Why the left needs Elinor Ostrom

Image: WikiCommons

By Aaron Vansintjan

At some point during the Quebec student strike of 2012, I found myself in an enormous protest in downtown Montreal. We took up the street as far as the eye could see. All of a sudden, a mass of people dressed in black stormed down the other half of the road. The anarchist contingent, going the wrong way.

The effect was incredible: here we were, in the thousands, all walking together in one direction to demand tuition subsidized by the state, and simultaneously, thousands of others were calling for an end to the state, walking the other way. I climbed onto the concrete divider in the center of the street separating the two lanes, unsure of which side I should join.

One protest, two directions: a neat metaphor for the tension in the Left today. We are trying to choose between supporting welfare programs and rejecting the top-down nature of the state itself. Just as education, health insurance, and welfare need to be protected, the state plays a key role in environmental destruction, securitization and policing, and international wars. How can we resolve this tension?

If you try to figure out what role the state should have, you’ll inevitably be led to a list of great thinkers: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, and, for a more contemporary twist, Thomas Piketty or Amartya Sen.

Her work sought to think political economy beyond both the state and the market.

Rarely does Elinor Ostrom appear on that list—but she certainly deserves to be included. Ostrom spent much of her life trying to figure out how people solve problems of distribution amongst themselves, and why some communities are able to share resources while others are not. Her work sought to think political economy beyond both the state and the market—something that many of those giants of political theory had not, thus far, been able to do very well. In other words, she could think in two directions, at the same time.

I’ve always thought that, for people interested in social progress, engaging with Ostrom’s work is crucial. Unfortunately, she’s not very well known. It’s not that Elinor Ostrom’s work is hard to get hold of; her relative obscurity is probably more related to the fact that it’s not that easy to figure out the wider implications of her research. Her work can help us think about austerity, state welfare, the market, local democracy, and environmental issues. But how it would do so is rarely made explicit.

Luckily, this gap has now been rectified in the new book, Elinor Ostrom’s rules for radicals: Cooperative alternatives beyond markets and states, by Derek Wall and published by Pluto Press. Wall is a politician (as a Green Party candidate he stood against Theresa May in the 2017 General Elections) and activist who spends much of his time writing about radical politics, social movements, political theory, and left strategy.

As its title suggests, the book is directed at people on the left (‘radicals’). Wall describes this book as a bite-size take on his more serious and dry PhD-thesis-length tome, The Sustainable economics of Elinor Ostrom: Commons, contestation, and craft. There is little dryness here, though, as Wall peppers the book with little detours and passionate reflections on subjects as diverse as Occupy Wall Street, Rojava, and the TV show The Wire.

Throughout the book the main sense I got was a wholehearted excitement about and admiration for Elinor Ostrom’s work. Apart from its very necessary contribution to leftist strategy and thought, it is this enthusiasm that propels the book forward, making it an enjoyable and light read.

With a nod to Saul Alinsky, Wall starts the book with 13 very short ‘rules for radicals’, which include ‘be specific’, ‘collective ownership can work’, ‘map power’, and ‘no panaceas’. These may not make much sense at first, but as you read the book, they form the basic threads of his argument and help to create a coherent picture of Ostrom’s work and how it can inform the left.

I was able to attend the book launch in London this past November, and we had agreed that I could ask some questions after. During the talk, Wall—wearing a Kurdish scarf and expressing solidarity with his friend Mehmet Aksoy who has recently passed away—talked more about the stories he knew about Ostrom than the contents of his book itself. He referred to her as ‘Elinor’, as if talking about a dear friend, and the audience laughed along as he told us about her meeting with the political economist Garrett Hardin, and Wall’s own encounter with her shortly before she passed away.

Later, over drinks at the pub across the street, we huddled together to talk about Rojava, Marxism, ecosocialism, and today’s new social movements—not at all in the right state for a serious interview. So we decided to leave it to an email later. The following is the result of our email exchange, edited lightly for brevity and flow.

 

Say I’m a socialist unfamiliar with Ostrom’s work. What’s your 1-minute pitch? Why should I care?

