Gilets Jaunes: A slap in the face of our vocabulary

Photo: Aurélien Adoue

by shrese

Since the 17th of November 2018, a very intriguing movement started in France: The Gilets Jaunes (GJ, or yellow vests, after the high visibility vests that participants have been wearing). Much has already been written about this uprising. I am French, but live abroad, and many friends have asked me for my take on it. This is an expanded version of what I have been sending them.

This is not a “history of the movement”, relating its inception and different stages. That can be found elsewhere (although mostly in French). I just want to list some ideas that I have found interesting along the way. You will probably find that some ideas are in contradiction with others. That’s ok. It’s mostly because I am still unsure what to think of this movement. I have not been part of the movement although I have paid a couple of visits to a small group of GJ on a roundabout in a French village I passed through in late December 2018. This was mainly written mid January 2019.


The demography of the movement and its consequences
I am aware of two studies (one by Centre Emile-Durkheim and the other by Collectif Quantité Critique, also see this interview by sociologist Yann Le Lann) on the GJ movement trying to understand who the GJ are and what they want. One of them has been strongly criticised for its methodology and biases. The other one seems more solid statistically but I haven’t come across reviews of it.

However, both of the studies agree that the main demographic component of the GJ are people constituting the “first layer of included”, that is to say, not the poorest in society, but the layer above: workers and employees. Somewhere between the lower middle class and the working class (classes populaires in French sociological jargon). It is notable that for a large number of people (50% according to one study), this is the first social movement they have participated in.

The other main interesting point from these studies is that all political sides are represented in the GJ movement. This seems to be quite a unique feature compared to past movements. The two studies disagree in the numbers, but the most solid one shows (see below): 15% of the participants identify to the Left (shades of red on the left hand side), 11.5% to the Right (blue), 3% in the centre (yellow) and 51% are a-political (neither Left nor Right, dark grey). On the right hand side is shown who the respondents voted for in the first round of the last presidential election. There has been much debate around the influence/role of the far right in the movement. My take on it is that (1) the Far-right (or at least people identifying with the Far-right) has been instrumental in getting the mobilisation off the ground, at least in some regions (2) there are indeed local groups of GJ that are explicitly far right, (3) the National Front (now Rassemblement National) was and still is very strongly supportive of the movement and (4) opinions on migrants usually associated with the far right seem to be widespread in the GJ1. For all these reasons, many who identify as left-wing were quite reluctant to join the GJ on the blockades (at least at the start). I will mention here (as people specifically asked me this question) that there were racialised people on the roundabout I went to visit, as well as in the demo I witnessed in another city. There was also a very interesting call from a decolonial group to join the GJ movement in Paris. So, as far as my experience is concerned, this did not seem to me to be a white-only movement ripe with racism.

Source: Collectif Quantité Critique


What it says about the outdated rhetoric/practices of the Left

I will summarize here (or just plainly translate) one main argument developed in an article especially helpful to decrypt this movement.

The GJ movement, rather than being based on ready-made ideas, or on a shared class consciousness, depends above all on local socialisations, historical or present day, in cafés, associations, sports clubs, housing blocks, the neighbourhood… There are no certainties nor ready-made interpretations of the world, it is constantly on the verge of explosion or dissolution, fluid and adapting, free from the Left’s pathological intellectualism and idealism, and their fantasies of proletariat, historic subject and universal class.

In the same way that the election of Macron was another signal of the crumbling of social-democracy, the GJ movement shows the crumbling of the “communistes, (in)soumis, gauchistes, anarchistes, membres de l’« ultra-gauche » et autres professionnels de la lutte de classes ou porte-paroles radicaux chic” (I wanted to leave the French version here, it reads better. It’s essentially a sarcastic list of the different sections of “the Left”). The tenacity and early victories of the movement reveal the ongoing decomposition of the leftist movements and their obsession and rigidity with their own heritage/practices/language/posture.
Far from being an obstacle, it is precisely the ideological impurity of the mobilisation (which has been decried so much) that has, until now, allowed its extension and rendered obsolete the calls to convergence and unification coming from specialised activists and organisations. To the professionals of the leftist order and of the insurrectionist disorder, the GJ movement simply answers with an invitation to a journey. An invitation to a free participation as whoever one may be, disentangled from the material heaviness and past ideologies of instituted collectives.

On a separate note, it is worth mentioning that this article also suggests a central theme to the movement, mobility. The GJ movement is the first mass politicisation of the ecological question in France. This is why “labor” should not be thought as being at the centre of the situation (as the outdated left keeps on trying to). It reveals the ecological injustices (the rich are way more responsible of the environmental catastrophe than the poor) but mostly, it reveals major differences in relation to mobilité (as in, mobility, circulation, flow or movement, it is a difficult term to translate): “Rather than expressing a social position, it brings up mobility (and its different regimes, constrained or chosen, spread or concentrated) as the principal aim of the mobilisation, and, in blocking it, as the principal instrument of the conflict.”

Photo: Thomas Bresson

Gilets Jaunes, a right wing movement?
Drawing on this last point of “ideological impurity”, some interesting arguments coming from the Left have been made in fierce criticism of the movement. I have found these analyses useful, but I am actually not sure I agree with them.

In essence, the idea goes like this:

  • This movement shows a strong rejection of political parties, unions and “the system” in general,

  • In the polls, as well as reclaimed by numerous GL themselves, the category defined as “a-political” (neither Right nor Left) has strongly emerged,

These two characteristics reproduce, or are reminiscent of, the neoliberal project, a project that:

  • Aims at delegitimising (and destroying) the institutions of regulations of the economy, the unions, the social security and the welfare state in general

  • Is hammering in our consciousness that politics is dead, ideologies are useless, there are no limits to anything (“nothing is real!” as the parody of postmodernism goes).

Another way to put it is that the GJ is the mirror response to Macron who, during his election campaign, presented himself as the theoretician of the “en même temps” (“at the same time”), as in: I am on the Left and on the Right at the same time, implying that these are old and useless categories, the “Old World” as he put it.

When there is no -ism, we adopt colours”: the yellow vests, the red hats (another past struggle in France), the Orange revolutions in Eastern Europe, the red scarves (the recent counter-GJ mobilisation in Paris)… This absence of political tradition could also explain why so much of the imaginary of the French revolution is called upon during the movement: a return to basics (ie, to the official history learnt at school).

A further interpretation is to find similarities between the GJ and what is now deemed as “populist” (commentators tend to put all sorts in this populist bag: “illiberal” democracies, Brexit, Trump, Orbán, Putin, Mélenchon, Podemos etc.). The similarity lies here in this shared narrative of the “good” people set against the corrupt elite/cast, the rejection of the “system”. What some see as problematic is that, here, the “people” is seen as some sort of a homogeneous group, and the main confrontation in society is between the people and this “elite”. The other lines of potential conflict (class, sex, race…) are not considered, hidden or consciously put to the side.

This is more or less what I was told on the roundabout: “We do not talk about the sensitive stuff”. In contradiction to that, I did witness discussions on “hot topics” (sexism for example) in that same group, and even though there were some quite contradictory points of views expressed, there was an amount of care, ability to listen, non-judgement and non-resentment that exceeded a lot of the activism-related spaces I have been into. The people I talked to said that they wanted to avoid arguing because they want to be as open as possible, and they do not want to be divided. As if the fact of being together on the roundabout meant much more than the political identity of the group and/or its demands.

These three aspects (the vision of the people as a homogeneous group where the only line of contradiction is with the “elite”, the self-identification as “a-political”, and the rejection of ideologies) is also problematic for another researcher, Samuel Hayat. For him, it is an imaginary where politics is replaced by a series of policies, the neoliberal dream. Both the GJ and neoliberalism are telling us that we should rid ourselves of ideologies, and that politics should be seen as a list of problems to solve, separated questions to answer, boxes to tick. Another problematic aspect of this is the denial of the positive role of conflicts and contradictions within a movement and for “democracy”. However, Hayat is on the whole very supportive of the movement and hopes it will find a way to use its internal contradictions to build power.

Some on the Left push this interpretation to the extreme, for example the Collectif Athéné Nyctalope. They see the GJ movement as essentially reactionary. They interpret the original impetus of the movement, and most of its demands (including the now most visible one: the inscription of a kind of Citizens’ referendum in the French constitution), as owing to the Far-right. Because portions of the Left are supporting/taking part in the movement, this would be tantamount to making alliances with the Far right and fascists, basically using the principle that “the end justifies the means”. As a support to this view, this collective draws extensive comparisons between the GJ movement and the M5S in Italy.

In this vein, the following point is also interesting. To increase one’s available income, there are two main options: increase your pay, or decrease your tax. The GJ have mostly focused on decreasing taxes, which could be argued is a typical right-wing demand, facilitating the kind of disturbing alliances seen on the ground (with shop owners, heads of small companies, local right-wing politicians, far-right…).

Its tactics, practices and “victories”

The blockades

As far as I know, these were used on the roads/highways, at tolls and, most famously, at roundabouts (which are very numerous in France). This tactic of blocking the fluxes (transport of goods, people, money, information…) was particularly pushed by the Invisible Committee (see The coming insurrection and the Chapter “Power is Logistic. Block Everything!” in To our friends), and it is now particularly interesting to see it taken up so “naturally”. So you could say: “the Invisible Committee was right!” or “the GJ are highly politically conscious of the situation and know what to do to influence it”.

Decentralisation

This has been the practice as much during the big national days of action in Paris (every Saturday since the start of the movement), as well as at the national scale. In Paris, as far as I could gather, there was no real central banner, no head of the demo, no core group, no stewards (this has actually changed recently, with main banners and some sort of stewarding in places, but the last Saturday in Paris still saw five independent demos). The level of militancy reached very high levels, including in previously untouched areas of Paris (even in the protests of 1968, the rich quarters of Paris stayed intact). But Paris has not been the centre of the movement by any stretch. All regions, cities and towns of France had their group of GJ, strongly anchored in their territory. It has so far been impossible to establish some kind of physical, organisational or even symbolic centre to this movement.

