Ed. note: Part 1 of John’s essay was published on Resilience.org here.
What lies in fact between or beyond direct action, prefigurative communities, and meaningful elections? One idea that occurs to me (and has occurred to others, as well – see Micah White’s excellent The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution)[i] is to combine electing some as yet unknown kind of “progressive” government and forging social movements to push it from below and alongside to make good on its promises, and for the new kind of parties that would lead such governments to make links with other movements, nations, and organizations everywhere. In other words, rather than the dichotomous choice between seeking to change the world through elections versus building a new society from the bottom up, the future of radical social change may well lie at the many possible intersections of deeply democratic social movements and equally diverse and committed new types of parties and political coalitions.
To be sure, the political parties of the future don’t yet exist, but we can catch glimpses of them and hopefully learn from such experimental forerunners as the political movement that grew up in Iceland after the great crash of 2008, and the electoral foibles and fortunes of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain (one could reference the Labour Party in Britain under Jeremy Corbyn[ii] as trending in the direction we wish, and also the much-heralded political experiment under way in Rojava, in northern Syria. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, the Latin American Pink Tide has also been working near this intersection. Other struggles that point toward this include the long movement for radical reforms in Kerala, India; the experiences of the world’s Green parties; and the global climate justice movement. Each of these, and perhaps most of all, Podemos, suggest or hint at a new kind of political entity or party, without yet being that party.
In Kerala, for example, a series of elected, non-charismatic (in a positive sense) left-of-center governments over the past fifty years have raised the quality of life – whether measured by nutrition, health, life span, access to food and shelter, or literacy education – to standards that are superior to elsewhere in India and would be the object of envy in most of the world. They have done this despite a lack of monetary resources, a low per capita GNP, and even with deep structural unemployment, because they have been pushed from below by strong, independent social movements in civil society, of workers, women, and lower castes. This synergetic relationship has succeeded in forging and maintaining relatively equitable, more participatory conditions of life for the more than 35 million people who live there, with reforms remaining intact even in periods when the left has not been in power.[iii]
The world’s Green parties also embody a new political culture of creation, sometimes themselves acting to bridge the divide between those who seek to take state power and those who seek to transform the very nature of power. Though far from power in the U.S. and U.K., and having made truly invidious compromises when in government as in Germany, they also hint at the powerful combination of social movement dynamism from below and a new kind of party organization. Moreover, they are transnational in vision and organization in a way that other parties, including those on the left, are not.
Iceland undertook a hopeful political experiment dubbed the “Saucepan Revolution” when the raucous banging of pots and pans in well-attended street protests in January 2009 forced the right-of-center government responsible for the precipitous collapse of Iceland’s banks to yield power to a new governing coalition of socialists, democrats, greens, and the left, who were affirmed in a general election in April 2009. In the face of a horrific economic crisis, the creative actions of the Left-Green Movement and Social Democratic Alliance government, and the many networks that pressured and supported them produced solutions such as the 2009 referendum in which 98 percent of the population rejected the previous government’s agreement to repay the foreign debt of the failed banks, another indication of this new political.[iv] The fragility of the new situation was laid bare in the April 2013 elections which returned the center-right to power and scuppered the promise of the newly drafted but unratified crowd-sourced People’s Constitution.
Yet all of these experiments provide real-world instances of the new political cultures of opposition and creation, and none of these movements – including the Arab Spring and Occupy Everywhere – is “over,” in the sense that most of their participants are not permanently lost to activism. As one activist put it: “When the Indigenous resistance against the Dakota Access pipeline was ended, one of the activists, White Eagle said: ‘Just because we’re being removed from that area doesn’t mean it’s over. We just have to continue to work together as a whole for this common cause, which is the protection of Mother Earth.’”[v]
What Comes Next?
Instead of these halting if promising precursors, though, what we need is some excitingly new and original kind of party (or network, or coalition) that in each country or case comes out of the social movements that would bring it to power and can then be held strictly accountable by them as it turns the ship around. Such a “party” (and the name is apt for the convivial connotations it holds) will be the patient, challenging, loving product of the actions of many people, and it will embrace the multiple, richly diverse threads of the new political cultures of opposition and creation.
What if we could harness the people power, radical imagination, and boundless energy of all of these new actors of the future, starting by facilitating discussions among the new social movements, then brainstorming how to fashion some new kind of party to take power where that is possible and in the process beginning to support and enable all the emerging transition initiatives to co-create radical social transformation from the local to the national level? It sounds simplistic and unrealistic, too good to be practicable. But what have we got to lose? We aren’t winning at present. We need to try something different, something we haven’t really tried before, but which has predecessors in Chile in the 1970s and the Latin American Pink Tide in this century, even though all have been contained by the great countervailing economic and political power of the global one percent, not to mention their own limitations and mistakes.
