How to build a new world in the shell of the old

For Hannah Arendt, the German-American political theorist, “power” is people’s ability to act in concert—the capacity for collective action. Photo:
Fred Stein, 1944

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” – Arundhati Roy

In the first two articles of this series, we alluded to a new strategic vision that is emerging across many different movements, through which we can achieve a genuinely democratic, egalitarian, and ecological society. In this next installment, we sketch this vision of a transition out of capitalism through grassroots organising to build the new world in the shell of the old.

If we want real change, should we draw up a sketch of a just society and then simply march towards it? We think it’s better to look around and find the seeds of a better future—perhaps dormant—in the present, and nurture them into a viable alternative that can challenge and transform the world around us.

Even as we carry the dream of ecological utopia in our hearts, our visions of the future cannot be divorced from the process by which they could realistically come about. To bring about lasting change, we need to identify, build up, and bring together existing utopias in the present, creating actual power in the places we live and work.

How power works

To build power, we need to understand how it works. The German-American political philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that intolerable situations such as ours can be cast aside by the public’s withdrawal of support from its governing institutions. While not a leftist, Arendt was a prominent theorist of totalitarianism, political violence, and direct democracy who developed important concepts that can help us chart a path forward.

Power is conventionally understood as the ability to make others do things, often through violence or coercion. In On Violence, however, Arendt argues that power works quite differently. She defines “power” as people’s ability to act in concert—the capacity for collective action, and thus a property of groups, not individuals. Leaders possess their power only because their constituents have empowered them to direct the group’s collective action.

Arendt asserts that all power, in every political system from dictatorships to participatory democracies, emerges from public support. No dictator can carry out his or her will without obedience from subjects; nor can any project requiring collective action be achieved without the support, begrudging or enthusiastic, of the group.

When people begin to withdraw their support and refuse to obey, a government may turn to violence, but even that control lasts only as long as the army or police choose to obey. “Where commands are no longer obeyed,” Arendt writes, “the means of violence are of no use… Everything depends on the power behind the violence.” Power, for the rulers as well as those who would resist them, comes through collective action, rather than force.

We cannot assume that overthrow of the current system will bring us a free and democratic new world, not without the preformation of the post-revolutionary society here in the present.

As a basis for a revolutionary political strategy, Arendt’s theory of power has several important limitations—limitations which we think can be overcome by focusing our efforts into organising real democratic institutions in communities where we live, in our everyday lives.

First, outside of rare moments of political crisis, the public has no way to collectively withdraw its support from governing institutions without preexisting mass organization. Individuals acting alone have no impact on the state’s power—we need the organisational capacity for greater mass action first.

Furthermore, most people will never even consider retracting support for governing institutions if they don’t experience viable alternatives. As Antonio Gramsci explained a century ago, the ruling class’s cultural hegemony—society’s domination by ruling class ideas—can be only undermined by what he called a “war of position”.

This means developing a material and cultural base within the working class to craft an oppositional narrative and to organise oppositional institutions. The organisation of unions, worker-owned firms, and housing cooperatives is what makes socialism a real, lived possibility around which greater movement-building can occur.

Lastly, we cannot assume that overthrow of the current system will bring us a free and democratic new world, not without the preformation of the post-revolutionary society here in the present. We need to actively create the institutions that will replace capitalism so that the transition we want can actually take place.

The transfer of authority to the structures of radical democracy requires the preexistence of such participatory institutions, not a naïve faith that they will be conjured into being out of a general strike, mass retraction of public support, or insurrectionary upheaval.

Incubating new institutions

So what can we do instead? An effective political strategy for the present would combine the best of Arendt’s intuitions about the workings of power in society and possibilities for popular revolution, with an organising vision of community institution-building.

With such dim prospects for sufficient progress through existing institutional channels, new democratic and cooperative institutions must be built from the ground up. These include structures for political democracy, such as neighborhood councils and assemblies, networked into grassroots confederations, and structures for economic democracy, such as housing cooperatives, worker-owned cooperatives, and community land trusts.

These new institutions should serve four fundamental purposes.

First, they can help us meet immediate human needs under conditions of deprivation and alienation. Amid a crumbling safety net and social atomisation in much of the industrialized world, new institutions of a cooperative economy can ensure that people are fed and sheltered, their human potential developed and their minds nourished, all while fostering the spirit of community and solidarity we so sorely need.

