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Michael Albert’s Practical Utopia: Strategies for a Desirable Society is an important book. It’s important because it asks questions that rarely if ever get asked, and it tries to provide coherent answers to them. However, whether you agree or not with Albert’s answers, engaging with this book will help each of us further think out what we want to see in the future. For as Noam Chomsky points out in the Preface, while “the new cannot be born yet,” he adds, “But the forms it might assume will depend on the actions taken now and the visions of a future society that animate them.” Albert is certainly trying to advance actions today and vision of a future society to help us get to where we might want to go tomorrow.
Albert has long been engaged in such visionary thinking and institution building, so this is more than just a set of good ideas; it’s the reflected knowledge of one who has been integrally engaged in and thinking about social change for over 50 years. He’s got a lot of experience, has engaged with a very wide range of people over the years, and he has provided much excellent thinking over this time. This is one of his latest efforts to help us “think out” desirable social change for the future.
Unlike many of us, Albert extends his thinking across the entire society and, to some extent, beyond; he does not just focus on economics or gender or race or politics, but sees them all interconnected and intertwined. This type of thinking, as far as I know, was first developed by Albert and Chomsky along with Leslie Cagan, Robin Hahnel, Mel King, Lydia Sargent and Holly Sklar in a 1986 book titled Liberating Theory, and Albert continues to further it. Hence, Practical Utopia.
The book is divided into three sections: “our ideas,” “our goals,” “our methods,” in that order. I’m going to review the book, however, in a different order: I’ll start with our methods, shift to our ideas and then go to our goals. The reason I’m going to do differently from Albert is that I believe my order moves us from the least controversial to the most controversial, and I don’t want good stuff to get lost by being after more controversial thinking.
The key idea to the section on “our methodology”–and remember, I’m starting with the last of the three sections–is the need to have a vision of what we want, and then a plan for how to get it. (In other words, by this point in the book, Albert has already proposed his vision, and now he’s writing about implementing a plan to attain it.) As he points out, “One of the first things we learn from any serious teacher about any conflictual game–for example, chess or football–is that to have a prospect of winning we must have a plan.”
Amazingly, however, the left seems to be working–and here, I’m generalizing extensively, but I believe realistically–without a real plan. We don’t have any real idea of what we want–we have some nice, general values that make us feel good, but no real vision of an alternative social arrangement–or of a plan to implement it.
And while Albert begins with writing about strategy, he soon begins discussing a major weakness, lack of “stickiness,” of the movement. By this, he’s referring to the millions of people who have considered themselves part of the movement at one point of their lives or another and subsequently moved away, leaving it behind. He sees this as a serious problem of our movement, and spends some time addressing possible causes for such abandonment. This is worth serious consideration by leftists.
By the way, Albert expends considerable effort to be as detached as he can when discussing others’ approaches, even those he might disagree with. The result is that one doesn’t have to agree with Albert to get a lot out of this book.
There is much more in this section that I think is important and worth considering, but it’s presented in a very straight-forward, non-dogmatic and anti-sectarian manner, and I’d encourage people to read and consider Albert’s thinking on this. I want to shift to another section, the one on “our ideas,” which is presented as the first of the three sections.
This section is brief, but important; I alluded to it above when I mentioned that Albert and others developed this thinking in the book Liberating Theory, and that Albert has continued to develop this further. The idea I’m referring to here is that society is composed of four different spheres: economics, politics, kinship and culture. These are not separate, but rather are interconnected and intertwined. Besides giving a more correct understanding of any society, it is more complete; and it allows Albert to integrate findings from anarchism, feminism, radical “race” thinking, as well as Marxism (plus more) into one, coherent whole.
However, Albert innovates here, as well. In his discussion of the economy, he rejects the traditional two-actor model of Marxists (workers and owners) and argues there is an “intervening class” between the other two, what he calls a “coordinator” class. People in this coordinator class as seen as people who do empowering work, “unlike workers at the bottom who do overwhelmingly disempowering, rote and tedious work.”
By utilizing these different approaches, Albert extends our thinking, first across the entire society (i.e., not confining it to one or two sectors, but covering all four), and second, gets a better understanding of the economic sphere from which to develop our thinking. And now, I want to go to the section of his book that I think is the most important, but also argue it is the most controversial (and debatable): “our goals.”
In this section, Albert approaches the subject of radical social change from a delineation of various important values, on which he argues that a new society should be based. The values he advances are solidarity, diversity, equity and self-management, with the latter principle holding whenever possible, although Albert recognizes that sometimes, more encompassing decisions must be made at a higher level of the social order. In general, however, he argues that these are the values that should undergird our vision of a new society. He then discusses each of the four spheres of society.
