Participatory Society: Urban Space & Freedom
May 29, 2009 By Chris Spannos, Z-Net
[A variation of this talk was delivered today, Friday, May 29th at the B-Fest in Athens, Greece. The gathering is an international anti-authoritarian festival hosted by the Babylonia newspaper, at the University of Fine Arts in Athens, from May 27-31. The purpose of the gathering is to explore vision and strategy after last December’s social uprising there.]
Hello, today’s track is called “Land & Freedom” and I’ve been asked to talk on the subject of Participatory Society: Urban Space and Freedom.
Before I begin, however, I would like to thank you for inviting me here today and for hosting this conference. This is the first time I’ve been to Greece and it is an honor to be here under such circumstances.
Greece knows all too well the barbarism of U.S. imperialism and as Greeks struggle to change their society today so too do we struggle in the U.S. against oppressive forces there. We in the U.S. need to catch up in our political consciousness, organization, and concern for vision. This conference is exemplary in its mission to look at the past and present to strategize for the future. While here I hope to learn from you to see what I can take back home. The overarching goal that should unite everyone everywhere, ultimately, is a hope and effort to overcome today’s systemic problems while developing shared vision of a fundamentally new society and the struggle for its realization. That is what we are working towards here today.
Today’s cities are far from offering equitable conditions and opportunities to their inhabitants. The majority of the urban population is deprived or limited – in virtue of their economic, social, cultural, ethnic, gender or age characteristics – in the satisfaction of their most elemental needs and rights. Public policies that contribute to this by ignoring the contributions of the popular inhabiting processes to the construction of the city and citizenship, are only detrimental to urban life. The grave consequences of this situation include massive evictions, segregation, and resulting deterioration of social coexistence.
Over the last few days here in Greece I’ve been told that almost half the population live here in Athens and also that more than half are located in urban areas throughout the country. So, you may be interested to hear that today, for the first time in history, 3.3 billion people around the globe, half of humanity, live in cities. Over one third of this population does not share in the benefits that cities have to offer. It is estimated that within two decades 60 percent of the earth’s population will live in urban areas and, if we continue on the current trajectory, by 2050 the urban population of the developing world will be 5.3 billion (UN projections), primarily in Asia and Africa. Because of these trends this century has been called the “Century of the City” (State of the Worlds Cities 2008 / 2009, UN Habitat).
This rapid urbanization has happened on a pace and scale unprecedented and has set in motion long-term and in some cases irreversible, social, material, and environmental damage. Migration to and between urban centers, natural growth (births outpacing deaths), urban sprawl, increasing fuel and food prices, the need for work, mass use of private transportation, and the convenience of urban lifestyles all contribute to consumption of large amounts of energy and production of excessive amounts of waste. These patterns make today’s cities primary sources of pollution. Increasing growth of urban areas means increasing risk of climate change where the underprivileged and disempowered suffer most.
Between and within cities high concentrations of wealth, power, and privilege make spatial and social disparities more, not less, pronounced. Urban inequality directly impacts all aspects of societal life, including health, nutrition, gender and race equality, education, and mortality. Everywhere where this spatial, social, and material inequality reins lack of popular decision-making control reduces people’s participation and integration into society.
Based on the above I recognize three major problems:
(1) Rapid Urbanization is assisted by lack of popular decision-making control over society’s institutions and our very own lives, making cities locations where obscene concentrations of wealth and power coexist with mass dispossession of at least half the earth’s population with trends forecasting more into the near future.
(2) The logic of city planning and urban development is driven by the interests of capital and top-down decision making by local, regional, and national governments where the objectives of the rulers over the ruled are contrary to the interests of the rest of us. The system of capitalism, a system defined by private ownership of productive assets, markets with roles for buyers and sellers, and corporate divisions of labor in workplaces has contributed to the misinformed use of human and natural resources where the benefits of city life are made available only for the few while the high costs of urban growth and convenience are socialized for the many.
(3) UN Habitat reports that in the decade between 1990 and 2000 urbanization in developing regions was characterized by the entry of new cities that did not exist as such in 1990. The report states, “This constellation of 694 new cities started out as rural towns and became urban areas by virtue of changes in their administrative status, natural growth or in-migration.” (PDF) The problem is not the number of cities but rather the structures within and between them, and also possibly their size and current rate of growth. But where did they come from? These cities did not appear magically, nor were they the product of divine intervention or an evolutionary outcome hardwired into history. Rather, they are human-made creations. Similarly, so are the vast disparities of wealth and power that exist within and between these cities. The maintenance of urban inequality is made possible through human-made hierarchical institutions that serve elite interests. Therefore, our hope lies in the self-conscious ability of people to carry out their own social and material objectives for the improvement of their own lives and their ability to exercise decision-making control over their own destinies. To accomplish this, and successfully overthrow counter-revolutionary forces (outlined below), we will need shared vision of a society organized around an institutional framework that delivers self-management, classlessness, solidarity, and diversity.
