This week saw the online launch of a new international organisation for radical social transformation, the International Organisation for a Participatory Society (IOPS). Two of the founding members, Michael Albert of ZNet and Jason Chrysostomou of Project for a Participatory Society UK, spoke to Mark Evans about the project.
Where did IOPS come from? Could you say something about the background and origins of IOPS?
Michael Albert: This question is a bit like a Rorschach test. On the one hand, writ large, the idea for IOPS came from a very long history of efforts to improve society, each in turn taking past efforts and trying to find lessons to inform better prospects. Writ more narrowly, however, it came from the vision called participatory economics, and then participatory society, together applied to the issue of how to best unite allies in an organization that could effectively combine their energies to win the new systems. Writ even more narrowly, though, it arose from a series of very specific efforts to align folks with similar vision and politics into unified actions, with the series of efforts stretching back over a decade or more. And writ most narrowly, it came from a poll implemented not long ago on the web system ZCommunications, that queried folks to see how they would react to a description of a hypothetical future organization. The poll presented the unifying vision, broad strategy, structure, and some hypothetical program, and tried to determine by reactions to all that if there was sufficient support for the descriptions to hold promise that a real world effort to build the envisioned organization might succeed.
Well, it turned out that there appeared to be enough support, so we decided to try to make it happen. That's specifically the International or IOPS version. The same trajectory of desires and ambitious efforts had, however, already led to a few more local instances in New York, London, and a handful of other cities. So there was a lot of percolating desire for and even attempts to implement organization, and those local efforts, at least in some cases, wanted national efforts and also an international effort for the momentum those could provide, especially for the possible sharing of lessons and resources and mutual aid more generally, and hope. So, various people put in more thought, more effort, and the project is progressing.
How does IOPS differ from other international revolutionary organisations both past and present?
Jason Chrysostomou: IOPS differs in the following ways:
Self-Managed Decision Making
IOPS clearly defines its norm for decision making, called ‘Self-Management’ - decision making influence in proportion to the degree you are affected by a decision. If you are affected by a decision you get a say. I think it reflects the core of what socialism is about. It may sound common sense and non-controversial; however, when you look at decision making in many organisations that have gone under the label ‘socialism’ you often find a lack of clarity in this regard, or even tendencies towards centralist top-down decision making.
To achieve self-management IOPS is structured in a system of nested branches/chapters at various geographical levels from International, Country, Region, City/Town and Neighbourhood Level. This nesting is to allow for the fact that different decisions affect different groups of people. IOPS is the most serious attempt I know of in creating a truly participatory self-managed organization, and I believe it is unique in this regard. By joining IOPS you get to fully participate in decisions that affect you.
Left organisations typically tend to focus on what is wrong with society. If you look at their mission statements you can find a massive list of things that they reject. This is fine, however, I think there has been a lack of sufficient attention in constructively exploring the question of what we want instead, including guiding values and key structural features of what a good society might look like as our alternative to capitalism, racism, sexism, patriarchy, polyarchy and all other forms of oppression. The past, and in particular events during the era of the Soviet Union has made us very cautious of vision, and rightly so. However, we mustn’t jettison vision completely. The lesson here is not that exploring future alternatives is bad, but that it should be done openly, flexibly, and improved through experimentation.
IOPS is organised around vision. Many of the people who have been attracted to IOPS, including myself, feel that there has been a serious lack of focus on alternatives and feel that a flexible, ever developing vision is necessary as a guide for what strategic actions to make today, as a means to inspire participants and as a basis for experimenting with new pre-figurative institutions.
If you read the IOPS organisational description you will see a large section devoted to vision for the economy, polity, kinship, culture, ecology and international relations that I would urge people to read and think about. The vision plays a key role in informing IOPS strategy and building new structures within the existing system.
MA: IOPS differs in part by its aims - its vision of a better society, and thus by what it does to attain one, as well. More specifically, I hope the organization will do a better job than others in the past at seeking to be internally classless and self-managing, as well as protective and even supportive of internal dissent and currents of difference. I also hope it will be more diverse from city to city and country to country, and more welcoming of participation at every level than has typically been the case in the past. And I hope it will be - I am not sure how to say this - more relaxed and flexible, even if also more intent and serious - so that it can embrace differences without people becoming so attached to their own preferred ideas as to dismiss those of others.