His strongest section is on the economy, where he and Hahnel have continued to work to think out how a participatory economy, “parecon” for short, could work. Albert advances “workers and consumer councils” as organizational forms needed to institutionalize these values. He notes that remuneration should be based on effort and sacrifice, not because someone inherited something. Further, “Your work has to be socially useful to be rewarded, but the reward is not proportional to how useful it is.”
Importantly, he argues that work should be redistributed so that everybody shares both the “good” and the “bad” of working. In other words, instead of some people doing just interesting work, and most people doing uninteresting work–the latter, in his thinking, basically being shit work–he argues that we need to redesign how we do work so as to eradicate the established division of labor found in corporate workplaces. But this involves more than just the jobs themselves to include issues of powerfulness and authority contained within the better jobs. He elaborates:
“Instead of combining tasks so that some jobs are highly empowering and other jobs are horrible, so that some jobs convey knowledge and authority, while other jobs convey only stultification and obedience, parecon says let’s make each job comparable to all others in its quality of life and even more importantly in its empowerment effects.
“In parecon with balanced job complexes [what he calls these redesigned sets of labor], each job must contain a mix of tasks and responsibilities such that the overall empowerment effects of work are comparable for all.”
And Albert argues the sociological ramifications that such a transformation would mean to those of us who work: “Our work [will not] prepare a few of us to rule and the rest of us to obey. Instead, our work [will comparably prepare] all of us to participate in collectively self-managing production, consumption and allocation.”
He further discusses institutions currently being used today to allocate production, those being markets or central planning, and finds them each lacking. He proposes “participatory planning,” where “workers and consumers cooperatively negotiate all this.”
This is a very limited account of his thinking, and I’d encourage others to read it so as to get acquainted with the quality and complexity of his thinking. As I read it, parecon–with its emphasis on participation by everyone in the society and empowerment of each actor–is the center of his thinking; I find his thinking about the other sectors of society–the polity or political system, the family/kin system and intercommunalism (referring to different interactions of divergent communities, in my mind, associated primarily with “race”)–is not as systematically developed and advanced as his work on the economy.
Yet he still goes even further–beyond the economy, politics, kin and culture–to discuss both the environment or “participatory ecology” and internationalism, conveying a concern and thinking about the world both “deeper” than our nation-state, as well as “broader,” thinking about people around the globe as a whole.
And by the time you complete this section, you have a gotten a sophisticated discussion of our society, a suggested set of values to guide how we want to change it, and ideas on the larger overall vision so as to suggest where we want to go.
And I think essential to what Albert has put forth, a recognition on his part that he might not have gotten it right, that circumstances may change, so that where we end up down the road might not be where he foresees it today. In other words–and I appreciate this immensely, as I take this approach in my work–he’s saying something like “this is my best thinking; think about it, let’s discuss it, let’s see how to improve it, and let’s see how we can implement it in the best way possible, at least until we can surpass it. And then, let’s keep pushing forward.” In other words, he’s not saying “It’s my way or the highway,” but he’s asking the rest of us to respond, so as to develop further his thinking or, should we surpass it, then let’s develop that thinking as far as we can.
So, again, this book is a serious effort, and I think worthy of any progressive’s engagement. And I appreciate Albert for putting it out for consideration.
My comments now are going to focus on the second section of his book, “Our Goals.” I’m going to respond as respectfully as I can, as I disagree, but in no way do I denigrate his thinking. Hopefully, my ideas will get people to look at and compare ideas/approaches, and then suggest how we can proceed.
I think Albert took a wise approach to this work, projecting his ideas without being confined by the parameters of today; in other words, not limiting his thinking to what might appear possible today, but trying to think out what he wants. If we confine ourselves to what might be possible today–even down the road–we’ve already lost the battle. If we want a radically different, a “revolutionary” option, whatever, then we must take ourselves out of the confines of today. (Then, of course, once we develop our vision, then we’ve got to develop a strategy to move us from here to there, and with tactics to move us toward fulfilling that strategy. That’s why Section 3 of this book is so important.)
However, that being said, I don’t think his proposals work the way he thinks they do or wants them to do. I have several major problems with his approach: (1) there’s no real understanding of how our society got to where it is; (2) his proposals are based on a functional model of society (i.e., all of the institutions in society serve social functions); (3) he bases his analysis on “institutions,” which he never defines; (4) ironically, in a work focusing on empowering people, there are really no people seriously discussed herein; (5) there’s no real integration of the environment in the book (to me, it reads as an “add-on”); (6) and there’s no real understanding of empire. I think were he to take on these concerns in the next iteration of his work, they would greatly strengthen it.
Let me explain. Almost every society that has existed–perhaps there were some matrilineal societies long ago, and we know that the Cherokee Nation was female dominated, at least at the time when whites found them, and there may be a few indigenous societies since then, as counter-examples–has been a stratified, or unequal society; for all practical purposes, I argue that societies have been unequal, dominated by males (through a patriarchal inheritance system that they established) who owned larger amounts of resources. (I’m not going to do a trip through human history here; just setting up the argument.)
