Visions for a Better Future

Michael Albert is the author of Looking Forward and co-founder and editor of Z Magazine. A longer version of this essay is available on the Participatory Economics website, www.parecon.org.

Left activists are moved, first and foremost, by refusal to tolerate injustice. Still, a clear conception of improved social relations can help us understand injustices we oppose. Visions of more desirable futures can help us sustain and orient struggles today.

  Poster "Oh justice, where art thou?"
© Chaz Maviyane Davies

Let's face it: Not a few left visions, peddled as dreams, have turned into nightmares. There was the vision of a single vanguard party, whose members are sworn to serve the interests of the working class, and whose organizational skills are honed through self-sacrifice in struggle, replacing the hypocrisy of bourgeois politicking. And of course there were the "dreams" of a socialist economy automatically emancipating women by integrating them into "productive" labor in the public sector, and of a single proletarian culture sweeping away bourgeois cultural hegemony and "primitive," pre-capitalist cultural residues alike.

No doubt some will remark that these dreams-turned-nightmares were the exclusive property of the "revolutionary left" and that the "social democratic left" disavowed them long ago. This is true, but the social democratic left also threw out the baby with the bath water. There is little chance of buying a nightmare in disguise from a social democrat, not merely because they disavow certain false visions, but because they peddle no dreams at all. They prefer to peddle only policies for which they claim an already existing mass audience, such as electoral reform, better child care, fair housing, and full employment. These reforms are well worth fighting for, of course, and self-styled "radical dreamers" who do not participate in these struggles or who "pull punches" and play with "secret agendas" are no radicals at all. But there's little reason to visit today's social democratic teach-ins if you're looking for dreams as well as program. So have dreams become the exclusive wares of evangelists and gurus? Not necessarily.

Clarifying the criteria by which possible political, economic, community, and kinship institutions should be judged can help point us in useful directions. Creativity, diversity, excellence, and efficiency do not require social hierarchies, any more than "human nature" dictates that men must be misogynists, women passive, non-whites analytically disinclined, or some people born to lead and others born to follow. Institutions in all spheres of social life should promote the goals of solidarity, variety, and collective self-management in which each person partakes in decisions in proportion to the degree she or he is affected by the outcome. We believe these goals incorporate more specific goals worth pursuing such as peace, justice, freedom, equity, material well being, trust, and respect.

But to what extent can we project a more specific vision? What institutions might promote rather than subvert these goals?

Participatory Democracy

The Marxist-Leninist vision for political life is a recipe for disaster. Stalinism was an extreme form, but a logical extension of Leninism. And the counterproductive experience of Marxist-Leninist political parties out of power is perfectly consistent with the systematic suppression of democratic political life carried out by Marxist-Leninist parties in power. Outlawing all but a single "vanguard" party ruled by the norms of "democratic" centralism has nothing to do with democracy except its subversion.

But Western-style electoral "democracy" is also a far cry from participatory democracy. Highly unequal distributions of wealth stack the deck before the political card game begins. Citizens choose from "pre-selected" candidates who are effectively screened by society's power elites. But even if these problems were overcome, participatory democracy requires more than infrequently voting for a representative to carry out our political activity for us. While election of representatives is part of participatory democracy, frequent and regular referenda on important political propositions and policies, at every level of government, accompanied by a full airing of competing views, are as important, if not more important, than voting for candidates.

While the goal of social diversity dictates that competing conceptions should all be implemented by their adherents whenever possible, there will be many situations when one program will have to be implemented at the expense of others. The problem of "public choice" will not disappear, and since a desirable society will kindle our participatory impulses, there is every reason to expect political debate to heat up as well.

Intercommunalism

Trying to prevent the horrors of genocide, imperialism, racism, jingoism, ethnocentrism, and religious persecution by attempting to integrate distinct historical communities into one cultural "playpen" has proved almost as bad a dream as the nightmares this approach seeks to expunge. The point is not to erase diverse cultures, nor to reduce them to a least common denominator.

The solution lies in eliminating racist institutions, dispelling racist ideologies, and changing the environments within which historical communities relate. It does not lie in trying to obliterate the distinctions between communities. An alternative is "intercommunalism," which emphasizes respecting and preserving the multiplicity of community forms we are blessed with by guaranteeing each sufficient material and social resources to reproduce itself.

It will not always be easy to decide what constitutes the "necessary means" that communities should be guaranteed for cultural reproduction, and what development free from "unwarranted outside interference" means in particular situations.

But the intercommunalist criterion for judging different views on these matters is that every community should be guaranteed sufficient material and communication means to self-define and develop its own cultural traditions, and represent their culture to all other communities, in the context of limited aggregate means and equal right to those means for all.