So let’s think about these pieces. The social movements have been introduced above. Not just the Arab Spring and Occupy, but their brilliant, short-lived predecessor, the global justice movement,[vi] and their offspring in Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, and many, many other rising voices, the vast majority of them not yet well known.
Meanwhile, Transition initiatives, whether by that name or (more often) some other, have sprouted and are being tended in multiple locations today, from Totnes in the U.K. to the ZAD in the woods and fields of France. The U.S. Transition Towns Gathering in the summer of 2017 brought together people engaged in this work from all parts of the country. The French film Demain and the accompanying book in English Tomorrow capture the vibrancy and possibility of these movements, across a global space that runs from urban gardens in Detroit, to a zero-waste processing plant in San Francisco, local currency in Bristol, England, a paper factory in France run on the principles of the circular economy, organic farming with solar panels on La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, and a refreshing experiment with village democracy in Kuthambakkam, India.
And if it isn’t clear now, or yet, we are striving to eventually build a future without this system, without capitalism, without endless growth, without obscene inequality, without the violence of militarism, and with democratic participation from bottom to top and back to the bottom again.
A valuable recent approach to the problem of making change in the midst of diversity and chaos is that heralded in the title of adrienne maree brown’s 2017 book, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. This approach counsels activists to work from the bottom up in an inclusive way to generate a collective analysis that enables all present to focus on articulating their desires and most sought-after outcomes. After starting with an assessment of the current state of relevant issues, an emergent strategy moves on to a visioning exercise to identify our ideal state, follows this with a “change analysis” stage, which outlines what needs to change in order to achieve those visions, and ends with an “action” exercise to identify the projects that group members are most passionate about, with the potential to be put into motion.
The perspective is based on strategies for organizers building movements for justice and liberation that leverage relatively simple interactions to create complex patterns, systems, and transformations – including adaptation, interdependence and decentralization, fractal awareness, resilience and transformative justice, nonlinear and iterative change, creating more possibilities.
and now it’s like … ways for humans to practice being in right relationship to our home and each other, to practice complexity, and grow a compelling future together through relatively simple interactions. Emergent strategy is how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.
and maybe, if I’m honest, it’s a philosophy for how to be in harmony and love, in and with the world.[vii]
If this sounds more evocative than prescriptive, that’s because it’s about attending to process, cultivating relationships, maximizing our diversity, and staying open to learning and deciding in uncertain, unfolding situations, which are skills much more useful to social movements than any step-by-step list of activities to check off.
Linking Arms: A U.S. Scenario
Let us end with a speculative future set in the United States, ground zero of capitalism.[viii] In the 2016 elections, the dissatisfaction of Americans with their political system was manifest, with tens of millions more eligible voters choosing not to register or vote than the number of ballots either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton received.
What if a future election in the U.S. featured candidates emerging from the young activists of the social movements and the older ones in the transition initiatives, allied with those members of the Green and other progressive parties that were willing to share the stage, disaffected Sandernistas, and committed and passionate individuals everywhere, from all across the country?
Who would run for office in this scenario? The urban gardener in Detroit, the young indigenous activist in Standing Rock, the women leading Black Lives Matter in St. Louis and many other places, the local community leaders everywhere – teachers, community organizers, daycare providers, activists, and organizers, many of them much younger than the bland batch of candidates put forward by today’s Democans and Republicrats.
A number of “blueprints” for a radical governmental policy of the future already exist. Let’s consider one of the better ones, that of Ian Angus and Simon Butler, who have written: “In every country, we need governments that break with the existing order, that are answerable only to working people, farmers, the poor, indigenous communities, and immigrants – in a word, to the victims of ecocidal capitalism, not its beneficiaries and representatives.” They continue by suggesting some of the first measures such ecosocialist governments might take:
- Rapidly phasing out fossil fuels and biofuels, replacing them with clean energy sources such as wind, geothermal, wave, and above all, solar power;
- Actively supporting farmers to convert to ecological agriculture; defending local food production and distribution; working actively to restore soil fertility while eliminating factory farms and polluting agribusinesses;
- Introducing free and efficient public transport networks, and implementing urban planning policies that radically reduce the need for private trucks and cars;
- Restructuring existing extraction, production and distribution systems to eliminate waste, planned obsolescence, pollution, and manipulative advertising, placing industries under public control when necessary, and providing full retraining to all affected workers and communities;
- Retrofitting existing homes and buildings for energy efficiency, and establishing strict guidelines for green architecture in all new structures;
- Ceasing all military operations at home and elsewhere; transforming the armed forces into voluntary teams charged with restoring ecosystems and assisting the victims of floods, rising oceans and other environmental disasters;
- Ensuring universal availability of high quality health services, including birth control and abortion;
- Launching extensive reforestation, carbon farming and biodiversity programs.[ix]
Each of us will have their own list, and mine would add free lifelong education to the above, along with some kind of guaranteed income or provision of basic needs such as food and shelter. Undoubtedly, many conversations lie ahead in which such lists are compared and synthesized into the powerful manifesto that we may one day craft.