Socialism, someone said, is about sharing.  Marxists argue that means of production need to be owned by the whole community.  Elinor gives us the tools to do the job, a hard-nosed, flexible approach to communal ownership based on science, research, and pragmatism.  Her insight that collective ownership is possible makes the apparently radical reasonable.

What kind of person was Elinor Ostrom? How do you think that shows in her work?

She was a fun open human being, she would talk to anybody, and was known to take care to answer questions that came in emails from across the planet. She was interested in practical problem solving and opposed any kind of dogma.  She was not that kind of elitist ivory tower academic but respected others and sought to learn from the grassroots.

In the beginning of the book you have a list of 13 rules for radicals. One of them is ‘pose social change as problem solving’? What do you mean by this?

In politics we tend to think in terms of conspiracies and slogans.  Politics is too often seen as replacing an elite with an alternative set of leaders. This is at best insufficient. I am not fundamentally against electoral politics in a liberal context but they are limited.  The Ostrom approach is about participation, creating a deeply democratic society instead of replacing ‘bad people’ with ‘good people’ at the top of a structure.

Politics is too often seen as replacing an elite with an alternative set of leaders. This is at best insufficient.

In turn, we too often have a kind of magical and ideological thinking where we are for ‘good things’ and against ‘bad things’, promoting broad slogans or writing manifestos with sets of demands.  Instead we need to view the good things we would like to achieve such as ecology, equality, and freedom as challenges to meet.  The history of the left shows that whether we are talking about reform or revolution, practical problems and entrenched power structures can transform good intentions into restoration of oppression.

Specifically, Elinor Ostrom looked at ‘commons’ as a matter of problem solving.  She didn’t believe that commons were either doomed to failure (the so-called tragedy of the commons) or a universal solution. Instead she noted that some things were inevitably held in common—for example, its difficult for an individual to own a river or the seas—and then looked at how to solve the problem of overuse.  I think this is a good approach!

What do you think explains the paucity of awareness about Elinor Ostrom’s work?

Ostrom’s approach is difficult to place, she was often inspired by thinkers on the free market right like James Buchanan and Hayek but in doing so challenged market based notions of purely private property and the market.  Her uncanny ability to upset those who seek to summarise her ideas as simple slogans means her ideas can be challenging.  However interest in the left is growing, for example, the Indigenous leader and revolutionary Hugo Blanco cites her and her approach seems to describe much of what the Kurds and their allies are trying to achieve in Rojava.

How do you think Ostrom’s work relates to Marxism?

For a start, Marxism has stressed class struggle and macro change. Marxists have argued that revolution will transform society and provide a break from old oppressive structures with the introduction of communism.  Ostrom’s micro analysis about how you build practical institutional structures to promote more ecological, equal and diverse societies, can be rejected as irrelevant by the left.  Constructing these structures is a waste of time in capitalism because Marxists might argue capitalist systems will destroy them.  Indeed it is good to be critical of Ostrom from this perspective because she didn’t focus on the real tragedy of the commons, the fact that commons were enclosed and commoners expelled by the rich and powerful. However if you don’t think about the nuts and bolts of governance in a post capitalist society, revolution, in my opinion, will fail to produce institutions that genuinely promote liberation.

When we talked the other night you mentioned that the left often thinks in terms of revolution, but has little plan of how to set up resource management and governance systems afterwards. Could you explain what you mean by this? How do you think Ostrom’s work can be helpful in that regard?

Ostrom was fascinated by the practice of participation and looked in some detail at how to build alternative structures.

Getting there by destroying repressive power structures is the task of revolutionaries and remains essential.  However revolutions can only be the start. Any post-revolutionary society is in danger of reproducing the previous ways of doing things. Therefore thinking carefully about institutional decisions to make sure that post-revolutionary structures work to promote participation and genuine democratic control is essential but too often forgotten.  Ostrom was fascinated by the practice of participation and looked in some detail at how to build alternative structures, in doing so she provides both radical inspiration and practical suggestions.  You can see how the best of the Latin American lefts thinkers, for example, Marta Harnecker, both advocate commons and a more nuanced understanding of institutional factors if we are to transform society in a direction which is sustainable (in both ecological and social terms).

