The prompt of re-imagining society can be very tempting. You easily fall into the trap of believing you have a brilliant societal solution that once universally applied will solve all the world’s problems. The fact that we’re two different people from two very different cultures, generations and countries, created an additional difficulty: we have very different conceptions of the "good life" and our conceptions of an ideal society were even farther apart. On many fundamental issues we disagreed (on issues as varied as government, capitalism, and community). As this plurality is the real condition of the world, the essay became an opportunity to deal with the main challenge in reimagining the world: the joyous, surprising challenge, of learning to warmly and creatively host the otherness of the other, conceiving together ways to co-exist in harmony. We hold our own view. But we don’t want to impose one view over all the others – the view of one man, one group, one religion, one culture, one country, one ideology… . Truth is not one or many; it is incommensurable. While affirming our position, we humbly accept that no man can represent the totality of human experience. We call this attitude radical pluralism, beyond both universalism and cultural relativism. Convinced of cultural relativity, we engage ourselves in intercultural dialogue, in the search for pluralistic myths. The society of our dreams is a world in which many worlds can be embraced.
In the society of our dreams, we are no longer exposed to global forces dissolving both nature and the social fabric and generating chaos and uncertainty, and we actively resist local pressures imposing parochial, short-sighted localism. We call this localization. Localization means first of all finding a place we can call home, if we lack it, or regenerating it if we belong to one that already belong to us. We find in this place a marvelous substitute for the affiliation to abstract spaces created by the market or the state. Instead, we are reclaiming control of our own lives – reclaiming in the first place our own definition of the good life and then the ways to live it, in our own terms, strengthening all the local traditions, customs and institutions allowing us to take decisions together, celebrate our differences and reorganize our world from the bottom-up.
In the society of our dreams, we escaped from the individual prison in which we were thrown in the past by our education and social programming, pushing us towards pathological individualism. We now believe that we are persons: knots in nets of real relationships. And these nets we are – our existential condition- are in turn intertwined with other nets – in the commons to which we belong and we are regenerating and in the new commons we are creating through friendship. We are also trying to apply the rules of the commons (restricted, ruled use instead of free access) to the areas of the natural world which we all share: the atmosphere, the oceans, the forests, the wild territories still unexposed to human occupation… And we are bringing back to the center of social life politics and ethics, instead of the economy. We call this attitude commonism.
In the society of our dreams, we reclaimed the art of government for every man and woman on Earth. We disengaged ourselves from institutions that centralize economic or political power and distanced us from decisions that affect our everyday lives. More than anything, our re-imagined society is about retaking our institutions. It is based on the basic principle that institutions are tools, which should remain under the control of the user– we will transfer our trust away from abstract, centralized institutions and into our families, neighbors and communities. Instead of looking for "happiness" in what the institutions offer and provide, we look at ourselves and those tangible people around us. Instead of looking to "invest" our money in corporations we know very little about, we invest our efforts first and foremost in our community and in those people that we DO know. Instead of public or private abstract institutions, we will re-establish institutions conceived and operated by ourselves and people we know and trust. In some limited cases, for some services or products in which the appropriate scale of operation bypass local or regional dimensions (like railroads), we will create mechanisms of accountability and control for the commons served by those institutions, which should not operate as systems and treat us as subsystems.
To reclaim power over our institutions and truly have local power, we need to re-take the following:
- Regaining power over our food – this means that instead of depending on an intricate series of corporations, highways, chemical manufactures, oil supply chains, agricultural subsidies and technocratic rules we depend on the here and now. That means that our food is grown locally, by people we know on farms that we visit. Yes, that means that we can’t have bananas every day or strawberries in winter, but it doesn’t mean that everything we eat has to be local. It means we have power over our food: the satisfaction of our basic needs – what we need to survive – comes from a place we can touch with our hands and not something that belongs to an institution out of our control.
