On November 9th, 2016, two things happened in my life. First, I turned 31. Second, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
This felt like a signal from the universe. A wake-up call – weirdest birthday present ever. At the time, I was WWOOFing in Japan, bumming around as a hitch-hiker and occasional freelance translator working on obscure pieces of Chinese contemporary art criticism. Minding my own business. But how could I shrug off the fact that a climate change denier was now the head of the most powerful country on earth? I decided that I couldn’t keep looking away from the social and ecological crises I knew were unfolding all around, and trusting that the world would sort itself out, somehow. If the worst could still be avoided, then I had to try and do my part… Whatever that may be!
So for half a year, I settled down in a tiny room that felt like a monk’s cell, and tried to figure out what I could do. I dived back into the depressing reports I had already studied during my previous social science degree, eight years earlier, and found that things had become even worse than I thought – there was global heating of course, but also ongoing biological annihilation, omnipresent chemical pollution, topsoil depletion, extreme social and economic injustice and inequalities, not to mention the rise of xenophobic, authoritarian regimes in many parts of the world. Social and ecological collapse was in the air. What a time to be alive!
From my readings, my general sense was that in order for deep social change to happen, there was a need for better informed people, who would be more emotionally invested in changing society; and better networks, to connect the various efforts taking place everywhere. So I became curious about how online networks may help make this happen, by creating radical social change (that is, forms of collective change that would constitute a relevant response to the contemporary social and ecological crises), especially among social movements and communities of activists, through social or informal learning (meaning, how people learn and influence one another mutually while creating social structures and various artefacts – stories, concepts, methods, documents, etc.) Besides, this was a field that was not very well explored.
So I overcame my deep distrust of the academic world, and decided to go back to university to do a PhD degree. I wanted to carry out this research as an activist-scholar, focused on challenging a deeply unjust and destructive social order through knowledge creation, while producing movement-relevant theory, which could be of practical use to activists and social movements. Action research – an open-ended, participatory and emergent approach, based on carrying out social learning experiments – felt like the most appropriate way to go about this. And I chose to do research with (and within) two prefigurative online communities – that is, internet-connected collectives who interact over time around a shared purpose, interest or need, and seek to embody, in how they function, those forms of social relations, decision-making, culture and human experience that their members consider ultimately beneficial for the whole society (“being the change they want to see in the world,” to use the time-worn phrase).
What came out of it all? And now that Donald Trump seems poised to be elected again, astonishingly, what might be some key aspects of this project that may be useful to folks trying to make things less worse – particularly in the Global North?
You can read the full results of these 5 years of research on my website, including a series of summaries of the key points from my thesis. In what follows, I’ll present an overview of what feels like some particularly salient or counter-intuitive insights. Spoiler alert: Maybe changing the world is not just about spreading relevant information, and acting on it… and more about building communities that can enable us to unlearn what stands in the way of change.
A social ecosystem of change
First, a word about where all of this came from. My research took place within two prefigurative communities: FairCoop, and the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF), and involved many participants from both. My involvement in DAF also led me to explore the field of decolonial theory and practice, through the Diversity and Decolonising Circle – a self-organised group focused on exploring issues of systemic oppression and international solidarity. And through these conversations, I discovered the work of the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures collective – a group of researchers, artists, educators, students, and activists involved in research, artistic, and pedagogical experiments in education, which brings together participants from both Global North and Global South contexts, including representatives of several Indigenous collectives. I owe a lot of my insights to the inspiring work of this group, which I don’t participate in.
From my research, personal reflection and embodied experience involving these different groups, contexts and ideas, I started to outline some aspects of a theory of social learning (or unlearning) and radical collective change that can be mapped out using the following diagram:
Artwork by Yuyuan Ma
To put it briefly… For a prefigurative (online) community to have the potential to create radical collective change, it may be that a particular kind of social ecosystem must form, including at least these two broad sets of conditions:
- First, this community must bring attention to trust and belonging; conflict transformation; distributed leadership; and the cultivation of critical discernment. These are the trees above the ground.
- Secondly, when these trees exist, they can help a multitude of interconnected projects or initiatives to form, forming a mycelium of change which will compost 4 main habits of thinking and being that are lying in the ground of our collective culture, like toxic waste preventing change from happening. I’ll get back to that.
Sounds complicated perhaps? Let me go through these two main sets of conditions, and illustrate them with examples from my research.
Communities of care and discernment
Let’s first take a closer look at the trees aboveground. What are conditions that can help useful social change projects to grow and flourish? We can do this through the first online community I looked into – FairCoop, which was mostly active from 2014 to 2019.
Our current economic and monetary systems lock us within a very destructive model of society, which is bent on economic growth. I was curious about the potential of decentralised, local, alternative forms of currency to search for ways out of this. So I started exploring FairCoop (FC), a networked community which was started in Catalonia, Spain, largely thanks to the courageous action of anti-capitalist activist Enric Duran. FC had developed its own ecological cryptocurrency (Faircoin), and an impressive array of alternative economic projects functioning with a radical anarchist ethic.