Refusal of representation

A reflection of this decentralisation is the knee-jerk reaction of hatred by the GJ for any attempts at representation (no legitimate representatives, no official spokespersons etc.). Despite many efforts, self-proclaimed leaders have so far been quickly de-legitimised and even threatened, unions and political parties very much pushed to the side. Some interesting calls for coordination (as in, not convergence nor unity nor centralisation) were proposed, but I don’t know how much they were followed and how big the risk of institutionalisation/recuperation would be if they were2.

Victories

Because of all this, the media don’t doesn’t know how to report on all this. Most of the GJ are not the usual suspects of social movements/unrests (lefty activists, students, trade unions, the youth of the banlieues etc.), so journalists are lost and cannot use their usual clichés. They don’t know what to say, nor how to understand it. The movement is really popular and enjoy large support (even after the very riotous Saturdays) so it’s difficult for them to completely bash it. As there is no central organisation or official spokespersons, the media need to go to random people to know what’s happening. So you end up hearing voices, accents, seeing bodies that you never find in the media. This is the case in terms of class, but also of gender. Indeed, official representatives of social movements tend to be mostly men, therefore women are more visible now than in previous movements. The previously cited studies show that there are as many women as men involved in this movement, there has even been a Women’s GJ demo on Sunday 7th January.

I have never seen a government showing so much fear. They talked about insurrection, an unprecedented crisis, a toppling of the republic, about risks of death during demos, they warned and even threatened people not to go to the national days of action in Paris. Of course, the rhetoric of fear could also just be an act, but it’s the first time I have witnessed this. The repression is extremely violent, fierce (many documented severe injuries due to shots of rubber bullets to the face, for example) and orwellian (thousands of pre-emptive arrests on charges such as “gathering with the intent of committing violence”), this could also be a sign of fear. The government also seems totally lost with the decentralised aspect of the movement: They tried to get delegates to come and negotiate with them. So some self-proclaimed people went, but were immediately repudiated online by other GJ. However, interesting to note, when these self-proclaimed spokespersons had their meetings with ministers and others, they filmed and livestreamed it, which was a first.

To stay on the subject of the repression, there is something with the GJ movement and its relation to the police that seems quite interesting to me. As already mentioned, the movement shows a wide diversity of political opinions, including far-right people. Therefore, a lot of people on the blockades do not necessarily share this natural hatred of the police, they may see them as their “comrades”, talk to them, feel connected to them (although I’m not sure how widespread this still is after the violent police repression). On top of that, as the GJ can hardly be perceived as the usual suspects of social movements, it must be confusing for some police to bash at people they would never expect to face (including other fascists). Is it possible that at some point some police will refuse to keep on gassing and beating them up?3 It is also interesting to hear police unions saying that they are at breaking point, exhausted etc. (they even threatened to start their own movement in December and got immediate pay rises).

Photo: Patrice Catalayu

Conclusions

To conclude, it could be argued that the GJ have a very acute strategic sense of the political situation. A first sign of this are the actual victories/retreats from Macron that the movement achieved. These are more impressive than most of the concessions secured by the social movements I can think of in the last three decades (even though, given what is at stake, they are of course pretty insignificant).

This is without mentioning the other kind of victories: the level of militancy and confrontational practices, the obvious fear instilled in the government and the state (hard to measure how much businesses and neoliberal proponents were scared), the social question put at the forefront of the ecological question (i.e., the ecological transition has to include the social question, not just increase tax on fuel that will mostly impact on the poorest without any systemic change), the significant and meaningful human relations (and “political consciousness” for lack of a better word) created during the movement.

Let’s focus a bit more on this latter point. This was very much confirmed by my visit to the roundabout. Not only were the local groups of GJ based on already existing relations (neighbourhood, village, social or sport clubs, families…), but what seemed to be essential to the people there was to finally get to talk to new people around them, break the isolation, discover each other: “I don’t know them but we talk to each other”. Anything that helps us filling the emotional desert we find ourselves in everyday… even better when it’s in confrontation with a system, or rather, a mode of life. One GJ said on a TV debate: “Mais tout est scandaleux ! – But everything is outrageous!” when asked what kind of reform the government should make to appease the movement. I loved this. It’s about everything, the way we live, the way we relate to others and the world around us… (I realise that I am here suggesting what could be “the” central question of the GJ movement, but actually I’m struggling to find the usefulness of debating this central question. Everything has already been said and proposed anyway: mobility, recognition of work, arrogance of the elite, feeling of not being listened to and humiliated, living in regions abandoned by the state, contraction of wages and “spending power”, populist/far right agenda…).

Following from this, a useful text argues that, because the spirit of a movement sits more in its tactics/practices than in its demands/ideas, the GJ movement has brought to the forefront the political potency of the localité (locality in English, the text also uses the term commune). As already mentioned, the localité is where the movement started, but the movement also “made it the central point of emancipatory politics again”. It is the “potential nucleus of a coming political subjectification, antagonist to the present and future spheres of representation”.

Shrese is from France, has lived abroad the last decade and is sometimes involved in the housing movement, amongst other things. He likes the Invisible Committee a lot and tries really hard to not treat their books as the bible.

1. This is based on a general impression and on one of the questions asked in the study of the Collectif Quantité Critique: 48% of respondents think that, when it comes to employment, priority should be given to a French person over a legal migrant. So all in all, my point (4) may not be so strong.

2. As an update, as of the 29th January 2019, it seems that this initiative was a success, at least in terms of number of collective present (75), but from the sound of it, the discussions sounded complicated.

3. There has already been signs of solidarity to the GJ by the police. Eric Hazan says that the successful uprisings are the ones where, at one point, some police/army forces have flipped in favour of the movement.

December readings

Photo by Abdulmonam Eassa, via ROAR Magazine

 

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

This list marks a full year of monthly readings! Thank you for all those who subscribed. We would like to take this moment to ask you if you have any feedback on this series. Is it too long? What do you like about it, what don’t you like about it? Let us know via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or at info@unevenearth.org.

We didn’t spend much time online during December festivities, so this list is shorter than usual, but we still found great reads to share. We once again saw an uptick in discussions on a “Green New Deal”, this time less so in lefty corners of the Internet, but in mainstream culture, with the launching of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into the spotlight. Of course, we highlight a few of the best “takes” on the yellow vest movement in France, including one we published. We also saw some interesting discussion, and criticism, of eco-primitivism.

 

Uneven Earth updates

A new North American network emerges from the grassroots | Link | Announcing a congress of municipal movements

Time for the subaltern to speak | Link | The movement against waste incineration in Can Sant Joan, Catalonia

The 8th of December, the end of the month, and the end of the world | Link | The yellow vest movement shows us the potential of a “convergence des luttes” to demand a just ecological transition

Why we need alternatives to development | Link | An excerpt from the forthcoming book Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary

 

Top 5 articles to read

The fallout.  “Dawn, this is the United States of America,” her husband said. “The government doesn’t just leave radioactive waste lying around.”

Which municipalism? Let’s be choosy

How millennials became the burnout generation. I couldn’t figure out why small, straightforward tasks on my to-do list felt so impossible. The answer is both more complex and far simpler than I expected.

How plastic is a function of colonialism

No collision. In the face of climate apocalypse, the rich have been devising escape plans. What happens when they opt out of democratic preparation for emergencies?

 

News you might’ve missed

How TigerSwan infiltrated Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline movement

Spiked online funded by the Koch Foundation. Why are the billionaire Koch brothers funding Spiked, whose origins lie in the Revolutionary Communist Party?

A ‘gold rush’ at the bottom of the ocean could be the final straw for ecosystems

The threat to Rojava: An anarchist in Syria speaks on the real meaning of Trump’s withdrawal

All out against Bolsonaro!: An appeal from Brazil

Norway stands accused of waging cultural war against Sami people by forcing them to reduce their reindeer herds (see also Pile o´Sápmi—an artwork against forced culling)

 

Radical municipalism

Reflections on Olympia Assembly: An experiment in popular power

Goma’s non-violent movement for water & peace in war-torn Congo

The suburbs are the spiritual home of overconsumption. But they also hold the key to a better future

 

New politics

Twelve uplifting stories from indigenous peoples in 2018

Decolonize the frontiers: The Mississippi Delta

Extinction Rebellion – in or out?

Extinction Rebellion: Notes from an old white man

Growth pessimism, but degrowth optimism

We need an ecological civilization before it’s too late

 

Where we’re at: analysis

Environmental populisms – alongside and beyond (state) authority. Rather than (only) critiquing and dismissing existing uses of ‘the people’ as insufficient, political ecology could contribute to a new international populism capable of upholding climate justice.

The new autocrats: How democracy helps leaders consolidate power

Do red and green mix?. Michael Löwy responds to roundtable on his essay, “Why ecosocialism: For a red-green guture.”

Fear of cultural loss fuelling anger with elites across Europe

 

Just think about it…

Unhinged GDP growth could actually destroy the economy, economists find

Wild and domestic. Wendell Berry on the language of “wilderness”.