- Regaining power over our water – we must reclaim water as one of our most important commons which cannot be abused by anyone because of its collective importance. It should be readily available for anyone for their basic needs – defined for example as a daily amount per person. The use of all surplus water, once those basic needs are satisfied, would be subject to specific norms, considering future needs, priorities and other aspects. In some commons, both the allocation of the water for specific uses and the exchange of water for other things or services may operate with the rules of a local market or in the conditions later described for general exchanges.
- Regaining power over our health – this means taking our health back into our own hands, starting with the definition of what it means to feel well or sick, what a disease or a remedy is, how to autonomously cope with sickness and how to reclaim the art of suffering and dying. No, that doesn’t mean getting rid of hospitals or doctors, but it means freeing ourselves of institutional, technocratic control. Instead of letting the medical establishment control our health and welfare, we simply need to recognize that we may use medical institutions and services as tools that are useful for certain health problems, diseases and illnesses, but should be radically dissociated from our well being.
- Regaining power over our learning means first and foremost recognizing that learning is not something that can be given to us; it is something we must get by ourselves. It means reclaiming common spaces and conditions for learning – including schools and universities. Instead of universal norms and methods, imposed on every one through educational factories producing diplomas and drop-outs, we will re-establish learning spaces, rooted in local cultures and traditions but open to the wisdom and knowledge of others, where people of any age – from children to seniors- may find the joyous atmosphere in which learning becomes the creative activity of free people – beyond curricula and rules prescribed by centralized technocrats.
- Reclaiming power over our living environment. We still have or we can learn the capacity to conceive and create our own environment, in dialogue with nature: our homes, our streets, our parks and gardens, our cultural centers, our public spaces… The change in our relationship with the space we inhabit would lead to ecologically sensible houses and towns, with radically reduced per capita consumption of fossil fuels and increased local production and use of alternative energy, reestablishing our ecological balance with our surroundings.
- Regaining power and autonomy in our interactions and exchanges. Instead of commuting, we can work, study and perform most of our activities at a walking or biking distance from our homes. Our work will be enjoyable, beautiful and dignified, with a greater level of independence in our own personal or cooperative establishments. Without limiting interaction of large distances, our relationships would be rooted in the here and now. You would almost never find the scenario where two friends are eating lunch together but both are busy talking on their cell phones. Equally important, our interpersonal relationships will be based more than anything on cooperation and solidarity, not subordination and competition. There will be a strong emphasis on facilitating local exchange, with common spaces for exchange, farmers markets and other means to facilitate getting our basic needs locally
The Path to Our New Society
Before describing the path we imagine leads to the society we have just described, an important caveat is necessary. What we have described is very real, it is not a promised land or utopia that we can hope to someday reach. It is not an ideal we must impress upon all others or a movement we wish to proselytize. As a basic principle, we want to avoid the fateful trap of separating means from ends.
An overarching strategy (strategy is a military term) is not only unnecessary, but undesirable – a military or political regime which imposes a grand, top down plan for social engineering is the antithesis to what we want. Because of the very ideals our re-imagined society is based on, our movement must be from the bottom up, fully acknowledging that others may not share our position and initiatives.
Our plan doesn’t offer a grand blueprint; it only offers humble seeds of hope. Our path finds its basis in powerful social movements and any social movement requires a strong element of hope – not the conviction that something will happen, but the conviction that something makes sense and is possible. Re-imagining society serves this basic purpose by nurturing hope about an alternative to the current conditions of the world.
In a very real sense, our re-imagined society is but an expression of ideas and practices we have observed and experienced in our own places or through the eyes of our friends. None of our suggestions is really new–most of them are already being practiced by someone, and often by many groups and peoples. What we are doing in this essay is what we think is necessary: articulating the many different initiatives. What today is a myriad of disperse, mutually ignored, disconnected, incoherent initiatives can be horizontally articulated through pertinent means of information, exchange, dialogue, encounter and construction of political bodies. Those initiatives are often threatened because they challenge existing regimes and confront forces undermining them. Re-imagining society can be seen as a tool to articulate them, facilitate the interaction between those courageously conceiving and implementing them and thus create the political force (not the political party or the enlightened vanguard) that can offer mutual solidarity and impose in the powers that be respect and support for those initiatives and policies expressing the collective will about them. In writing about a re-imagined society we are simply assuming the conviction that there are alternatives to the current condition and they are already emerging.
