This is the introduction to Occupy Vision, the second volume of the three volume set titled Fanfare for the Future. In coming days we will post the book’s eight chapters, as well. You can find out more about Occupy Theory, Occupy Vision, and Occupy Strategy, as well as how to purchase them in print or for ebook reading, at Z’s book page for them – which is at: https://zcomm.org/the-fanfare-series/
“Do you suppose I could buy back my introduction to you?”
– Groucho Marx
Sharing a social theory such as marxism, anarchism, feminism, or the approach taken in volume one of Fanfare, Occupy Theory, rarely yields one correct comprehensive shared analysis. The results of sharing a theory are typically way less complete and accurate than that.
A shared social theory certainly helps focus our attention on important aspects of what we are considering and attunes us to finding certain patterns that are typically present and powerful. However the same social theory could help two groups of people analyze the same situation, and the two groups might wind up differing about important insights.
Having a shared theory means the group would agree on concepts and on much analysis as well. However, they might apply their shared concepts to different issues or include different aspects, – due to bringing different backgrounds – and they might, therefore, rally to different agendas. In this way, they might differ so greatly regarding social change activities that they would have a hard time even minimally working together. Consider all the leninist, trotskyist, marxist, anarchist, and even feminist groups that share theory but clash due to having different priorities.
The biggest differences among folks who share a social theory are usually about aims and methods. For one thing, aims, or what we in this book call vision, is not just about applying theory. Aims are about analyzing what is out there, yes, but they are also about what we want. For that reason they are about coupling values with guiding concepts. They are about having or applying concepts.
Two groups with the same basic concepts about society and history might easily have different values if they haven’t explicitly settled on shared ones.
Two groups that have different values, even using the same conceptual framework, will often arrive at different approaches to social change due to settling on different aims and methods and such differences will often preclude working together. It follows that to agree on views sufficiently to unite people seeking social change to be able to work together well, we need to go beyond sharing concepts to also sharing vision and strategy.
Okay, but why specifically is having a shared vision important? Why can’t we just have our shared way of looking at reality that we developed in volume one of Fanfare, apply it as we proceed, agree on what’s horribly wrong and why, and then think through different tactics we might use to try to alleviate suffering and its causes? Why not act in the knowable present? Why waste time looking into a fuzzy future we might disagree about?
First, we should acknowledge that contemporary social change activists typically neglect the task of developing a serious shared vision of what they ultimately want. Furthermore, as a result of this neglect, the contemporary Left is often unable to draw on any compelling vision to inform their strategy. Social change activists, instead, most often face reality as it impacts them today and march toward immediate short-run aims for next week or next month by making immediate tactical choices. They live and fight in the present, albeit often under difficult conditions that impose many constraints. That’s hard enough, they think. Why do they need anyone telling them to live with one foot in future, not with both feet in the present? They not only feel too time-pressed to spread themselves that thin, they feel like it wouldn’t help enough to warrant even a fraction of the time required. They feel that the future is the future – and beyond our ken.
Of course, some contemporary social change activists may urge that this is an inaccurate, and even unfair, picture of the Left. They may urge that they do, in fact, have a vision and that they do, in fact, use it to inform their organization and strategy. In short, they feel that they are already doing what we urge here.
However, if you ask these Leftists for a description of their vision they will typically answer vaguely, mainly specifying that the future will be democratic. Furthermore, they will often add that because the future they desire will be democratic it would be authoritarian for them to say anything about how future democratic power should be utilized by future people. They claim that advocating a meaningful, participatory democracy is a sufficient vision for the Left.
This has considerable appeal. Certainly people living now should not decide what future people must have as their policies. That would usurp future people’s prerogatives. But what if we consider a real life possibility and see if asserting a desire for democracy really provides a sufficient vision to inspire and guide us. Take the economy, for example. The primary functions of the economy are production, consumption and allocation. This means, for those who advocate democracy as their vision, that we need to democratize production, consumption and allocation.
So far, so good. However, this assertion of desire doesn’t tell us what we have to achieve – even the minimum features – to ensure economic democracy so future workers and consumers rule their own circumstances rather than being ruled over.
