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We Are the Problem We Are Seeking to Solve


Social change movements want to fix a world dominated by exploitative relationships. Most social change theory aims at fixing particular systems, practices, toolkits, etc. Theory that works from the ground up will involve cultural transformation.

Developing useful theories for social change is very challenging. Two recent articles in Truthout show us that one major difficulty is to get theory to work from the bottom up. Once it wanders away from the reservation of experience, it’s on a wrong path. Let me use an analogy to explain my thinking here. It’s not meant to convince you, but to clarify what I want to say in this article.

Think of society as a garden, full of a rich diversity of productive plants in beneficial relationships with each other. Think of culture as the soil they are embedded in, from which they draw essential nutrients, and to which they contribute their own stuff for its enrichment. Social change movements, at their best, want to fix a world dominated by exploitive relationships. Most social change theory, in my opinion, is aimed at fixing particular systems, practices, toolkits, etc. Theory that works from the ground up focuses on the soil itself, since this is what creates and sustains the dominant relationships. After all, culture shapes the very ways we see, hear, feel, taste, smell, breathe and think in the most mundane and transcendent ways we live our lives. That is, how we experience. In social life, everything flows from that.

In this analogy, which is beginning to creak, we the people are the soil as well as the fruit of the plants and systems used in the garden. We both embody our culture and reproduce it season after season. It’s inside us and out there, always. And in our experience, we are inseparably sexual, spiritual and social beings as well as political and economic beings.

Theory in Practice

Gar Alperovitz of the Democracy Collaborative touches on this directly in his fascinating conversation with Michael Albert of ZNet, where they wrestle with issues of how to make theory and “the vision thing” useful to what is actually happening in the world. His main point in this regard is that “by no means is theory a reliable guide to the way this comes out in the real world.” He makes it here: 

What we’re talking about is where we are in this stage of history with specific communities, all with different skills, levels of support, income and training and all ultimately exposed to the markets, whether they like it or not.

And in a second statement:

. . . all of this takes a lot of energy and a lot of time, and some people just don’t want to do it. In some places, people will. And I think the question of experience, given the stage of history of the real world, where we are really at, will help us understand how and to what extent we can push these developments in different areas.

In another article, Michael Yates recounts 40 to 50 years of successes and failures in various venues with how to teach and communicate radical economic theory so it would wake people up and turn them on. He wanted his students to see “the inner workings of our society, showing both how it functioned and why it had to be transcended if human beings were to gain control over their lives and labor.” Essentially what worked was when his students were workers, not middle-class kids from the suburbs. Workers could relate the theory to their own experience. They could also do more, taking the theory back to their workplaces and mess with it in their struggles there. By using it that way, they could even get into revising the theoretical stuff they were working with.  

Michael Albert shares a heartbreaking and pointed story that gets right down to the experiential ground of social change. He got into a long conversation with a room full of 50 Argentine workers, ones who had taken over and revitalized abandoned factories under worker control. Once they had taken over the factories and began to organize to run the business, however, they hit a big wall:

I was in Argentina in a room with about 50 people who were there from different occupied factories, and I’d been asked to come and speak. We started around the room, and the first person who spoke described their situations and concerns. And by the time we got to the seventh person, a lot of people in the room were crying. This person spoke and put it very eloquently and said, ‘I never thought I could possibly ever be saying anything like this’ – he, too, was tearing up. He said that we took over the workplace; the owners and the upper management were gone, because they didn’t want to be a part of a workplace that they thought was going to fail. And we took it over and made it work. But now he had to say, I’m afraid Margaret Thatcher was right, there is no alternative. This is why they were crying.

He said: ‘We took it over. We were so excited. We made our wages equal. We instituted democracy. We had a workers’ council. We made our decisions democratically. And after a period of time, all the old crap came back. All the old alienation came back, and now it just feels the way it used to feel. And they were all saying it; person after person was saying it.’

We can’t get much closer to the experiential ground of social change than where this story is taking us. What is going on when a group of workers, who had initiated one of the most radical experiments in economic change in modern times, end up being overwhelmed by “all the old crap?” And hauling in their arch-enemy Maggie Thatcher to back it up!? (Talk about counter-revolution!) 

