[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
The relationship between humans and their environments is at the root of innovating social relations at this historical juncture. Healthy social (object-) relations (Melaine Klein, 1964) and Self-actualization (C.G. Jung, 1957) are the core of human experience in spite of the now common state of latent fear and dejection spun forth by the currently prevailing economic and political system, which can be likened to a giant and insatiable processor of human and natural resources. At least since 1492, this processor has never stopped working nor growing and has reached such leviathan proportions today to threaten the very survival of all living species if not of the planet itself.
How did we get to this point? The wrong existential choice may have been made around one overriding question: what are we on earth for? At some point along the historical line a fateful decision was made to live in the pursuit of wealth and power over others. Now burdened with the ultimate consequences of that decision for our entire civilization, with impending environmental and economic disasters but also with the dissolution and fragmentation of our community and personal lives, we face a new choice.
The new existential answer may stem from a variety of accumulated knowledge and experiential sources: from clinical social work and psychological practice, from education research, spiritual enlightment, shared social reflection among friends and colleagues, as well as from informal networks that have formed in response to the intractable inhumanity of our system, from successful alternative economic practices. There is growing awareness that the new answer may be that we are not above or separate from the earth but an integral part of it conceived as one living whole.
In other words, living is about being, manifesting, and relating, as opposed to having, hoarding and possessing. Work (economic production) directly invests and conditions the most basic inter-relations among human beings and with the earth. Therefore, it also has to be the focus of a journey of discovery for a new way of life, at once individual and collective, rather than the means of domination and estrangement from the actualization of the Self within.
Trailblazing a new path that asserts the primacy of individual development in social relations and the intimate awareness of who we are and what our lives are for, our quest for a better way of life will imply evolving alternative technical knowledge and abilities. Such evolution can only be borne out of an unambiguous context of freedom. Autonomous, federated, worker-initiated and worker-run economic practices are within reach to generate a new, lighter-footed way of being and relating to the earth and to each other, one unburdened by economic necessity and without subordination to powerful leaders or mega institutions.
Origins of European greed for wealth and thirst for power
It is postulated that for working people slavery, subjugation, subordination and exploitation started some 8,000 years ago with the appearance of the first urban settlements such as Jericho in the valley of the Jordan River and Catal Huyuk in present-day Turkey, when the world population was still at only 4 million. Anthropologists still puzzle as to why starting at about this time increasing numbers of humans shifted to dependence on a limited number of cultivated crops and domesticated animals for their subsistence, because this generated more labor and burdensome social hierarchies than hunting and gathering.
By 3500 BC, the world population had grown to 14 million and human agricultural activities in the Fertile Crescent could already support great numbers of ‘non-working specialists’ like priests, property owners, warriors, philosophers and politicians to give rise to the first civilizations. By contrast, human beings got along well without extensive agriculture, sedentary life, social hierarchies, civilization, conquering armies and major wars for 240,000 years before they first decided to settle down.
Things would take sharp turns for the worse for the health of humanity and the natural environment, when in 313 AD Roman emperor Constantine integrated the powers of church and state under his rule and again in the 1700’s, when the massive process of world industrialization began in the UK and in the USA. World population has grown exponentially since then to reach 6.8 billion today.
Human evolution or involution?
Have we been evolving since abandoning our original matrices in prisitne natural environments? Or have we been turning into need driven shadows of our ancestors, pre-programmed machines dependent on someone else for survival and functioning? Are the people of the world better off today than they were prior to their first contact with European civilization? And are people of European ancestry better off than they were prior to industrialization or even prior to settling in their first agricultural towns?
Our modern concept of civilization is inseparable from the callous violence that forced the indigenous people and the peasantries of the world to adopt the ways of the conquerors. They were deprived of life and limb, wealth, natural resources, natural environments, cultural identity, social relations, language, religion, values, institutions, mores, memories, independent means of survival through extermination, subjugation and slavery. Entire traditional and millenarian sets of skills and cultural traits were torn asunder and replaced with the unskilled, uniformed, destructive and self-destructive cultural monotony of modern urban dwelling.