Participatory Economics

What economic institutions and practices will permit people to pursue their material needs and desires efficiently and equitably while fostering collective self-management, interpersonal solidarity, and human and material diversity? The broad outlines of the answers are becoming increasingly apparent.

Ownership of the means of production must be social, not private.

Traditional Marxism was off the mark in some respects, but the proposition that private ownership of the means of production implies exploitation and alienation is not one we need to reconsider. Private ownership of the means of production means exploitation and alienation.

Allocation of goods and services should be achieved through a social, iterative, planning procedure in which distinct groups of producers and consumers propose and revise their own activities.

Neither free markets nor central planning promote human well-being and development. Markets misallocate resources; pit people against one another; and make social cooperation individually irrational. Far from being the liberators of socially productive energies their bourgeois champions claim them to be, markets breed socially destructive individualism. On the other hand, central planning has proved an unworthy substitute. Central planning breeds authoritarianism, apathy, and bureaucracy. Nor should one hope for much from a combination of two allocative mechanisms, each fundamentally flawed.

Work and consumption collectives are perfectly capable of developing an overall economic plan, as well as carrying it out. Individual collectives, and federations of similar collectives, are capable of proposing activities and revising those activities in light of qualitative and quantitative information received from one another in a planning dialogue. Modern computer techniques are more than sufficient to provide collectives with accurate and useful information about the implications of their choices for others, and the implications of others' choices for them. And a social, iterative planning procedure in which all participants are on equal footing is capable of yielding not only fair, but efficient outcomes as well. What is truly amazing is how few "radical" economists have devoted any of their considerable talents and energies to the task of refining the procedures of democratic planning that have supposedly been the center piece of visions of a socialist economy for over a century.

Distribution should be based on the principle: "From each according to ability, to each according to effort," until growing trust and solidarity permits distribution according to need.

Differences in contribution are due to differences in talent, preparation and training, job assignment, luck, and effort. As long as trust and solidarity are insufficient to elicit necessary productive efforts, an argument can certainly be made for rewarding effort on efficiency grounds. No doubt some would argue effort should be rewarded on equity grounds as well, and we are not inclined to quibble. But rewarding talent, preparation and training, job assignment, and luck makes no sense on either equity or efficiency grounds.

Since talent is not something reward can induce, there is no efficiency argument for rewarding it either. Provided preparation and training are undertaken at public expense, education neither deserves nor requires reward to induce people to seek it. Which leaves us with the conclusion that rewarding the combined outcome of talent, preparation, job assignment, luck, and effort-which nobody could reasonably argue is the same as rewarding effort alone-is patently unfair and inefficient as well.

Feminism

Kinship institutions are necessary for people to develop and fulfill their sexual and emotional needs and raise new generations of children. But present-day gender relations elevate men above women and children, oppress lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered people, and warp human sexual and emotional potentials. In other words, present day gender relations are almost universally patriarchal. In a humanist society we will have to eliminate oppressive definitions that are socially imposed so all can pursue their lives as they choose, whatever their sex, sexual orientation, and age.

New kinship forms must overcome the possessive narrowness of monogamy while allowing preservation of the "depth" that comes from lasting relationships. They must destroy the division of roles between men and women so that both sexes are free to nurture and initiate. They must give children room for self-management and learning, while providing the extra support and structure children need. But what will make this possible?

Obviously women must have reproductive freedom-the freedom to have children without fear of sterilization or economic deprivation, and the freedom not to have children through unhindered access to birth control and abortion. Just as private ownership abrogates the rights of employees to control and direct their laboring capacities, denial of birth control and abortion abrogates the rights of women to control and manage their reproductive capacities and thereby their lives in general.

Feminist kinship relations must also ensure that child-rearing roles do not segregate tasks by sex and that there is support for traditional couples, single parents, lesbian and gay parenting, and more complex, multiple parenting arrangements. All parents must have easy access to high quality day-care, flexible work hours, and parental leave options. The point is not to absolve parents of child-rearing by turning over the next generation to uncaring agencies staffed mainly by women accorded low social esteem. The idea is to elevate the status of child rearing, encourage highly personalized interaction between children and adults, and distribute responsibilities for these interactions equitably between men and women and throughout society.

The Importance of Dreams

Things don't have to be the way they are. Human nature is not so stingy as to permit only minor variations on oppressive themes. The set of possible human worlds is not one-dimensional and limited to the way we live today. We must keep thinking and talking about more desirable visions, and keep refining what we want. And it is important to keep strategizing about how to reach our goals. There is no other way to "keep the dream alive."

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