We won't know with real confidence until the organization actually exists and hopefully grows quite a bit, how it differs, if at all. Sometimes there is a disjuncture between plan, to be quite different, and practice, to perhaps wind up more similar, which upsets predictions. IOPS will undoubtedly come into existence via many steps. First there has already been the process of setting out a broad description and of some people, in some places, forming local organizations. Then there will be an online international amalgamation, you might say, combining the lessons of those efforts and of the initial description. That amalgamation, IOPS, is coming soon and will hopefully lead to many more national and local organizations in turn hopefully sharing a core practice and definition even as they also embody great diversity of detail.
In time, out of all that, and once there are sufficient members involved and sufficient experience evaluated and confidence generated, there will presumably be a kind founding of some sort for the overall International Organization. If all this yields roughly what the early conceptions explicitly seek, I think the differences from past efforts will be quite substantial. I think the main areas of difference will be the vision since this will be the first international organization self consciously seeking participatory economics, polity, kinship, and culture, and thus participatory society - and also much about the structure and practice, mainly its approach to internal dissent and decision making, and its breadth of program and focus.
Historically the revolutionary left has been divided over such issues as revolution versus reformism and authoritarian versus libertarian strategy, the result of which has been a greatly weakened international movement. Do you think that IOPS can transcend these differences, and in so doing reunite the left?
MA: I hope so. That is to a considerable degree the point, after all. But it is a big question, and while I can try to say something succinct, perhaps, again, the proof, or not, will rest in the actual practice.
But - I think IOPS will try to transcend the debates you mention by rethinking the issues. Take seeking reforms versus seeing revolution. As soon as one understands that there is not only no contradiction between these two pursuits, but, in fact, that each depends on and benefits from the other - assuming that reforms are sought in non reformist ways and revolution is sought in ways sensitive to present needs and desires - the reason for division disappears. We must seek reforms not least because to ignore efforts to better people's lives in the present would be incredibly callous, distant from reality, etc. But we must also seek revolution, meaning to act in ways that develop consciousness and organization and win new terrain all suited to proceeding ever further toward finally attaining a new society, because, otherwise, we will simply wind up circling the drain that is the present. Well if we seek reforms in radical and revolutionary ways, and if we seek revolution in ways rooted in the current needs of people and current possibilities of social relations, there simply is no opposition here. Doing one is doing the other, and vice versa.
Now take being authoritarian versus being libertarian. I think, again, this difference can be transcended. Who favors authoritarian approaches on grounds that imposing hierarchy and empowering a few is somehow an exemplary thing to do in its own right? No one who isn't horribly elitist - certainly no one who favors a participatory society. Instead, the argument of someone who is not elitist and who favors attaining a participatory society, but who also argues for having some central leadership in some instance, will typically be that in difficult conditions imposed by past history, winning gains may require hierarchy and even a degree of authoritarianism, and that it does, in the particular case at hand. So everyone seeking a participatory future who is sane and humane prefers participation and mutual aid and the widest possible empowerment. And everyone seeking a participatory future who is sane and humane prefers to win change, not lose looking good. So a responsible and rational debate can arise when one argues that the benefits of libertarianism may be outweighed by losses due to imposed harsh conditions. So when this debate arises in an organization such as IOPS it will not be about values, or goals, but about what works in a specific, limited, context. Both sides should be open to doing that which proves more worthy. It is when two sides in a debate over actions think that there difference is some fundamental value that will infect all choices, that movements fracture.
I think the new organization's underlying analysis of what exists, and what we seek, will impose a very very high burden of proof on opting for hierarchy, exclusion, centers of power, etc. but it won't assert that a person cannot think such thoughts without leaving the fold. And in that context, with that level of shared views, I suspect that while at some times and in some places one might have to make compromises and have some temporary deviation from the usual self managing approaches, in IOPS there will overwhelmingly be variations on self management, participation, etc.