The dark side of disarmament: Ocean pollution, peace, and the World Wars

 

Green new deal

We can pay for a Green New Deal

Winona LaDuke calls for Indigenous-led “Green New Deal” as she fights Minnesota Pipeline expansion

A Green New Deal must be rooted in a just transition for workers and communities most impacted by climate change

 

Yellow vest movement

“The gilets jaunes have blown up the old political categories”

Paris/Maidan

The guillotine: yellow vest protests in France and Cyntoia Brown

Five notes on the yellow vest movement

Macron’s climate tax is a disaster

 

Eco-primitivism and its critics

The unlikely new generation of unabomber acolytes

The ableist logic of primitivism: A critique of “ecoextremist” thought

The preppers are coming to town

 

Climate and culture

Why climate change is causing “eco-anxiety,” grief, and mental health issues

Hopepunk, explained: the storytelling trend that weaponizes optimism

Announcing “better worlds”. 10 original fiction stories, five animated adaptations, and five audio adaptations by a diverse roster of science fiction authors who take a more optimistic view of what lies ahead in ways both large and small, fantastical and everyday.

 

This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Want to receive this as a newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

A new North American network emerges from the grassroots

 

Symbiosis, an expanding network of revolutionary organizers and local initiatives, is assembling a confederation of democratic community institutions across North America. This project has been gathering support over the past year and will be launched at a continental congress in Detroit from September 18-22.

The emerging network consists of diverse groups and member organizations, from Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi to Olympia Assembly in Washington, who are participating out of a recognition of the need to carry the movement for radical democracy beyond the local level. “It is imperative that any groups or organizations moving in a social or economic sense on the vision we share for a democratic and ecologically sound world not struggle on their own, but instead under a global support system aimed at both dismantling our exploitative socioeconomic system (Capitalism), and building a democratic, cooperative system in its place. Symbiosis is in a position to build this support system,” said Z of Black Socialists of America (BSA), one of BSA’s co-founders.

On January 7, Symbiosis released a launch statement announcing the congress, initially signed by 14 organizations. “Over the course of the past year,” it stated, “our organizations have been strengthening our relationships with one another, learning from each other, generating shared resources, and honing a common vision of how to create together the genuinely democratic world that we need.”

Beyond the shared vision of radical democracy and egalitarianism, what unites these groups is a common political strategy, of building institutions of popular power from below to challenge and replace the governing institutions of capitalist society. “We have to move beyond the limitations of bourgeois democracy, particularly its representative forms, which intentionally limit the agency and power of communities and individuals in our societies. To get beyond these limitations we have to build democratic formations and practices in every facet of our lives—where we work, live, play, and pray—and utilize these formations to exercise dual power, that is utilizing our own power and agency to govern our own lives beyond the limitations imposed upon us by the state and the forces of capital,” says Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson. A shared commitment to building ‘dual power’ unites the member organizations of Symbiosis.

At the 2019 congress, delegates from grassroots organizations across North America will gather to form a confederation between their groups, to grow and coordinate a movement that can bring about a just, ecological, and free society.

“The problems we face today require a bold and unified response,” said Brian Tokar of the Institute for Social Ecology, a member organization and sponsor of the event. “We face the rising threats of authoritarianism and inequality, structural forms of domination between the haves and the have-nots, and the scapegoating and oppression of immigrants and people of color. And we also know that the destabilization of the climate and the fossil-fueled destruction of the Earth’s life support systems play a central role in all the problems we face.”

The idea behind the confederation is that these formidable challenges are insurmountable for individuals and small groups. “By coming together, we can better recognize and organize the changes necessary to secure our future more than what any of us can do at the local level,” said Kelly Roache, a co-founder of Symbiosis. A common platform would also allow this growing movement to pool resources, raise their public visibility, and seed new organizing initiatives.

The congress will prioritize local, democratically-run movements and organizations that are building new economic and political institutions, such as people’s assemblies, tenant unions, and cooperatives. Local groups are invited to join the congress and sign on to the launch statement, and individuals can also join as members.

In April 2017, members of the Symbiosis Research Collective published the essay, “Community, Democracy, and Mutual Aid: Toward Dual Power and Beyond”, which won first prize in the Next System Project essay competition. Journalist and author Naomi Klein, who reviewed the essay, said that the Symbiosis vision “sketches out a flexible roadmap for scaling up participatory democracy”.

Over the past year, the network has grown to over 300 individual members, in addition to the 14 member and partner organizations who have signed onto the launch statement thus far. The Symbiosis Research Collective has also published an ongoing series of articles reaching an audience of over 23,000 readers. In July 2018, Symbiosis co-coordinated the Fearless Cities North America conference (NYC), which convened 300 municipalist activists from the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Europe, and Latin America. In December 2018, they started a crowdfunder to fund the congress.

Currently, members are working on developing resources and information for people who wish to begin organizing where they live and work. “By the time of the congress, the Symbiosis Research Collective will have put together an in-depth primer on community organizing and dual power institution-building, including important historical examples, practical guides, and the theoretical underpinnings of our revolutionary project,” said Mason Herson-Hord, another co-founder of Symbiosis and co-coordinator of the research collective.

In their launch statement, these authoring organizations write that the congress is only the beginning. “Ultimately, we will need such a confederation to carry our struggle beyond the local level. Ruling-class power is organized globally, and if democracy is to win, we must be organized at that scale as well. As this project advances, the possibilities are endless.”

Symbiosis is a network of community organizations across North America, building a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. Find out more and contact us at symbiosis-revolution.org or info@symbiosis-revolution.org.

The 8th of December, the end of the month, and the end of the world

“End of the world, end of the month, same struggle. Photo: Il Est Encore Temps on Twitter

by Anya Verkamp and Riccardo Mastini

Saturday 8 December 2018 is a day that will likely go down in history for many social movements. The streets of many European cities were filled with demonstrations against the most pressing social issues of our time: growing inequality, useless mega infrastructural projects, and climate breakdown. While these issues may seem unrelated, they have common origins in neoliberalism.

The demonstrations that most captured the collective imaginary and the headlines are those of the gilets jaunes – or ‘yellow vests’ – in France. The past five weekends have seen protests rising against Macron’s government. Although the movement was sparked by a new tax on petrol, the ‘fuel’ keeping the movement alive is  resentment towards ‘the President of the rich’ who recently reduced the solidarity tax on wealth, an iconic policy of French socialism.

Other notable resistance protests marking that weekend include those in Italy against the ‘useless mega infrastructural projects’ such as the TAV, TAP and the MUOS military antenna – major proposals of private industrial infrastructure that devastate ecosystems and the health of citizens. The TAV is an example of how transport becomes a threat to ecology and society when privatized rather than run as a public service. The TAV is the result of a historic wave of the neoliberalization of transport, energy and telecommunications industries, through the privatization and deregulation of publicly-owned enterprises.

The Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Jackets”) taking over the Champs-Elysées, Paris. Photo: Christophe Becker on Flickr

At the same moment, international policy-makers convened in Katowice, Poland to negotiate how to implement the Paris Agreement at the COP24 UN climate conference. Or, in the case of some parties, such as the US, Russia, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, the conference was about negotiating how not to implement the Paris Agreement. For delegates of poorer nations and small island states in the Pacific that are on the frontlines of climate change, the objective was to negotiate their own survival. This year could be the last opportunity for international policy-makers to take the necessary measures to avoid climate apocalypse. The result has been an unprecedented wave of climate marches in recent weekends, including the biggest some countries have ever seen.

It is therefore evident that ecological issues are an ever-stronger underlining force for many social movements. Ironically, it is precisely in France – whose President was recently recognized as a UN “Champion of the Earth” – where it has become evident how the neoliberal establishment privileges the wealthy through climate policy while neglecting the working class.

As human ecologist Andreas Malm argues, Macron is today the champion of neoliberal rhetoric on climate change in upholding the tenet that all individuals are indiscriminately responsible for climate change and must be encouraged to consume sustainably through the imposition of value-added taxes (VAT). Such is the logic behind the fuel tax initially proposed by the French government. However, an increase in VAT is the most regressive way to drive the ecological transition we need. This is because the tax assumes that purchasing power is equal for all citizens. The real impact of the tax would be felt in the wallets of the poorest citizens who cannot afford to abandon their old vehicles – their only lifeline to access work and services in rural areas where public transport is sorely lacking.  Meanwhile, overall C02 emissions would remain substantially unchanged since the wealthy can afford the tax and the poor have no other transport option but to keep driving.

Police firing tear-gas on protestors in Paris. Photo: Olivier Ortelpa on Flickr

This is why the streets of Paris have been ringing with the chant “The end of the world and the end of the month, same perpetrators, same struggle”. In response to the protests, Naomi Klein tweeted, “Neoliberal climate action passes on the costs to working people, offers them no better jobs or services + lets big polluters off the hook. People see it as a class war, because it is.”  As an example of how taxes should target the big polluters, we need only consider aviation transport in France. , While the car is the most widespread means of transport among all social classes, 75% of French people never fly and half of the total domestic flights in France are made by just 2% of the population, presumably the upper classes. Yet kerosene, the fuel used for commercial airliners, is not taxed. Higher taxes on kerosene would be a way to reduce emissions quickly and more fairly.

The climate crisis has its roots in the rapid accumulation of capital wealth associated with burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow. Continued centralization of decision-making within a neoliberal order can only offer solutions such as the construction of new pipelines for natural gas, the TAV, and the fuel tax.  Instead, the ecological transition must also be a social transition, and a quick one at that. The IPCC special report on 1.5°C warming warns us we must halve global emissions in the next 12 years and reduce them to zero by the middle of the century.

TAV street protests in Turin, Italy. Photo: EYE DJ on Flickr

Maybe we can give Macron some hints in the right direction. To ensure mobility and energy access in times of transition, we must return them to public oversight with devoted resources commensurate to the urgency of climate breakdown. This requires a massive expansion of affordable public transport in the urban, semi-urban periphery, and rural areas, with support of alternative forms of transport, such as bicycles and electric carpooling. We must also bring the electrical grid under democratic control through nationalization, or still better municipalization, to encourage the supply of renewable, locally-managed energy sources. Preferably, this public management would be coupled with advances in participatory democracy at the municipal level. A great example is Barcelona Energía, the city’s new publicly owned grid of renewable energy soon to supply 20,000 homes, implemented under the municipalist politics of Barcelona en Comú. 