The society I advocate is called a Participatory Society and has consequences for how we orient ourselves to the problems mentioned above. I will now focus on these consequences and along the way outline a new institutional vision as a proposed solution.
Urban Crisis & Social Control
The urban center is not only defined by relations to rural or suburban peripheries—by space, place, territory or geography—but also by a set of social and material relations that embody all societies. Every society has defining institutions which embody interpersonal roles and relations, as well as generalized patterns of behavior and outcomes consistent with our expectations that those institutions will produce and re-produce. These outcomes can be more or less desirable. They can be more or less classist; more or less racist; more or less sexist; and allow more or less control over our daily lives.
Societies where people have very little decision-making capacity, where people have little or no say over when and where they work or live, how they work or live, or what they produce or consume, suffer alienation and isolation that hides shared social and material relations, causing people in the same workplace, neighborhood, or city, to be socially and culturally separated from one another and to not interact. All this can lead to mass anti-social behavior such as loneliness, drug and alcohol abuse, crime and violence, abuse of public property, and affect many social indicators such as stress, mental and physical health, education, and mortality. Empathy for the repercussions of anti-social outcomes is minimized while attitudes of disinterest and disaffection, and even cynicism towards human suffering, are elevated. These patterns warp and accumulate as they embed themselves into the very fabric of the everyday roles and relationships defining our lives. They oppressively pressure every moment.
Today’s urban centers are home to extreme disparities where dense concentrations of wealth and power live side by side with squalor and desperation. One of the most forceful proposals I can think of to curb this pattern and its negative consequences is for people to assume self-managed decision-making control over their lives.
The principle of self-management includes, but is not limited to, human rights and access to society’s material resources and social space. However, access and rights to the city are not the same as self-administration and autonomous control of society’s institutions. Self-management goes beyond those who think they are free from false consciousness and believe they know what is in the people’s best interest and so seek to exercise decision-making power on behalf of everyone else. It means simply that people make decisions themselves, to the degree that they and others are affected, about how to administer their own lives and society’s institutions. They become arbiters of their own destinies.
For everyone everywhere to wield this kind of self-managed control over their lives society’s institutions will need to be fundamentally transformed, in every sphere of life, enabling decision-making control in proportion to how one is affected. This kind of society is called a Participatory Society—it is a self-managing society, a classless society, a solidarity society, a sustainable society, and a diverse society.
In the construction of a new participatory society:
– Class hierarchies will be abolished for new classless divisions of labor, remuneration of work for onerousness and intensity will be the norm, and decentralized producer and consumer controlled councils will negotiate allocation of the material means of life.
– Racial and community hierarchies will be un-done for full racial diversity and ethnic equality.
– Gender and sex hierarchies will be overturned to harvest non-sexist socialization and care-giving.
– Political authoritarianism will be made null for new participatory forms of nested council self-governance.
A participatory society, where people have self-managed decision-making say over the things that affect them, will require new consciousness, skills, and capacities for everyone. Society’s participatory institutions will convey compassion, understanding, and solidarity; equal opportunity to realize our own material fates with classless outcomes; and diverse lifestyles choices and living arrangements for all to choose from.
Better urban or town planning by leaders over the led will generate outcomes consistent with hierarchical institutions and relations—a society for them rather than for the rest of us. A democratically planned city is, of course, likely to be more livable than one that is developed by random greed while placing decision-making control in people’s hands will help face both the institutional damages already done and those ahead in the coming century.
Urban vs. Rural Space
Growth in urban space causes cities to expand outward and upward placing new demands on infrastructure, resources, and transportation. Escaping the city for life closer to nature in the suburbs, where these suburbs are often highly developed themselves, means further transportation and infrastructure demands to and from the suburban periphery and urban center. Other possibilities consist of connecting smaller cities that encircle larger ones while connecting all centers to one another using shared resource and transportation planning. In discussing these problems of urban space and development I would like to propose that our vision of a participatory society suggests a new orientation for how we approach the balance between urban and rural development and the issue of size, scale and relations of our societal endeavors.
There are two notable classical Left approaches to these issues.
In 1887, Edward Bellamy published Looking Backward: 2000-1887. Bellamy imagined a socialist Boston city (U.S.) in the year 2000 which was technologically advanced and where consumer goods were in abundance:
“At my feet lay a great city. Miles of broad streets, shaded by trees and lined by fine buildings, for the most part not in continuous blocks but set in larger or smaller enclosures, stretched in every direction. Every quarter contained large open squares filled with trees, among which statues glistened and fountains flashed in the late afternoon sun. Public buildings of a colossal size and an architectural grandeur unparalleled in my day raised their stately piles on every side.”
