Symbiosis is Different


“It is the system that is the problem.” ~Symbiosis Movement Congress, “We Are Assembling a Movement for Real Democracy in Every Community”

Sure, but all radical groups say that the system is the problem, right? So when Symbiosis – a coalition of grassroots organizations stretching from Jackson, Mississippi to Oaxaca, Mexico, and from Portland Oregon to Burlington, Vermont – declared its opening public statement last month, announcing that it would hold its congress on September 18-22 in Detroit, you might have had to dig a little deeper to understand why Symbiosis is different. And why identifying the “system” as the problem is more important than we’ve been lulled into from realizing.

As someone who covers the new economy movement, I can tell you that these kinds of collaborations and conferences take place about fourteen trillion times a year. That constant interaction, cross-pollination and seed-planting is part of the reason the U.S. left is stronger than it’s been in decades. But it’s tough to evaluate the concrete effects and potential paradigm developments of each and every conference. So here’s why Symbiosis is particularly noteworthy and important:

First, Symbiosis is rooted in recognition of mutual vulnerability, centering on the shared experiences of communities of color first. It’s the mutual vulnerability and shared condition of the oppressed. I’ve written about vulnerability as an inherent part of socialist politics before. But it’s more important than ever that we discuss it in an age of renewed fascist counteroffensives.

The fascism of Trump, Bolsonaro and Duterte – the embrace of cruelty-as-irony – is an interpersonal fascism deployed to protect current material hierarchies. Trumpism argues that being vulnerable, needing each other, owning our imperfections, is weak and pathetic. It ignores the possibility of collective and mutual restoration.

Against that interpersonal fascism, and the capitalist competitiveness it props up, Symbiosis issues a call for a “global support system” for groups all over the world committed not only to ending capitalist relations but also building cooperative institutions.

his is what global support looks like

The phrase “global support system” was coined by Z, a co-founder of Black Socialists of America (BSA). BSA has had the most impressive – and fast – growth and development of any anti-capitalist group I’ve seen. Founded in 2017, BSA used Twitter and Reddit to begin open-ended conversations with people and groups all over the anti-capitalist left. Unlike many socialist groups, they didn’t pretend to know everything and didn’t come into conversations with dogmatic scriptures.

BSA made it clear that its members were looking for answers from multiple perspectives, with practical meaning for revolutionaries.

It’s that context of commitment to anti-capitalist revolution alongside conscious uncertainty that makes the call for a global support system more than just pragmatic collaboration. Black Socialists of America also takes the position that “centralized state planning is not socialism,” which might set them apart from some orthodox Marxist-Leninist stalwarts. But this likely will not be to their detriment.

Second, the organizations involved in Symbiosis are all pretty amazing. Besides Black Socialists of America and the now-legendary Cooperation Jackson, the list of 15 founding organizations includes Asamblea de los Pueblos Indígenas del Istmo en Defensa de la Tierra y el Territorio, Democratic Socialists of America Libertarian Socialist Caucus, the famous Institute for Social Ecology, and two of my favorite organizations, the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center in Detroit and the Kola Nut Collaborative in Chicago.

Different organizations focus on different elements and can fill roles in synergistic coalitions. My conversation last year with Kola Nut Collaborative’s Mike Strode left me feeling like the organization, and the Illinois cooperative movement it feeds, are concerned with shared values but not shared ideology. Mainly, Kola Nut wants to see more structures in Chicago that call themselves cooperatives and practice democratic shared ownership. Having pragmatic and revolutionary organizations work alongside each other is something sectarians insist won’t succeed – but it has to work, or all we do is sell newspapers.

A new vision

Such synergy between working-within-existing-structures and envisioning new ones overcomes the twin downers of liberal reformism and ultra-left sectarianism. To put forward that new vision, Symbiosis’s opening statement contains three overarching themes: the urgency of now, the futility of pure resistance and the framework of dual power. The statement, which includes a Spanish translation, reads in part:

Our calls to action are infused with the fierce urgency of now like never before… When we organize, we can resist, but resistance is not governance. Even popularly elected governments disempower ordinary people, by placing an elite political class above us to rule on our behalf… This framework—of building popular power outside the governing institutions of our present system, to challenge and displace those institutions through truly democratic ones of our own—is called “dual power.” Such a process of political transformation is not only revolutionary in changing institutions; it also has the potential to transform ourselves. Radical democracy is a framework for helping to overcome racism, patriarchy, and other social hierarchies, by disassembling the material underpinnings of oppression and unravelling prejudice through common struggle to bring principles of equality to life. It is through this lived practice of cooperation and solidarity that we can learn to be democratic beings, to be citizens, who have re-learned the art of making decisions together.

This call to action is to build material structures infused with socialist consciousness – not just to spread the consciousness, and not just to build the structures. The organization includes the Symbiosis Research Collective, designed to facilitate the research needs of member organizations, “democratize the academy” and collaborate in knowledge-creation.

Symbiosis recognizes the futility of pure “resistance.” The system is like an old Rube Goldberg machine that feeds all resistance back into it. Better put, it’s Whack-a-Mole: crush one problem and it just re-emerges in a different sector of the system. A framework of dual power recognizes that the only way out of these continuous feedback loops and agenda-setting simulations is the building of new material institutions.

As BSA announced when joining forces with Cooperation Jackson: “We are extremely proud to be working with other Black Americans who not only share a detailed vision for what Black liberation and human liberation can look like, but who have already started working to build an alternative socioeconomic system upon a foundation with decades of rich history built into it!”

Symbiosis is a movement of anti-capitalist shared materiality seeking, and developing a plan for, shared security. It’s doing so urgently to build new material structures and then shape the political institutions that will grow from them. It may well cross thresholds previous multi-tendency movements have not crossed.

If you want some good reading material, check out the documents on the Symbiosis resource list.

Matt Stannard is director of Solidarity House Cooperative and a legal and policy advocate for cooperative economics. His blog is Cowboys on the Commons.

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