Albert’s radicalization occurred during the 1960s. His political
involvements have ranged from local, regional, and national organizing
projects and campaigns to co-founding various organizations and
projects, writing for various publications and publishers, giving
Michael is also the author of numerous books, in most cases with
his co-author Robin Hahnel. Most recently these include: Thinking
Forward and Thought Dreams, Looking Forward: Participatory
Economics in the 21st Century, Political Economy of Participatory
Economics, The Killing Train and Moving Forward. He
is currently an editorial writer and columnist for
Z MAGAZINE. Buying Dreams is published with
the permission of
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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 and visions, of more
desirable futures can help sustain and orient struggles today.
Well and good, but why should people activated by today's social
movements go "dream shopping" in leftist stores?
face it: Not a few left visions, peddled as dreams, have turned
into nightmares. First, there was the vision of substituting public
for private ownership and central planning for ‘anarchy.’
Then 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.
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.
thing we should admit is there is no automatic relation between
the diminution of material scarcity and desirable social relations.
When Marx characterized ‘communism’ as, first and
foremost, a society without scarcity, and implied all problems
of social relations would be rendered obsolete by material abundance,
he put leftists dangerously off guard. The ecology movement should
have taught us all by now that there cannot be complete material
abundance. Moreover, for mortal beings time is inherently scarce
regardless of how high the pile of material goods may become.
And for social beings, whose relation to material wealth beyond
subsistence is largely a matter of ‘invidious comparison,’
in a just society the size of the overall pile of goods is largely
irrelevant. The notion that a sufficient advance in the ‘forces
of production’ would obviate the need to carefully build
social relations that nurture humanist themes was utopian. There
is no 'communism' that automatically follows ‘socialism’
as the ‘forces of production’ develop sufficiently.
step is to clarify the criteria by which possible political, economic,
community, and kinship institutions should be judged. Here we
should draw freely from the wisdom of the long historical practice
of progressive movements. In broadest terms, desirable social
institutions help all citizens develop and fulfill their maximum
potentials. Moreover, they do this in ways that do not sacrifice
the well being of some groups to advance the interests of other
groups. 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 promote human potentials, reflect lessons from progressive
historical experience, and incorporate more specific goals worth
pursuing such as peace, justice, freedom, equity, material well
being, trust, and respect.
what extent can we project a more specific vision? What institutions
promote rather than subvert these goals?
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. That the ‘dictatorship
of the proletariat’ could ever be equated with a desirable
form of political life shall always remain a stain on the political
escutcheon of ‘the Left.’ And outlawing all but a
single 'vanguard' party ruled by the norms of "democratic"
centralism has nothing to do with democracy except its subversion.
These political institutions systematically impede participatory
impulses, promote popular passivity -- if not outright fear --
and breed authoritarianism, bureaucratism, and corruption in government.
What can be expected when external opposition is outlawed, and
the party leadership is able to suppress and manipulate internal
opposition by transferring members between branches to provide
themselves a majority in every branch and cell?
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.
case, we should not expect political life to disappear, but to
intensify in a desirable society. Politics will no longer represent
a means by which privileged groups perpetuate their domination.
Nor will oppressed constituencies have to battle against political
norms that preserve an unjust status quo. But there should be
no lack of spirited disagreement about social choice. 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.
are straightforward. In Chomsky's words,
truly democratic community is one in which the general public
has the opportunity for meaningful and constructive participation
in the formation of social policy. . . . A society that excludes
large areas of crucial decision-making from public control,
or a system of governance that merely grants the general public
the opportunity to ratify decisions taken by the elite group.
. . . hardly merits the term democracy.
central question is, what institutional vehicles best afford people
such an opportunity? Ultimately, political controversy must be
settled by democratic vote. And obviously such votes will be better
informed the greater participants' access to relevant information
concerning consequences. So it is also clear that groups with
competing opinions must all have access to effective means of
communicating their views. Democratization of political life must
include democratization of the media.
democracy requires not only democratic access to the media and
a plethora of single-issue political organizations, but also a
pluralism of political parties with different social agendas.
If we reflect briefly on the history of political life within
the left, and the ultimate consequences of attempting to ban parties,
factions, or any form of political organization people wish to
avail themselves of, it should be clear that bans are anathema
We will not be magically reborn in a desirable society, free of
our past and unaware of our historical roots. On the contrary,
historical memory, sensitivity to social process, and our understanding
of history will all be enhanced during the process of reaching
a desirable society. So the point is not to erase diverse cultures,
nor to reduce them to a least common denominator. Instead the
historical contributions of different communities should be more
appreciated, and there must be greater means for their further
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. ‘Cultural homogenization’ ignores
the positive aspects of cultural differences that give people
a sense of who they are and where they come from. Cultural homogenization
offers few opportunities for variety and cultural self-management
and proves self-defeating anyhow since it heightens exactly the
community anxieties and antagonisms it seeks to overcome.
competitive, hostile, environment, religious, racial, ethnic,
and national communities develop into sectarian camps, each concerned,
first and foremost, with defending itself from real and imagined
threats, if necessary waging war on others to do so. Dominant
community groups rationalize their positions of privilege with
myths about their own superiority and the presumed inferiority
of those they oppress. Some elements within oppressed communities
internalize these myths, and attempt to imitate dominant cultures.
Others respond by defending the integrity of their own cultural
traditions while combating the racist ideologies used to justify
their oppression. But 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.