Albert continues his Argentine account with another story. A woman who could not read, not only learned to read in a matter of months, but did so in order to become the accountant in the factory she helped to transform. (Talk of self-empowerment!) However, it turned out that her personal transformation became part of a heavy downside: 

. . . she, as the accountant, was becoming a member of a class of people in that factory, about 20 percent, who were highly empowered and who appeared far more pivotal to the functioning of the factory – and who, over time, were bringing back the old alienation, even though she was just a wonderful person.  

From there, Albert describes the intervention he made in the Argentine situation. But, let’s pause before going there to note that we are now down on the bottom floor of experience. What he is describing, what we are dealing with here is a conflict of deep culture. Deep culture involves the basic assumptions about life that we receive from the culture that has raised us. It is embedded in us. It is the ground of our biocultural being. These Argentine workers were attempting a radical transformation of their lives and the world around them, and they hit a wall. That wall wasn’t “out there,” but inside themselves. They had run full force into their own passivity, the very passivity that had been an integral part of the hierarchic system they were working to transform. They had come square against the fact that they were the problem as much as the oppressive owners were. And, to boot, didn’t know what to do about it. Their first reaction was to capitulate to the only way they had of making sense of their predicament: ol’ Maggie was right. That is, they fell back on a deep belief their society had enculturated into them from the moment of their birth. 

What Albert did at this point is what any idea about social change worth its salt has to do: help transform the consciousness people have incorporated from their culture. Make a major break in that egg so something new can come out. He worked from his Parecon model to do this: 

So I tried to describe the idea of balanced job complexes. When they took over and the manager who was doing the accounting left, somebody volunteered because not many people wanted to do it. And I said: ‘Well, pretty soon what happened is that you had one-fifth of your workforce doing work that’s really empowering, and after a while, they’re governing. And after a while they’re paying themselves more because they think that they deserve more, and the rest of the people aren’t even at the meeting where this gets decided.’

And they agreed with this; it helped them see that there was a reason for this: It wasn’t human nature. Thatcher wasn’t right. It wasn’t inevitable.

The Key Point

The key point here is the same one Michael Yates learned and described in his article. Theory can work if it stays connected to experience in its conception, through its application, and by its being transformed into being more relevant. Ranting and preaching produce little change. People – that is, you and me – learn best when the information we are receiving resonates experientially. But that is profoundly difficult to do, as Yates’ stories make very clear. Culture shapes the very ways we see, hear, feel, taste, smell, breathe and think. To hear ideas and even stories related to deep social change requires that people un-learn deep cultural conditioning. We can do this when we are hungry, really in need of something new – and not mentally paralyzed by fear.

There is an intensely negative critique of Albert’s Parecon model online by Steven Johns, to which Albert wrote a rebuttal. I doubt it had much impact on Johns because Albert was arguing the ideas involved. In reading Johns’ critique, I was struck by how frozen he was in his thinking about work. I don’t see how he could have conceived of work outside of the employer-employee relationship, which was his whole experience of work. He could not grasp a notion of work that involves radically different ways of relating. It was outside his encultured sense of reality. In total contrast, Albert and the Argentine workers engaged in a situation where old cultural stuff was breaking down. He was able to give them what they needed to crack their egg and emerge into a new way of experiencing reality.

Alperovitz brought this gut-level factor into their conversation: 

. . . once you get away from the abstract . . . if you actually get your hands dirty and start talking to different groups other than the gang of young people who find these ideas accessible very quickly, it’s a different game. How do we reach ordinary Americans in my hometown of Racine, Wisconsin, where the problems are just extreme? How do we begin to understand them and where they are coming from and actually work with them in a way that works? That requires both understanding of the principles, but also being willing to test different ideas with them: patience and humility.

That is, experience must guide theory as much as theory needs to intervene, as Albert was able to do in Argentina. Timing is crucial in every phase of organizing. Yes: “patience and humility.”

Albert struggled with this tension throughout their conversation as well. He even recounted events in Yugoslavia, where results were the reverse of those in his Argentine story:

What happened in Yugoslavia is instructive: They made a revolution, got rid of the capitalists, instituted market socialism and initially had workplaces where everybody was treating everyone equally, everyone calling everybody comrade and so on. But over time, because of the competitive pressure of markets, these Yugoslav workplaces have to cut costs, make alienated decisions, to pollute and on and on. If they previously met together in councils and decided they wanted things like day care, air-conditioning for everybody and clean air in the workplace and wanted to clean up for the community and so on, then, nonetheless, under the pressure of competition, they had to start going back on those decisions. And because most people didn’t want to be the ones to make such degrading choices, they went out and hired managers – from business schools in capitalist countries to a large extent. 