JC: I believe IOPS can have a large role to play in uniting the left and building a movement with a clearer direction of where it is going. If we don't learn the lessons from the past and don't work constructively together in creating a mass movement that has broad appeal based around a shared vision, and fail, the consequences not only relate to matters of justice and democracy but are more crucial given the serious threats facing us of climate change and nuclear catastrophe.
One important lesson from the 20th century is that using authoritarian structures as a means to win participatory democracy leads only to further authoritarianism. Our movements need to be participatory and classless from the start. They need to be examples to people of the kind of society we are trying to win.
IOPS seeks to transcend these kinds of divisions through uniting around a set of core values and guiding vision, structuring the organisation around the values and vision, and through adopting a holistic framework that examines oppression and the interconnectedness of all areas of social life, whether gender, cultural, political, economic.
What features have been designed into the IOPS site?
JC: The purpose of the IOPS website will be to facilitate member communication and participation in the life of the organisation. Each member will get a profile page, receive notifications, be able to send/receive messages to other members and, in time, communicate using group chat rooms.
Other main features will include blogs, events, projects, forums, resources and more. But there are two key features to highlight:
As I mentioned earlier, IOPS is a self-managed organisation, and so the website will have sub-sites for each chapter/branch of the organisation from international, country, region and city/town. When you join you are allocated into your chapter at each of these geographic levels. Each chapter will have control over their sub-site and content will be specific to them. As well as a dropdown breadcrumb style menu allowing navigation to various chapter pages, there will also be a map displaying where chapters are located across the world.
On each chapter page, there will be a voting system enabling members of the chapter affected by a decision to make proposals online, deliberate them, amend options and cast votes. Decisions made will be recorded and viewable by all. The intention being to use the online voting system to complement face to face deliberation.
MA: As time passes no doubt due to the exigencies of practical lessons and needs, and also simply the time it takes to build in good features, much more will be added. I think we can predict some of that, at least. Thus, in time, it will have tools for debating issues and agendas and for voting, and tools to facilitate mutual aid, sharing lessons, etc. It will also have means to collect and disperse dues, to participate at various levels, and so on.
The goal of all a site's features will presumably be to provide online tools to help face to face branches and chapters in their own efforts and, in particular, in communicating with each other and uniting to accomplish larger shared programs - as well as to provide means for debate, discussion, voting, and especially sharing lessons.
But a site isn't the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is face to face work - organizing. So people can do that, in diverse forms. What the site will hopefully add is some tools to facilitate, and some momentum in the form of lots of people wanting to become involved and means by which people can take strength and lessons from what other people are doing. Synergy instead of isolation.
The Occupy movement has been both inspiring and problematic. As well as mass participation within the movement there have also been reports of problems relating to decision-making and an ability to grow and indeed sustain the movement. How, if at all, do you think IOPS could contribute to Occupy or similar future popular revolts?
MA: One hopes in many ways. If you believe in the shared vision and strategic ideas of IOPS, then you believe that their spread will be a very positive force. On the other hand, the day to day wisdom that emerges in times of uprising is also a very positive force. So the merging of these will presumably benefit both. I like to think - we will see if it is true - that IOPS will have ways of making decisions and incorporating respect for difference that would help movements like Occupy to embody self managing values and practices, but while also being highly welcoming, participatory, and respectful of different people's time and circumstances. Similarly, the visionary commitments of IOPS would hopefully inform the targets and rhetoric of movements like Occupy, revealing problems to avoid, and revealing paths essential to success. Attention to not just one focus or another - but class, race, gender, power, ecology, and international relations - would be one example. Another would be realizing that for a movement to ultimately attract and retain informed participation from oppressed constituencies it needs to respect the life choices of those constituencies, pursue gains in their interests, and avoid sacrificing their agendas particularly to appeal to better off groups.
JC: One of the challenges facing the Occupy movement has been how to maintain participation and horizontal decision making as the movement grows on a larger scale. I think the ideas contained within the participatory society vision can inform these kinds of challenges. In particular, the value of self-management and institutional structures that could facilitate participatory decision making on a larger scale. From my experience in participating in the London assembly there has been a mindset to use consensus for all decisions which I think has contributed to meetings dragging on for an unnecessarily long time and led to an increase in apathy, whereas a variety of voting rules should be applied where appropriate according to the self-management norm.