In lieu of the majestic symphony of variety and biodiversity in fractal realtionship with pristine natural environments, our modern landscape (the urban environment) presents itself as a numbing cacophony of orthogonal and sterile relationships. Moreover, one will find cities in every respect analogous to what amounts to a standard urban relief model almost no matter where one travels in the world; people in modern cities are increasingly found to live alike, speak alike and dress alike. The spread of this societal model, whether it is called ‘Global Capitalism’, ‘Democratic Capitalism’ or the ‘American Empire’, a reconstituted Babylon of stock markets, financial and real estate speculation, private property, cultural uniformity and government bureaucracies – is in crisis!
Alienation from Self, others and environmental contexts is at the crux of this crisis, because in spite of the fact that the income and consent of each individual modern citizen serve to maintain the dominant economy and polity, most have little or no say over the day-to-day running and activities of any of the corresponding institutions. Instead, such institutions appear as constantly incumbent, like the dark gathering clouds of a storm on a more or less unpredictable basis.
The ultimate nature of our crisis of civilization: legalized grand theft.
As a result, about 50 million people are living below the poverty line in the US, whose population is now at about 307 million. The richest 15% amount to 46 million people, composing a critical mass. Thus the American oligarchy manages to control everything and everybody in the US and to effectively interfere in the affairs of any country in the world it sets its sights on. Somewhere up the income ladder there is a magic rung past which folks (regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity) stop being concerned about the pitfalls of classism and imperialism and become invested in the rewards of the system as is. They become the bosses for all intents and purposes.
In addition if one takes the trouble to cost out the total loss in income, wealth and time sustained by the American dependent worker and his/her family since 1973 the resulting figure is astronomical but in the general vicinity of the gains in net worth, levels of income and consumption shown by large property owners, credit and investment bankers, politicians, elected officials, professionals, preachers and managers, and plain waste over the same period of time.
The number of U.S. households with a net worth of $1 million or more, not including primary residence, was at a record 9.2 million in 2007. Their aggregate net worth was of $ 23.25 trillion. In 1972 there were only 180,000 individuals with incomes above one million dollars per year. ‘Affluent’ households defined as those with $500,000 or more in net worth, were 15.7 million in 2007 while about 72 million people enjoyed household incomes of $100,000 and above. Keep in mind that "net worth" refers to net savings or assets minus debts. While it includes actual income, it does not specify it in relation to levels of consumption or cheap cash available on credit.
By contrast the total US federal expenditure for 2009 is budgeted at about $2.5 trillion if one excludes, as one should, $736 billion for old age pensions and $784 billion for health care (they are universal entitlement funds collected and administered separately). Defense related expenditure alone hovers at around $900 billion or about 50% of the discretionary budget. The mushrooming national debt has gotten past $13 trillion.
This is the unsettling story of the economic crisis for working people (there are 155 million people in the American labor force in 2009, there were 85 million in 1973) who survive in the proximities of median income today, they are not "poor" but the security that once came from savings or housing property is either threatened or lost and they must rely on a paycheck and credit card debt to get by. What does a political-economic system have to show before it looses the trust and the support of its participants?
While the US work force almost doubled in size during this period and their average real income was halved, the number of American millionaires increased in almost geometric proportion.
We can infer from this that the corporation, the nation state, the political party, the church, with their constant striving for power and relative advantage, their propensity for wasteful competition and war, their administrative and forced taxation structures and political turfs, their national borders all stand to constrain, condition and exploit the lives of the many.
Therefore, what should be abundantly clear is that in opting in a different direction one simply cannot accept any longer to delegate decision-making power to corporate executives, priests, politicians, or government bureaucrats. They have abundantly shown how they operate and what they are really about consistently throughout history.
There are several questions that emerge here to further guide our perspective:
• How has it been possible for such a massive drain of wealth to be siphoned off from the pockets of the poor and working people, into the coffers of the very rich? With their active, passive or tacit consent?
• Why didn’t the almost universal levels of high school education and 26% of college education or higher help the average worker realize that s/he was being swindled and bamboozled?
• Where were the democratic politicians, the constitutional governments freely-elected democratically by the majority of the people, the career government officials and employees, the trade unions, the social advocates, the non-parliamentary left, civil society while all of this was going on (in the past 36 years)?
• What did they do, if anything, to offset the impact of it all? What are they fixing to do now? Do they have a clue, a plan, a method, an idea? Apparently the answer is “No”. Why did the poor and the workers themselves choose to allow this to go on for so long?
