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Friday, Dec. 19, 2003 at 7:04 AM
The demand that the global justice movement should produce a detailed “vision” or blueprint of a future post-capitalist society is today most forcefully made by Znet. I will seek to present an opposite view in this article
Can the Znet Demand to Produce Vision Lead to Vanguardism?
The demand that the global justice movement should produce a detailed “vision” or blueprint of a future post-capitalist society is today most forcefully made by Znet, or to be more precise, the system operator Michael Albert. I will seek to present an opposite view in this article, arguing that ultimately this demand is an example of vanguardism and hence should be treated with a great deal of scepticism by Anarchists.
In a very recent piece on Znet  making a claim for the “vision” demand in rebutting a claim made by anti “vision” advocates Albert states, “the advocates of long term vision aren’t looking for everyone to conceive and advocate institutional alternatives for a new society, we are only arguing that some people ought to do it.” In rebutting a claim by anti “vision” advocates Albert openly states that the business of constructing the blueprint of our future social relations is for “some people”. An important point, as we will see later.
The most employed argument in favour of “vision” construction essentially takes the form of a kind of question. Let us call it the “alternative question”.
A sceptic of social change asks the question; OK, you are a critic but what is your alternative? However, to respond you must have more than just an alternative. One must demonstrate that such an alternative is both feasible and a better state of affairs. But nobody can answer that question because our knowledge of human nature and the massive complexity of human societies do not permit us to answer that question satisfactorily.
Notice that the desire to produce “vision” is exactly an attempt to demonstrate that such a future society is feasible. In his piece Albert makes this plain, “if we have long term economic vision, however, we can say no (in answer to the alternative question-my insertion), here is how we could accomplish economic productivity and distribution in a new society without profit seeking and without markets. Here are viable economic institutions that can accomplish production and allocation…” Notice that this is something Albert, and others, cannot achieve. To do so we need a detailed social theory; of how human nature and our innate sociality enables us to formulate complex societies and the manner in which we do so. No such social theory has been formulated, and is even near being formulated. It is highly likely that it’s not in principle something that humans can formulate.
Perhaps even Karl Marx would have expressed surprise that his theories led to Elena Causescu; that his theories led to the construction of the world’s largest and most ornate palace in Bucharest by poverty stricken “socialist labour”; that his theories led to a dynastic succession of power in North Korea and so on. Marx may well have been shocked and by the same token Albert cannot prove to anybody, especially to those who ask the “alternative question”, that he would not be similarly shocked.
Now notice that in his essay Albert claims to accept the notion that the critic of authority need not have such a social theory or a detailed “vision” in order to critique and to challenge authority. He accepts that this claim is true but “irrelevant”. In fact it is most relevant because in seeking to answer the question of “what is your alternative” you are in effect placing the burden of proof not on authority but on critique of authority. Notice that in making his case on this point Albert explicitly appeals to the desire to answer the alternative question; “but sometimes the person asking us “what do you want” actually honestly seeks to know what we want. In those cases, my reply that I had no moral responsibility to answer was technically correct but substantively unresponsive and even self-defeating”. I will demonstrate that in fact the opposite is the case. Let me explain.
If we accept the legitimacy of the “vision” argument, recognise that no answer in fact can be given to the question, then if honest we must concede to authority or become reformers. This is not “irrelevant”; it undercuts the entire argument and anybody with a predisposition toward social change, who accepts the Albert argument, should now give the game away and go fishing or trade in derivatives. It is not “self-defeating” to refuse to answer the “alternative question” it is necessarily self-defeating to attempt to answer the question that simply cannot be answered due to our shamefully limited knowledge of human nature and the richly innate faculty of sociality.
Is this a counsel of despair? No, not for those who reject the underlying argument which Albert advances. In many respects it is very similar to the development of human knowledge in other domains, most especially in philosophy and the sciences. The great sceptical crisis demonstrated that a hard and fast absolute certainty and foundation for science could not be articulated. However, the scientific enterprise goes on. This is sometimes referred to as “methodological naturalism”. If we were to adopt the Albert thesis in the sciences then we would tell the lab rats to take off the coats and recognise that the inquisition was right after all. Science, however, is self-justifying.