This has all kinds of negative ramifications for those who were on the “unequal” side of the arrangement. For those who did not resist the oppression, they oftentimes found people in even weaker social positions than they–whether inside their homes or outside–and vented their anger and frustrations on them. The long and short of this is that many of us who came from the “disadvantaged” side have been damaged, whether by racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, etc., and it can come from outside one’s home or inside one’s family. This has led to a tremendous amount of social conflict among people who, objectively, should be allies. Only through engaging in some type of process to challenge and/or eradicate this–whether in engaging in personal improvement, conscious education and/or political struggles–can this damage be mitigated or overcome.
So, what this means, is that we have to deal with real people as they are developed today. We cannot assume all people are good, caring, loving people, and expect that they’ll respond affirmatively to a progressive program; we have to recognize that some are messed up, some are in vulnerable positions that can lead them to be manipulated by “the man,” and some flat do nasty things, etc. We also have to recognize that all people do not want to participate in social decision-making or to be empowered; some just want to sit around, drink beer or smoke dope and watch sports all day.
The point here is that we cannot assume that all people are similar, all good (nor all bad!), etc., but rather, we have to be prepared for the broad range of human behaviors.
Thus, I’m arguing that we have to recognize that we live in a stratified society and that it has damaged many, albeit some more than others. This is the legacy we must address.
Albert sees society based on institutions–which he really does not define, and certainly not adequately for the importance throughout that he gives them–and these societal institutions “exist to fulfill some functions.” That’s one way to look at it, but it’s an ahistorical approach.
The reality is that societies–actually because they are so unequal, a more accurate term is “social order,” which I will use henceforth–have been unequal from earliest times, and those people with the resources and social power, have created organizations within each social order that is intended to maintain each respective elite’s dominance. The police or armies or divorce or white supremacy, etc., etc., were not created to serve any function in a social order except to maintain the dominance of the elites. It’s really that straight-forward; no mystery. Now, over the centuries, the purpose of these have been rationalized by elites to be helping people–and perhaps in some ways they have, or perhaps they’ve helped small groups at the expense of larger–but their ultimate goal has been to protect and/or expand the status quo, the unequal, hierarchical social order with the elites always in control. And we have to always recognize this.
The good news, however, is that not all human beings have accepted those hierarchically-organized social orders. As we develop as human beings, and become more and more aware of the social reality we each face, we can respond to the training, the socialization we’ve been given–starting in the home, and extending in the church, educational system, jobs, etc.–and we can accept, reject or modify it. (Most of us have been taught from earliest years that we shouldn’t have sex before marriage; how many of us accepted that proscription?)
And when we respond collectively–as rare and difficult as that is–we can move mountains. Before we were born, and just focusing on the United States, we had the Abolitionist Movement that played a major role in abolishing slavery. We had the labor movement that emerged in the 1930s and ‘40s give American working people the highest standard of living of any working class in the world. In our lives, we’ve seen the successes of the Civil Rights/Black Power, Women’s, and Anti-Vietnam War movements, and all the movements they inspired. And we’ve had movements that have won major advances, such as the Environmental movement, and we’ve seen movements emerge like Occupy, Black Lives Matters, #Me Too, etc. Considering what we’ve been up against, these gains–and those of our allies around the world–have been phenomenal.
Now, obviously, we haven’t understood the importance of institutionalizing these gains–and in some places, we weren’t strong enough, even had we recognized the importance–and thus, they haven’t been concretized to force on-going changes in our social order. But changes have been made: we’re not in the world I was born into in 1951 (pre-Rosa Parks); we’re not in the world me and my high school classmates entered into in 1969; and we’re not in the world we were in before the Great Recession of 2008-09.
The point I’m trying to make here is that collectively, we have a lot of experience and knowledge about social change. Unfortunately, as Albert correctly observes, we’ve lost access to a lot of it as people’s lives have changed and they’ve moved away from the movement. But that doesn’t deny our experience and knowledge. And it doesn’t mean we can’t get some of those people back to again join those of us who have never left.
There are two big areas in which I think the left in general has been deficient–not limited, but actually deficient. With all of our brilliance and hard work–and I say that without hesitation–WE HAVE NOT REALLY UNDERSTOOD THE SOCIAL CONTEXT IN WHICH WE OPERATE.
We in the US have been told ad nauseum that we live in the greatest country in the world, that everybody wants to move to the United States, and that people around the world look to us for global leadership; accordingly, “we” should be proud of and do everything to maintain our dominance. If the United States “screws up” around the world–let’s remember the war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, but as William Blum keeps reminding us, the list is actually quite long–it’s only because “we” make honest mistakes; our intentions were honorable, but things didn’t work out the way we wanted them. Blah, blah, blah.
