Real Utopia

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October 19, 2008 by cosmoakacitizensmith

This book is the one you wanna check out when your non-anarchist friends say, ” Ok, you think you the system is so f*cked up, so what are you gonna put in it’s f*ckin place?”

(Yes, my non-anarchist mates are really that uncouth….)

Real Utopia [ed. Chris Spannos] is a series of articles and studies from around the world that attempt to stake out new territory in the progressive debate, or at least territory that has been neglected for a while by people of such persuasions. Namely, what are we actually aiming FOR,(we all now what we’re against!) and how are we going to get there?

You need to know a little bit about Participatory Economics, (Parecon), in order to understand where the writers are coming from. Parecon is a system developed by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel that basically formalises and develops a lot of the ideas for a collectively run, participative, non-market economy that have been written about and put into practice over the years.

In some ways, Parecon looks like it could be a bureaucratic nightmare, but it has its fans. Intellectual heavyweight and notorious anarcho-linguist Noam Chomsky is a convert, as is Nobel-prize-for-literature-winning Arundhati Roy.

Like a kind of new religious movement, you have to understand Parecon’s jargon of salvation. Readers of Real Utopia have to get familiar with “balanced job complexes” (translation – divvying up all the shit work), “kinship” and “remuneration according to effort and sacrifice,” (bit too complicated to explain here). Which all comes over a bit cultish the first time you read it, but after you get the hang of it, it starts to make a certain amount of sense.

This book is global in its scope, taking in alternative post-apartheid visions for South Africa, Swedish radical unions, collectively-run publishers in the US and all sorts in between. If anyone is interested in what is happening in Venezuela, there is a warts-n-all article by Albert himself which serves as an excellent introduction. Sadly, there are no examples from the UK.

My fave article is by Paul Burrows, a former member of the Mondragon cafe in Winnipeg, Canada. The cafe is run according to Parecon’s collectivist principles, and Burrows is a very impassioned and principled man who describes his motivations and ideas clearly and succinctly.

Despite the hardships the group faced in running their cafe in this way, and some of the almost nightmarish situations they found themselves in, (endless, excruciating meetings anyone?!),Burrows’ commitment to his cause remains undimmed and his principles come out intact.

He makes this very good general point:

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the Left has become so good at observing, documenting and critiquing social ills that it has become more like a witness, and less like activists engaged in day-to-day struggles ought to be. It has forgotten about vision, forgotten about alternatives, and forgotten that a movement cannot inspire, motivate, and grow without positive – and achievable – examples to point to. Most of all, it seems to me, we should not tell people anything, unless our own movements, out own alternatives, our own institutions, embody the values we profess to hold.


And he also criticises the Parecon vision for not dealing with how we are going to make the transition from a capitalist society to one based around its values. I guess it will be groups like the Mondragon collective, who are prepared to put the principles into action like this, see where it takes them, refine the ideas and inspire others that will help shape the future, if this is the kind of future we want.

You’re not going to like all this book. I found the best way to read it is to dip in and out a see what takes your fancy. Nevertheless, I put it down feeling really energised and inspired by some of the stories here, whilst at the same time as realising just how far it is we have to go.

Next up, How to Be Idle. This book has definitely helped balance out the hardcore anarchist texts I’ve been reading! Written by Tom Hodgkinson, editor of the magazine The Idler, this book reads like an erudite but slightly frivolous riposte to a country in the grip of the longest working hours in Europe.

But don’t be fooled. Frivolous as it may seem, it offers an incisive critique of the Protestant work ethic, embedded cancerously in our culture by religion and guardians of public morals. More importantly, it is a guide on how to put more slack in your life, laze, bugger about, listen to your dreams, drink booze and ultimately come to our senses!!

If you follow his advice, you’ll be in good company. Luminaries such as Robert Burns, Confucius and EP Thompson, Nietzsche and Barbara Ehrenreich are co-opted into this loafers’ manifesto. Rather than advocate doing nothing, what it actually seems to encourage is “productive idling,” a kind of right-brained approach to doing stuff in a world stuck in left-brained gear. It’s got fantastic illustrations too, they kind of remind me of the ones in Winnie the Pooh.

Interesting to think what we will do with the sorts of people who put this kind of idling in practice in our brave new anarchist utopia, particularly when we consider Parecon’s utilitarian “balanced job complexes”???

I reckon Hodgkinson is just as much an anarchist and a revolutionary as Michael Albert, if not more so. As he points out in How to Be Idle, in the Nazi concentration camps, anarchists had to wear special black triangles on their uniforms. This was an honour shared by other so-called “asocial elements” – the mentally ill, alcoholics, vagrants, beggars, aristocrats, intellectuals, pacifists, draft resisters, the habitually “work-shy”, or prostitutes.

So, careful now!! You never know where thinking and acting outside the box will lead you. And who you’ll get to hang out with as a result…..!


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