You mention the Kurdish struggle in Rojava. How do you think Ostrom’s work can help us understand the situation there? Have you had any conversations with Kurdish activists about her work?

Yes many times. The Kurds and their allies in Rojava are putting forward the ideas of Ocalan and Bookchin, based on ecology, feminism, diversity, and self-management. Ostrom’s work fits with this and I often talked to Kurdish activists about her work. Sadly my friend Mehmet Aksoy was killed by ISIS in Raqqa in September, Mehmet was a journalist and filmmaker from North London.  His loss is huge to all who knew him.  He commissioned me to write an article about Elinor Ostrom and Rojava, you can find it here.

You seem excited about the new book you’re writing, a biography of the Indigenous leader, Hugo Blanco. Could you tell me a bit about it?

Hugo is perhaps the most important ecosocialist leader on the planet.  In 1962 he led an uprising for Indigenous land rights, when he was a member of the Fourth International in Peru. This was successful and brought land reform but he was imprisoned until 1970. Aged 83, he is still an active militant and publishes the newspaper Lucha Indigena (Indigenous struggle). I am in the happy position of getting emails from him nearly every day. Elinor Ostrom was about cooperation rather than political militancy and revolution, and yet they are very similar individuals—committed to ecological matters and friends to Indigenous people.  He has lived through prison, exile, being a Senator, and is still very busy. In recent years he has been supporting communities opposing destructive mining projects in the North of Peru. The Zapatistas in Mexico have been a big influence on his thinking, which has shifted from more traditional Leninism to a more horizontal and anarchist approach. He is a very inspiring person and astute political thinker, so I want to spread both his words and wisdom and Elinor’s.

This is a question for the New Year. You’re a Marxist, a Green Party candidate, you ascribe to Zen Buddhism, and your work now is focusing on Hugo Blanco, Elinor Ostrom, and Louis Althusser. What are some common questions, concerns, ideas, or passions that will drive you in the next year?

I am not a believer in one political organisation being ‘correct’ to the exclusion of all others.

Its sounds quite disparate when you put it like that.  My key focus is how to challenge the ecological crisis that threatens both humanity and other species.  This is a crisis of economic growth, we can’t produce, consume, and waste at increasing levels without challenging basic biological cycles on planet Earth.  So Marx’s analysis of Capitalism remains to me vital to understanding the cause of ecological crisis in terms of an entire social and economic system based on growth. Marx once noted, ‘Accumulate, accumulate is Moses and the Prophets’— the secular religion of capitalism puts economic expansion and profit at the centre of everything. Louis Althusser, a highly controversial figure, remains to my mind the most sophisticated reader of Marx. So, yes, I have a passion for thinking about green politics and acting to further green politics but I am keen to be flexible in what I do. While from Trump and climate change the outlook seems bleak, there is an upsurge of enthusiasm for radical politics, so in the coming year I hope to support and empower the emergence of political alternatives. I am not a believer in one political organisation being ‘correct’ to the exclusion of all others, so amongst other things I am excited, on the one hand, by efforts to green Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and on the other within the Green Party work of a new generation of activists, for example, Aimee Challenor in promoting LGBTIQ politics.

Politics is endless struggle. Both Elinor Ostrom and Hugo Blanco have made me rethink how I do politics, making it more radical and practical, so spreading the word about their work will continue to be significant to me. And, yes, once I have finished writing the Hugo Blanco book, I will start writing Althusser for Revolutionaries.

 

Aaron Vansintjan is a PhD student researching food and cities, and a co-editor of Uneven Earth. He recently edited the book by Giorgos Kallis, In defense of degrowth, which is now available in print.

Elinor Ostrom’s rules for radicals: Cooperative alternatives beyond markets and states by Derek Wall is available from Pluto Press

Opening a crack in history

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Barceloneta residents at the demonstration reclaiming El Segle XX building, January 11 2014. Photo by Pedro Mata, Fotomovimiento.

by Santiago Gorostiza

When Aymara people in South-America look ahead they are facing the past. Literally. Researchers who investigated Aymara language and gestures have established that, unlike all the studied cultures and languages of the world, they refer to the past by gesturing ahead, while the future is situated behind oneself. The example of the Aymara indigenous people, when reflecting on how history can be useful for activists participating in socio-environmental conflicts, challenges our preconditioned views. We can put history into the foreground, not just as the background or the context of present events but as a central resource for the present and the future.