It would be useful if the automotive industry was ordered to transform its industrial production for what we need: wind turbines, solar panels, electric bicycles, trams, etc. Just as the American automobile factories were converted to churn out tanks in World War II by order of the Roosevelt administration, so today they could be converted to supply the technology needed for a renewable energy transition.

More and more progressives around the world – from Corbyn to Sanders – are already following Roosevelt’s footsteps by calling for a Green New Deal, as a government led investment in low-carbon infrastructure, providing training and employment so that the energy transition simultaneously tackles income inequality. To finance this new era of large public investments, we need more progressive taxation since a close correlation exists between wealth and quantity of emissions. This will be necessary to take back the private wealth accumulated in recent decades to avoid the socio-economic and ecological collapse that climate change guarantees. 

But these issues won’t be a priority for the European ruling class, unless the people force a change in the agenda of the ruling class. Another important lesson of the past few weeks is that any progress on the climate front will only come from public pressure. This does not refer only to street demonstrations, but acts of civil disobedience like those carried out in central London in November by the Extinction Rebellion movement. As long as Macron or other European leaders of the current neoliberal ruling class are unwilling to implement the measures required for system change, mass direct action must continue to demand it. A convergence des luttes is essential for shaping a common vision and catalyzing political action.

Anya Verkamp is an activist and media producer on environmental justice, political ecology, and a just transition. You can follow her on Twitter.

Riccardo Mastini is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

November readings

Photo illustration by Matt Dorfman. Source photograph: Bridgeman Images.


Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

This month had no shortage of good writing from around the web. The migration debate and the Green New Deal dominated the news, as well as some of the fallout from Jair Bolsonaro’s recent election. We also saw many articles advancing the debate on whether livestock can be sustainable. As usual, we collected the latest news in degrowth and radical municipalism, and found some fun stories on and by science fiction writers.

 

Uneven Earth updates

How circular is the circular economy? | Link | Why this proposed solution is little more than a magic trick

Why libertarian municipalism is more needed today than ever before | Link | To fight fascism and climate change, the left must rebuild political life

Techno-fantasies and eco-realities | Link | What role does technology play in our ecologically sustainable future, and how do we get there?

 

Top 5 articles to read

Legacies crucial for the commons. Why Gandhi and Marx are more relevant now than ever before, by Ashish Kothari.

The typical workplace is a dictatorship. But it doesn’t have to be. Socialists and progressives have a variety of ideas to bring democracy into the workplace.

Maintenance and care. A working guide to the repair of rust, dust, cracks, and corrupted code in our cities, our homes, and our social relations.

Apocalyptic climate reporting completely misses the point. Recent news commentary ignored the UN climate report’s cautiously optimistic findings.

Escaping the iron cage of consumerism. “If consumption plays such a vital role in the construction and maintenance of our social world, then asking people to give up material commodities is asking them to risk a kind of social suicide.”

 

News you might’ve missed

Modern slave ships overfish the oceans. “Seafood caught illegally or under conditions of modern slavery is laundered by mixing it with legally caught fish before it enters the supply chain.”

After a long boom, an uncertain future for big dam projects. The rise of wind and solar power, coupled with the increasing social, environmental and financial costs of hydropower projects, could spell the end of an era of big dams. But even anti-dam activists say it’s too early to declare the demise of large-scale hydro.

Invisibility is the modern form of racism against Native Americans. “I’ve never seen Native people in media at all.”

Policies of China, Russia and Canada threaten 5C climate change, study finds. Ranking of countries’ goals shows even EU on course for more than double safe level of warming

Denmark plans to isolate ‘unwanted’ migrants on remote island. Taking inspiration from the Australian immigration system, the Danish centre-right government together with the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party have proposed yet another anti-migrant measure.

Mapping Europe’s war on immigration. Europe has built a fortress around itself to protect itself from ‘illegal’ immigration from the South, from peoples fleeing civil war, conflict and devastating poverty. The story is best understood through maps.

Inside geoengineers’ risky plan to block out the sun. Some scientists say it’s necessary to save the climate. An indigenous-led opposition says it will only save the fossil fuel economy.

The insect apocalypse is here. What does it mean for the rest of life on Earth?

Exclusive: The Pentagon’s massive accounting fraud exposed. “In all, at least a mind-boggling $21 trillion of Pentagon financial transactions between 1998 and 2015 could not be traced, documented, or explained, concluded Skidmore. To convey the vastness of that sum, $21 trillion is roughly five times more than the entire federal government spends in a year. It is greater than the US Gross National Product, the world’s largest at an estimated $18.8 trillion.”

Extremes of heat will hit health and wealth. A new and authoritative study warns of an “overwhelming impact” on public health just from extremes of heat as the world continues to warm.

Why covering the environment is one of the most dangerous beats in journalism. “In both wealthy and developing countries, journalists covering these issues find themselves in the cross-hairs. Most survive, but many undergo severe trauma, with profound effects on their careers.”

 

Migration

New maps of land destruction show why caravans flee Central America. Detailed maps show worldwide land degradation, including the deforestation that is now forcing migrants to leave Guatemala and Honduras.

A century of U.S. intervention created the immigration crisis. Those seeking asylum today inherited a series of crises that drove them to the border

If we want to survive on this planet, we need to abandon the cause of the nation state. If we really care for the fate of the people who comprise our nation, our motto should be: America last, China last, Russia last, says Slavoj Zizek.

 

Resistance in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Brazil’s next president threatens the people and forests of the Amazon. Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil’s presidential election could be a disaster for the Amazon, but his opponents can unite.

Stop eco-Apartheid: The Left’s challenge in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. The horrors threatened by Brazil’s new president are compounded by a potential war on the Amazon. It is up to the left to build a coalition capable of overcoming it.

In the Amazon rainforest, this tribe may just save the whole world. The Surui in Brazil are fending off illegal ranchers, gold miners and loggers. Their weapons: boots on the ground, satellite images and smartphones.

Tax havens and Brazilian Amazon deforestation linked: study

4 indigenous leaders on what Bolsonaro means for Brazil

 

The great grazing debate

In these times has published a series of articles discussing whether cattle can be sustainable:

We can fight climate change and still eat beef. How grass-fed cattle can sequester carbon and rebuild soil.

Climate-friendly beef is a myth. Don’t buy it. There’s no way around it: Take on the meat industry or face ecological disaster.

Anything cows can do, elk can do better. Most sustainable food models rely on domesticated animals. They don’t need to—and shouldn’t.

From Dayton Martindale, editor at In these times: “Paige Stanley argues that it is imprecise to demonize the meat industry with a broad brush, given that carefully managed grazing can provide certain ecological benefits; Jennifer Molidor that this is mostly irrelevant to the actually existing meat industry in this country, including the vast majority of grass-fed beef–the situation requires collective action against animal agriculture; and Nassim Nobari that even if Paige Stanley is right about the benefits of grazing, there are ethical and ecological reasons not to commodify those grazers and breed them for slaughter–the solution, she says, is a mix of rewilding and vegan agroecology.”

And from around the web…

The landscape of the U.S. could be part of its climate solution

Livestock’s contribution to the 1.5˚C Pathway. Where transformation is needed

 

Radical municipalism

A government from below. Political revolution is a process, not an event – and we can start it now by creating new institutions wherever we live and work.

Rebel Cities 16: Cape Town housing movement uses Occupy tactics to battle Apartheid’s legacy

How local communities can transition to sustainable energy systems

The suburbs are changing. But not in all the ways liberals hope. Though Democrats dominated the suburbs in the midterms, some of those gains may be fragile.

Single-family housing upholds the patriarchy and hurts moms

Automated vehicles can’t save cities.

Triumph of the commons: how public spaces can help fight loneliness. A decline in common, community space is helping drive social isolation

On the frontline: Loneliness and the politics of austerity.

California’s “Yimbys”. The growth machine’s Shock Troops

 

Degrowth

The politics of post-growth. The Post-Growth 2018 conference at the European Parliament marked a milestone in the history of the post-growth debate, which has predominantly been contained within academic circles. In the first part of a two-part interview, Riccardo Mastini discusses the possibilities and challenges for imagining a world beyond growth with two key post-growth thinkers at the conference. In part two, they trace the history that led to growth being prized above all else and discuss how to conceptualise a future beyond growth. What does this mean for capitalism as we know it?

An economy that does not grow? While it may be clear that the wager on endless growth is a bad one, a more difficult question arises: “what would be the characteristics of an economy that does not grow?”

Faustian economics. Hell hath no limits.

Degrowth as a concrete utopia. Economic growth can’t reduce inequalities; it merely postpones confronting exploitation, a review of Giorgos Kallis’ book, Degrowth.

Here’s a simple solution to the green growth / degrowth debate. The evidence piles up.  And in the face of this evidence, proponents of green growth begin to turn to fairy tales.

Giorgos Kallis’ Degrowth. Rethinking our economic paradigms is an urgent and fundamentally important task. Giorgos Kallis’ new book Degrowth is adding to a joint endeavour of postgrowth thinking, CUSP PhD candidate Sarah Hafner finds. It offers both, a justification as well as a vision and new imaginary for the degrowth agenda.

Degrowth is the radical post-Brexit future the UK needs

 

New politics

A complete idiot’s guide to the Imaginary Party. At the current moment, the size of the Imaginary Party in the US is nearly 200 million people, constituting the vast majority.

The ‘new’ climate politics of Extinction Rebellion? Creating a movement that can have the impact XR aims for will require confronting the political as well as the moral challenges posed by climate change.

The illegitimacy of the ruling class. Americans are losing faith in governance by the elite.