FC’s impressive projects and tools based around Faircoin included FreedomCoop, a European-scale cooperative providing individuals with a toolkit enabling self-employment independently of banks or state authorities; Bank of the Commons, a cooperative providing banking services and other financial tools supporting the needs of grassroots economic movements; but also FairMarket, an online marketplace in which goods and services could be bought and sold in faircoins.
For a few years, FC was also quite successful at federating several dozen local groups around the world, mainly in Europe (but also all the way to South America and Rojava, in Northern Syria), in the attempt to build an alternative, grassroots economic system and a post-capitalist commons. These groups constituted the grassroots base of FC.
FC was an inspiring example of an online community developing really useful and impressive alternative tools and social structures. However, when I started interviewing people for my research, I found that this community was actually fractured by conflict, and in a state of deep crisis. So I asked people to tell me their story so we could figure out what had happened, and what we could learn from this case study.
This helped me understand what a community of care and critical discernment might look like – and what might happen when it is absent. Let’s look at each of these trees, one at a time…
First, developing a foundation of strong relationships and mutual trust, and centring an ethics of care, is essential – for a sense of belonging, safety, and mutual support to emerge, and for people to develop the capacity to live with uncertainty, ambiguity and contradictions. This is all the more important at times of growing socio-ecological crises, and of intensifying state repression and authoritarianism.
In FC, mutual care and trust were not given enough attention – there was arguably more focus brought to the technical aspects of running the various projects, than to cultivating relationships in the community.
Secondly, I believe communities should try to normalise conflict and transform its energy as a productive source of mutual learning – and to have processes and agreements in place, because conflict will happen.
Conflict broke out in FC, quite violently, after the Bitcoin crash of 2018 – which brought a steep dive in the value of Faircoin. There were no structures or processes in place to manage this conflict, and it eventually led to the community starting to disintegrate.
Third, personal and collective critical reflection should be encouraged, so that the community can keep adapting to changing times and revisit its purpose and methods, or indeed its governance. This requires paying attention to dissident voices when they emerge, especially when they challenge the most common-sense assumptions in the group.
In FC, critical conversations were apparently not given enough space to enable more collective intelligence and to resolve strategic dilemmas – such as what to do about Faircoin’s devaluation on speculative crypto markets – or improve community governance and other agreements.
Finally, a community should try to foster distributed, emergent forms of leadership – or “leaderfullness” – that will enable many useful projects and initiatives to emerge, and avoid the concentration of power and influence. Importantly, this should happen while still acknowledging the contributions of “key enablers” – that is, individuals or groups with particular skills and experience in certain domains, who can help the collective learning and effectiveness to grow.
In FC, much leadership and power capacity were concentrated in the founder Enric Duran and several other participants, and accountability structures were lacking. This can be seen as a collective failure to build a fairer, more cooperative and more empowering governance.
So from the above, we can see how a community that lacks attention to these four elements will struggle to keep going, and to fulfil its social change purpose. In particular, tech engineering without relational glue will probably not work for long in a decentralised, horizontal space, especially in a challenging context such as the one FC faced in 2018.
Let’s now turn to the projects that can appear, connect and spread when these conditions are more present. How can such projects help to bring about forms of unlearning that can facilitate radical collective change? We can do this through the example of another community: the Deep Adaptation Forum.
A mycelium of change
The Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF) was launched in 2019 by Prof Jem Bendell. Contrary to FairCoop, people in DAF have been less immediately focused on creating new social and economic structures, and more interested in deep cultural change – by enabling and embodying loving responses to the observation or anticipation of the collapse of modern industrial societies – be it on a personal, community, or societal level. I have been actively involved in this community since its creation, so I am certainly partial to it.
As a network and community, DAF brings together a bunch of groups, focused on specific projects (such as developing educational resources on socio-ecological crises), or hosting regular group processes (for instance, helping participants integrate and transform their eco-emotions). These groups and projects are supported by a socio-technical infrastructure that enables self-organisation at the network level.
Compared to FC, I found that the trees of community were more present in DAF – although there were also gaps in the ecosystem, notably on the aspects of conflict, and critical discernment. But another difference was that as a whole, DAF seemed closer to developing a mycelium of change, which corresponds to the underground part of the diagram above. What do I mean by that?
The Four Denials of modernity-coloniality
Considered together, I believe that some DAF groups are starting to compost fundamental aspects of the toxic “shit” that is poisoning the cultural ground of modern societies, preventing our societies to dream different dreams, imagine different possibilities and create better social structures. According to the work of the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures collective, “our current global problems are not related to a lack of knowledge, but to an inherently violent modern-colonial habit of being” – and this habit of being is structured by four denials that are pervasive in our modern-colonial world*, blocking deep change from happening:
- “the denial of systemic violence and complicity in harm (the fact that our comforts, securities and enjoyments are subsidized by expropriation and exploitation somewhere else),
- the denial of the limits of the planet (the fact that the planet cannot sustain exponential growth and consumption),
- the denial of entanglement (our insistence in seeing ourselves as separate from each other and the land, rather than “entangled” within a living wider metabolism that is bio-intelligent), and
- denial of the depth and magnitude of the problems that we face: the tendencies 1) to search for ”hope” in simplistic solutions that make us feel and look good; 2) to turn away from difficult and painful work (e.g. to focus on a “better future” as a way to escape a reality that is perceived as unbearable).”