“All history is contemporary history”—Benedetto Croce.

But it is not only that we all write and research within the context of our own time. It is also that the stories and narrations that we unveil impact us now. They can affect how we look at the past—but especially, when it involves social movements, they can also shape how we look at the present and at the future, at what is conceived as possible and impossible today and tomorrow.

As the Zapatistas claim, it is necessary to “open a crack” in history. On January 1st 1994, the very same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force, the Zapatistas launched their revolt in the mountains of Southeast Mexico. From their very First Declaration, they emphasised they were the result of 500 years of resistance to colonialism.

A crack also disrupts the idea of unidirectional, non-linear history, opening a loophole that challenges views of what is in front of us and what in our backs. Once the past is reclaimed, the door to reclaim the future swings open.

One of the expressions of such resistance is precisely their critique of how history has been written. A history that tells the story of the elites just makes the present state of things seem natural, leaves aside the subalterns and silences their past. Against this type of historical appropriation, Zapatistas claim the need to “open a crack”– to write the history of the exploited. A crack that also disrupts the idea of unidirectional, non-linear history, opening a loophole that challenges views of what is in front of us and what in our backs. A crack that permits us to look to the past ahead—like the Aymara—as memories of the alternative non-disposable future. Once the past is reclaimed, the door to reclaim the future swings open.

Reclaiming silenced pasts is a task to be done both in the archives and the streets, both in libraries and mountains, listening to stories and reading dusty records. It can be about how a revolution was silenced and obliterated from history, as shown in the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot on the late 18th century in Haiti. And also about how dictatorships try to wipe out the memory and heritage of those who opposed them. When, like in Spain, elites have succeeded to remain in power for decades, the stories of disappeared workers and activists and their emancipatory projects frustrated by a 40-year long dictatorship risk being left aside and silenced forever.

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Poet and Barceloneta neighbour Paco Jover, who passed away in 2015, at the demonstration for El Segle XX, January 11, 2014. Source: Photo by Pedro Mata, Fotomovimiento.

The Case of the Segle XX building in Barceloneta

In December 2013, residents of La Barceloneta (Barcelona, Spain) announced a demonstration to reclaim the empty building of the El Segle XX (“The Twentieth Century”) cooperative for its public use. El Segle XX had been founded in 1901, but after years of decline during the Francoist dictatorship, the cooperative was dissolved in the late 1980s and the building was later abandoned.

The importance of several cooperatives—El Segle XX among them—as spaces of socialization, consumption, and culture  since the late Nineteenth century soon emerged as a central aspect of the residents’ memories.

At least since 2008, the neighbourhood association La Òstia began collecting information about the history of the neighbourhood and interviewing veteran residents. The importance of several cooperatives—El Segle XX among them—as spaces of socialization, consumption, and culture  since the late Nineteenth century soon emerged as a central aspect of the residents’ memories. Later, the Barceloneta Cooperative Memory Research Group (Grup de Recerca de la Memòria Cooperativa de la Barceloneta) continued the work of the association by diving into archives, recording interviews, organising guided tours, and other activities.Similar projects in other neighbourhoods of the city, such as Sants or Poblenou, supported by the cooperative La Ciutat Invisible, greatly contributed to the impulse of the project.

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Poster “El Segle XX és pel barri” (“The Twentieth Century is for the neighbourhood”). Source: Grup de Recerca de la Memòria Cooperativa de la Barceloneta.

Barceloneta is historically a working-class neighbourhood with low salaries and few public and social facilities, but is now under high touristic pressure. And so the use of the El Segle XX building became a symbolic claim to the municipality.