Since our main commitment is with pluralism and we are assuming that the implementation of our dreams will follow plural paths, we briefly describe here two of them: the cases of the US and Mexico – the societies we know better. We think that these two cases clearly illustrate the extremes of the current conditions and the paths of transformation. Other people in other countries may attempt other paths. Each of them, in our view, should be conceived in such a way as to avoid becoming a threat for others and our challenge is to find ways to articulate them, concerting and strengthening our efforts.
The case of the United States
On first glance, the situation in the US looks bleak. We live increasingly disconnected lives, constantly moving and constantly plugged in. The percentage of the population taking antidepressants just doubled to 10%, we’re working longer hours for less pay, and our economy just went through one of the biggest financial crises in history. However the US is currently filled with possibility – people are increasingly fed up with the status quo and are hungering for something more. More importantly, the movement towards reclaiming local power has been growing steadily with many shining examples:
- One of the best examples for an increasing push to stay local is the flowering CSA movement. Since 1984 when the concept first took hold, over 1000 CSA’s have sprung up across the US. Furthermore organic farming has increased from between 10 and 23% a year, which avoids the use of large quantities of imported fossil fuel on fertilizer.
- Increasing use of local currencies – the increasing popularity and use of local currencies is highly reflective of the increasing desire and attitude of communities across the country striving to deepen local ties.
- The constant creation of new community spaces where people have come together and reclaimed their streets and turned them into spaces for conviviality.
- People are reclaiming their work space, freeing themselves from life in a cubicle and top down methods of work.
- These are just four of many examples, in the US the path is becoming increasingly clear. It does not require violent means of resistance or radical institutional revolution. It begins with simple steps to reclaim local power. The plan of action is straightforward; it is epitomized by the Paul Goodman quote:
- "Suppose you had had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now! Whatever you would do then, do it now. When you run up against obstacles, people, or things that won’t let you live that way, then begin to think about how to get over or around or under that obstacle, or how to push it out of the way, and your politics will be concrete and practical."
- More than anything, for the US the movement is simply about staking a claim and beginning to live a life more rooted in the local community. However, it would be foolish to assume that the change has already arrived. Despite the many peoples and groups who are working hard to change their own places, they are disjointed and are the exception more than the norm. They are small initiatives addressing certain aspects of our modern life. To bring about the society we have just described would require first and foremost a rejection of the status quo. It would then require a concerted push to turn the many initiatives into the norm instead of isolated bubbles. This is where the challenge comes in: to really be able to live the life we desire a certain critical mass is necessary. While it is possible to follow the principles we have collected and live by them, it requires a great deal of personal willpower, difficulty and a certain level of sacrifice. The fact remains that our society is not geared towards the local and so there are many barriers one has to overcome.
- The path to the critical mass is much more challenging than simply adopting our proposals. While there are many things that we can and must do now, such as encouraging and participating in local movements, spending more time with friends and family or in many cases the simple act of getting to know your neighbor, changing society to facilitate and encourage these things is much harder.
- To achieve that end our proposal is one among many and it is this:
- 1. Connect these local movements. There are many lessons that the many diverse movements can learn from each other and in many cases they are disjointed and each going through the same struggles and each learning the same lessons. They need to come closer together and begin intermixing to form a web that is much stronger than isolated action. CSA’s, Local Currencies and reclaimed local spaces are all movements that would become stronger if they were all in place at the same time yet in many cases they are not.
- 2. Continue or begin the fight to stake a local claim, this means doubling down our efforts to keep our common spaces and strengthen our communities.
- 3. Stop the wholescale pillage of communities across the country – this range from stopping the contamination of our air, water and land with toxic chemicals, to protecting our natural environment from irreversible encroachment, to keeping locally destructive Wal-marts and McDonalds out of our communities.