So according to this decolonial theory, a crucial point is that instead of trying to become experts in social change, we should instead unlearn what prevents this change from happening in our minds and hearts, and in our relationships.
How was this unlearning happening in DAF?
Composting the denials in DAF
DAF was founded on the premise that modern-industrial societies are fundamentally unsustainable, and that their collapse is either likely, inevitable, or already ongoing. So from this perspective, we could say that two denials – of unsustainability and of the magnitude of issues – were taken care of “at network level.”
I found that the denial of entanglement – that is, the notion that each of us is a separate individual, and that humanity is separate from the rest of the biosphere – was also a focus of certain DAF groups, for instance the Deep Relating, Earth Listening or Wider Embraces groups, which offer practices to feel into our connectedness and our connections with the planet and beyond. These practices have been a source of important solace and emotional processing for many people in DAF.
But the denial of historical injustice and systemic violence – that is, the fact that privileged Westerners like most DAF participants, including myself, are able to have these conversations only thanks to a violent colonial history of exploitation and extraction – has so far mostly been addressed by one group, the Diversity and Decolonising Circle, and is just beginning to be a focus for the whole network. Some useful projects had started, for instance around decolonising solidarity efforts, but were still in the early phase. It felt important that this denial be addressed more closely, especially considering the more privileged demographics within DAF. In other words, a denser mycelium was needed.
Let me return now to my image of a mycelium of change-oriented initiatives. What do I mean by that?
The mycelium is a metaphor for many interconnected projects, networks, and communities focused on encouraging social learning and addressing the Four Denials, and which can help to start composting them – just like saprophytic fungi are essential to decompose organic matter. These initiatives connect to form a common driving force for change: they don’t compete, but share resources and information and paths to (un)learning as they explore and nurture themselves through the ground of our socio-political structures (often hidden out of view) – enriching and fertilising the soil by changing minds and hearts, thus eventually creating new soil. And once mature, mushrooms may grow out of them, and spread spores of change to other social contexts!
What I found was that in DAF, there were small cells emerging which at some point, may grow and end up forming a mycelium of radical collective change. I think this would require more people consciously facing all four denials of modernity-coloniality in their activities and projects. People focused on one aspect (e.g. entanglement) were not necessarily paying attention to another aspect (e.g. systemic violence). Even just focusing on any of the denials of modernity-coloniality is powerful and worthwhile in itself; but I think that only by looking at all four of them in what we do can really deep changes take place, on the personal and collective level.
In brief, my theory is that when a community has the right conditions in place (fostering care and trust, conflict transformation, distributed leadership, and critical discernment), then a mycelium of change-oriented projects can grow and thrive, to start the hugely demanding and complex task of composting the four denials of modernity. And when this happens, then individuals and collectives can start to undergo deep re-orientations of their ways of being and knowing.
This can be facilitated by the computerised tools that support online communities, but we should of course beware of how these tools themselves reinforce certain tendencies that compromise the possibility of deep change happening. For example, when they lock us into echo chambers (which prevents critical discernment), or polarise us (preventing trust and care, or conflict transformation to happen)… or when we are so fascinated by them that we see technology as the key to solving all problems!
And naturally, it isn’t enough to just be focused on inner cultural or behavioural changes: at some point these changes must also become inscribed into different social-political structures, by being accompanied and institutionalised within alternative forms of local/regional/national… politics and economics. It feels really important to dream about how to spread these personal and cultural changes in ways that might make a difference politically, in view of the outrageous injustice and destruction that are taking place everywhere, and increasing.
But as we pursue these social-political changes in an increasingly volatile, unpredictable and uncertain world, we should consider the question of the process – and not become wedded to any particular approach to change. In the words of Sharon Stein, Vanessa Andreotti and their colleagues from GTDF, “How can we move together differently toward a future that is undefined, without arrogance, self-righteousness, dogmatism, and perfectionism?”
My current intention is to try to cultivate more of these forms of mycelia and communities, and explore how people learn and change thanks to them. I am looking for others with whom to do more activist research in this field, become more fluent with the practice of unlearning and collective change, and see how other communities – online and offline – may enable this to happen. If you’re interested, let’s connect!
To do so, and find more about these topics, please visit the website my partner and I created – as part of our arts collective – to make the contents of my thesis more accessible to people: https://www.madocollective.org/connecting/
* What do I mean by the adjective “modern-colonial”? To put it simply, it calls attention to how, underlying every “bright” side of modernity, there is a dark side of colonial exploitation and extraction. To take an obvious example, for each of the useful devices we may be using to read this article, there is a slave child labourer in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Modernity-coloniality”, in a single world, shows that the bright and the dark side cannot be disconnected – they are intricately linked historically and until this day.