By meeting the needs of people in our communities, we can bring them into the movement. This way, we can reach everyone, including those most marginalised, and make it possible for them to participate in political struggle.

Second, such institutions can organize people for oppositional politics within the present system. Channeling popular power takes grassroots organising, which we can use to extract concessions from the state to improve our position for ever more transformative demands.

We can do this, for instance, through institutions like community councils and block associations that organise ordinary people neighborhood by neighborhood. When it is strategic, electoral campaigns may even emerge out of these organized communities. (We’ll discuss the thorny questions of electoralism in a later part of this series.)

Third, we can steadily erode public support for the institutions of the dominant society through the development and proliferation of viable alternatives. By growing a cooperative economy that provides for all, we can weaken our dependence on and steadily displace the capitalist economy.

By networking together institutions of genuinely democratic and participatory community governance, we can assemble a parallel political system that can challenge—and, in time, transform and replace—the various oligarchies of our day.

Fourth, this mosaic of community councils, cooperatives, land trusts, and more will form the institutional foundation of the liberated society. As hierarchical society gives way to genuine democracy, it is the institutions we organise and experiment with today that will become the replacements.

Dual power

What would this look like? We can adopt this four-pronged approach across multiple sites of struggle. In the workplace, workers can organise unions which challenge the absolute authority of the boss, win concessions to improve working conditions, and (more radically) take direct democratic control over the workplace through occupations or buy-outs to transition it to a cooperative.

In housing, tenants can organise tenant unions which can end landlord abuses through rent strikes, move towards tenant management and control over the building, and, with sufficiently resourced support, eventually aim to transition it into cooperatively owned social housing.

Organised workers and tenants can also leverage the power they built fighting bosses and landlords to change the rules of the game in the political arena and direct public resources into upscaling cooperative housing and worker ownership. And we can do this with the political system as a whole, through participatory democracy in our neighborhoods, networking together councils and assemblies as a new foundation of political authority.

This strategy is known as “dual power”. Murray Bookchin posited dual power as the creation of directly democratic and cooperative institutions that fortify each other, eventually challenging and replacing the legitimacy of the capitalist state.

The creation of these dual power institutions must grow out of people’s everyday experience and immediate needs—our needs for freedom from domination as well as for essential goods and services.

As Cornelius Castoriadis puts it: “Self-management will only be possible if people’s attitudes to social organisation alter radically. This, in turn, will only take place if social institutions become a meaningful part of their real daily life.”

By meeting basic community needs, such institutions rupture capitalism’s control over people’s lives, allowing oppressed people to carve out space within capitalism for economic democracy, defend it, and thus transform the world around them.

Beyond the local

But these initiatives must also be rooted in a strategy that transcends the local. Everywhere you look, there are examples of a different way of doing things: community gardens, food cooperatives, local currencies, strangers helping each other after a disaster.

They stand alone as individual projects, fine-tuned to solve local problems created by the current system’s failures. But when operating alone, they can’t create dual power. Without a wider unified base of support to network resources and share knowledge to sustain these alternatives, many just fizzle out over time.

The stakes are high: today, we’re faced with urgent threats of climate change, rising neo-fascism, and economic turmoil. Our challenge is to collect these quiet seeds of a new world, and plant them with care.

Every city has its graveyard of nonprofits, cooperatives, social clubs, and community centers. Without the more complex infrastructure of a whole solidarity economy ecosystem, our local projects cannot possibly amount to a systemic alternative to capitalism.

Individual cooperatives and mutual aid projects are not a transformative strategy in themselves, but should be understood as components of a larger project to assemble a new municipal commons under participatory democratic control.

By linking the local to regional, working together, sharing resources, and mutually reinforcing each other’s initiatives, communities can cultivate a creative and communal spirit that would empower them to take control of their lives, connect to one another across cultural and geographic distances, and develop the egalitarian foundations of a new society.

By confederating their local democratic councils into a powerful network, we can qualitatively change the power relations of a city or neighborhood and lay the groundwork for new macro-structures of self-governance and civil society.

In this series, we’ll talk in depth about some of these institutions: community land trusts, tenant rights organisations, workers’ cooperatives, unions, neighborhood councils, popular education projects.