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. Not only does each culture possess particular
wisdoms that are unique products of its historical experience,
but the interaction of different cultures can enhance the internal
characteristics of each and provide a richness no single approach
could ever hope to attain -- rovided negative inter-community
relations can be replaced by positive ones. But the key to this
is eliminating the threat of cultural extinction by guaranteeing
that each community shall have the means necessary to carry on
should choose the cultural communities they prefer, rather than
have others define their choice for them on the basis of prejudice.
And while those outside a community should be free to criticize
cultural practices that, in their opinion, violate humanist norms,
external intervention, as opposed to criticism, should not be
permitted except to guarantee that all members of every community
have the right of dissent and to leave.
important, until a lengthy history of autonomy and solidarity
has overcome suspicion and fear between communities, the choice
of which community should give ground in disputes between two
should be determined according to which of the two is the more
powerful and therefore, realistically, least threatened. Intercommunalism
will make it incumbent on the more powerful community with less
reason to fear being dominated to unilaterally begin the process
of de-escalation. This simple rule is obvious and reasonable,
despite being seldom practiced to date.
the goal is clear -- to create an environment in which no community
will feel threatened so that each will feel free to learn from
and share with others -- given the historical legacy of negative
intercommunity relations, there is no pretence this can be achieved
overnight. More so than in other areas, intercommunalist relations
will have to be slowly constructed, step by step, until a different
historical legacy and set of behavioural expectations are established.
Nor will it 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.
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.
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.
of the means of production must be social, not private.
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.
of production and consumption must be democratic and participatory,
all progressives give lip-service to this proposition, but it
means different things to different people. To us it means production
should be managed by a council of all employees where each has
equal say. But it also means the tasks of conception and execution
cannot be distributed so some people always do the former and
others the latter. Unless job complexes are arranged and rotation
schemes developed so all do a mixture of conceptualizing, organizing,
and carrying out production tasks, alienation and class hierarchies
will persist. This does not mean every individual must rotate
through every conceivable job. Nor does it mean expertise will
not play an important role in decision-making, since democratic
decision-making requires informed analysis even more than hierarchical
decision-making. But planning and coordinating the productive
efforts of the many cannot be the exclusive province of the few
in a desirable economy.
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.
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. The dead weight of central planning on
people's creative capabilities is more than enough to justify
the desperate groping for alternatives going on throughout the
‘existing socialist’ world. But the answer does not
lie in a return to markets. Nor should one hope for much from
a combination of two allocative mechanisms, each fundamentally
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.
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.
now clear that the principle: "From each according to ability,
to each according to work" was ambiguous. The increasing
tendency to interpret this principle as "to each according
to the market value of his or her contribution" must be rejected
as a just distributive principle. Payment according to personal
contribution may well be fairer than payment according to personal
contribution plus the contribution of the means of production
one happens to own. But there is nothing fair about payment according
to personal contribution. And what may surprise many self-styled
socialists even more, there is nothing efficient about payment
according to personal contribution either.
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. Why is talent, which is the outcome of a genetic lottery,
any more deserving of reward than the contributions of privately-owned
means of production which is the outcome of an inheritance lottery?
And 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, including compensation
for any burdens beyond those born by people not receiving training,
education neither deserves nor requires reward to induce people
to seek it. Rewarding the occupant of a job for the contribution
inherent in the job itself makes no sense on either grounds. And
there is clearly no justice or efficiency in rewarding luck. 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.
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 homosexuals, and warp human sexual and emotional
potentials. In other words, present day gender relations are almost
universally patriarchal, and while there are differences, some
of which are very important, this holds for 'existing socialist'
societies as well as for modern Western societies. 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 preference, and age. There can be no
non-biologically imposed sexual division of labor -- men doing
one kind of work and women another -- or any demarcation of individuals
according to sexual preference. We need gender relations that
respect the social contributions of women as well as men, and
promote sexuality that is physically rich and emotionally fulfilling.
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?
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. There can be no more compromising on this
issue than compromising about private ownership of the means of
production. 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.
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. After all, what social task could be more important than
rearing the coming generation of citizens? So what could be more
irrational than patriarchal ideologies that deny those who fill
this critical social role the status they merit? In a desirable
society, kinship activity must not only be arranged more equitably,
but the social evaluation of this activity must be corrected as
should also embrace a liberated vision of sexuality respectful
of individual's inclinations and choices, whether homosexual,
bisexual, heterosexual, monogamous, or non-monogamous. Beyond
respecting human rights, the exercise and exploration of different
forms of sexuality by consenting partners provides a variety of
experiences that can benefit all. In a humanist society without
oppressive hierarchies, sex can be pursued solely for emotional,
physical, and spiritual pleasure and development. Experimentation
to these ends is not merely to be tolerated, but appreciated.
the vision is uncompromising. It is a vision of gender relations
in which women are no longer subordinate, and the talents and
intelligence of half the species is free at last. It is also a
vision in which men are free to nurture, childhood is a time of
play and increasing responsibility with opportunity for independent
learning, not fear, and in which loneliness does not grip as a
vice whose handle turns as each year passes. The vision is one
where living is reclaimed from the realm of habit and necessity,
and is seen and appreciated as an art form we are all capable
of practicing and refining. But there is no pretence that all
this can be achieved over night. Nor do we claim a single kind
of partner-parenting institution is the best for all. While the
contemporary nuclear family has proven all too compatible with
patriarchal norms, a different kind of nuclear family will no
doubt evolve along with a host of other kinship forms as people
experiment with how to achieve the goals of feminism.
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." And
if the dream dies, there is nothing.