Saying we are for democracy not only doesn’t specify choices future folks ought to make once they are empowered (which is good), it also doesn’t specify the critical changes needed so that future folks will be empowered (which is not good). Favoring democracy only raises more questions, such as what ensures that future people can democratically control production, consumption, and allocation? And, indeed, as will hopefully become clearer, this is the type of question we need to answer if we are to have a vision sufficient to inspire and guide current activism without usurping the prerogatives of future people.
Why Have Shared Vision?
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”
– Oscar Wilde?
Our claim is that having a shared vision of, at least, the defining features of what we are trying to attain, is critically important to three key needs we have: generating and sustaining motivation, collectively getting somewhere desirable, and even effectively understanding the present.
Vision Counters Cynicism
“In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice,
in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.”
– William Blake?
When Margaret Thatcher, former British Prime Minister said, “There is no alternative,” the slogan was quickly abbreviated to TINA. TINA celebrated the permanence of the system that Thatcher loved and which we endure. Thatcher’s claim, provided with a little context, was that any effort to escape our current system would yield even worse outcomes than we now endure. She didn’t say our world is wonderful. No one can say that about rampant poverty, war, and indignity and be credible. It would be like saying cancer is delightful. Thatcher said, instead, that what we have is the best possible system – however horrible it often is. That is like saying cancer, however horrible, is unavoidable because any effort to avoid it will only make things worse.
Actually, Thatcher isn’t the only one who believes the current society is the best of a bad lot. At some deep level, most people tend to feel that however abysmal things often are under capitalism, representative democracy, etc., they would get much worse if we tried to dramatically change the system.
If Thatcher and most people believe her fatalistic claim, it would logically warrant never trying to change anything socially fundamental. To seek systemic social change, however well motivated, would be counter productive. And since most people believe TINA is true, most people avoid even thinking about serious change.
Once you think TINA is true, passivity not only makes sense, it closely accords with caring about people. By implying that efforts to attain an alternative social system would only make people suffer more, belief in TINA makes passive acceptance a morally sound choice.
What won’t overcome TINA, however, is descriptions of how bad things are or explanations of how socially ingrained suffering is. This type of commentary is actually more likely to enforce TINA, just like claims that cancer is horrific and unavoidably built into the essence of biological systems would tend to enforce not fighting it.
The first thing that compelling and convincing vision can achieve is to counter TINA. Vision can erase hopelessness and passivity.
This point bears emphasis. The cynicism of modern times is evident. People believe that “everything is broken,” but most people just accept the situation. We call this cynicism. In fact, however, it isn’t cynicism but is instead a mistaken, though quite rational, calculus.
For most people, poverty, injustice, and indignity are built into the fabric of reality. To their thinking, it makes no more sense to try to systemically escape those ills than it would make to try to systemically escape gravity, or courageously blow into the wind, or form a committed and energetic movement against the world’s worst killer – aging. Why be a fool chasing the impossible? Why fight to improve life if it will only make life worse? If you believe in TINA, passivity isn’t cynical, it is sensible.
Imagine hearing someone prove that aging harms and finally kills more people than any society, disease, army, or even than all three combined, and then says come join me in my militant movement against aging. You don’t drop everything and sign up to march and rally. You instead question the person’s sanity. About aging, you accept that there is no socially accessible alternative and that fighting it is idiocy. When people who believe TINA hear social critics list society’s faults and hear us say join us in our movement to win a new society, they question our sanity.
The despair and rampant hopelessness of today’s social life is the strongest barrier to justice. Convincing and compelling vision can uproot that despair and is for that reason our most important bludgeon with which to blast through to social change activism. So reason one for having shared vision is to overcome defeatism.
Vision Guides Practice
“There is nothing like a dream to create the future.
Utopia to-day, flesh and blood tomorrow.”
– Victor Hugo
The second reason we need vision is to orient our choices so they actually go somewhere we wish to be. To seek social improvements without knowing where we are going, what constitutes a viable improvement, and what would institutionally insure the longevity of that improvement, is a fool’s errand.
If you set out on a journey, is it enough to know that you don’t want to be where you start? And that the means of transport are car, train, or plane? No, you must also know where you want to go. Embarking matters, but destination matters too.