Libertarian municipalism & Murray Bookchin’s legacy

Be careful with each other. How activist groups can build trust, care, and sustainability in a world of capitalism and oppression

I used to argue for UBI. then I gave a talk at Uber.

Why we need alternatives to development

 

Green new deal

Ocasio-Cortez-backed Green New Deal sees surprising momentum in House.

With a Green New Deal, here’s what the world could look like for the next generation

Canada needs its own Green New Deal. Here’s what it could look like. An Indigenous perspective.

Beyond the Green New Deal

To slow down climate change, we need to take on capitalism. When widely read Anglophone climate fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson tries to imagine non-fossil post-capitalism through a Green New Deal, his imagination takes him to a romanticized version of present-day Scandinavia.

An agro-ecological Europe by 2050: a credible scenario, an avenue to explore

 

Where we’re at: analysis

The writing of “Silent Spring”: Rachel Carson and the culture-shifting courage to speak inconvenient truth to power

Don’t get fooled again! Unmasking two decades of lies about Golden Rice

Fascism, ecology, and the tangled roots of anti-modernism

Populism without the people. On Chantal Mouffe’s latest book.

But see also… Exiting the ‘realm of facts’: A plea for climate agonism, “Why would anyone make an argument based on premises they themselves do not hold? Providing the answer is Chantal Mouffe, a Belgian political theorist largely credited with helping foster the intellectual renaissance currently taking place on the European left.”

David Attenborough has betrayed the living world he loves. By downplaying our environmental crisis, the presenter’s BBC films have generated complacency, confusion and ignorance. But… David Attenborough: collapse of civilisation is on the horizon. Naturalist tells leaders at UN climate summit that fate of world is in their hands.

 

Just think about it…

China’s Silk Road is laying ground for a new Eurasian order

Why the Enlightenment was not the age of reason

A vexing question: why do men recycle less than women?

Blockchain study finds 0.00% success rate and vendors don’t call back when asked for evidence. Where is your distributed ledger technology now?

They thought they were free: The Germans, 1933-1945. An excerpt from the 1955 book by Milton Mayer about the gradual rise of fascism: “To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop.”

Here’s why focusing on money misses the big climate picture. If an asteroid was going to hit the Earth in 2030, we wouldn’t be justifying the cost of the space mission to blast it out of the sky. We’d be repurposing factories, inventing entire new industries, and steering the global economy toward solving the problem as quickly and as effectively as we can — no matter the cost.

The concept creep of ‘emotional labor’. The term has become a central part of an important conversation about the division of household work. But the sociologist who coined it says it’s being used incorrectly.

Culture and nature in the epic of Gilgamesh

The case against cruises. Cruises are increasingly popular, but they raise safety and environmental concerns.

Indian folklore and environmental ethics. Storytelling and collective reflection can enrich efforts in environmental restoration.

Modern life is rubbish. We must recognize excessive waste for what it is: a shocking loss of resources at the cost of our environment, engineered by the very system we are living under.

Why racism is so hard to define and even harder to understand

What to do once you admit that decentralizing everything never seems to work

 

Climate change and the role of art

The influence of climate fiction: An empirical survey of readers

Why we need utopian fiction now more than ever

N.K. Jemisin is trying to keep the world from ending

Weathering this world with comics

What really happens after the apocalypse. The myth that panic, looting, and antisocial behavior increases during the apocalypse (or apocalyptic-like scenarios) is in fact a myth—and has been solidly disproved by multiple scientific studies.

Dystopias Now. The end of the world is over. Now the real work begins, by Kim Stanley Robinson.

“Eco grime” artists blend natural sounds & electronics to depict a polluted world

Why everyone should read The Dispossessed

 

Resources

Citation matters: An updated reading list for a progressive environmental anthropology.

A syllabus for radical hope

Inhabit: Instructions for autonomy

Land acknowledgements: uncovering an oral history of Tkaronto

 

This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Want to receive this as a newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

Why libertarian municipalism is more needed today than ever before

People’s assembly in Barcelona, Spain. Photo: Jisakiel

by Tyler Anderson

We are entering dire times. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released their 2018 report that has only reassured what many of us know is true. We need to take immediate decisive action on climate change or face a dismal future of increasingly powerful natural disasters, economic instability and reactionary violence.

According to the report, we have 12 years to stop inalterable climate change and that is going to require massive global infrastructure projects aimed at transforming our archaic fossil fuel system to one rooted in sustainable development and ecological understanding. Such a project will clearly be one of the largest developmental efforts in human history and will require global collaboration on a scale never seen before.

Yet, in the face of almost certain annihilation, the transnational ruling class are in a desperate struggle to maintain and profit from the ruin and disaster of their own system. For progress to occur, we need to build a mass movement of millions across the world united behind a call for a new system. And, threatened by new despotic right wing authoritarian regimes worldwide, we need to scale up fast!

According to Abdullah Öcalan, we can understand almost all of today’s crises to be crises of democracy. While the ideal of democracy was used to legitimize imperialist interventions across the developing world since the 1950s, it was never a lived reality even in the West. Instead we were sold shallow representative republicanism in place of real face-to-face direct democracy where individuals have actual power over society.

Representative ‘democracy’ ultimately turns people from empowered citizens to alienated constituents. It turns democracy—a lived, empowering and involved process—into a spectacle of rooting for one’s chosen team. And so it lends itself  to oligarchy and, ultimately, dictatorship and imperialist expansion.

In fact, since the end of the Second World War we have witnessed a massive decline of civic engagement, with far lower in-person participation in community associations, clubs and groups of all kinds. Not to mention a decline in wages and an increase in inequality—both in the West and internationally. As society and political structures have been increasingly centralized in the hands of a wealthy few, they have also closed people off from access to power.

Representative ‘democracy’ ultimately turns people from empowered citizens to alienated constituents. It turns democracy—a lived, empowering and involved process—into a spectacle of rooting for one’s chosen team. And so it lends itself  to oligarchy and, ultimately, dictatorship and imperialist expansion. This has been the case of representative democracies from the time of Rome.

 

A politics of empowerment

Libertarian municipalists argue for a reinvigoration of the civic and political sphere. In place of representative forms of democracy they argue for an inclusive participatory system where every community member has equal power over the matters of governance that impacts them.

Libertarian municipalism is a politics of empowerment. It recognizes democracy as an almost universal value. It begs the question, will we as a society finally embrace actual democracy or accept dictatorship? Libertarian municipalists absolutely reject the representative republicanism that has been peddled to us as “democracy”, a form of government that, in practice, is only a democracy for the rich.

At the core of the libertarian municipalist strategy for change is the creation of the popular assembly and its eventual empowerment as a dual power. Dual power is a situation where two powers coexist with each other and compete for legitimacy.

Libertarian municipalists seek to either create extra-parliamentary assemblies that increasingly gain governing power from local governments or seek to change city charters to legally empower popular assemblies as the primary policy making bodies over representative and hierarchical structures such as mayors and city councils. They envision the municipalization of the economy, where  productive assets are held by the community collectively. They strive to build a global network of communities, neighborhoods and cities interlinked through confederal bonds. According to Murray Bookchin,

In libertarian municipalism, dual power is meant to be a strategy for creating precisely those libertarian institutions of directly democratic assemblies that would oppose and replace the State. It intends to create a situation in which the two powers—the municipal confederations and the nation-state—cannot coexist, and one must sooner or later displace the other.

The popular assembly thus acts as a place that gives any individual in a community direct access to power, shaping policy and the world around them. This is in direct conflict with the hierarchical nation-state and transnational capitalist firms which seek to control the labor, land and resources of communities across the world.

In Minneapolis, protestors demand the city defend Muslims, accept immigrants, welcome refugees, and support workers. Photo: Fibonacci Blue

Cities and towns at the forefront

Today the tensions between cities and state entities couldn’t be more pronounced. The sanctuary city movement provides a stark example of the way cities across the country are already moving towards increased local autonomy and sovereignty over the federal government. Sanctuary cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans are just a few of the over 39 cities across the US who have joined forces to limit collaboration with federal authorities. According to Vojislava Filipcevic Cordes,

Sanctuary cities in the U.S. represent a feat against the hostile state and “provide a territorial legal entity at a different scale at which sovereignty is articulated” [18]. Sanctuary cities exemplify what Lippert has termed “sovereignty ‘from below’” [19] (p. 547) and are shaped by local legal and political contexts and the solidarity with social movements.

In the wake of an increasingly illegitimate federal government, urban areas take leadership on issues ranging from immigration to raising minimum wages, even if it is in direct conflict with the federal government. Along with this trend, we see growing political divides between urban and rural communities. After the 2018 election, Republicans lost their last congressional urban district in the country.

 As the cultural and political divide between rural and urban, local and federal become more pronounced in an era of increasing authoritarianism, it seems that the revolutionary alternatives provided by libertarian municipalism could have the wide appeal and potential support of millions of Americans needed to create political change. 

As the cultural and political divide between rural and urban, local and federal become more pronounced in an era of increasing authoritarianism, it seems that the revolutionary alternatives provided by libertarian municipalism could have the wide appeal and potential support of millions of Americans needed to create political change. But what will that mass movement look like? How can we build the power to force politicians to stop pandering to the fossil fuel industry and the fascist right, and bring about real change?

 

The left must rebuild political life

Bookchin was one of the key theorists behind libertarian municipalism. In his essay, “Thoughts on Libertarian Municipalism, he put forward a strategic vision for this kind of movement that we can still learn from today.  He begins by describing libertarian municipalism as  “ a confrontational form of face-to-face democratic, anti statist politics…that is decidedly concerned with the all-important question of power, and it poses the questions: Where shall power exist? By what part of society shall it be exercised?”.

