top of page

Radical Theory for a Participatory Society

By Chris Spannos

[A panel talk given at the Left Forum, March 9-11 2007, NYC. The panel, “Radical Visions for the 21st Century,” was organized by the International Project for a Participatory Society]

I’m going to present some ideas with origins in the Classical and New Left social movements and try to make a case for why today’s movements need a new and widely shared theory for social change. Some of the concepts and type of thinking I’ll be presenting are very different. In fact, you may find yourself thinking “This guy is a lunatic.” However, if I do my job well, presenting the ideas clearly and sensibly, while providing useful insights, I’ll hopefully sound reasonable. If you find yourself thinking, “Hey, this guy sounds half sane,” that means one of two things. Either we are all half crazy, or, more likely, these ideas need to be taken seriously.

If our vision of a future society is one that is not racist, sexist, classist or dictatorial, then we can begin to look at the kinds of concepts, ideas, orientations and attitudes that people will employ to successfully create the emancipatory institutions of a future good society. However, in doing this we’re going to have to elaborate on some conception of how social movements are interrelated and can affect one another — what allows social movements to move forward, and what can hinder or even roll them backwards.

If we look back, to as recently as last century, the movements that sought to change the world were predominantly concerned with class struggle and transformation of the economic system. Class was considered by many as the central focus that could yield progressive social change. This conception of social change was held by many on the Left, and articulated primarily by orthodox Marxist theory.

Toward the second third of the 20th Century many social movements arose who’s principle concerns were in other spheres of social life — the women’s and gay liberation movements, the civil rights and Third World national liberation struggles. These movements didn’t fit so easily into Marxist conceptual frameworks, at least not without considerable overhaul, with results yielding something little resembling Marxism. For those of us concerned with societal transformation and emancipation, the best of these New Left efforts yielded new social formations, insights, experiences and practices which some used to consciously re-work their theories, visions and strategies. The worst of this period, despite being rightly disillusioned with deterministic and mechanical approaches toward social change, wrongly jettisoned emancipatory aspirations and attempts to seek out theoretical understandings to guide us into a better future; and in some cases even consciously rejected truth, reason and rationality, claiming these concepts were actually part of the problem.

Keeping in line with the best of this period, one approach that I think retains much value for today’s social movements, as well as illustrates a prefiguration of the kind of thinking that people of the good society will need to employ to get there, was articulated first in a book called "Liberating Theory" (SEP, 1986) that was collectively authored by Noam Chomsky, Michael Albert, Leslie Cagan, Robin Hahnel, Mel King, Lydia Sargent, and Holly Sklar.

This rather unusual effort sought to understand society, history, vision and strategy. And as the books own description says, attempted to:

“…combine and transcend various theories of history (marxism, anarchism, feminism, and nationalism) to develop an alternative conceptual framework….” And apply “this framework to questions of economics, politics, gender, race, and culture for… understanding society and strategizing its transformation.”

This conceptual re-working was largely a response to the overly mechanical and economistic approaches of the past. However, today things are different. A new theory of social movements will have to adjust to today’s context. Indeed on one hand Class analysis, as something that informs our vision and strategy, is largely absent among today’s social movements. And to the extent that it is still held, it is usually a variation that hasn’t strayed too far from its classical form. It is ironic to have to argue today for our movements to incorporate class analysis, while at the same time trying to avoid the pitfalls of crude, two class, economic determinism. And although this alone should be the topic of another panel, it does provide one brief illustration of the obstacles ahead in developing widely shared attitudes, orientations, theories or conceptual frameworks to understand social change.

Another change indicative of our times is that today’s social movements are seemingly much more adept at relating to one another than in the past, and for the most part, not just by avoiding conflicts of interest in each others movements and not compromising the needs, interests and desires of others, but instead, acknowledging and accepting divers concerns and strategies, and in some cases acting out of solidarity. However, this is more due to intuition and the still unfolding gains made by the New Left than to any widely shared and articulated understanding among our movements; and even less so to one that is self-consciously using a broad conceptual framework to illustrate social movement interaction and develop dynamic vision and strategy.

There is also another difference today that makes having a widely shared theory of social change necessary. The passion and desire for a new world is not present in the day to day activities of our social movements. We are not excited about the prospects of human liberation and transformation – of fundamentally altering society’s core defining institutions. Where is this passion among our anti-corporate globalization movement? Is there a widely shared desire to transform corporate hierarchies, markets, class structures, and property relations and replace it with another economic system that is classless and participatory? Where is that focus among our anti-war or other social movements? Does anyone believe as they should, that we can affect the policies and institutions which propel war making and that we can do so in such a way that causes elites to loose power and control over those institutions while our movements continue to gain evermore control and power instead?