• Is the current crisis a “normal” alternation of economic booms and busts or is it the direct result of a deliberate, progressive economic process of disempowerment, disenfranchisement, subordination and impoverishment of the labor force and the poor and their consequent lack of response, will power, effective opposition, control and enterprising spirit?
L’imagination au pouvoir!
The trouble is that in imagining a different society, the act of imagining may be heavily encumbered by the one we live in. What will keep us from reproducing it tout court simply because that is what we are used to and have been comfortable with for at least 500 generations?
This is why the words we utter and the meaning they carry are important and need to be weighted because while they have the power to transform ourselves and our realities they can be terribly misleading in addition to having to be interpreted.
Imagining a new society implies that the society we now have is the product of actual human acts of imagining at some point in history and that now we can redo it by using the same process. ‘Imagining’ evokes two terms ‘image’ and ‘imagination’, the conjuring up and representation of social reality through images.
The immediate association is with current, systemic uses of ideological, propaganda and advertising images, through photographs, cinema and television and their psychological appeal to the ‘unconscious’ in order to lead the ‘conscious’ to consume, to vote, to legitimate the current state of affairs, to adhere to a series of moral tenets or live according to pre-established models.
Another association is with what was at stake during the bloody iconoclastic wars fought between 726 and 842 AD in Byzantium, over the creation and worship of images (icons) and to the reasons why both Islam and Judaism still forbid representations of what they consider divine and holy. Is it proper, useful and productive to evoke images of what human reality is to come next?
Is ‘imagining’ the human act we want to deploy to accomplish the social changes needed to survive and move beyond the current historical conjuncture? Are there others? What about ‘dreaming’, ‘conceiving’, ‘revealing’, ‘realizing’, ’generating’, ‘envisioning’, ‘inventing’, ‘choosing’, ‘creating’, ‘practicing’, ‘living’?
Is it possible to generate a new social realm by relating and applying our minds and hands to living ‘matter’ directly, without imaging or modeling? Or much like a machine, should a human being be imagined or determined by another human? Should s/he also be made to behave and relate to other humans according to a pre-established set of forms, procedures, rules and regulations? Isn’t that what a ‘society’ is for?
For as long as capitalism has been around those who went before us not only imagined but created and practiced alternatives to the system. The history of the Left is rich with moments ordinary people broke ranks with prevailing models and forged new sets of social relations, new ways of life. From the Paris Commune to the common origins of cooperativism and syndicalism, to mutual societies, to the sixties and current alternative social and economic forms found in the social and solidarity economy, in anarchist, utopian and communal living our history is rich of references to worthwhile examples.
The role of alternative economic initiatives
Within the context of creating positive alternatives, one could create one’s own economic initiative in accordance with the best participatory and egalitarian tenets and work creatively and productively in such fashion. In this regard there are several existing local, regional and global networks already in operation.
In fact, what’s generally referred to as the Social and Solidarity economic sector, which includes cooperatives, already constitutes upwards of 25-30% of the GDP in Europe, Canada and Latin America. Its extension is much less in the US, but it is predicted that because of the economic crisis more and more people will resort to generating economic alternatives for themselves.
Some examples of this would be taking over or buying out one’s workplace and running it as a collective or cooperative at non-profit or for-profit sharing. One could then strive to organize a Federation of such outfits. Several such efforts are ongoing in the US, such as the Grassroots Economic Organizing and the U.S. Federation of Workers’ Cooperatives.
Ordinary people, taken as sovereign actors can organize their social and economic institutions on scales that they can administer and control directly. This has to do with vying for optimal size, for the achievement of economies of scale and for optimal quantitative and qualitative results. An economic organization can’t be too small like family-owned restaurants, corner stores and micro-businesses nor can it be too big, like the GM corporation found out prior to bankruptcy, in order to survive and prosper.
Indeed the very notions of economic cooperation and self-management (as opposed to competition and hierarchical management) can only work well on a relatively large scale, for example, within the framework of a federation of like minded small initiatives on a limited territorial/regional basis, otherwise it would soon find itself competing for market share locally, tightening up belts and reins and stratifying within.