We face the same position as the modern scientist. Our task is a methodological one, of emancipation, not a foundational one of articulating a “vision” which is but a mirage. Authority is not self-justifying, but criticism is. In this sense those who hold a critical disposition toward authority are in the same boat as the scientist.
Znet’s particular version of “vision” is called “participatory economics”, drawn up by Albert and the economist Robin Hahnel. In this sense two men have drawn up the basic structure of a future economy under which 6 billion people ought to live, and have the cheek to call it a “participatory” economy.
We will expect more “visions” in the future such as a “participatory” polity, culture, kinship and so on. These visions will no doubt also be for 6 billion people but drawn up by a tiny minority.
In fact, the demand to articulate a “vision” is a contemporary variant of vanguardism. Why do I say this? Because “vision” construction will shift the focus of the global justice movement from popular movements to a tiny minority that have the resources, ability and above all privilege to articulate a “vision”. The global justice movement began as a series of popular movements in the global south, amongst the most dispossessed and oppressed people in the world. Since Seattle the movement has made a big splash in the global north, in some respects a very important development, in others an unfortunate development. I say unfortunate because the movement in the global north has a hegemonic tendency (in relation to the movement not the world as such) that arises from the involvement of the north’s intellectual classes. I speak for instance of such things as “post-structuralist discourse” and so on. It is important that one understands that the demand to articulate a “vision” is the opposite side of the same hegemonic coin.
For the most part “vision” will not be produced in the global south, as “participatory economics” was not. To be sure there will be some intellectuals from the south who will become involved but as is usual for them they will follow fashion trickling down from the north; the vision is not theirs.
Will a peasant in Brazil produce “vision”? No. Will a mother struggling to feed her children in Botswana produce “vision”? No. Will a toy factory worker in China produce “vision”? No.
So, for the most part, “vision” is an affair for the global north. So even with the “global justice” movement the demand to articulate “vision” will ensure that the blueprint for a future society will come from the imperial states once again.
But who precisely within the imperial states will produce “vision”?
Will it be a steelworker in Newcastle? No. Will it be an assembly worker in Detroit? No. Will it be a miner in Wales? No.
Will it be the “thinkers”, “intellectuals” and so on of the global justice movement, mostly in the global north, that have the money, time and privilege to think about “vision”? You bet it will! You bet it has!
Recall Albert’s statement that, “the advocates of long term vision aren’t looking for everyone to conceive and advocate institutional alternatives for a new society, we are only arguing that some people ought to do it.” Indeed.
The demand to articulate a “vision” becomes a demand to shift the central focus of the global justice movement onto the intellectuals (let us say “coordinators”) of the movement residing in the privileged sectors of the global north. If their preferred vision should come to pass they naturally will implement it, they will over see it and they will deal with all the teething problems. Why? Because they are the ones with the “knowledge” after all it would be their vision that is being constructed.
For Michael Albert everything is to be participatory except the vision itself; I want to live in a society where I have decided its contours in free association with others. I don’t want to live in a society whose detailed architecture has been drawn up by “some people”.
In the meantime the role of the poorest and oppressed in the world would be to get smashed by the police or murdered by death squads so that the preferred “vision” of a tiny privileged minority in the north can get implemented. If that is “global justice” then I think we need to rethink the meaning of the term.
Of course, one can imagine all sorts of “visions”. This is why the various intellectuals of the movement from time to time engage in a “debate” about which “vision” is best. Note that this is a debate amongst themselves.
Which “vision” will win the day? Now, I am sure that Albert and Hahnel would not contend that their “vision” is the best logically possible, of all possible, societies in which case they would become advocates of utopia. Znet claims that it gets 250,000 visits a week. OK.
Imagine I am a student in Adelaide, South Australia. That would put me on the arse end of the world. Say I had gathered a group of fellow students in Adelaide and we decided to apply our knowledge and training to producing a “vision”. We construct a website to advertise our vision, call it “Adelaide Infoshop”. Let us further assume that this “vision” is actually relatively better than Znet’s vision.