In trying to fundamentally change society one can’t succeed by oneself. Fundamental social change requires huge numbers of people working together. If Joe has a vision, but Sarah doesn’t, Sarah can’t be part of seeking to attain vision in the same way as Joe. If they both have a vision, but what they desire is significantly different and contrary, then how are they to work together to get to both visions, when attaining only one or the other is possible?
One person can escape the psychological straitjacket that is TINA by having a vision, even if no one else shares it. No one else needs to even know about the person’s beliefs and yet that person is convinced there is an alternative. However, thousands and millions of people cannot work together, with all of them playing an informed collaborative role in a collective endeavor, unless they seek at least the key features in unison. Thus, they can’t have millions of visions, or thousands, but ultimately need one – at least regarding centrally defining features.
Shared vision guides collective practice toward ends we actually want to attain. Our second reason for vision is to motivate and orient shared activism.
Vision Informs Judgement
“The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily
exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking.”
– Murray Bookchin
Here is an unexpected visionary bonus. It turns out visionary thinking isn’t just thinking about vision.
It is one thing to understand a family, say, or a market, or some other structure or network of structures in society. It is another thing to have a judgement about them – to like them or to dislike them.
When TINA is true for some part of a society, then we might not like that part, but we must not reject it because doing so would only lead to even worse outcomes. Here is an example. We don’t like production because it inevitably generates at least some pollution, takes some time and energy, and so on. But obviously we cannot reject production, per se. We must, instead, minimize pollution, minimize time and energy spent, etc., while also getting the fruits of production that we want, including the pleasure of work well done. Vision helps to inform our understanding so we know what we ought to reject.
Often seeing what is right in front of us is vastly easier if we have something different against which to consider it. Sometimes this is another comparable entity that already exists. Other times, however, it is a conception, a creation, a vision. Either way, it becomes easier to extend, enlarge, and enrich our analysis of the present by considering it against alternative possibilities to see the contrasts, and, in those contrasts, to find indicators of the logic of both the present and the future.
At the risk of jumping steps a bit – imagine someone trying to understand workplaces or families. They may take for granted or overlook the implications of various elements, even while understanding others. Now imagine there is a different type of family or workplace available to look at – either in our mind, because it is a vision, or in the real world, because someone has created a model for the future in the present. We see some old features missing and some new features present and we see very different outcomes. We suddenly realize the contingent origins of current outcomes that we previously mistakenly considered inevitable.
Some critics might argue that all three the points highlighted above can be achieved using only values like solidarity, equality etc., as a guide for movement building. In this view, values inform analysis which in turn is used to agitate for rebellion. Rebellion leads to revolution when our values are employed to help guide our creation of a new set of social institutions. This, the critic claims, would be a successful revolution brought about without having shared institutional vision.
Advocates of vision can reply that while values are important they are unlikely to prove sufficient. Highlighting the horrors of the system by employing value informed analysis doesn’t alone rebut the TINA doctrine, and may even reenforce it. A much more powerful approach comes in the form of presenting an alternative system based on our values, but including institutions able to implement them.
With regards to getting somewhere desirable, values can help us move in the right direction. Nevertheless, at some point we need to go beyond values and actually build new institutions. This requires having vision for these new institutions.
Finally, advocates of vision feel that the development of vision helps improve our understanding of what is wrong with the current system by virtue of the clarity that is gained by being able to see a clear contrast between institutions we have and institutions we want. Such a clear contrast is not really possible when relying on values only.
How Much Vision? Avoiding the Debits
“To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems
from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances.”
– Albert Einstein?
Those who reject having, using, or even caring at all about vision, don’t typically do so because they deny that vision can help overcome hopelessness. They don’t deny it can guide practice. They don’t deny that it can inform our ability to understand current relations. Rather, their issue is that none of the above benefits addresses their main fears. Instead of contesting the benefits of vision, they typically accept all three, not least because the three benefits are so obviously true it would be ridiculous to deny them. They argue against vision, instead, for entirely different reasons.
The core of their legitimate and sensible concern about vision is a worry that seeking vision will overextend our capacities into domains we cannot know. It will risk elitist intellectual and operational calamity, and it will immorally violate our activist mandate. These are very serious debits, and we will see that it is true that seeking vision can, indeed, have all these negative effects. More, if the negative effects were not only possible, but unavoidable, then they could, if bad enough, overcome the benefits of vision, which would leave us stuck between having vision and with it suffering overextension, calamity, and immorality, or rejecting vision and without it suffering hopelessness, direction-lessness, and diminished understanding. So we must examine each debit in turn, hoping to escape its implications.
“Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them.”
– Bob Dylan
The critic’s concern with overextension is that we can’t reliably know the future. In trying to provide a vision for the future we will make serious errors such as overlooking conditions we don’t yet realize and acting on false predictions. This sounds right. But is it?
If we said we can describe the future in great detail, more or less proposing a detailed blueprint of tomorrow and then tomorrow’s tomorrow, that would be absurdly beyond our current capacities. The critic would be right we could not successfully do that. No one could.
However, what if we are more modest? What if we only describe a few key features about the future that we can, in fact, understand? And what if we acknowledge and even celebrate that beyond those few features, the future will be whatever it will be, subject to choices and dynamics we cannot yet foresee? Then, if we thoughtfully choose a list of key features to focus on, we may be able to attain the benefits of vision – hope, orientation, and understanding – without incurring the cost of going beyond our capacities.
This type of navigation between worthy vision and over extension actually occurs all the time in any kind of planning aimed at future outcomes. Sometimes people planning future outcomes think they know what they don’t and even can’t know, but other times people do it perfectly reasonably. So the legitimate and justified advisory to the visionary from the vision critic is that we should worry about overextension. The legitimate and justified answer is that we should not overextend. Fair enough.
But it goes too far to then claim that everything anyone might say about the future is an overextension displaying unwarranted hubris. If we can identify key aspects of values and institutions that are essential if the future is to have the defining virtues we desire, if we can compellingly understand and describe just those key aspects, and if we always remain open to learning that we need to refine our views – then we can arrive at a vision that doesn’t overreach. Can we do all this? We will see. But our need for hope, orientation, and understanding are far too great to give up without trying.
Intellectual and Operational Calamity
“Facts are ventriloquist’s dummies. Sitting on a wise man’s knee they may be made
to utter words of wisdom; elsewhere, they say nothing, or talk nonsense.”
– Aldous Huxley
Having a vision can lead a person down a path of thinking they know the future. Others who disagree must be wrong – even ignorant or dumb. This surety and dismissiveness can become habitual proportionately as vision becomes part of a person’s identity. My having a vision can lead me to think that anyone who sees things differently is attacking my identity, and then to my attacking back. Vision, in short, can lead to dogmatism and sectarianism.
More, in practice, vision can not only lead to nasty behavior about ideas, it can lead to horrible behavior about policies as well. The dogmatic holder of a particular vision can impose their views on reality despite their views being clearly flawed or even horribly detested by others. We have all seen all this in Stalinism and in various fundamentalist stances, but also in lesser, though still quite disturbing, variants.
The visionary becomes wedded to his or her views and becomes an imposer of outcomes that didn’t have to be and that shouldn’t have been. And people suffer.
If dogmatism and the derivative imposition from above of structures that violate the will of those affected were inexorable outcomes of having vision, the critics of vision would be right.
The bad news is all these feared ills are real and possible. The critic of vision is not a naysayer making up problems. The problems are real. The good news is, the problems are not inevitable.
As we discussed in volume one of Fanfare, Occupy Theory – while it is not easy, having a personally growth oriented intellectual approach and institutional means of dissent and diversity can, together, sufficiently diminish the probability of negative trends to make the pursuit of shared vision acceptable.
Fair enough, you might say, but what about the related problem of elitism? Once we have vision, and we make it important to what we are doing, don’t we run a new risk that those who know the vision can feel overly important, and maybe become a new elite. Can’t participation become two tiered between those who know and can apply the vision, and those who only watch the visionaries and wait for instructions?
Again, our critic is not fear-mongering. This kind of elitism can, and has, happened. But is the alternative to have no vision – or is it to have vision (and strategy too) in ways that enhance rather than diminish participation and that challenge and undercut rather than obscure and enforce elitism?
How can we do that? By avoiding unnecessarily difficult language and using concepts that are easily understood. By sharing our vision as widely as possible. By aggressively respecting and fostering criticism and debate. Winning social justice requires vision – but not vision for a few. We need vision able to be used by and refined by all those involved in social change efforts.