To illustrate the point, take a look down south toward Venezuela. There you have a population stirring, energized, and excited about the massive structural reforms that may lead them to more control over the institutions and policies which affect their lives. We don’t know where it will lead. It could all unravel and fall apart next month. But right now there is a passion stirring there because of the prospects of winning a new, potentially emancipatory, society.

Where is this passion and arousal on our Left, here in the US, or across North America? Yes, it exists among some individuals, and in certain sectors of the Left. But for the most part it is non-existent. The reason why is because, unlike the Venezuelans, we don’t really believe that we can win. That’s a sad state of affairs, and it is another obstacle that needs to be overcome. To overcome this barrier we need compelling vision and strategy and a widely held conceptual understanding of how we can get from here to there.

While others on this panel will address the vision question, I am going to turn now to focus on the question of theory.

A Radical Theory for a Participatory Society should be a theory that is useful, accessible, and accurate.

By useful I mean it has to serve a practical purpose and arise from a movement need. In this case it is for understanding how social movements and transformation work so that we can consciously affect social change. It needs to empower us and enable us to make insightful decisions, learn from mistakes and move forward. It needs to shed new light on history, society, and human beings. It needs to help us become an evermore self-conscious movement.

By accessible I mean – accessible. If we’re going to aspire and achieve a social transformation in accord with a widely held vision, our theory needs to be also widely held, easily understood, simple to grasp and easily employed. But there is another purpose for this too which is consequential for the course of our social movements. Having a theory in which only a small group of people understand, no matter how class, race and gender conscious that theory is, runs the high risk of that small group gaining, retaining and exercising disproportionate power over the trajectory of our movements. Consciousness and good will alone won’t be enough to safe guard us against the potential rise of an elite. We’ll also need a theory that most of us can understand, that is user friendly, so that we can all participate in the process of self-conscious decision making and affecting the course of our social movements.

By accurate, I mean a theory for a participatory society needs to have an understanding of who the agents of social change are, what guides them, and what shapes them; and not send us down century long dead ends. Looking back, the predominant view of the 20th century was historical materialism – that the class struggle was the driving force shaping history, society and people. We want a theory that provides a modern understanding of class struggle, retaining the insights of class analysis, but we also want our theory to account for other things that shape people and society equally. People throughout civilization have related to one another so as to carry out certain social functions seeking to get their needs, wants and desires met. To help facilitate this process people have created institutions to carry out and facilitate their religious, spiritual and cultural identifications and beliefs; procreation, child rearing and socialization of future generations; political adjudication, law making and legislation; and as well the production, consumption and allocation of the material means of life.

Society’s core defining institutions span the spheres of Culture and Community, Kinship, the Polity, and the Economy; and provide interrelated roles and relationships which establish patterns of usual behaviors and expected outcomes. Over time, these patterns shape human beings and generate a wide array of societal groupings, producing and re-producing race and culture, gender and sexuality, class and political outcomes both which have desired and un-desired characteristics. The outcomes can be more or less sexist, more or less racist, more or less equitable, and so on.

So let’s introduce the first couple of concepts for a Radical Theory:

Human Center and Institutional Boundary

The Human Center is the collection of people who live within a society with all their needs, desires, personalities, characteristics, skills, capacities and consciousness. It includes all these attributes as they were comprised from history and evolution, as well as how they exist and interact together, accumulated over time, with present individual and collective needs and wants, and combine with peoples hopes and desires for the future.

The Institutional Boundary is society’s particular set of social institutions that are each a conglomeration of interconnected roles, relationships and commonly held expectations and patterns of behavior which produce and reproduce societal outcomes. It is our human consciousness which empowers us with the capacity to transform society’s institutional boundary.

Because we are self-conscious beings, we are able to identify patterns, predict outcomes, and self-consciously alter the course of societal development in such a way that we can re-create ourselves and institutions for more desired outcomes than previously available.

The concepts of human center and institutional boundary are fairly broad, so to help refine the insights these concepts provide and carve out in further detail how people interact with societal institutions, we add a few more concepts.

Four Spheres of Social Life

Radical Theory carves out the Human Center and Institutional Boundary into four separate social spheres: the Economic Sphere, the Kinship Sphere, the Community Sphere and the Political Sphere.

The Economic Sphere is where the production, consumption and allocation of material means of life occur. The key institutions for the economy are workplaces, allocation mechanisms, property relations and remuneration schemes.

The Kinship Sphere is where child rearing, nurturing future generations, socializing and care giving occur. Key institutions are the family, with parental and child rearing roles, where gender and sexuality, and other relations form for boys and girls, men and women, fathers and mothers, adults, children and the elderly.

The Political Sphere is where adjudication, policy regulation and law making occur with courts, a legislature and police.