What if those of us in the United States pulled off something spectacular like this? That would surely alter the global balance of power for the better. And this would only be strengthened if others carried some version of it that made sense in their own contexts. Were such a government to come to power in the United States – against all odds, admittedly – it could work with others in the global North to honor their collective obligations to 1) degrow their own wasteful and harmful economies and their carbon footprints 2) cancel the debt of the global South, 3) transfer technology and other assistance to supply clean, abundant energy to all global citizens, 4) pay or make reparations for colonial and imperialist exploitation, 5) de-militarize down to the bone, and 6) guarantee fair and scientifically sustainable shares of the atmosphere and all resources to all.
The powerholders of capitalism scoff at the idea of such a movement, though in their words one can hear the faint stirring of fear that it might come to pass. Lawrence Wittner, Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany, has assembled some striking examples.
Using her Conservative Party conference to rally support for leaving the EU, British Prime Minister Theresa May declared contemptuously: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”…
Following his surprise election victory, Trump told a rally in December 2016: “There is no global anthem. No global currency. No certificate of global citizenship. We pledge allegiance to one flag and that flag is the American flag.” After wild cheering from the crowd, he added: “From now on it is going to be: America First. Okay? America first. We’re going to put ourselves first.”
But consider this history of a global identity also presented by Wittner:
Indeed, over the centuries cosmopolitan values have become a strong current in public opinion. They are usually traced to Diogenes, a philosopher of Classical Greece, who, asked where he came from, replied: “I am a citizen of the world.” The idea gained increasing currency with the spread of Enlightenment thinking. Tom Paine, considered one of America’s Founding Fathers, took up the theme of loyalty to all humanity in his Rights of Man (1791), proclaiming: “My country is the world.” Similar sentiments were expressed in later years by William Lloyd Garrison (“My country is the world; my countrymen are all mankind”), Albert Einstein, and a host of other globalist thinkers.
And this rich data he provides from the present moment:
A poll of more than 20,000 people in 18 countries, conducted by GlobeScan for the BBC World Service from December 2015 through April 2016, found that 51 percent of respondents saw themselves more as global citizens than as citizens of their own countries.[x] This was the first time since tracking began in 2001 that a majority felt this way.[xi]
Globally, the climate justice movement might now be the name for the network of these movements all in the service of radical climate justice, in the broadest, most intersectional understanding of the term. Its sustaining meme is one that young climate justice activists carried literally on a banner through the frosty streets of Copenhagen on the occasion of the ill-fated COP 15 negotiations in December 2009, demanding “System Change Not Climate Change.”[xii] Let us all exercise our right to imagine new names for our movements, “parties,” and their key demands.
We are going to have to leverage the strength and power and beauty of our many movements and ideas into a new kind of entity – a completely new kind of party – that can take political power away from those who hold it, in place after place. In time, these experiments with the unknown would be able to support each other and link themselves together to find and co-create the pathways to the future we want. The new entities that come out of our movements must be made to live up to their promise and to enact our dreams by us, their only possible guarantors.
Such new parties, if they emerge, and the broader, diverse social movements that must drive and hold them accountable, will need to link arms firmly with existing transition initiatives and the many more projects of creation that will need to be built everywhere. And they must synergistically support each other’s efforts to fashion the collective power we need for global governance. Then we would see a people’s COP articulate a “FAB” (fair, ambitious, and binding) universal climate treaty. Then we would be able to tax and legislate the fossil fuel corporations out of business. Then we would be able to take on the legacy of inequality and genocide that the United States has been built on. Then…
As the Zapatistas, those un-professionals of hope, often say, “We want a world where many worlds fit.” That world, containing somehow our many worlds, will be created and constructed by all of those who are willing to seek it, to do the hard work (which, let’s not forget, also brings so much joy and purpose), and to embrace hope, imagination, and heart, in equally abundant measure.
This essay is offered in the hope of generating further participation and passionate commitment among readers and the millions of ordinary people who must rise to our common occasion. Else, nothingness awaits us after extreme and unimaginable suffering, which however likely, is simply not acceptable.