Since the last decades of the nineteenth century, as part of a wider international movement, cooperatives grew in importance in Barcelona. In Catalonia, cooperatives had their heyday during the democratic period of the Second Republic (1931-1939) when thousands of families became members. Very often, they had their own theatres, bars, and shops. Consumption cooperatives allowed the avoidance of intermediaries between consumers and producers and thus brought urban space closer to the surrounding agricultural environment that fed it.

However, following the military coup that unleashed the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and with the victory of Franco over the Republicans, cooperatives never regained the activity hey had had before. In fact, during the conflict, Barcelona was on the Republican side and Barceloneta was bombed so heavily that it had to be evacuated. El Segle XX was hit by Fascist bombings and reduced to ashes. Although the building was rebuilt after the war, its activity languished during the dictatorship, and most cooperatives were dissolved and their buildings sold. After the cooperative slowly dissolved, the El Segle XX building passed to private hands in the 1990s.

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Leaflet of Barceloneta’s Deleted Geography. Source: Geografia Esborrada de la Barceloneta.

Although the land on which the building is built was categorised by the City Council as a public facility, rumours of private commercial projects for the building started circulating. Already feeling increased pressure from gentrification and tourism, residents were getting uneasy.

In the final days of 2013, two weeks before a scheduled demonstration, an apparently fortuitous fire damaged part of the building. This event fostered a united front of the associations and residents of the quarter, and just a few weeks later, more than 30 organisations signed a statement asking the District to either expropriate or buy the Segle XX building. They also demanded a transparent investigation of the fire and the legal state of the building property, as well as the commitment of the City Council to keep the building categorized as a public facility.

Recording memories, collecting scans of old pictures and newspapers, finding old records or mapping places that have disappeared, residents have found a way to narrate their own story.

At the end of the demonstration in front of the El Segle XX building, several residents intervened by emphasising the historical role of the cooperative in Barceloneta. The march ended with two posters plastered on the wall of the building. One vindicated the historical memory of cooperativism with a quote from 1899; the other was a blank poster to be filled by participants with their ideas for the future uses of the space, under the title “What do we want for El Segle XX?” (“Què volem per al Segle XX?”). In the same fashion, the website of the Barceloneta Cooperative Memory Research Group, whose members had an active role in the march, stated clearly their views on the uses of the memory of cooperativism:

“More than an exercise of historical memory, it comes to us as a memory of the future: the practices of cooperation give us a powerful tool to face a present of cutbacks in social services and to build a shared future”.

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Residents of Barceloneta in front of the El Segle XX building at the end of a demonstration, January 11, 2014. Source: El Periódico.

 

Unearthing stories of the past, reconnecting struggles for the future

In a rapidly changing barri (neighbourhood), with growing pressure from luxury tourism stimulating higher rents and pushing former residents out, associations have resorted to historical research to enhance their struggles. Recording memories, collecting scans of old pictures and newspapers, finding old records or mapping places that have disappeared, residents have found a way to narrate their own story.

As highlighted by activist researcher Emma Alari, participatory mapping has been an essential tool in the neighbourhood’s struggles. Maps were used by Barceloneta’s residents to display the different threats suffered by the neighbourhood. The collaboration with mapping activists Iconoclasistas, who illustrated the dangers faced by the neighbourhood by creating a map for the residents, is a good example of this.

But mapping can also be a historical project. By mapping both long- and recently-disappeared places in “Geografia Esborrada de la Barceloneta” (“Barceloneta’s Deleted Geography”), residents not only narrate their history but configure an emotional geography of the barri, which binds together the stories of squatted houses already demolished with the story of buildings like El Segle XX or the Escola del Mar, a wood-constructed school on the seaside, which was burnt by Fascist bombings during the Spanish Civil War.

Such stories are disseminated by walking and talking together with residents (on organised guided tours), and through making audio recordings available online. These stories weave new connections between the past, the present, and the imagined futures. The guided tours in particular provide chances for interaction between those researching the history of the neighbourhood and their inhabitants, confronting and enriching each other’s stories. Residents’ relations to the space are connected with historical research about its uses by past social movements.