- 4. Widening our movement not through promotion, but commotion and contagion – We must reach out to our friends, neighbors, relatives and those around us and share with them our own success in these projects. This isn’t about going out and converting non-believers, instead it’s about conversation and sharing so that they may see our own joy. Through our interactions we can begin a journey together, not as one guiding another but as a joint search for what works in our particular situation.
- The case of Mexico:
- •Most Mexicans have currently lost what remained of their trust in political parties and the government. In fact, they lack the most important democratic institution: the belief by the majority of citizens that they really elect their officers and representatives and that those elected are really at their service. In the last years any trust left in the electoral procedures and the operation of the institutions has been demolished.
- The country is falling apart. Three out of five Mexicans are now below the poverty line and a fifth has been forced to emigrate. Violence and social breakdown increases every day.
- The main reaction of the authorities before the profound crisis and the increasing discontent of the people has been increasing control of them, criminalization of social movements and militarization, with the pretext of the struggle against drug trafficking – which is in continual expansion.
- The laws are almost meaningless . More than 500 amendments to the Constitution, many of them arbitrary and absurd, have destroyed its coherence. The corruption and weakness of the judiciary system and the behavior of the constituted powers insure impunity for all kinds of violations of human rights. The intelligence community in Washington observed recently that Mexico is approaching a failed state.
- At the same time, next to this dark picture, an enormous number of initiatives at the grassroots, strengthening autonomy, regenerating existing commons or creating new commons and forming extended social movements are flourishing. There is an increasing consensus about the need of a new Constitution, in order to establish a new economic and political regime – but there is no consensus as yet about the content of the new Constitution and the procedures to formulate it. The Zapatista initiative for a peaceful and democratic uprising is gaining grassroots echo, in spite of the active opposition of the institutional left, still attached to the current regime and the electoral path. There is a popular fantasy about using the symbolic power of 2010: 1810 was the beginning of the revolution of independence; 1910 was the beginning of the first social revolution of the XX century. 2010 can be the beginning of a new emancipator revolution. Given all this, it is suggested:
- Consolidate, widen and deepen local initiatives in the whole spectrum of actions mentioned in the first section of this essay and the local, national and international network attempting to articulate them..
- Intensify the harmonization and articulation of all the organizations and networks committed with a peaceful – based in active non violence- and democratic – basically anti-authoritarian and fully participatory- uprising, for the substitution of the current regime through a constituent assembly formulating the new Constitution.
- Among the traits of the horizontal structure to use in the process and as its outcome are the following:
- At the local level, in rural communities and small towns, in barrios of the big cities, we can re-establish and operate mechanisms to define and implement common norms of behavior, freedom and mutual respect and to organize our collective initiatives.
- At the regional, national or international level we can establish and operate political bodies, in the tradition of the parliament, in which designated communal/regional/national agents (envoys, commissioners) may negotiate norms and accords with others, according with specific, restricted mandates. Those agents, ordinary men and women belonging to a common, assuming temporarily that function, will not have power of representation and any agreements should be validated at the grassroots – in the commons. Those bodies will operate as assemblies – under the principle: "We are nets/networks when we are separated; we are assemblies when we are together". Those bodies will conceive and supervise:
- Coordinating and service centers, to be operated by civil servants, for some basic services like long distance transportation, garbage disposal, etc.
- Our challenge is to make these two different paths, and many others, both compatible and articulated.
- Who is speaking
- The WE we are using in this essay is basically the we of Raimundo (19 years old, American – with roots and family in India and Mexico) and Gustavo (73 years old, Mexican – with roots and family in Zapotec villages). But we are also using a cultural we, like the we of men and women, to allude to the millions, hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of people around the world, currently mobilized to go beyond the current paradigms and dominant political and economic systems. They don’t share a common ideology and they formulate their hopes in very different ways. But they are transforming the fear and uncertainty daily distilled by the dominant institutions and the many crises plaguing the world into the courage to reclaim control of their own lives. We (Raimundo, Gustavo) have been inspired by them, by their hopes and initiatives, and we smell in them some specific trends defining the direction of the current transformation. In this sense, in imagining the new world, our imagination is nothing more than a living mirror of the hunches, premonitions, hopes and even trends we see around us.