“Does it follow that I reject all authority? Perish the thought.
In the matter of boots, I defer to the authority of the boot-maker.”
– Mikhail Bakunin
The third worry about vision is moral. Oddly, this one seems to be least understood, even by anti-sectarian and anti-elitist commentators. Suppose we develop a brilliant vision. We share it. We work to implement it. We are flexible and anti dogmatic about it. That sounds great, right? Well, not so fast say the critics. Who are we to impose our will on future citizens?
Imagine our coming to the conclusion that the future economy should have a work day that is five hours, not eight or three. Or imagine we conclude that the future economy should produce this output, but not that output. Or the future school should be taught this, but not that. Or that all future religious celebrations should be on weekends, but not weekdays.
Vision can morally overextend even if it is personally and institutionally flexible in its creation and application. The third flaw that often cripples work based on vision is therefore that vision can be immoral in the precise sense of current people deciding future people’s lives and options. Even with the best intentions and insights, this is some people in the present imposing their will on other people in the future.
Is this avoidable? Yes and no.
No, it is not avoidable. If we have and we implement a vision, surely it is true that we have made some decisions that are going to contour and impact people in the future.
Yes, it is avoidable. Suppose the vision is only about attaining that which will allow, and even guarantee, that future people will be in position to control their own destiny. Suppose, in other words, that the vision is precisely about attaining only the changes in social institutions that have to occur if future people are to maximally control their own lives and options. In that case, it doesn’t make much sense to see the vision and its implementation as limiting future people. On the contrary, the vision is empowering them – and doing no more than empowering them. The vision implements only those new institutions and roles which are essential to future people’s self expression.
Vision can go too far, but if we limit vision to:
- what we can reasonably know
- we keep refining it
- we personally and collectively protect dissent and elevate diversity while sharing vision
- we confine our vision to what is essential to future freedom
- we leave it to future people to decide all the contours of their own lives
…then we can have vision and benefit from it without suffering undue losses.
Arriving at Vision
“And you, are you so forgetful of your past, is there no echo
in your soul of your poets’ songs, your dreamers’ dreams, your rebels’ calls?”
– Emma Goldman
How do we arrive at vision? How do we bend our minds, converse, assess, test, and arrive at a worthy vision which we can widely share to gain hope, orientation, and understanding? It seems quite daunting.
As with most problems, there are many conceivable approaches, but here is at least one particular answer that outlines the approach we mostly take in the next few chapters.
At the outset, we already have in hand the perspective we began developing in volume one of Fanfare, Occupy Theory. Beyond that, first, we settle on some guiding values. What is it that we desire from society and its four spheres?
This “values task” is not, we should be clear, a factual undertaking. It is about deciding what we like – not about deciding what is, or even deciding what could be. One person may like one thing. Another person may like something else. There is no way to claim the former is right, the latter is wrong, or vice versa. We are talking about preferences. We can, however, explore the moral logic and the likely social implications of various values and give context to our reasons for preferring some values over others.
Second, once we have established guiding values – not so many that our list is unworkable and not so few that it doesn’t sufficiently guide us – we can move on to social relations. What are society’s central functions? The main ones, our conceptual perspective already tells us, are economic, kinship, cultural, and political. They arise inexorably from our being human and thus having human needs and potentials.
But then how can society accomplish its central economic, kin, cultural, and political functions consistent with and even propelling our values? This will occur if the roles that define our society’s institutions call forth from us behaviors and develop in us motives, habits, and inclinations consistent with our preferred values. It will not occur if our institution’s roles undercut or even obliterate the values we prefer by inculcating in us motives, habits, and inclinations contrary to those values.
So, beyond values, the second step is about conceiving new institutions and roles, while rejecting roles and institutions that violate our values. We must advocate roles and institutions that propel our values and that are even essential to attaining our values, but without overextending into domains where we can have no confidence or into matters about which we should not be making judgements for future people. And we should also work to ensure that our vision is accessible and manageable for all who seek social change.
The procedure is easy to state, and, surprisingly, you may also find, it is not all that hard to do. We can occupy vision, on behalf of creating a new world, by our own will and exertion. No enemy prevents us from arriving at vision.