Creating Alternative Institutions

This little ditty is written with the hopes of stimulating debate, and more importantly, action. Its language is meant to be mildly provocative in places, but not for its own sake. Criticisms, suggestions, additions, are always welcome…

O.K., call me hasty, but it seems to me that there’s not a whole lot to disagree about concerning the basic parecon model, although details may need elaboration and refinement, and certainly actual institutions and structure will evolve in practice. It seems even clearer that one component of parecon – namely, balanced job complexes – is so straightforward and incontrovertible from the standpoint of elementary fairness and self-determination, that it’s almost absurd to oppose it and still call yourself a socialist.

Well, now what? If you agree with me, then there aren’t many options, in my opinion. You should be thinking of ways to build alternative, participatory, worker- or member-run institutions, and then doing it…right now. Don’t wait for “the Revolution;” if everyone does that, there simply won’t be one. And if there actually was one – a situation in which the institutions of capitalist power were disabled or dismantled by some popular movement – nobody would have an inkling of what to do next, or the skills necessary to do it. If history teaches us anything, this is a situation ripe for subversion by vanguards and demagogues. Not very pretty.

Part of the motivation behind building parecon businesses and organizations today is that we simply want to live in ways consistent with our principles, with dignity, and in solidarity with others, and yes, we want to mitigate the brutality of capitalism, even as we sit in its shadow. But equally important is that we need to learn the skills necessary to govern ourselves, to organize key areas of production, to establish networks of communication and distribution, and to build a culture of resistance and cooperation – all of which will leave us better prepared to fill the political and economic vacuum left by a revolution, and to head off the rise of vanguards, skilled orators, technocrats and goons claiming to rule in “the people’s interest.”

Creating a network of participatory institutions today is not an academic experiment. To the degree that the network is in fact attractive, it serves to inspire others, a difficult thing to do these days. It can also act as a catalyst for the capital-R Revolution (which so many leftists seem to wait for like the coming millenium), even, arguably, in the context of a rich capitalist country like the U.S. or Canada. Such a network doesn’t just plant the seeds of a parecon future in our minds. It may also form the basis for a new society in the midst of the old, helping us now, but preparing us also for the day when we are finally able to cast off the shell of capitalism and live free.

If any of this seems plausible, then you may have a serious dilemma on your hands. Building alternative institutions and an alternative economy is far more difficult, in my opinion, than organizing speakers and conferences, spiking trees, lying in front of bulldozers, going to rallies, signing petitions, throwing bricks through bank windows, or writing radical, “cutting edge” articles for obscure lefty journals – the kinds of things many people believe constitutes the whole of “activism.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these other things are useless. Having done this kind of activism for ten years I think it has its merits. But it’s easy, much of it can be done on your off time, and it’s certainly not the whole picture. It’s far past time for activists to get serious about creating self-sustaining and growing infrastructure, in a way that will leave the next generation of activists better equipped to press their demands, intensify the struggle, and assume an even greater degree of control over their lives and work.

This is the least glamorous, least romantic, least popular road to take, but in many ways, I would argue it is one of the most revolutionary forms of activism available to us in the “advanced capitalist” countries. That left intellectuals often dismiss such actions as “reformist,” and then flock to the ivory tower or cushy NGO positions abroad, where they churn out endless books that have limited public accessibility – not to mention dubious political value – speaks volumes about their commitment to revolution. But for those of us not content to stuff our nests while we wait for “the masses” to “rise up,” or while we wait for the second coming of Christ (or Lenin, or Che, or Emma) that will sweep away injustice (and presumably the very class inequalities we enjoy in the meantime), there’s plenty to do right now. It’s time to take seriously the idea that changes can be made today, in ways that will leave us more empowered tomorrow, and that a series of such changes (even in the midst of the market) can reach a kind of critical mass, help usher in the long-awaited revolution, and at the same time, form the building blocks or embryo of a desirable future. If you want to call such changes “revolutionary,” or “non-reformist reforms,” or examples of “dual power,” or the “transition before the transition,” go right ahead. As always, names are less important than the things they refer to. The point, of course, is to do it.

But do what, exactly? Where does one begin? Out of the countless possibilities, what kind of institution or workplace should one build? It seems to me, whether you care about parecon principles or not, there are a number of criteria for choosing a particular project or business. The most common method is to decide on the basis of one or more of the following:

1) available starting resources (in terms of both human skills and talents, as well as financing);

2) personal interest and/or desirability of work circumstances;

3) potential revenue;

4) political and social importance; and

5) specific local context.

For people serious about parecon, there may be other variant or distinct factors to consider, such as the ability of the project to empower its members, or its potential (beyond mere internal self-sufficiency) for growth and stimulation of new or related institutions down the road, in ways that consolidate or strengthen community control over resources, work, and life. Each of these factors is worthy of a full discussion (if there’s interest, this can be the basis for subsequent posts?), but for the moment, a comment on their general relationship will have to suffice.

There is a great danger in creating a hierarchy of significance when it comes to these criteria. In my opinion, each is critical when determining what kind of project to begin, but never at the expense of the other considerations. The long-term viability of the project depends, in large part, on one’s understanding of these factors, and their inter-relationship. To attempt to do “the most important thing” from a political point of view, without consideration of one’s own skills, interests, and desires, is a recipe for disaster. But at the same time, to elevate one’s own interests and desires above all other considerations, including political relevance, financial sustainability, and collective or community empowerment, is to turn one’s back on activism. There must be a balance of considerations, not the least of which is an understanding of local context and possibilities. The best idea in Winnipeg, may be mediocre in Manhattan, or a death wish in Sao Paulo. Differences in population size, political history, culture, cost of living, existing activist projects, community support, and so on, may all play an important role – and there is no blueprint that will apply in each case.

A word of caution: none of this is going to be easy. In many ways, the easy part is the initial conceptual work, research, fund-raising, and project or business set up, which can be fun and inspirational at the same time. However, nothing will prepare you for the actual work, and the stress and difficulty of trying to organize a workplace in ways that none of us has been socialized. Having spent our entire lives learning to give or take orders, and to submit to a hierarchy (in the family, school, workplace, and state), the difficulty of learning to resolve conflicts openly, as equals, should never be underestimated. Nor should one underestimate the danger of vision being overshadowed by the mundane tasks that serious political work and organizing often requires. It can be hard to stay focused and inspired by something for one year (or five years, or ten), regardless of its important political nature – and this is all the more true if the work itself is physically or emotionally demanding. Having realistic expectations regarding the business that one sets out to create is critical. It’s absolutely unrealistic to think that an egalitarian/participatory/feminist/socialist/anarchist or any other “paradise” can be created in a day (or for that matter, ever), and unrealistic expectations are a fast road to disappointment and burnout. Equally paralyzing, however, is the belief that everything’s hopeless, or that whatever impact we might have is trivial compared to what needs to be done. Striking a balance between hope and reality is not always easy, but it’s necessary if our efforts are to be sustained beyond youthful idealism into the rest of our lives.

Anyway, that’s enough idle rambling for now….


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