After years of actions and campaigns in the neighbourhood, the Barcelona City Council has finally committed to starting the process of expropriation of the El Segle XX building to give it back to the barri. The struggle, however, is far from over. As the recuperation of the building is close to becoming a reality, the neighbourhood association/assembly  is designing  its own project for the uses of the building through a grassroots process. In a major open meeting in the square, residents wrote their ideas for the future uses of the cooperative building on several large-size copies of the 1939 project drawings to rebuild the cooperative after the war, which had been located in the archives.

Nostalgia, often dismissed as over-romanticization, can also be an emotion connected to transformation and even revolution. Past experiences are opportunities for reinvention, possibilities for alliances across time.

This wasn’t just a practical way to collect all the ideas for the different floors of the building and a reminder of the building’s past. It was also a symbolic gesture: the maps of the project to rebuild El Segle XX after the Fascist bombings and the occupation of Barcelona in 1939 were recycled 76 years later to discuss an alternative future with the barri’s residents. The past can be a resource for imagining alternative futures—in a very material way.

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Planning the future of the El Segle XX cooperative on the base of the 1939 maps located in the municipal archive. Photo by Santiago Gorostiza.

While some would see a gloomy and nostalgic flavour in this struggle, activists explicitly state that they don’t intend to idealise, nor to romanticise, a return to a static lost past. They want to learn lessons about past experiences tried and failed, understand past hopes for imagined futures, explore the daily life and the problems of the neighbourhood in the past and its connections to today. Michael Löwy has suggested that Walter Benjamin used “nostalgia for the past as a revolutionary method for the critique of the present”. Nostalgia, often dismissed as over-romanticization, can also be an emotion connected to transformation and even revolution. Past experiences are opportunities for reinvention, possibilities for alliances across time. Stories like the one told by the El Segle XX building can be, as Italian authors Wu Ming and Vitaliano Ravagli have asserted, “axes of war to be unearthed”.

A version of the article appeared previously on the Entitle Blog. This post is also part of a series sharing chapters from the edited volume Political Ecology for Civil Society. Santiago Gorostiza’s contribution is included in the chapter on social movements. We are eager to receive comments from readers and especially from activists and civil actors themselves, on how this work could be improved, both in terms of useful content, richness of examples, format, presentation and overall accessibility.

Santiago Gorostiza is a PhD candidate trained both as an Environmental Scientist and as a Historian. He investigates socioenvironmental conflicts during the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship. His research interests include urban geography, the environmental history of war and the role of historical research in political ecology.


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Mustachianism, environmentalism, me, and us

The washing machine, like all consumer goods, is a structural issue: blaming consumers alone won't help, we have to tackle the structures that hold them up. Source: Michel Szulc Krzyzanowski
Blaming consumers alone won’t help, consumption goods (like washing machines) are held up by much larger structures. Photo credit: michel szulc krzyzanowski, www.szulc.info

by Simon Vansintjan

Two years ago a friend tweeted this article from the Mr. Money Mustache backlog. The author preaches a gospel that struck me as true – if you’re privileged, and you’re in a lucky position to have a steady income, and you can be comfortable in that knowledge, than through frugality, research, and understanding, you can reach financial independence fairly easily. When that happens, you can focus on the things that you think are really important.

The overall message: you too can curb your consumerism and finally be free of the system and the shackles.

I’ve been a fan of Mr. Money Mustache and I appreciate how he’s teaching people to game the system. It’s a philosophy of stripped-down needs, making do with what you have, and enjoying what is available to you. It’s stoicism as an antidote to the consumer rat-race we’re in.

When MMM enthusiastically talks about “the natural conclusion” of everyone becoming Mustachian – a breakdown of a system that relies and runs on consumerism – I happily cheer him on. Ultimately his focus on monetary wealth is only to get free of concerns from that monetary wealth – to pursue other, less financial, riches.

Yet it falls short. Mr. Money Mustache takes the same route many environmental activists and privacy proponents take – one that ultimately puts the blame and burden on us, the people, to individually break free from a culture and mindset that is destroying the world. While the heavy polluting is done by industry, the message is that we should drive our cars less. When the meat and food industry is proving to be unhealthy for the people, we have to become vegetarian and eat less meat. When companies are selling our data, it’s on us to make sure we’re using encrypted channels. When the industry is misogynist, it’s because women aren’t trying hard enough. When the economy was shaky after 9/11, Bush asked people to spend more money to get it going again.