But think of the message that is contained therein. Besides the specifics, the message is that we should understand that the United States is a single country, and our analyses should be confined to this one country. And, dammit, the left–and I’m using this term expansively–has overwhelmingly accepted this limitation.
The problem is that one cannot understand the activities of the US without understanding it is actually the homeland of the US Empire; that we must take a global approach. We can argue that the US has been an imperialist project since its founding in 1789 (and that the British colonial project before that was from the beginning); we can argue that the US imperial project began in 1898, with the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars; but what is certain, is that since 1945, the goal of the United States has been to dominate the rest of the planet. Period. (See Alfred W. McCoy’s 2017 book, “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power,” from Haymarket Books or see my review).
Now, while able to expand its power and control to a lot of the world, the US was unable to dominate all of the world for a number of years in the post-World War II period because of the existence of the USSR, the Soviet Union. However, when it collapsed in 1991–and I’m not arguing whether it was good or bad; I’m simply arguing here that the Soviet Union denied the US access to parts of the world–the US achieved its goal of world domination. And it was unquestioned until a bunch of Iraqis didn’t get the memo that the US was undefeatable, and who then proceeded to defeat it.
The larger point I want to make is that we cannot understand what’s going on in this country until we take a global approach; we have got to surpass, to transcend, any nationalist level of analysis.
And the important point I’ve been making for years–and will continue to make–is that the elites in this country are using the US’s resources, military, tax monies, etc., to maintain if not expand the US Empire, at the direct expense of the American people (in addition to those affected by US operations overseas). Money used to support the US military cannot be used to provide national health care, improve education, create jobs, rebuild the infrastructure, mitigate climate change, etc. (For a fuller analysis, although somewhat dated, see my article I’m working to update it.)
Now, what I’ve seen over the last 15 years while teaching at a regional university in Northwest Indiana–and this isn’t the center of anything progressive–is that when I explain these things to my students, and then ask them whether they think the US should continue to try to dominate the world or take care of the American people, they almost unanimously argue that the United States should take care of its people.
So, the argument I’m making here is two-fold: one, we have to take a global approach to understand what the US elites are doing around the world and, two, once we understand this, we can win the people of the US to support our positions, and that includes building solidarity with people around the world.
Now I said there was a second issue that we haven’t grasped totally: climate change and environmental destruction. I’m not saying this is merely “bad,” and that it a shame that we’re no longer going to be able to see those cute polar bears swimming to those ice floes in the oceans. It’s that and much worse. The latest science that I’m reading is that if we do not make MAJOR, MAJOR reductions in our production of greenhouse gases–both by factories and by vehicles–by as soon as 2030, then we will see the beginnings of the extermination of humans, animals and many plants by the turn of the coming 22nd Century (i.e., the year 2100). It’s that simple. (And I say that, recognizing that something may be created in the interim to save our collective asses, so this might not play out, but there’s nothing on the horizon that I’ve seen that even offers that possibility; and going to Mars will not do it.)
So, now that I’ve been on this rant, how do I turn it back to Albert’s analysis? To be honest, I think Albert’s approach is too conservative. (I know, I know: arguably, the most radical analysis around is, ironically, being labeled as too conservative….)
Let me be clear: there is a lot of excellent thinking in Albert’s work, thinking that is a valuable contribution to the movement. But, still, I argue his frame work is too limited.
How I think we can go forward is this: first, we must take a global approach to understanding what the US elites are doing. And then, we must center our climate change/environmental destruction in our thinking.
I may be wrong–I understand that. But I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time, for over the last 30 years, to greater or lesser extents. I argue that we have to drastically reduce production and we have to drastically reduce our fossil fuel-based transportation system. (If you want to consider my thinking in more detail, please go here, which has some of my latest thinking.)
Yet, we still need food, shelter, clothing, education, culture, etc.: how are we going to organize this?
I think we have to shift to a concept of bio-regions, where people organize themselves on the basis of their habitat instead of currently existing political borders. (See my article.) And it’s here–in the respective bio-regions–that we have to build the new, libertory societies. And it’s here that much of Albert’s thinking is not only applicable, but desirable.
This is where parecon makes sense to me. Reduce production as much as possible, reorganize what’s left that’s important and needed on the basis of bio-regions, with inter-regional trade limited to necessities, and organize production in ways that are participatory, empowering and shared equally.
Likewise, use this approach to create a new polity, and new kin/family network and intercommunal relations built on respect for each human being and the planet. Obviously, there is much more that needs to be added; I don’t think my approach is the be all and end all of desirable visions. However, this is a vision of where we can go–and, until surpassed, where we need to be consciously moving toward, Trump or no Trump.
A version of this review originally ran in Green Social Thought.