For Bookchin, the decline of civic and political life is of paramount concern. With its decline, Bookchin sees a vacuum forming in mainstream political discourse where leftist positions have increasingly degraded and shrunk into insular and subcultural discourses while broader society continues to be trapped in an Overton window swiftly moving towards the right.

Bookchin felt it was essential that the left find ways of reaching the broader society with its ideals. He envisioned the institutionalization of popular assemblies not only as an end but as a means. Assemblies would work to level the playing field for the left by giving it a place to both voice its vision for a new world to the public and to reinvigorate a american political life through the popularization of civic ethics rooted in valuing democracy, ecology, and social justice.

Bookchin was interested in the whole revolutionary pie, not just crumbs. As such, libertarian municipalism is a political framework that intentionally engages with that essential political question of: who has power and how should it be wielded? It is a politic that centers the conflict over who has power in society and mobilizes for popular control over existing institutions. As such, Bookchin went to great lengths to distinguish the libertarian municipalist organizing philosophy from other tendencies. He describes one tendency which is often confused with libertarian municipalism, sometimes called communitarianism:

“Communitarianism is defined by movements and ideologies that seek to transform society by creating so-called alternative economic and living situations such as food cooperatives, health centers, schools, printing workshops, community centers, neighborhood farms, “squats,” unconventional lifestyles, and the like”

While such efforts may benefit the people they directly work to serve, they often rely  on donations or self funding by their organizers and only serve small numbers of people. The amount and time required to maintain these programs often leads to burnout and massive resource sucks. They inevitably compete with existing social services or capitalist enterprises, leading many to eventual collapse.

While some argue that such programs are necessary to “attune” people to participation in democratic assemblies, or to gain their interest, Bookchin argues that people by and large are already ready for direct democracy, all that is missing is the incentive of such institutions offering people real power over their daily lives.

 

Legitimacy crisis

As states across the world abandon the enlightenment values of liberal humanism, they only rely on the principle of might as a right, cult of personalities, and populist white supremacy.

Some argue that the rise of the right across the world means that we have to reassert the power of the state—and build up those services it has started to abandon. However, the legitimacy crisis of the state in this country is not the result of it providing less services—it is the result of the complete denigration of moral authority invested in the halls of government. As states across the world abandon the enlightenment values of liberal humanism, they only rely on the principle of might as a right, cult of personalities, and populist white supremacy.  As such, we must diligently develop popular assemblies and organizations, training people in the art of civic engagement and duty. We need to put our arguments forward and we need to create space for other people to do the same. We need to advance our ethics. To acquire actual power is an utmost priority in our increasingly authoritarian and hierarchical society that denies us it. The goal of libertarian municipalism is thus total community control over an entire municipality.

By focusing on gaining popular control of the instruments, resources, and institutions currently wielded by the ruling class or local economic elites, communities could gain access through redistribution to the necessities of life in much longer-lasting and meaningful ways. For Bookchin, municipalism must center a redistributive political strategy. While much left strategy today prioritizes the creation of alternative economic institutions such as cooperatives or mutual aid programs, libertarian municipalism emphasizes the creation of the alternative political institution of the popular assembly. By focusing our time and energy on the creation and empowerment of these alternative political institutions working class people would eventually be able to gain access to an entire cities economic resources rather than the simply what can be collectively shared from the wage labor of other exploited peoples.  

In South Africa, Abahlali baseMjondolo organizes shack dwellers into locally based, direct democratic assemblies. Photo: Enough is Enough

An example from South Africa

A great example of a political organization that advances these principles is Abahlali baseMjondolo, a.ka., the South African Shack Dwellers Movement. This organization is based in the struggle of South Africa’s most impoverished, and emerged out of struggles for poor peoples’ right to construct improvised dwellings to live in. They are oriented around a directly democratic assembly model. They regularly engage in direct action through land occupations where they give people control of the land. Their movement has been successful in arguing for a form of democratic development where all peoples have a voice over urban development. Despite harsh repression, including the murder of many of their activists by state forces, they are quickly becoming one of South Africa’s largest left organizations with over 30,000 members, and chapters and elected officials in cities and towns across the country. They are pushing the imagination of what a directly democratic society could look like, while prioritizing political confrontation.

They describe their organizational model as a “party non-party”, for the way it engages in the political sphere, of running candidates and legislation as a normal political party yet different considering their organizational model and tactics, and in the sense that such candidates must have the mandate of popular assemblies while running only in local elections. The South African Shack Dwellers movement is agitating around that essential political question of “Where shall power exist and who shall exercise it?” in ways that put the question to the public at large. Its combination of direct democracy, direct action, and strategic local electoralism has made Abahlali baseMjondolo one of the most prominent political organizations in one of the worlds’ only countries where the left seems to be winning. As the rest of the world fears fascism, socialist land redistribution is being discussed in South Africa and Abahlali baseMjondolo has a prominent voice in leading this process. This South African movement shows the power of running insurgent candidates who are beholden to expressing the immediate necessity of establishing directly democratic dual power situations in our communities, cities, and municipalities.

The MST (Movimento Sem Terra), Brazil’s landless workers movement, at a rally before the occupation of a 13,000 acre farm. Photo: Paul Smith

Fighting fascism with full democracy

 In times of fascist dictatorship, we are likely to find broad appeal in fighting to salvage and develop an actual democracy. 

As a movement, libertarian municipalism is a marginal tendency even within the left. For these ideas to hit the grander stage, we need to communicate them in bigger ways, develop local assemblies, build a base through engaging in local fights and run insurgent candidates on our revolutionary platform. Simply put, we need assembly-based municipalist platformist organizations like the South African Shack Dwellers Movement, that are able to elevate our political positions and make them visible. Where our ideas enter into mainstream public discourse and where our organizations give people real access to power over their daily lives and existing institutions.  

We need to build on the cultural fabric of an America that values a certain conception of democracy through bringing the term’s contradiction into full light while offering our alternative. In times of fascist dictatorship, we are likely to find broad appeal in fighting to salvage and develop an actual democracy. Further, there is a need to prepare ourselves for the inevitable dark and trying times we face, as our political situation in the United States has become increasingly volatile and unpredictable.

Our very survival over the coming years is at stake. In the face of a completely hostile fascist state and a growing right wing militia movement who very soon could begin purges against the left as Steve Bannon’s friend Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian dictator-in-waiting is promising, we should be developing self defense programs to protect not just our organizing communities but our communities at large from persecution.

The establishment of a popular direct democracy would imply the popular control, radical reform or the outright abolition of police forces in favor of some form of volunteer defense forces who would be under the jurisdiction of the new popular government. Such a force could fill the essential duties of community defense and safety, while allowing our communities to address many of the systemic issues with our current racist, white supremacist policing and criminal justice system.

Unless we rapidly begin communicating coherent programs for libertarian municipalist dual power I fear that we will have little real ability to stop this inevitable fascist creep. In times of dictatorship, rising fascism and hopelessness we need to offer people real lived examples of direct democracy, give them access to power and boldly put these ideas into public discourse. We can win the legitimacy battle by building a base through engaging in local campaigns that give people more power and control over their lives and communities.  We can do this alongside running candidates with revolutionary municipalist platforms, even if we don’t think they have a chance. If our ideas are true and we are true to ourselves we might just end up winning!

We shouldn’t fear putting our ideas out there, communicating our desired world and our utopia, even if we don’t have all of the organizational bits and pieces put together to prefigure it. We never will until we abolish these systems. We have to get comfortable with that and stay true to our ethics and vision and communicate that in bigger and better ways while giving others inspiration to join in, shape it and work with us to push the world off its tracks to oblivion.

Tyler Anderson is a community organizer based in Portland Oregon. They were a key outside support organizer with the Sept. 9th international prison strike and have co-founded several communalist projects including Demand Utopia.

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September readings

Source: Shareable

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

Over the past month we saw an uptick in conversations on degrowth in both mainstream and leftist media in the aftermath of two degrowth conferences in Sweden and Mexico and in connection to a “post-growth” conference in the EU Parliament in Belgium. We’ve also been reading about resistance, community building, and struggle for autonomy and control of land in cities and rural areas around the world—and about criminalization of this resistance. And as usual there are articles about environmental and climate injustice, socialism and the limits of “green” technologies, and new political organizing practices.

 

Uneven Earth updates

We’re excited to announce our new call for submissions for futuristic imaginaries! We are looking for science fiction, science fiction-inspired thoughts, and critical analyses of sci-fi, this time with a focus on pieces that engage with place-based histories and geographies.

The shock doctrine of the left | Link | New book by Graham Jones is part map, part story, part escape manual

How the world breaks | Link | Stan and Paul Cox describe the destructive force of nature in the context of climate change

How radical municipalism can go beyond the local | Link | Fighting for more affordable, accessible places to live means fighting for a less carbon-intensive future

 

Top 5 articles to read

Save us the smugness over 2018’s heatwaves, environmentalists. In this historically precarious moment, we need something more fundamental than climate strategies built on shame and castigation. But, note that there is no evidence that environmentalists are at all smug.

‘For me, this is paradise’: life in the Spanish city that banned cars

Rise of agri-cartel: Control of land drives human rights violations, environmental destruction

Where are the Indigenous children who never came home?

Disaster collectivism: How communities rise together to respond to crises

 

News you might’ve missed

Harvard’s foreign farmland investment mess. An article in Bloomberg highlights a new report by GRAIN on Harvard’s investment in land grabbing.

Modi’s McCarthyist attack on left-leaning intellectuals threatens India’s democracy

There’s been a worrying trend of criminalizing earth defenders around the world:

‘Treating protest as terrorism’: US plans crackdown on Keystone XL activists

Criminalization and violence increasingly used to silence indigenous protest, according to UN report

Fracking protesters’ ‘absurdly harsh’ jail sentences spark calls for judicial review backed by hundreds of scientists

After five years of living in trees, a protest community is being evicted. The German police is evicting activists who are occupying the 12,000 year old Hambach Forest to block the expansion of lignite coal mining. (The yearly Ende Gelände mass action of civil disobedience against the open-pit mine is coming up this month, on 25th-29th October.)