The idea? “Consumers” have created a demand for something and are at fault if it goes wrong. This is blatantly untrue – much of the  demand only exists because of the structure of our industry and because ads are incredibly effective.

Let me diverge on that point for a moment by looking at two products with “great consumer demand”.

The washing machine was first thought up in the 1750s, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that electric washing machines were actually viable. By 1903, ads and newspapers were already heavily discussing the use of washing machines, but it wasn’t until just before World War Two that a significant part of the US population had access to a personal washing machine. Why did it take almost 200 years for the washing machine to become a household staple? Because this so-called high-demand consumer product relied on an infrastructure of detergent use, gender and racial liberalization, consumer prepping through ads, and the development of factories and plants to cheaply produce such products on a large-enough scale that people would actually buy them. The invention of the washing machine was a great thing, but the idea that it was a consumer-driven take-up is false.[1]

The combustion engine was invented in 1886, but the story of the car really starts in the late 1700s. Throughout this period the car industry came across an irritating stumbling-block: inner-city roads belonged to pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages, there was no separation of sidewalk and road, and there were no inter-city roads to drive on for cars. For cars to take off and be useful, the industry had to lobby governments to build roads and push against public dislike of cars (see the Locomotive Act of 1865). It wasn’t until this infrastructure was built and cars had existed within the public consciousness for over a century that they really started to take off[2], and become something beyond just a status symbol. Consumer driven? Hardly.

Whether it’s the car, the washing machine, smart phones[3], or social networks, our willingness to consume a product or live a certain way is the work of millions of dollars in ad campaigns, positive newspaper reviews and stories, and government lobbying.

When the environmentalists, the mustachians, and the privacy campaigners[4] ask you to change your lifestyles – they’re still saying that you’re to blame if you don’t. You’re either a sucker (if you’re not Mustachian), you’re destroying the world (if you’re not an Environmentalist), or you’re giving up your privacy (if you don’t believe in an IndieWeb), etc. etc. etc.

My challenge to all of these people? I’ve checked all of those boxes, I’m not the only one, and yet here we are. We’re still tumbling towards environmental and privacy disasters driven by consumerism. Getting people to focus on changing their habits is great – but is the result that we’re being distracted from bigger problems? That our conversations are being pointed away from where they should be focused?

Individuals are much more powerful together than on their own. This is common sense, and easy to prove:

  • An individual that campaigns for and supports free and open source software development is more powerful than one who encrypts all of their data.
  • An individual that makes an effort to hire marginalized people into their company is more powerful than the one who takes a couple of days out to teach online.
  • An individual that joins their neighborhood to help the less privileged around them get to school is more powerful than the one who sets up an extensive library for their kids.
  • An individual that encourages their police officers to participate in community events for the areas they’re patrolling is more powerful than the one who teaches themselves about social justice.
  • An individual that helps turn industrial cow farms into wind turbines is more powerful than one who turns vegetarian.
  • An individual that politically pursues the construction of bike lanes is more powerful than one that bikes to work every day.

We’re much stronger as a group than as individuals. And this is true about environmentalism, the own-your-own-data-indie web, and Mustachianisms. By dividing our focus into individual efforts, we will never be able to challenge the structure imposed on us by the people who have the money to pummel us with ads and faux-journalism.

More than a change in our habits, we need a structural one.

Simon Vansintjan works as a user experience designer and developer on various open source projects – currently focusing on OpenFarm. He lives in Hanoi, Vietnam.


1. For an in-depth look at this, read The dynamics of willingness to consume ↩

2. A seriously good podcast about The Modern Moloch ↩

3. Smart phones were around for a long time before Apple “optimized” the experience, and even then, the first generation iPhone relied heavily on ads and Apple fans to become popular in the mainstream. Functionally it wasn’t until the second generation iPhone that it started to take off. Nevermind the military funded infrastructure that built the “internet” as we know it today.↩

4. The Indie Foundation. (https://ind.ie/foundation/) ↩