These are not new inventions; they’ve been developed through generations of popular struggle all over the world. We’ll discuss how movements past and present have made use of them and what place we see for them within our broader revolutionary vision, to synthesize them into a unified anti-capitalist strategy at every level of society.

The stakes are high: today, we’re faced with urgent threats of climate change, rising neo-fascism, and economic turmoil. Our challenge is to collect these quiet seeds of a new world, and plant them with care.

These Authors

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 Mason Herson-Hord (@mason_h2), Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi), Jason Geils, and Katie Horvath (@katesville7).

Hierarchy, climate change and the state of nature

The Sumerian Standard of Ur is 4,600 years old, showing the king in the top middle, standing taller than any other figure. Image: Wikipedia


We briefly mentioned the problem of hierarchy as the shared root of many systems of oppression in our first column two weeks ago.  In this article, we want to expand on the meaning of hierarchy—a system of obedience and command backed by the threat of force—and ground it in history. If we are to understand what we face and avoid reproducing it in building a new society, the social roots of hierarchy deserve a more thorough exploration.

In Western society, there are two prominent ‘origin stories.’ One is that of the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all,’ in which humans are innately vicious and violent, and only the introduction of strong authority could keep people’s natural state in check.

The other story is that prior to the existence of civilizations, humans lived in egalitarian and mostly peaceful bands enjoying the natural abundance of nature. In this version, it was only with the development of agriculture and centralized societies that we fell from grace and became the violent and hierarchical creatures we are today.

The destruction of our environment is not some natural, vicious drive of humanity, but something that emerges from the very inequalities created by hierarchy.

Both stories share an assumption that pre-civilization humans can be painted with a broad brush, and that hierarchy – whether good or bad – can be traced to a natural evolution point in human history.

Thinkers like Rousseau, Spinoza, and Hegel weren’t satisfied with the idea that hierarchy is natural. They asserted that humans have the capacity to be either hierarchical or egalitarian, depending on history and existing social structures, and that human beings are dynamic and not static: there is no single human nature.

The anthropological record

Recent anthropological work appears to prove the truth of this more nuanced perspective on the history of hierarchy in human society.

David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that the story isn’t so simple as anthropology’s old tale of roving communal egalitarian bands, followed by hierarchical agricultural societies.

In fact, they explain, extraordinarily diverse social orders often shifted between very hierarchical and more communal social structures over time, even within a single year.

Throughout human history – this newer evidence suggests – we were neither ‘noble savages’ nor victims of a violent chaos. Even the notion that there is a traceable origin point of hierarchy has been challenged, because this variance in social structure appears to have lasted beyond the development of agriculture and cities; many early cities with advanced infrastructure were composed of apparently classless societies.

So how do we explain the near ubiquitous existence of hierarchical political forms today? Graeber and Wengrow state that despite the early diversity of societal structures – with the formation of the first states around 5,000 years ago – hierarchy became the reigning social order and remains so to this day.

The emergence of the state was characterized by a monopoly on violence, which also allowed surplus to be forcibly concentrated in the hands of a small elite. With this concentration of wealth came tools of violence and control: kings, priesthoods, armies.

With their control over surplus came private property and the need to protect it; from private property came inheritance, and patriarchy as a mechanism to assert ownership of property across generations, through women’s servitude and control over their reproduction.

Understanding the history of domination

The Marxist and anarchist traditions have long worked to explain how these historical transformations calcified inequality and domination, how such class societies have developed over time, and how we can transcend these dynamics into a new society of freedom.

Marxists theorised that the first class societies emerged out of “primitive communism” through a new division of labour and an agricultural surplus that could sustain an idle ruling class. In Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Friedrich Engels developed the theory of patriarchy’s origin in private property.

Marx himself focused on the shift from feudalism to the new class structure of capitalism: an unequal relationship between the owning class and the working class. The bourgeoisie owned the factories, and the proletariat provided their labour.

We know that we must address hierarchy in all its forms—not just capitalism and the state, but also racism, patriarchy, and other systems created by unequal divides among humans, and between humans and the many others with whom we share our common home.

None of this was a natural phenomenon: it was through a specific historical development that modern tools of control emerged, and it was only by understanding the nature of this hierarchical relationship between two classes that we could collectively undo hierarchy and build an egalitarian world.

