HOW many people would be willing to risk the destruction of society in order to transform it?
Part I- An Introduction; Some Definitions
First of all, the following essay is chock-full of opinions, that is, unsupported assertions. Some of them (most of them?) I could support with citations, and perhaps in future versions of this essay I will do so. Right now, I’m doing a first draft, and sharing it with some of my friends.
When I mention historic events, such as the Paris Commune, I am interpreting those events from an anarchist-syndicalist perspective. ‘Utopias’ that begin with non-anarchist premises, such as philosopher kings or a technocratic ruling class, I will dismiss as non-utopian. If that troubles you unduly, you should read some other essay.
[AT SOME POINT in this essay, I need to write about how and why money economies are irrational. For now, I will state that I’ve never researched any part of history where money economies did not constantly and consistently move resources or the access to resources from the Whole to a small class of people at the ‘top’ of the social scale who no longer needed more resources, which is (I hope you see), a fundamental irrationality.]
In this essay, when I speak of “the System”, I mean to indicate the economic, political and cultural complexes that control our lives, whether through limiting access to resources, via outright regulation, or by Spectacle and censorship.
Now before I go any further, I suppose I need this disclaimer: when I say that the whole world is now run by crony Capitalism and Stalinist bureaucracies, I mean the Whole World. And I don’t mean that some places have one and others another of those Crimes Against Humanity, but that every nation on the planet has both, to one degree or another. Everywhere I look, I see Stalinist-style bureaucrats ‘regulating’ incestuous profiteers or the profiteers buying off the bureaucrats.
The System we live under is fucked up in a lot of depressing ways, but trying to enumerate them all is a waste of time. In a nutshell, though (or in a nutcase, if you’ll have it that way): we are suffering from our politics, our economy, and our culture. Together, these three constructs* are destroying the ecosystems on which we and all other living things depend. To save ourselves and advance the cause of human freedom and, indeed, the survival of the species, we need to advance on these three fronts simultaneously. I was going to write that “it goes without saying” that these three problems are deeply intertwined, making it necessary to advance upon all these fronts together. But it doesn’t go without saying: too many people focus on one at the expense of even thinking about the others.
[*We humans constructed our politics, economy and culture. Politics is the only part that we have even begun to see as a construct, that is, as something we can consciously alter. Think: "the right of the people to alter or abolish", applied to an economy or a culture.]
Past suggestions for utopian societies have usually been too limited. That is, one or the other of the three problems mentioned above is seen as paramount. Also they have been too narrow: early risers think everyone should be up at the crack of dawn, philosophers think the world should be run by philosophers, jealous spouses... well, you get the idea. And yes, Ursula Le Guin and William Morris have done better on those particulars, mostly in the realm of fiction. [That’s the area I usually work in.]
I ask myself what would constitute a Utopia (a “better place”) in my opinion. So far this is what I’ve come up with:
The basic anarchist/syndicalist/situationist project is ‘generalized self-management in a moneyless economy’. As a minimum program this still strikes me as usable. The idea that those working on a project have the best chance of completing it if they control it themselves seems to me obvious. (Of course, if your project is going to do harm to other people, those other people will have something to say about it.)
The fact that I felt like I had to put that last sentence in tells you how truly absurd the System is.
So anyway, here goes:
I. Politically I think we can’t do much better than the old French revolutionary slogan: “Liberty, equality, fraternity”. I know we need a better, more inclusive word for ‘fraternity’. I also realize that I am writing this in a country where we have a modicum of liberty. I can write and even publish something like this and not get gitmoed for it.. Yet. But equality, even just equality before the law, is a bad joke in America, and I would say we haven’t ever really gotten started on fraternity.
Fortunately, or inevitably, depending on how you view History, an organizational form has already emerged which can be adapted to the administration of a truly free politics. Called the ‘Assembly-Council-Committee’ system, its advocates have carried it into many anti-establishment movements in recent years. The ‘councilists’ or ‘assembyists’ as they call themselves, have done a fine job so far of explaining (in theory) what they envision, and have made progress in practice in a number of different places, and within various organizational settings. For now, suffice it to say that the Assembly is also the executive; no power inheres in Council or Committee; and members of the Council or the Committees can be removed, individually or all at once, at any time, by the Assembly.