Economies of scale are key to the size and scope of an economic activity, to the level of organizational complexity, to the number of hours needed to get the work done, the financial and human resources to be deployed, and to several essential and independent social and economic safety nets: for unemployment, health and pension plans, training and education capacities, coverage for levels of wages and benefits, bargaining power, etc. The Mondragon cooperative offers a successful example to refer to.
Whether we like it or not the economy of today is global (it has been waning global for the past 500 years at least). It took a long time for it to get where it is and at an enormous cost to humanity and the ecosystem. This doesn’t mean that all local spaces are automatically closed, on the contrary, real strength, energy and vibrancy, life itself, is always rooted locally, at the ground level, on real territory, in a chunk of soil. But it does mean that we can’t just ignore both the opportunities and pitfalls the fact of globalization presents.
We need to be able to deal with both and to take advantage of both. The Socialist/Anarchist dream has always been, from day one, an internationalist dream, a world without frontiers with universal, portable rights. We may be closer to achieving that dream than we think.
How this transformation can be realized in practice needs to be wholly fleshed out, checked, rechecked and constantly refined for correctness and efficacy at the level of individual acts and it needs to amount to a consistent practice, to a complex but simple and unassuming discipline, to a way of life developed and applied humbly and diligently day by day, for years. It takes time and constant effort to get to enable and empower oneself.
Gladwell (2008) estimates that it takes 10,000 hours of practice over a period of 10-15 years to achieve mastery in music. Similar lengths of time are reported to achieve mastery in Sports, Arts, Crafts, Yoga, Zen meditation and the martial arts. Once mastery is achieved one must continue to practice with equal or increased intensity just to keep it. Economic creation and social organizing is not different and may start once the ‘Subjects’ (the agents, those who act) are ready to develop effective social and economic initiatives.
Whatever capital (public or private) has existed and exists on earth today is in reality only possible if there are workers that make it possible. Workers and their labor generate profits and pay for taxes and interest on debt. The regimes of oppression and exploitation can only endure through their participation and consent.
Therefore workers could refuse to pay and could withdraw their consent. Instead of organizing political parties workers can organize networks and federations of independent, empowered and sovereign producers and establish entire economies under their direct control and thus outside the purview and control of capitalists and politicians. They simply need to accept the challenge, the responsibility and the risks to do so. The recuperated factories movement in Argentina shows that this is possible even starting in conditions of abject poverty, with no liquid capital or machinery whatsoever.
If for example, workers refused to pay the portion of federal taxes currently going to the purchase of arms and the waging of wars, or the interest on credit cards, place it in territorial funds controlled and accountable to its participants and contributors and then use them to create alternative economic initiatives and thus productive work, what’s the Obama’s or even the Cheney’s likely response going to be facing the court of US and world public opinion?
The power, the individual will, energy and initiative that naturally resides within each of us is also there. All is needed is the courage of one’s own convictions and the realization that it is better to live one day as a wolf than a hundred days as a dog. "The granaries are full and still the people ask for work. They should be asking for the grain that they have been producing all along and that filled those granaries to begin with."
Relying of state subsidies, private charities, capital investment or managerial hierarchies to create alternative economies therefore only ends up perpetuating the system as is. Capital and/or state will eventually commandeer, co-opt, undermine or discard at will anything that is dependent on their contribution and stewardship. For this reason much like the 50% of the American electorate that chooses not vote at political elections workers should not vote much less run for political office.
So I would hold, paradoxically, a position diametrically opposed to Marx’s. Whereas by "Revolution" he postulates a large scale, macro or global takeover of the means of production (this could only happen politically, as a coup or violent civil war but leave all basic sets of social relations unchanged; one bureaucracy of leaders/managers would substitute another; every dependent worker would go back to his/her work station; unsustainable technological development would remain frozen in time) at an uncertain future date, I say that real social change takes place simply, non-violently and without fanfare on the basis of individual choice and initiative and on much smaller scales — now.
In fact, change can only happen and acquire momentum each time an individual worker manages, even if partially, to freely withdraw his/her political consent and economic support from the tyrants, while acting in the affirmative and non-violently to redirect both to some new and alternative economic initiative under his/her direct ownership, planning and control. This initiative would be of a scale that is not larger than what s/he can oversee and control at work, through light civic direct participation, or with a simple administrative structure.