For the first century of Marxist thought on class society, however, the connections between human exploitation and environmental exploitation remained largely unexplored.

In the mid-20th century, Murray Bookchin, an anarchist theorist and former Marxist, began to develop a framework called social ecology as a way to understand how environmental disaster has its origins in hierarchy as well.

Social ecology recognizes that ecological problems are at root social problems. The destruction of our environment is not some natural, vicious drive of humanity, but something that emerges from the very inequalities created by hierarchy.

We have always adapted nature to our needs, but the destruction of our common home is always against our common interests, and people who survive by their knowledge of their ecosystem are rarely inclined to destabilise it.

Hierarchy creates a class at the top with particular interests of its own, distinct from those of the rest of human society and the environment from which they emerge, and with the power to pursue those interests against the will of those below.

Hierarchy thus facilitates environmental destruction by allowing a small group of elites to pursue their own wealth through exploiting both lower human classes and the rest of nature without accountability or consequences (at least not for them). Bookchin also argued that it was through the domination of one another that we could even conceive of striving to dominate nature.

Since the dawn of early states and classes, elites have marshalled common resources for interstate conflict and enrichment, proliferating slavery, warring armies, and monuments to their conquests. It is no coincidence that Gilgamesh, recorded history’s first mythic hero, was both the king of one of the world’s first states and the destroyer of great cedar forests.

From the city-states of Sumer and the independent emergence of permanently unequal societies in other parts of the world, conquest spread new orders of domination globally, to the detriment of the entire web of life.

Capitalism is simply the most recent form of this basic dynamic. Capitalism and its structural imperative for growth are fundamentally incompatible with ecological sustainability.

And without economic democracy, the vast majority of people who do not own capital have no power to change this course within the present system. Many ecosocialists recognise this, but what social ecology brings to the table is the understanding that hierarchy itself is the enemy of our relationship with nature and the rest of the living world.

Social ecology and our present crisis

Unequal social conditions created by hierarchy are not the only conditions under which ecological destruction can take place, but they make it assured.

Take climate change as a contemporary example—in the face of clear evidence that the fossil fuel economy is strangling our collective future, a tiny, powerful elite is nonetheless able to decide again and again to extract and burn for private profit.

The poorest people on earth have played little to no role in causing climate change, but they will bear the worst of desertification, rising seas, and ever more powerful storms.

The power of the rich over the poor is the only way this is possible. Social ecology insists that we cannot understand the climate crisis through reference to what ‘humanity’ is doing to the earth, for humanity is not a united or uniform actor. The particular social order which gives some of us power over the rest drives our unfolding catastrophe.

If the 7.6 billion people on the planet had equal power to democratically determine our common future and hold one another accountable for the impacts of our actions, we would not be pursuing more oil in the face of certain destruction and mass death. Only true democracy can get to the root of the environmental crisis, and put a stop to it.

Social ecology is useful not only as a perspective on the origins of our present crises, but for charting a path towards real solutions.

If the problem is hierarchy, rather than a few bad actors or industries, then band-aid policies like carbon trading, individual consumer purity, and green technology are revealed for what they are—surface-level tinkering that will not alter the basic structures of our society that are eroding the biosphere.

Even if technological advances were somehow able to profitably transition us to a post-carbon economy, rapacious capitalist growth would still outstrip the earth’s carrying capacity and precipitate global ecological collapse. Nothing short of a radical restructuring of our economic and political systems will suffice.

What might this restructuring look like? How, as organisers, thinkers, and revolutionaries, can we begin to move toward such a transition?

We know that we must address hierarchy in all its forms—not just capitalism and the state, but also racism, patriarchy, and other systems created by unequal divides among humans, and between humans and the many others with whom we share our common home. Guided by hierarchy as the central problem, we can start building new tools for a democratic and ecological society.

Throughout this series, we will be digging deeper into that democracy toolbox. We will examine new institutional forms of economy and politics that we can begin to nurture in civil society, and explore their histories and possibilities.

Above all, we will be sketching the outlines of a new political framework for transforming all of society, building from below on the cooperative and democratic community projects of ordinary people. Imagining utopian alternatives is important, but what our movements need is a path to get there.

This article originally appeared in The Ecologist.

The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organisers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organisations 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 Katie Horvath (@katesville7), Mason Herson-Hord (@mason_h2), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).