The details of how such a politics would function, I leave to my readers to imagine or research. But if every neighborhood has an intentional character, with such an assembly for solving problems, and every workplace, every school, every city and village, every institution whatsoever also have such, then they can federate regionally and ecosystem-wide, or even globally for the solution of the few really global problems that exist.
This organizational form, Assemblyism, is not something that sprang from the fervid imaginations of anarchist cranks, but is rather seen in its early form in every rising of the people since it first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century. (Or earlier: see “Luddites”.) More precisely, in 1871 in Paris, during the time of the Paris Commune, the people of that city took significant steps forward; and even so biased a source as Wikipedia cannot hide the inspiring nature of the various actions that the people there took in support of one another in a time of great stress.
II. Economically we need to emphasize such production as will fill human needs first, and then seek to fulfill our desires.* We may indeed never obliterate greed from our hearts individually, but we can at least not encourage it collectively (more on this under ‘Culturally’ below). We also need equity, which is not the same as equality; which is to say: only once everyone’s real needs (food, drink, housing, clothing) are fulfilled do we individually or collectively seek to fulfill our desires, and never in such a way as to deny others the opportunity to do the same. And finally, I think that economically speaking we need a good way to estimate Status, by which I mean the esteem or lack thereof in which others hold a person. I think Sir Geoffrey de Charnay’s slogan, “whoever does more is better, whoever does the most is best” at least gives us a clue there. The key, I think, is to reward effort with regard, with reputation, rather than with unequal access to resources. And the increase in one person’s Status must not lower someone else’s. Status should not be seen as a zero-sum game.
***Write about the workplace as a major source of oppression and discontent; syndicalist “Industrial Unionism” as a starting point for organizing in spite of our manifold differences; “Divide and Rule”.
***The origin of the phrase “from each, to each”.
***Liberating that phrase from the Authoritarian branches of the Left.
[The problem is, in part, Productivism. We can already, right now, produce anything we need or want in quantities far beyond what our corporate masters could ever sell. The "Crisis of Overproduction" means, to a large extent, that we are transforming food and fuel into objects and concepts that are of dubious use to the Whole of humanity. This is one of the bent and twisted cards at the bottom of the house of cards that is the global political/economic/cultural System.]
***From here: explain how “concepts” are a product and how such concepts (or maybe Constructs is a better word?) (Concepts become constructs?) when they do not align with science, facts and reality, lead societies into extinction.
***The global reach of our politics/economics/culture…the global crisis of overproduction and the concomitant poisoning of the planet.
III. Culturally, in my Opinion, no society could be a Utopia that did not emphasize, in it’s cultural institutions, (including most crucially the educational system): Logic, Emotional honesty, and Empirical Evidence in the service of individual choice. And no society could approach Utopian status if the use of these virtues led any large number of people to feel Greed or Jealousy of the attainments of others.
Another requirement of such a culture is that it be mostly at peace, within and without. Many theorists have questioned whether such a culture could even exist without being global in it’s reach; not necessarily identical worldwide, but with at least the vast majority of the populations of the sundry regions of the planet committed to the basics of the project. A fistfight, or even a more serious duel, would not perhaps be a threat to the Whole. More general violence would be, and some means to alleviate the threat of that would be in order. I trust that people, given the advantages of real freedom, from want as well as from coercion, will find a way forward that does not involve war. It is want, poverty, lack of security, or the fear of these things that inspires Greed and leads one group of people to attack another, hoping (mostly in vain) to wrest these things from them. Only when the world is free of want can it be free from coercion and the waste of large-scale warfare.***
A culture that expects some level of effort from all people and rewards extra effort in non-material ways, embedded in an economy where everyone’s basic needs are the first priority of the whole people and within a politics based on real equality, and where decisions are made, as a matter of principle, at the most local level possible, seems to me to be as close to the idea of Utopia as humans are likely to conceive, at least at first. What people would be like who would be born into and raised within such a culture, economy and political system is probably beyond our limited capacity to imagine. Surely they would at least regard us as profoundly insane; and before we could incite and carry out a revolution to establish such a society, we would have to first imagine it, not just a few of us, but ALL, (or nearly all) of us. Then we would have to learn to live in it. I expect it would be a tumultuous time, with plenty of disagreements, and lots of errors and starting-over moments. The details of ‘anarchist’ organizational principles I leave to you to imagine or research. (Opinions and proposals on such matters are not very hard to find, especially in the modern world. A few keystrokes and you are at an article about the Paris Commune. I invite you, then, to follow the links and learn.)