The path will be long, hard, dangerous, and difficult, friends, so let’s get going!
[i] The devastating impact of the Trump administration has spurred a slew of exciting books about social movements, organizing, elections, and resistance generally in the United States since late 2016: Sarah Jaffe, Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (New York: Nation Books, 2016); Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals (Oakland: AK Press, 2017); Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians, editor, What We Do Now: Standing Up for Values in Trump’s America (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2017); Becky Bond and Zack Exley, Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything (White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2016), and the special Fall 2016 issue of Jacobin, “The Party We Need.”
Some excellent work on the topic came out even before: Mark Engler and Paul Engler, This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-first Century (New York: Nation Books, 2016); Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning, Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World, updated and expanded second edition (Oakland: PM Books, 2017 ); L.A. Kauffman, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism (London: Verso, 2017).
Some has come from non-US sources: Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movement in the Internet Age, second edition (Cambridge: Polity, 2015) and Srdja Popovic and Matthew Miller, Blueprint for Revolution: Hot to use rice pudding, Lego men, and other non-violent techniques to galvanise communities, overthrow dictators, or simply change the world (Melbourne: Scribe, 2015).
[ii] The always perceptive Hilary Wainwright makes the case here: “A Movement Preparing for Power” (October 3, 2017), https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/a-movement-preparing-for-power/ .
[iii] Richard Franke and Barbara Chasin, Kerala: Radical Reform as Development in an Indian State (San Francisco: The Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1994); Patrick Heller, The Labor of Development: Workers and the Transformation of Capitalism in Kerala, India (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).
[iv] Christophe Chataigne, “Iceland and the Saucepan Revolution.” Socialist Review (March 2009), http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=10735; Paul Krugman, “The Path not Taken” New York Times (October 27, 2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/28/opinion/krugman-the-path-not-taken.html, Andri Snaer Magnason, Dreamland: A Self-help Manual ( London: Citizen-Press, 2009); Rebecca Solnit, “News from Nowhere: Iceland’s Polite Dystopia” Harper’s Magazine (October 2008), http://harpers.org/archive/2008/10/news-from-nowhere/; Robert Wade and Silla Sigurgeirsdóttir, “Lessons for Iceland” New Left Review (65) (September-October 2010), 5-29.
[v] Kosha Joubert and Leila Dregger, “Global Ecovillage Network | Sacred Activism,” Kosmos Journal, September 19, 2017 Newsletter, http://www.kosmosjournal.org/news/global-ecovillage-network-sacred-activism/
[vi] It is useful to observe that the global justice movement wasn’t defeated or ran out of steam, but rather that it was forced to morph into a kind of more fractured global peace movement with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, only to rise up again in many places at once in 2011 and after.
[vii] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategies: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Oakland: AK Press, 2017), 23-24.
[viii] The doyen of politically relevant climate-fiction has been and remains Kim Stanley Robinson, and his 2017 book New York 2140 (New York: Orbit) offers a scenario where people’s refusal to make payments crashes the financial system and a progressive government then nationalizes and gains control over the financial sector, enabling the making of a world that provides for the basic needs of all people. He also traces out such a scenario in an essay, “Climate Change Forces Post-Capitalism,” his contribution to the forthcoming Climate Futures: Re-imagining Global Climate Justice, edited by Kum-Kum Bhavnani, John Foran, Priya Kurian, and Debashish Munshi (Berkeley: UC Press/Luminos), and a talk he gave on this topic can be found at the website devoted to the nearly carbon neutral conference “The World in 2050: A Nearly Carbon-Neutral Conference,” http://ehc.english.ucsb.edu/?page_id=14895. The talk was transcribed by Krystal Baca and edited by John Foran, and can be found here: http://ehc.english.ucsb.edu/?page_id=13544.
[ix] Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (New York: Monthly Review, 2016), chapter 12, citing Ian Angus and Simon Butler, Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011), 198-9.
[x] BBC World Service, “Global Citizenship a Growing Sentiment among Citizens of Emerging Economies: Global Poll” (April 27, 2016), https://www.globescan.com/news-and-analysis/press-releases/press-releases-2016/383-global-citizenship-a-growing-sentiment-among-citizens-of-emerging-economies-global-poll.html
[xi] The passages quoted here are found in Lawrence Wittner, “World Citizenship Is More Popular Than You Might Think” (September 17, 2017), http://portside.org/2017-09-19/world-citizenship-more-popular-you-might-think
[xii] This is also the name and acronym astutely adopted by a small but feisty network of North American ecosocialists with whom I am engaged, and whose analyses and discussions can be found on their website: https://systemchangenotclimatechange.org/