An alternative economic role for labor unions?
Labor’s role in response to the global crisis would also require a new kind of approach, one that empowers workers to directly take on the basic questions of how to address the challenge of environmental degradation and collapse, how to overcome the unequal distribution of wealth and the constant threat of economic collapse, unemployment and poverty, and how to build worker solidarity and economic exchanges on a global scale. In fact, the issues facing organized labor today transcend craft, industry, economic sector or national economies and have to do with working people, taken as a global class, reshaping the structure and the organization of the economy and its social milieus.
Can organized labor stand up to the challenge? Ninety eight years went by since the publication of “Principles of Scientific Management” by Frederick Winslow Taylor; one hundred twenty three years from the events of May 1st 1886 (which marked the workers’ victory on the eight hours day but also the usurpation of the technical and educational authority of the master artisans, of their control over production inside the factories by Taylor’s managers; one hundred sixty one years since the publication of “The Communist Manifesto.”
Organized Labor understood as an economic association of workers on a global scale, which is not state, political party, church, capital or organized crime, is something that is by definition dependent on the existence of the dominant system, as mediator and representative of a social class that is in turn dependent on and subordinated to the capitalists. Could it have a second nature, a historical mission that transcends historical condition?
If the answer is yes what would be its post-capitalist role? Labor unions have exercised certain traditional capacities and prerogatives:
- Class mobilization (power to strike and civil disobedience);
- The ability to establish and manage links of social solidarity among workers in different economic sectors, among trade unions, with civil society nationally and internationally;
- Of protection and implementation of worker’s legal and contractual rights;
- Of collective bargaining;
- Of influence, participation, intervention through bargaining power and policy making in the management and control of a single firm, of an entire economy or of public institutions such as education, health care and social assistance;
- Of economic and political research, information and education of its leaders and its base;
- Of access to the practical knowledge of productive systems, of new technologies and work organization as well as of financial policies and strategies of investment and job creation;
- Of securing operational funds through taxation of its members.
These capacities would render the labor movement able and responsible to carry out a role representative of workers’ interests, which need not be by and large subordinated to the system’s powers that be. Labor may in fact be a vehicle, which by claiming for itself a high degree of relative autonomy and independence from the dominant system, could serve as a ready-made link between a past of dependence and a future of sovereignty for workers.
If the labor unions could fully assert their character as an association on the basis of class, controlled and managed by its members they could begin to act in concert, as a new political and economic subject, as a social force, that is, alternative to capital and the state, immediately.
The labor unions could also experiment, foster or support the development of new forms of economic initiatives, managed and controlled directly by the workers inside and outside public entities or private firms with the goal of pushing for increased technical competence, increased independence in decision- making relative to production processes.
Furthermore, on the basis of its traditional characteristics, Unions could incubate, sponsor, organize, coordinate, assist, protect and spread new economic and political ideas, policies and initiatives that are more enlightened and responsible towards the social and the natural environment:
- For peaceful and slow paced economic development and growth;
- For unfettered individual freedom of association and economic initiative;
- For the creation of new forms of economic activity in the production of goods or the delivery of services;
- For securing the resources and the establishment of development funds on territorial and human scale;
- For the provision of technical, managerial, administrative, organizational assistance to workers;
- To foster systems of direct distribution from producers to consumers;
- For decision-making processes that are more timely, effective, egalitarian, horizontal, non-authoritarian and non-discriminatory;
- For organizational forms that are cooperative, participatory and open to the developmental needs, desires, inclinations and sensitivities of the individual worker and his/her person;
- For the constant acquisition of technical and professional abilities and capacities through lifelong practice, training and education;
- For the production of quality products or delivery of services.
Organized labor could foster the organization and federation of independent unions. These could forfeit recognition by the government or employers by setting precedents of concerted activity regardless of standing legal constraints through active free association, mass mobilization, and civil disobedience.