Declaration: No to abuse against women in industrial oil palm plantations  

 

New politics

Learning to fight in a warming world. Andreas Malm spoke at the Code Rode action camp against a gas pipeline in the Netherlands, addressing crucial questions for anti-fossil fuel organizing: Who are the political subjects in this struggle? How can people be mobilized? Should we think of the climate justice movement as a vanguard? Which methods and strategies should we use? What are the roles of non-violent and violent resistance?

Building food utopias: Amplifying voices, dismantling power

No justice without love: why activism must be more generous. I want to be a member of a thriving and diverse social movement, not a cult or a religion.

Resisting Development: The politics of the zad and NoTav

A story of the creation of the first commune in Kobane, and the struggle against authoritarianism within.

From Rojava to the Mapuche struggle: The Kurdish revolutionary seed spreads in Latin America

Seizing the means of reproduction. Unrecognized, often unpaid, and yet utterly necessary, reproductive labor is everywhere in our lives. Can it form the basis for a renewed radical politics?

Co-ops might not transform people, but the act of cooperation often does.

An interview with the Internationalist Committee of the Rojava revolution

The emerging idea of “radical well-being”. An interview with Ashish Kothari by Paul Robbins.

 

Radical municipalism

The radical solution to homelessness: no-strings homes

What should a 21st century socialist housing policy look like?

The city as a battleground. If cities are becoming amusement parks for tourists, a vehicle to earn money, what space is left for its citizens?

Radical democracy vs. retro social democracy: a discussion with Jeremy Gilbert

The labor movement once built thousands of low-cost co-op apartments for working class New Yorkers. It could do so again.

Internationalism and the New Municipalism

Bologna again takes center stage resisting fascism

First we take Jackson: the new American municipalism

The common ground trust: a route out of the housing crisis

Revitalizing struggling corridors in a post-industrial city

The persistence of settler colonialism within “the urban”. As long as the urban agenda is so tangled in the mess of capitalism, how can urban practitioners work to free the ever expanding and increasingly complicated field of urban studies from its colonial shackles? Is it even possible to think about the urban without colonialism?

 

Where we’re at: analysis

Five principles of a socialist climate politics. Overall it is quite surprising how well the challenge of climate change overlaps with some classical principles of socialism.

The Rise of the Robot: Dispelling the myth. The ‘march of the robots’ idea relies tacitly on the assumption that the limits to growth are negotiable, or indeed non-existent. It buys into the idea that there can be a complete – or at least near complete – decoupling of production from carbon emissions.

Ten years on, the crisis of global capitalism never really ended

Dirty rare metals: Digging deeper into the energy transition. “Western industries have deliberately offshored the production of rare metals and its associated pollution, only to bring these metals back onshore once cleansed of all impurities to incorporate them into intangible ‘green’ technologies.”

Farmers in Guatemala are destroying dams to fight ‘dirty’ renewable energy

The real problem with free trade. As trade has become freer, inequality has worsened. One major reason for this is that current global trade rules have enabled a few large firms to capture an ever-larger share of value-added, at a massive cost to economies, workers, and the environment.

A special issue in Meditations Journal on the link between the economy and energy

The environmentalism of the poor in the USA. A review of the book Environmental Justice in Postwar America: A Documentary Reader.

Half-Earth: A biodiversity ‘solution’ that solves nothing. A response to E. O. Wilson’s half-baked half-Earth.

Gender egalitarianism made us human: A response to David Graeber & David Wengrow’s ‘How to change the course of human history’

 

The growth debate

Following from the success of the two International Degrowth Conferences in Mexico and Sweden in August, scientists and politicians gathered at the EU Parliament in Brussels this month to discuss the need to move to a “post-growth” economy. Degrowth has always been a term meant in great part to provoke conversation. And that it did: what followed was a month careful commentary, knee-jerk responses, and thoughtful criticism.

The EU needs a stability and wellbeing pact, not more growth. 238 academics call on the European Union and its member states to plan for a post-growth future in which human and ecological wellbeing is prioritized over GDP. Sign the petition based on this letter: Europe, it’s time to end the growth dependency.

Degrowth considered: A review of Giorgos Kallis’ book, In defense of degrowth

Why growth can’t be green. New data proves you can support capitalism or the environment—but it’s hard to do both. An article by Jason Hickel in Foreign Policy.

Saving the planet doesn’t mean killing economic growth. A response to the criticism of growth by Noah Smith, a columnist at Bloomberg.

Soothing Noah Smith’s fears about a post-growth world. A response to Noah Smith’s piece by Jason Hickel. “The whole thing is based on either awkward confusion or intentional sleight of hand.” For a similar analysis, see our 2015 article, Let’s define Degrowth before we dismiss it.

The degrowth movement challenges the conventional wisdom on economic health

Beyond growth. Imagining an economy based in environmental reality: an article featured in Long Reads.

The new ecological situationists: On the revolutionary aesthetics of climate justice and degrowth

Degrowth vs. a Green New Deal. An article in The New Left Review by Robert Pollin criticizing the degrowth position, and proposing an alternative. Is the ecological salvation of the human species at hand? A response to Pollin’s piece from an ecological economist. And New deals, old bottles: Chris Smaje responds to Pollin’s piece.

While economic growth continues we’ll never kick our fossil fuels habit. George Monbiot calls for degrowth.

The Singularity in the 1790s. A retrospective and enlightening analysis of the science fiction-tinged debate between William Godwin and Thomas Malthus.

 

Addressing climate change’s unequal impacts

Nature-based disaster risk reduction

Puerto Rican ‘anarchistic organizers’ took power into their own hands after Hurricane Maria

The unequal distribution of catastrophe in North Carolina

That undeveloped Land Could Be Protecting Your City from the Next Flood

Carbon removal is not enough to save climate

Climate action means changing technological systems – and also social and economic systems

 

Plastics, waste, and technology

Maria-Luiza Pedrotti is illuminating the unseen worlds of plastic-eating bacteria that teem in massive ocean garbage patches.

The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction

Forget about banning plastic straws! The problem is much bigger. A feature on the artist and scientist Max Liboiron.

The air-conditioning debate isn’t really about air-conditioning

 

Just think about it…

Pay your cleaner what you earn, or clean up yourself

Scientific publishing is a rip-off. We fund the research – it should be free

Humans are destroying animals’ ancestral knowledge. Bighorn sheep and moose learn to migrate from one another. When they die, that generational know-how is not easily replaced.

The agrarian origins of capitalism. This 1998 essay by Ellen Meiksins Wood is still worth a read (or re-read).

Searching for words in Indian Country. A non-Native journalist encounters a tribal-managed forest and an indigenous garden. “I had no idea how to use the English language to describe what I was seeing.”

Dead metaphors, dying symbols and the linguistic tipping point. An interview with Rob Nixon, author of Slow Violence.

W. E. B. Du Bois and the American Environment

Forget the highways: America’s social infrastructure is falling apart, and it’s hurting democracy.

 

Resources

A factsheet on global plastic pollution

A timeline of gentrification in the US

A blueprint for universal childhood

The best books on Moral Economy

An economy for the people, by the people. A report by the New Economics Foundation.

The anatomy of an AI system. The Amazon Echo as an anatomical map of human labor, data and planetary resources.

A YouTube channel with accessible, informational videos on political ecology and economy

 

This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

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How radical municipalism can go beyond the local

 Municipalism

by the Symbiosis Research Collective

Climate change, global finance, the neoliberal state: today’s crises require action on a big scale. And yet fighting for local democracy is – perhaps counter-intuitively – the best chance we’ve got.

Throughout this series, we’ve argued that the best way to address today’s ecological, social, and political crises is to get people together where they live and work to provide resources that people need – eventually building up an alternative political and economic system that can replace the present, failing system. We need to build a democratic, just, and ecological world in the shell of the old.

In the previous installment, we argued that organising on the level of the neighborhood, town, and city is the most strategic approach to this today.

The rise of loneliness worldwide, the centrality of real estate speculation for global economic growth, and the breakdown of many large-scale factories that helped to bring workers together mean that we have to rethink the ways we demand change.

We can build community and force elites to listen to our demands at the same time. Radical municipalism is a project to take direct democratic control over the places where we live.

When we talk to people about this strategy, the same kinds of questions often come up. In this article, we highlight three common criticisms. Each one of them revolves around the complaint that radical municipalism is too local: it can’t deal with the ‘big stuff’.

1. Because of climate change, we don’t have time

Any call for a long-term vision for social change begs the response: the urgency of the present moment means we don’t have the time for the slow work of neighbourhood-level organising.

Impending climate disruption is a ticking time-bomb. Every year we delay will make the future worse. And as a global phenomenon, it takes immediate global action. Strategically, this argument goes, we’re better off pushing our leaders to take strong stances on climate change.

The situation is so dire that the progressive environmentalist website Grist and the socialist magazine Jacobin are publishing pieces asking us to seriously consider geo-engineering and scaling up nuclear energy – all in a bid to give us more time.

For many, the problem of climate change can only be addressed with big stuff: international agreements, renewable and nuclear energy on a massive scale, geo-engineering schemes that involve changing planetary weather systems.

Working with your neighbours doesn’t mean giving up on national electoral politics. It’s all part of the same strategy: building local democracy is the necessary ingredient for taking on the state.

This kind of response is understandable, but puts the cart before the horse. Without a coherent counter-power to corporate control over government, we have no chance of forcing policy into accordance with the public good. We’re relying on the assumption that leaders are kind enough to listen, and that they by themselves have the power to implement needed reforms.

