We live in a world dominated by global capital, a world in which capital divides us, setting the people of each country against each other to see who can produce more cheaply by driving wages, working conditions, and environmental standards to the lowest level in order to survive in the war of all against all….The most immediate obstacle, though is the belief in TINA (There is No Alternative, HT). Without the vision of a better world, every crisis of capitalism (such as the one upon us) can bring in the end only a painful restructuring--with the pain felt by those already exploited and excluded.
(Michael A. Lebowitz, Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century, Monthly Review, 2006, 50).
The material below is a revision of an essay I published some time ago inspired by youthful debates many were having about what kind of society we need to create to facilitate the full flowering of humankind (“Social Science and a New Social Order,” Journal of Peace Research, 1971). As Lebowitz implies we need to return to conversations about what a better future would look like. If we fail to talk about our preferred future we will become overwhelmed with cynicism and lose the capacity to do more than react to those who want to reverse legislative gains.
Specific features of a new society
Progressive visions of a new society draw upon real and imagined communities that provide for the socio-economic and psychic needs of their members. Many of these visions include the following principles:
a) A new society requires equal or equitable distribution of economic resources. This principle presupposes also a commitment to racial justice, gender equality, the right to love and bond with whomever one chooses, and a vision of the oneness of humankind with nature.
b) A new society should consist of basic socio-political units that do not exceed a size whereby all people in the unit can and do interact with each other. Voluntary face-to-face contact and knowledge of the values, beliefs, and desires of other community members will increase modes of cooperation which are central to the viability of the new society.
c) Political, social, and economic decisions should be made on the basis of voluntary participation. Those decisions that affect people’s lives will be made on the basis of their involvement.
d) Political decision-making may entail one of or a combination of three possible modes. Some communities might decide to make decisions on the basis of complete consensus and others might decide on the use of majority rule. Some communities might create representative bodies to make decisions for the larger community with regular rotation of leaders.
e) Political, social, and economic units might be defined as temporary so that the
dissolution and adjustment of these units can be carried out at any time. Communities ought to continue only so long as they fulfill the needs of their members. However, while embracing change, communities might find virtue in providing some institutional continuity over time, particularly in terms of economic wellbeing.
Assumptions of the new society
Any new society that we envision, of course, will be based upon underlying assumptions. Evaluation of each plan necessitates a critical analysis of both its central features and the explicit and implicit assumptions embedded in it. For example the proposals made above make several assumptions:
a) A new society based upon local control and participatory democracy assumes that this control in conjunction with equal distribution of resources will decrease the level of alienation among the population and hence the incidence of social bigotry. The more humans control their own social and physical environment, the less likely they will be to project hostilities onto others. Similarly, if they have equal access to economic resources, no material justification for hostility will exist.
b) Although it is assumed that an equitable distribution of resources, community control, and the possibility of mobility will dramatically reduce conflict between socio-political units, conflicts from a variety of causes will probably persist. However, internal and cross- community conflict will be in what may be called 'human scale' because the scope and intensity of conflict among small communities will be greatly reduced.
The 'enemy' will not be an abstraction in the new society but the real person living across one's communal borders. As political scientist Quincy Wright put it a long time ago, “the larger the group and the less accessible all its members to direct sensory contact with all the others and their activities, the less available are instinct, custom, or universal acceptance as bases of group behavior, and the more symbols and opinions about them are the stimuli and guides for behavior. In the large groups which make war in modern civilization, symbols have been responsible for initiating and guiding that parti- cular behavior.” 'Direct sensory contact' will replace symbol manipulation by economic and political elites in the nation state.
c) The emphasis on primary political and social control at the community level and the creation of small-scale societies necessitate the existence of some significant cross-community or cross-national units, significant for certain functions such as dispersal of funds throughout a nation or region.
Three possible superordinate units could emerge. The most likely in the near future would be the mixed centralized-decentralized system proposed by Paul Goodman whereby 'non-human' actions are carried out at the national level such as the dispersal of resources to communities, accounting operations, and other computerized actions. Intermediate units such as state governments could be eliminated, and the significant decisions affecting individuals made in their communities. Another alternative involves the creation of domestic or international regions providing the superordinate functions in conjunction with the communities. Superordinate limited political units could emerge out of transformations of regional international organizations such as the European Union or the North American Free Trade Agreement. Finally, the breakdown of the nation-state might yield a new macro-micro community interaction system. Any of these possibilities requires that superordinate functions must be clearly defined, made as automatic as possible (not subject to technocratic manipulation), and structures must be continuously evaluated.
d) Central to the new society is the assumption that society can develop a new non-work ethos, that the system of economic abundance and automation, when stripped of its false productivity, consumption, featherbedding, and the imposition of scarcities, can reduce some of what we know as laborious work. Traditional labor could be reduced although other work such as care giving is likely to increase. And given the reduction of work, human beings can find ways to use life time for sociability and pleasure as well as necessary labor. This suggests several alternative life styles, including extensive continuous education and community participation in the arts.
e)It is further assumed that the wealth and income of the world would be redistributed transforming the economic system whereby basic needs and functional comforts are made available to all. National armies, hand-picked neo-colonial elites, and foreign corporations no longer will control the direction of change in the Global South allowing members of the latter to choose their destinies independently. Further as the new societies spread from territory to territory one might hope for the emergence of economic redistribution that provides comforts for the world’s citizens. The stimulus for change could begin locally and nationally and spread throughout the world.
f) Finally, the vision of the new society assumes the possibility and, indeed, the necessity of humans regaining control of the technological world. Developed societies have experienced the growth and dominance of organizational/technological rationality, a rationality committed to organizational maintenance and expansion irrespective of the human needs of its members. The goal of a new society is ultimately to achieve individual and community rationality based upon means and ends in human scale. Specifically, a new social order presupposes that technology can be decentralized, that efficiency necessary for modern existence does not require centralized political and social control. Social organization can determine technological organization.
Strategies for change
Political activists spend much time discussing strategies for change. Scrutiny of relevant history and assessments of contemporary practice are most beneficially used by progressives to guide their efforts to bring about change within communities, nations, and the international system. It is presumed that to bring about a new society such as that discussed above, a multiplicity of strategies need to be utilized, giving credence to personality, environmental, and systemic variations--and class, race, and gender--with particular emphasis upon spontaneity, creativity, self-doubt, and constant reappraisal.
Of continued importance to change and of utility for achieving a new society is continued education—education for change which would be truly revolutionary. Education involves, where relevant, academic argumentation, political organization around specific issues, and personal commitments in visible ways to new value systems and life styles. Substantial change requires mass support: hence large numbers of people must be exposed to the spirit of a new society so that they see alternatives and, hopefully, choose to work for their achievement.
Along with educational value, the building of new institutions may provide the skeletal structures of a new society within the parameters of the old. With increasing tension and disarray in 21st century societies, the existence of new, more appealing alternative embryonic structures will provide the substance for new loyalties and commitments when the threshold of tensions make new institutions crucial. As Staughton Lynd has argued, radical social change in the United States occurred when people, of necessity, built new institutions at the community level and crises stimulated the development of new loyalties to these institutions. Eventually the substance of these institutions spilled over from community to community across the nation. The growth of worker cooperatives might be an example.
Finally, those seeking the achievement of a new social order should involve themselves in the ongoing political process, openly and honestly articulating the substance of principles explicit in the quest for a new society. This means the utilization of electoral politics, street heat, and left organizing to communicate with the public, to build people power, and to achieve policies that move towards a new society.
Let us fight cynicism and resume the debate about building a better future!