So, Maggie won in Yugoslavia, but not in Argentina – or at least in that factory. Getting rid of the capitalists in Yugoslavia did not get rid of the workers’ passivity. Nor did it in Argentina. Something else worked in Argentina. They had stumbled into a situation where 1) their old ways of experiencing and reacting to reality were cracking open because 2) events had torn open their cultural soil, and 3) there was something new that came into the situation.

In the long run, the something new has to be more than just new ways of experiencing. They have to lead to new, large ways of doing things. Alperovitz’s Pluralist Commonwealth vision recognizes this by stressing an evolutionary process of reconstruction at the level of community, and a broad set of different institutions to carry it out.

Experimenting Intentionally with Culture

My primary work for the past 34 years has been with codeveloping and comanaging a living experiment in cooperative culture. The day-to-day challenges are about coping with the profound alienation that cuts to the marrow of every individual and group, and every form of relationship they have within the small scope of 75 people living and working together. At the same time, there is the constant demand to give significant time and energy to the healing of at least a small part of that alienation. Within our cultural cul-de-sac inside our larger society, we have a reasonably unified social structure, a mostly coherent and open system for decision-making, and a relatively common economy. We have carved this out of the larger cultural matrix that is both around and within us. We are constantly discovering how “the problem” (alienation, top-down relating, etc.) is as much inside us and replicated in all our different kinds of relationships with each other, as it is “out there” in the oppressive economic and political structures.

If our little social experiment has anything to say to the issues Yates, Albert and Alperovitz are courageously addressing, it is that you cannot theorize by avoiding the fact that we are the problem we are seeking to solve; by avoiding the fact that Maggie has strongly, but not totally, shaped the very ways we see, hear, feel, taste, smell, breathe and think. We have to experiment and find ways in which we turn that fact to our favor just as a chick discovers how to crack its way out of its egg.

The morning after I started reading Albert and Alperovitz’s conversation, I was in our Planning Session. (This is an open meeting where those of us who can and want meet five days a week for an hour-and-half to make operational and many policy decisions. Usually about 12-20 people attend. Often the business of the day is working with some members in working through relational conflicts they are having with each other.) One of the comanagers of our used furniture store shared a value problem he struggles with in how we price our merchandise. He gave this example:

A good quality leather sofa comes in, and we price it high because of its quality. Another sofa, upholstered, of medium quality, and with stains gets a lower price. Now our upper-end customers can afford the leather couch, but not our lower-end customers. We’re stuck perpetuating economic inequality unless we can figure out something else.

We struggled with how to do this for half an hour. We were able to get our heads around the problem, but not solve it by any means. Now it’s scheduled for further discussion on a later date. I doubt that we will come to any breakthrough resolution in this problem. But we might. What’s important in this is that it’s an example of how we have created a lifestyle – a culture, if you will – that accepts many kinds of conundrums like this as opportunities to think anew. We don’t have to solve it. Good answers at the level of deep culture are really difficult. It’s okay just to stay open to the contradiction rather than denying or ignoring it, or over-riding it with some kind of dogma that won’t work in reality.

I leave you with this question and the limited answer I have to it: What is it about our little culture that allows us to hang together so long as an alternative culture of sorts without being able to resolve a lot of stuff? We are certainly not more talented or inspired than the workers in Argentina and Yugoslavia, and we are certainly not whizzes at democracy, even after all this time.

My very limited answer is that we have spent years focusing on developing a whole culture that promotes trying to stay connected to what is actually happening and what is wanted rather than figuring out what’s right. And we have learned, as did Yates, to accept that this effort will involve continuous failing and persistent learning from that failing. We’ve learned we don’t have to think that we are “right.” We keep doing that to some extent, however, because it’s such a deep cultural habit. Experiment and evaluate. Experiment some more and evaluate some more. All with patience and humility.

Michael Johnson is an editor with Grassroots Economic Organizing and co-author of a book on regional co-operative economic development, forthcoming from Levellers Press. He is also a co-founder of SolidarityNYC and the Ganas Community.

1 comment

  1. mike sheck April 15, 2014 5:02 am 

    Thanks. What a great piece. I was starting to wonder if there was anyone here who “gets it”. That’s two.

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