Unfortunately, “Adelaide Infoshop” only gets about 100 hits a day. Which “vision” will the global justice movement adopt? The “vision” produced by “Adelaide Infoshop” or that produced by Znet? Recall that the “Adelaide Infoshop” vision is relatively better; there is no a priori reason to reject such a possibility.
Of course, the Znet vision would have a greater chance of getting adopted. But why when the vision of “Adelaide Infoshop” is better? The Znet vision will get adopted because it will reflect the institutional power of Znet within the movement. If you are a budding activist you will hang out with Znet because at 250,000 hits a week you will get greater access and exposure than you will with “Adelaide Infoshop”. In this way the inferior Znet “vision” will have manufactured consent for itself as people who want to be with the “in” crowd internalise the “vision” of this institution.
That is how the battle of “visions” will be decided; whichever sector of the global justice movement has the greatest institutional power within the movement will see its “vision” increasingly adopted. The points raised in the “debates” are themselves irrelevant. Given the argument presented here I submit that these “debates” are in fact a struggle for hegemony within the movement. By hegemony I am referring to aspects of Gramsci’s use of the term.
The global justice movement should be a movement of emancipation, not a movement to articulate and implement this or that vision drawn up by a handful of people. The contours of a future society are to be decided by the emancipated people themselves in free and open discussion. It should not be predetermined by a group of intellectuals or “some people” before hand.
Anarcho-Syndicalism should not be confused with vanguardism or “participatory economics”. Anarcho-Syndicalism is a conception of social change that stresses direct action and non-hierarchical revolutionary unionism. It places its trust in the working class and oppressed themselves not in intellectuals; this is a conception of working class “self-emancipation” and it would be self-emancipation precisely because the future society will be constructed by free agents in free association rather than pre-determined by privileged intellectuals. Anarcho-Syndicalism is a methodological conception and those who broadly adhere to it have the same attitude as the methodological naturalist when it comes to human knowledge in other domains.
Some Anarcho-Syndicalists seem to miss the forest for the trees. For instance Tom Wetzel  in a wide ranging historical discussion on syndicalism and aspects of “parecon”, although amassed with great historical detail about policies made by revolutionary unionists and workers in the past, fails to grasp a very clear and simple point; the situations he recounts are of workers themselves making decisions about a future society, given the problems that applied to their time, all for themselves. They were not simply implementing a “vision” produced by two men or “some people”.
See the difference? Anarcho-Syndicalism demands that the detailed thinking about a future economy is to be decided by the liberated working class itself, not by a prior group of intellectuals. That is working class “self-emancipation”.
Anarchists, I believe, should reject demands for “vision” on the grounds that it is a new variant of vanguardism as argued above. Given this it would be better if Anarchists did not engage in debate on the relative merits of this or that “vision” but reject the call to produce a “vision” wholesale.
This would be a natural position, I believe, for Anarchists of whatever stripe to adopt for Anarchists adhere to the position, which some call “philosophical anarchism”, that authority is inherently illegitimate and that the burden of proof must always lie with authority. Really, it doesn’t matter what sort of Anarchist you are; we all agree with this. The demand to articulate “vision”, as noted, rejects this principle on the basis that those subject to authority must justify their disposition. The burden lies with the critic not with the ruler according to this. However, no critic is able to justify their position given the lack of knowledge about human nature and society hence the demand to produce “vision” in fact becomes an epistemic argument against social change.
To be honest the demand to produce a “vision” and a detailed set of strategic objectives to get from A to B rather reminds me of Marxism. If as Anarcho-Syndicalists we are interested in practice only (or like Marxist intellectuals like to say “praxis”) then the call for vision merely amounts to the old idea of producing “social theory” and developing a strong nexus between theory and practice. This is, in fact, an old Marxist demand. It is one good reason why Marxists tend to be vanguardists, and Anarchists should be wary of any contemporary attempt to revive the notion.
It is of course ironic that at its heart “parecon” should share a key foundational tenet of “coordinator” class ideology.
1. Michael Albert, “Help Me Out” (September 11 2003) at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=41&ItemID=4172
2. Tom Wetzel, “Syndicalism and Revolution” (December 11 2003) at http://www.infoshop.org/inews/stories.php?story=03/12/11/5635759
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