The Samovar

Five questions
December 21, 2006, 4:00 am
Filed under: Activism, Anarchism, Manifesto, Politics

Have been busy with work stuff recently which is why there have been so few posts on this blog. This will probably have to be the last one until the new year.

A group of mainly – but not wholly – US political activists have recently created a new organisation, The International Project for a Participatory Society. I highly encourage everyone to look into what they have to say. Their shared idea of what is wrong with society, how it could be better, and how to achieve this feels to me like the best prospect for the left. They do not have a grand philosophical structure like Marxism, but they do have some extremely powerful and insightful ideas (the concept of a participatory economy being probably the most important). Their way of looking at things is instead practical, but still idealistic (a good thing in my opinion).

In this entry, I’m just going to indulge in a little ‘meme’ inspired by something on their site. They asked each of the members to submit responses to five questions – you can see some of them on the site already – and even though I’m not a member and not as yet involved in the IPPS, I thought I’d write my own answers to their questions. Please do write your own too, and don’t feel constrained by writing it in the same way or at such length as I have.

And so, without further ado…

(1) Could you please identify what you think are the core defining features and institutions of society that need to be changed i.e. economic, political, cultural, gender/sexual, ecological, etc.?

First and foremost is capitalism, loosely defined. Certain things about capitalism seem quite unambiguously wrong, and it underlies many of our other problems. This shouldn’t be a surprise – a capitalist society prioritises the pursuit of profit and wealth over everything else. This is not an obscure point. In a capitalist society, anyone who pursues a different goal – a social good for example – in preference to profit and wealth, simply fails. Competition ensures this. This is a basic structural problem with capitalism, but there are also secondary problems. The enormous inequality that is unavoidable in a capitalist society creates class divisions, and these class divisions in turn create political inequalities, and so on.

So for example, I don’t believe it is possible to satisfactorily address climate change within capitalism. The things we could do to stop climate change impact directly on profits and wealth, and so the wealthy and powerful classes, and the corporations, will do everything they can to stop this from happening. If they didn’t, someone else would. That said, we have to try to address climate change within capitalism because realistically the prospects for a global change of economic system within the time frame in which climate change becomes irreversible are remote, and that’s being generous. As another example, I recently wrote about how our society is becoming – or has become – a surveillance society. Government surveillance isn’t a consequence of capitalism directly, but corporate surveillance and the problems of inequality it causes is.

So capitalism is in some the problem, and participatory economics is a practical and radical alternative. The other aspects of the society mentioned are of course hugely important too.

(2) What are your goals for this change, do you seek to reform them, if so with what changes, broadly? Do you seek to fundamentally replace these institutions with some others? If so what do the replacement structures look like, what are their defining features, of course in brief?

As I said, replacing capitalist economics with participatory economics – or at least something very like it – should be our ultimate goal. This is of course a very long term goal, and in the short and medium term we should seek to make reforms, especially those that are consistent with the long term goal. The other major institution that needs to change is our various forms of representative democracy. At the moment, levels of participation are low, barriers to participation are high, and obscure forces act to cause our democracies to favour outcomes which are not in the public interest. Think about the effect of a two-party system in which both parties rely on donations from the wealthy to survive, how could they do anything but support their class interests?

(3) Who do you think the strategic actors are in achieving these goals i.e. political parties, workers, women, queers, immigrants, particular countries or regions, etc?

Very difficult to predict.

(4) What tactics do you see being centrally used in achieving these changes i.e. voting, direct action, media action, strikes, demonstrations, etc.?

Again, this is not something I feel I have a clear grasp of. Rather than talking about tactics, I want to say a quick word about strategy first. The problem – it seems to me – is that we cannot achieve significant changes without addressing fundamental problems such as capitalism. We can’t do this until there is an enormous change in the way people think about society. The best prospect in achieving this sort of mass ‘consciousness raising’ would seem to be engaging in political activities that can make a difference, however small, on issues that people do care about now, but doing so in a way that is (a) informed by a deeper analysis of society, and (b) spreads the word about this sort of analysis. The idea being that we build a critical mass of people who are aware of this sort of thing.

Actually, I think this point of view is fairly well established and most political groups are doing something like this already. The problem is that we don’t seem to be getting anywhere, which is precisely a tactical rather than a strategic problem. The left is looking more and more irrelevant as time goes on, but the need for a left-wing analysis gets ever more pressing (climate change and conflict in the Middle East for example).

Perhaps the problem is after all that the political activities that people are engaging in are not being connected with the sort of radical analysis of society that the IPPS and others offer. The Green Party in the UK for example, perhaps ought to make more of a point of connecting environmental issues with basic problems associated to capitalism. This is something an organisation like IPPS can potentially address. People are done with Marxism and other such ideas, and the ideas of people in the IPPS have the potential to step into this space.

(5) How do other perspectives, which have different ideas about societal change, fit into your strategy and vision?

Assuming they have a similar analysis of the problems, there is very little problem. We shouldn’t assume that our way of doing things is the best, we just have to do what we can in the way that seems best. The best ideas will – if we are not dogmatic and authoritarian – hopefully win out.

Merry Christmas and a happy New Year and all that!


Wow, this is a great post – and some great links and reading. Very interesting, and I am happy to see another kindred spirit writing in terms of replacing the obvious shortcomings of capitalism.

Thanks for the blog, I am going to blog this and take it to sometime in the near future.


Comment by neplusultra

“The problem – it seems to me – is that we cannot achieve significant changes without addressing fundamental problems such as capitalism. We can’t do this until there is an enormous change in the way people think about society.”

I think this is the crux. I also think the “enormous change” is an evolutionary matter rather an educational or sociological one. Capitalism most accurately reflects the type of creature man is. Man is an animal and competition is a fact of life in the animal kingdom. It’s a shame. Nevertheless it is. Whether we’ll survive long enough to evolve into something better is anybody’s guess. Probably not. Natural selection would seem to ensure the continued success of the capitalist and their progeny.

Comment by J

Thanks neplusultra!

J, I don’t really buy the old capitalism is natural story, and even if it were that’s no reason to submit to it. We’re able to do better than our natural state in all sorts of ways – for example technology, medicine and various forms of social organisation like democracy.

Take participatory economics (parecon) for example (mentioned in the text above with link) – it incorporates elements of competition but redirects them towards social goods rather than personal profit. In parecon, firms and individuals can gain an advantage over others (competition), but it’s only temporary (same as in capitalism in this sense – if one firm is doing something well others will copy them) and because there is no capitalist ownership it doesn’t accumulate and create long term inequality.

Capitalism is not natural, it’s highly artificial. The concept of ownership applies fairly straightforwardly to small objects like a coat or a TV (and most anarchist and socialist systems keep this sort of ownership). But capitalist ownership goes much further than this – you can own shares in a company, you can own the idea behind a piece of software or an industrial process, you can own rights to pollute the atmosphere, etc. What is natural about any of these? On the contrary, they require enormous effort and expenditure to maintain – think about the efforts the RIAA is going to lobbying for new laws and enforcing its intellectual property rights.

So, I don’t think it’s an evolutionary matter in the sense of biological evolution, but it probably is an evolutionary matter in the sense of social evolution.

Comment by Dan Goodman

Great read.

Comment by thirtyplus

[…] Tomb has an entry on parecon (which I have previously written about here and here) with an even more interesting discussion in the comments. Marxists and pareconists are […]

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