The Community Sphere is where identity, religion and spirituality occur with race, ethnicity, places of worship, beliefs about life, death and celebration, etc.

And we can go on in more detail, but time permits me to be only brief.

Complimentary Holism

Radical Theory necessitates a complimentary approach when seeking to understand these different spheres.

A monist approach would look at one sphere and attribute primary importance on how that sphere affects the rest of social life. So someone looking at the economy may say we need to focus on class struggle because it is the primary force affecting all other spheres – gender, cultural, political relations, and so on.

A pluralist approach would look at any combination of these spheres and simply add and summarize the results. For instance someone looking at the kinship and economic spheres would see class struggle and patriarchy as the primary forces determining the shape of society.

A third approach, and the one necessitated by a Radical Theory, argues for a complimentary and holistic orientation which does not a priori assume the primary dominance of any of the spheres over any of the others, but instead seeks to understand how the parts of the whole are interdependent and relate to one another. It understands that a variety of interactions among the different spheres can occur and that careful observation and assessment will more than likely yield differing results from society to society.

Using a complimentary approach can help us understand and develop our emancipatory social theory. We use the concepts of human center and institutional boundary, and the four social spheres, to examine how people interact with their institutions and to assess the stability of that society – whether it is evolving as people conform to their institutional roles, behaviors and reproduced outcomes, or whether there may be a revolution in one or more spheres where people are resisting the expected roles, behaviors and outcomes, and seeking new or transformative institutions. If society is to be stable, people’s behavior must conform to the expected roles, relationships and corresponding outcomes of that society’s defining institutions.

Using a brief example to illustrate what it may look like to assess stability, imagine a situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories where we had a magic wand, and we waved our wand and made it so that people working within discriminatory institutions, say the check points, colonial settlements, settler only highways, the apartheid wall, and the whole administrative bureaucracy providing political legitimacy to the Occupation — suddenly we were able to magically erase any discriminatory consciousness that people working within those institutions had. The people there would have to quickly develop a new consciousness and rational for why they are doing what they are doing. This consciousness would determine whether or not things remained as they were or if they would fundamentally change. And there is no telling how things would unfold, or which were the chief operating dynamics, without very careful assessment. It is a complex example that is also wrapped up in geo-strategic interests of both U.S. and Israeli elites, who operate with their own institutional roles, behaviors, expectations, consciousness and expected outcomes. But you can see how an institutional analysis can be used for trying to understand how people are interacting with their societies defining institutions and whether people’s consciousness permits stability or instability within that society.

This leads me to the final two concepts for our theory which I’ve already slipped in and which I want to elaborate on now to close.

Evolution and Revolution

So we’ve looked at the Human Center and Institutional Boundary, the Four Social Spheres, and we overviewed a Complimentary and Holistic orientation when seeking to understand how these different spheres interact, and we’ve very briefly used an institutional analysis to look at how people interact with their society’s institutions.

The next thing, if we’re a self-conscious movement, is to be aware of whether changes we consciously seek, or ones that happen for other reasons, perpetuate already existing institutions with corresponding consciousness, behaviors and outcomes, or if they lead to different institutions, corresponding behaviors, consciousness and outcomes. The former would be an Evolution, and the latter a Revolution.

Trying to assess these dynamics isn’t always easy because the relations between spheres are working all the time whether we are aware or not and often are deeply rooted in the human condition and resulting from fundamental human needs. Making matters more complicated is that dynamics in one sphere can accommodate and reproduce themselves in another sphere. Or the opposite can occur where dynamics from one sphere can conflict with the defining features and outcomes of another. For example, the workplace can be a site where family dynamics unfold, where women take care of and nurture men in the workplace, and vice versa, class dynamics can be found in the home. However if men began to do an equitable share of workplace care giving this would conflict with patriarchal gender dynamics in the home just as women empowered by more equitable work place remuneration norms and decision making opportunities — developing decision making skills and capacities — would also affect the kinship sphere.

These stabilizing and destabilizing societal forces are usually the ones that social movements seek to affect. And we can do so in such ways that reproduce oppressions and inequities among race, gender, class and participation, or we can do so in such ways that seek to remedy the injustices. But ultimately we need to have a vision of an emancipatory society that will inform our theory and our social movements for a conscious orientation toward our goals. I’d like to conclude by repeating that this is necessary so as to provide inspiration and hope. Looking to social movements unfolding in the South is good in so far as we draw lessons for ourselves. I think those lessons are that we need to have a vision for a radical transformation of societies defining institutions so that we can believe, as they do, that we can win. But for us to do that we need widely shared vision and strategy and some idea of how social movements and societal transformation work so we can become an ever more self-conscious and empowered social movement.

Thank you.

bottom of page