Feet to the fire

Even if we elect the most principled people to power, and even if all politicians were to realise that it’s in their own interest to do everything they can to stop climate change through a ‘Green New Deal’, the system would still be dead against them. You can’t beg a system dependent on extraction, endless growth, and exploitation to change its ways. A systemic restructuring the economy is necessary to stop the ecological crisis.

What is clear is that those in power—the CEOs, the shareholders, the bankers, and the politicians that implement their laws—would suffer greatly from necessary action on climate change.

Government debts would need to be cancelled, the most powerful industries would need to be phased out. Production would need to be reordered along democratic lines, putting people and planet before profit. No matter what, we will still need the kind of popular power that hasn’t been seen in generations to hold politicians’ feet to the fire. It took the combined threats of national collapse, socialist revolution, and a massive workers movement during the Great Depression to get the New Deal. This kind of people power needs to be organized neighborhood by neighborhood, workplace by workplace.

Every step we take towards dual power and democracy from below puts us in a better position to force the hands of government. Extracting concessions from the state and building a new political system from the ground up aren’t opposing strategies—they should go hand in hand.

Climate change and the right to the city

There’s a second answer to this objection. The fight for the right to the city is the fight for climate justice. For example, research on São Paolo in Brazil shows that the fight for affordable housing is a fight against climate change, even if poor people’s movements don’t speak in those terms.

Making the center of the city accessible for everyone to live in and building social and cooperative housing reduces carbon impact. Urban social issues like transit justice are key components of moving beyond fossil fuels. By making the places where we live more equal and democratic, we’re simultaneously fighting for a greener future.

In fact, we’re already seeing that cities and towns with strong social movements are at the forefront of radical and innovative responses to climate change.

What’s more, they’re starting to work together to provide a common front to demand change on national and international scales—the Global Covenant for Mayors for Climate and Energy is already a force to be reckoned with in international climate talks. And cities globally are leading the fight to take the fossil fuel industry to task, even suing them for contributing to climate disasters.

All this comes down to the fact that we can’t actually make the necessarily large-scale changes without taking control over the places where we live and creating the alternatives necessary for a new system. It’s precisely these alternatives that force the hand of the state to act on climate change. They organize people power and show how things could be done otherwise.

In other words, radical municipalism is the best investment against climate change: our power together forces our leaders to act and buys us time, all the while developing a new ecological social order that can replace capitalism.

2. Local activism can’t address global capitalism

A common response to those who work to mobilise their neighbours and create local democracy is that localism can’t scale up. It’s always just stuck back-pedaling, unable to actually change the large-scale problems like predatory trade deals, foreign takeovers, the capacity of finance to make or break whole countries—the stuff that really shapes national decision-making.

Often, these same people argue that, to break out of this pattern, we need to engage with the big players. So they form think tanks, lobby groups, NGOs, and new media platforms, showing up to climate negotiations year after year and putting pressure on politicians through endless petitions. For them, the most important agents of change are well-worded policy briefs, expensive conferences, powerpoint presentations, and 40-page reports.

The key actors of social change aren’t think-tanks or lobby groups: they’re people, and people live and work somewhere. This kind of critique often forgets the fact that all successful international movements of the past were also intensely local.

For example, the labour movements of the 19th and 20th centuries were able to make demands of governments because they were so embedded in people’s day-to-day lives. Historically, unions weren’t just at the workplace; they ran dance halls, classes, cafeterias, and sports leagues.

It was only by broadening their reach to every aspect of life that unions were able to become indispensable to working class communities. This made it possible for them to organise effective strikes and, eventually, mount a significant challenge to their bosses and the state. It’s regular people that are the actors of world-historical changes.

What some people deride as ‘localism’ is actually the very foundation of transformative change.

A plan of action

That said, we shouldn’t forget that, without a long-term vision, a coherent plan of action, and trans-local alliances, every local movement is doomed to become a relic in the town museum.

Keep in mind that capitalism works at scale. That’s the genius of it. Stop one development in your neighbourhood, and investors just move their money elsewhere. Take on giants like Amazon, and they’ll just move to another city. So, in that sense, we agree that local action, on its own, will always fail.

This is why, for radical municipalism to be successful, it requires collaboration at higher level. This July, the Fearless Cities Summit in New York City will bring together municipalist movements around the world to share resources and action plans.

In our own work as Symbiosis, we hope to bring together radical municipalist movements from across North America to form a democratically run network of community organizations that can coordinate strategy beyond the local.

Confederation

In the short term, these kinds of movements are already proving to be a challenge to big corporations. In Seattle, the city council passed a law that would tax big companies like Amazon—money which would then go into subsidies for affordable housing. In Barcelona, the city is turning AirBnB apartments into social housing. Only local, democratic, and people-based movements can force politicians to bring transnational corporations to task. What we need to do now is learn from each other’s victories and work together to scale them up.

In the long term, a system of dual power would transform into what we call communalism or democratic confederalism: an allied network of interdependent communes or regions that work together in a directly democratic way.

On the local level, the neighbourhood assembly makes the decisions and decides the course of action. On a bigger level, these organisations band together in what is called a confederation: a body of recallable delegates with imperative mandates, directly accountable to their communities.

This body would allow communes to exchange resources, support each other, and make democratic decisions. Without this kind of networking, collaboration, and interdependence across borders, local movements are just that: local, isolated, and doomed to fail, again and again. But through international confederation, we can pose a real threat to global capitalism and the ruling class.

3. We can only make real change by taking over the state

For many, the state is the best vehicle for action to fight the major systemic problems of climate chaos, finance capital running amok, and global inequality.

Further, with the growing popularity of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, now seems like a bad time to redirect energy away from national politics. After all, conservative movements thrive off of voter apathy. If you ignore elections, then you cede the ground to the welfare-bashing, poor-blaming, and racist right.

How should radical municipalist movements engage with the state? First, it’s important to reframe the debate away from “should we try to take state power?”.

We’re trying to build democratic institutions that can, in the present, extract concessions from the state. These will inevitably exist within the current (statist) system and leverage available (state) institutions and resources toward that goal.

Eventually, these new institutions will form an ecosystem of dual power that can force a crisis within the state and dissolve its powers into confederal direct democracy. This is not a contradiction, it’s just to acknowledge that the state has embedded itself into almost every aspect of our lives and can’t be abolished in a day.

This process would amount to a fundamental restructuring of the public sphere, from a state—instruments of coercive violence under the control of a ruling class—into a democratic commons, a government from below.

Rewire its institutions

In the meantime, however, we can grow our movement through struggle for important expansions of the public sphere (social spending, halting carbon emissions, public transit) and drawdowns on the most socially and ecologically destructive features of the state (the police, the military, prisons, border security, surveillance).

As we gain greater power to extract concessions from the state through new institutions of communal democratic life, we can use strategic policy changes to improve our position. Non-reformist reforms like nationalized healthcare, job guarantee programs, and public childcare can enable more working-class people to participate in neighborhood organizing and movement work. Putting public funds into cooperative development, social housing, public banking, and participatory budgeting can speed along our transition to a democratic economy. With the support of municipal governments, solidarity economy initiatives developed in our communities can be dramatically expanded. Most importantly, we can secure radical changes to city charters that restructure political authority into direct rule by citizens through confederated community councils and assemblies.

It is never enough to simply “take the state” and wield it as a tool to reshape society, for the state is not a neutral institution to be held by one class or another. At a structural level, the state exists to enforce the will of a ruling elite, who make decisions on our behalf. Even if we replace horrible capitalist ones with working-class representatives of our own, we haven’t assured that the will of the public is governing society, for the public is not itself in power. Empowering ordinary people to have control over our collective future requires fundamentally transforming the way governance works.

This is why building power from below outside of the state is so essential. The mass organization of community councils, assemblies, tenant unions, labor unions, and cooperatives is what can (through its own growth) force governing elites to make the reforms we need right now, while creating the conditions for a more revolutionary restructuring of society.

It’s clear that we can’t depend on an electoral strategy alone to put these ideas into practice. Elections are an important platform to spread ideas and implement our program, but only vibrant social movements can actually hold elected representatives accountable.

What kinds of policies would a radical municipalist movement put on their electoral platform, if they had one? In each case, it helps to ask: how does this policy build popular power? What institutions can we strengthen through public policy to better hold the state accountable?

No matter what the state does, however, it’s crucial that people practice doing politics themselves. Building these kinds of institutions is the antidote to apathy and encourages civic engagement. Through this broader strategy of dual power from the neighborhood on up, we can effectively challenge the state and, at the same time, rewire its institutions—already running through every aspect of our lives—into something new.

Turning local action into global power

It’s easy to criticise everything under the sun as insufficient, not good enough. Organising in your own neighbourhood can sometimes feel distant from the important stuff happening around the world.

But while local action alone is not enough, organising should still be a part of people’s everyday lives: it should be place-based. Fighting for affordable housing means fighting climate change.

Taking on AirBnB or Amazon in your city means struggling against corporate control over politics. Working with your neighbours doesn’t mean giving up on national electoral politics. It’s all part of the same strategy: building local democracy is the necessary ingredient for challenging the ruling class’s grip on government.

How can we solidify these distant, local actions into an intentional power that can take on state, corporate, and global powers? Through learning from each other, networking, forming alliances, and, eventually, confederating. Without a democratic politics of scale, we’ll just stay stuck in the local.

In the next installment of this column, we’ll discuss another common objection—one that has become more and more pressing. Can radical municipalism avoid what we call ‘dark municipalism’: the rise of a fascist or reactionary localist movement that seeks to protect only its own and expel anyone who doesn’t fit the norm.

This article was originally published in The Ecologist
The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organizers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organizations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev. This article was written by Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi) with contributions by Mason Herson-Hord (@mason_h2).

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/) ↩