In order to secure bargaining power and mutual assistance capacities they would need to be mindful of scale while striving to eliminate competition by lower paid and lower skilled workers by:
1. Organizing along territorial and class lines;
2. Revamping the organization of work to limit the use of capital intensive high technology;
3. Striving to reduce management to “the size of a mouse and then drown it in the bathtub”;
4. Producing in a social and environmentally sustainable fashion.
“A laughter will bury you all”
This phrase coined by the Italian “1977 Movement” in its conflict with the grey, humorless and corrupt social and political system was used particularly by the “Metropolitan Indians”, the “Transversalist” and other “Creative” marginalized young people in the decade (1968-1978) of social revolt in Italy. They invented a new political counter-culture, a “satirical critique” and an “ironic praxis” of fundamental change in Italian society, which greatly influenced the political styles of contemporary alter-globalist and anti-capitalist movements.
We can also recall that John Lennon in conceiving his famous “All we are saying is give peace a chance” in 1972, tied his notion of non-violent transformation of social relations towards Peace to the tactical and strategic importance of humor in the face of overwhelming force which is the monopoly of the state.
Indeed a major prerequisite for peace to take hold is the individual resolve on the part of ordinary people to laugh at the tragicomic charades of power hungry politicians, managers, generals, spooks, priests and ‘bosses’ of every description as they ever so seriously, somberly, intently, cynically, anxiously and painstakingly focus on implementing procedures to con, connive, cheat, deceive, manipulate, mystify, confuse, cajole, force others to do their bidding while striving to acquire ever increasing wealth and war chests for absolute control over their minds and hearts.
Humor, art, music, dance, theater, poetry, singing, yoga, martial arts, close contact with nature and other cultural activities and expressions have been very much important parts of our search for alternatives and do help people reestablish the natural contact with one’s body, one’s natural environment, one’s senses, one’s ability to move, dance, sing.
To use one’s creativity is probably among the easiest, most readily available, effective ways to establish social capital, to re-awaken one’s sense of initiative, to kick depression, to get out of the house more, to interact with other people, listen to their concerns, become sentient on social, political and economic issues. A social or emotional truth expressed poignantly and elegantly in verse or song leaves a mark, becomes a guiding post for action that endures through the ages…
The non-violent acts of non-resistance: Just say No to constituted authority!
Keeping our sense of humor, our “centerdness”, laughing in the face of the ominous toil of bosses is a sine-qua-non requirement. Equally essential is deliberate, organized, vigorous action aimed at punctually and effectively opposing, demystifying and pre-emptying their designs. Such action needs to be grounded on economic independence, alternative ways of life, value systems and social groupings. We need to become “the change we want to see” in the world before it can actually take root and branch.
Essentially, this implies that the means and ends, tactics and strategy, need to be morally (right or wrong) and ethically (life or death) consistent. One can’t compromise on the validity, the efficacy, the impact and the morality of the means (the tools of organizing and struggling) and still achieve end results that are not offensive to the health of one’s human psyche or that are in keeping with basic principles of respect for the dignity and sovereignty of the individual human life. Usually what one ends up organizing and fighting for closely corresponds to the parameters, coordinates, paradigms and complex of elements brought to bear at the beginning, that are wholly contained, that is, in the moment one first engages an opposing force. We must consider this in relation to the deployment of violent tactics and what passes for democratic decision-making based on tyrannical majority votes.
Alternative decision making processes therefore must avoid majority votes on the one hand and plebiscites on the other. Majorities devoid of technical mastery and strongly held, generalized moral tenets and values have been responsible throughout history for the worst crimes against humanity.
Plebiscites, even the global ones prefigured by the internet, could quickly become a primeer way to whip up mass hysteria and impose whimsical fads and trends reaching into eveery aspect of private and intimate life as a matter of law and regualtion. Economic and political decision making is thus best left to individual free choice and commitment to responsibly and competently grant or withdraw cooperation at will.
Non-violent acts of non-resistance must have as their prerequisite the emergence of new, alternative and uncompromising ways of being, which can be developed and articulated off an equally new moral backbone. Every act we carry out and every word we utter in this new fashion must emanate from individual mindful reflection, appreciation and mastery of what is right or wrong for the instant matter and as the new principles are conpetently applied to the contexts of our intervention through free choices.
This is so because what ultimately accounts for the difference we make to the health and survival of the planet and of ourselves is the continuum of individual choices we carry out through time (no matter how trivial they may appear to us at the moment). This continuum properly constitutes the double helix of each single human life evolving between the Alfa and the Omega of one’s individual story.