In oppositional response to the large scale urban vision offered by Bellamy, 19th Century British socialist, romantic, and architect William Morris wrote his classic text News From Nowhere. This book envisioned a city that abandon urban and large scale industrialization in favor of a smaller, village level, scale and design. Morris imagined an existence where the division between art, life, and work had been abolished. He proposed that artistic and handicraft design be incorporated into our built environment:
I lingered a little behind the others to have a stare at this house, which, as I have told you, stood on the site of my old dwelling.
It was a longish building with its gable ends turned away from the road, and long traceried windows coming rather low down set in the wall that faced us. It was very handsomely built of red brick with a lead roof; and high up above the windows there ran a frieze of figure subjects in baked clay, very well executed, and designed with a force and directness which I had never noticed in modern work before. The subjects I recognized at once, and indeed was very particularly familiar with them.
However, all this I took in in a minute; for we were presently within doors, and standing in a hall with a floor of marble mosaic and an open timber roof. There were no windows on the side opposite to the river, but arches below leading into chambers, one of which showed a glimpse of a garden beyond, and above them a long space of wall gaily painted (in fresco, I thought) with similar subjects to those of the frieze outside; everything about the place was handsome and generously solid as to material; and though it was not very large (…), one felt in it that exhilarating sense of space and freedom which satisfactory architecture always gives…
These two classic examples provide contrasting visions of the balance between urban and rural development, the scale or our productive endeavors, what buildings may look like, or even as Morris does, after the transformation of an old society into a new, which formerly elite spaces we may use to store manure in.
The vision of a participatory society does not have any preconceived assumptions about which of the above is more desirable than the other in size or scale but instead provides an institutional context that enables those most affected by these decisions to decide what is best for themselves in a self-managing and classless way.
A participatory society’s economic relations deliver classlessness through balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, nested worker and consumer councils, and decentralized participatory planning and so, consequentially, regardless of whether someone lives in an urban or rural area, or a society is smaller or larger, everyone will have comparably empowering circumstances and the same classless position. Extreme disparities in wealth and power will be a thing of the past.
When it comes to what daily life details in this urban or rural vision may actually look like, I hope it will suffice to say that people will be able to negotiate the re-organization of social space to meet their everyday lifestyle needs and choices. In Redesigning the American Dream (W. W. Norton & Company, 2002) Feminist, and Professor of Architecture and Urbanism Dolores Hayden explores the Feminist critique of single family homes as “enclosures” on women’s lives. In a participatory society one can imagine much of the heavy burden of “women’s work” and “household labor,” being lifted by classlessness, but still, change to avoid male privilege will be needed as well. After revolutionizing gender relations—in child-rearing, socialization, and care-giving—people may even also decide to re-organize the distance between work and home or choose from among various possibilities for their mutual integration. For example, the socialization of care-giving might mean the placement of daycare centers and elderly homes into communities and workplaces. Or, shared communal eating and cleaning spaces might also emerge as possible solutions to lessen the workload of individual families. Likewise we can envision how accommodation and reproduction of diverse cultural and community relations in the economy may also take shape. However, trying to imagine in detail today the distance between work and daycare (or the aesthetics) of society’s institutions tomorrow is placing the “buggy before the horse.” Just as with the balance between urban and rural space a participatory society should provide an institutional context allowing populations to choose whatever details they prefer consistent with self-management and classlessness. Then we can all see those details when the future arrives.
The Sustainable City & The Class Connection
In response to the problem of cities being major sources of carbon dioxide emissions and climate change some suggest we need societies not so large, affluent, or convenient. The proposed solution would be to cut-back on consumption and production, move away from non-renewable resources, private transportation, and recycle more, all in an effort to downsize our ecological footprint. Others suggest that the problem is not even cities, per say, that are responsible for the output of greenhouse gasses but, rather, per capita consumption patterns—that is, the amount of consumption per head for those that live in cities (State of the Worlds Cities 2008 / 2009, UN Habitat). Some cities have even tried to reduce their per capita energy consumption through more efficient use of transportation and infrastructure.
However, the real source of the problem is the lack of popular decision-making control over what is consumed, how it is produced, and the volume of both. Inputs for production and consumption should be guided by concern for the social costs and benefits of their use, and what is socially valuable, rather than by elite planning and mismanagement guided by random greed. These are problems that the economy of a participatory society (parecon) addresses by providing institutional solutions via classless and self-managed worker and consumer councils.
In every society that hosts disparities in wealth, power, and privilege so too are there disparities in affluence, comfort, and convenience. In societies such as the U.S., where the top 10 percent collectively enjoy almost as much wealth as the bottom 150 million (half the population), asking those of us in the bottom 60-70 percent to cut back on the comfort and convenience that we already have very little of is tantamount to asking people to give up even more control over what little we have left to enjoy of our dispossessed lives.
The question is not if we should cut-back on overall affluence and reduce our collective environmental footprint, as most would agree, but how we can redistribute decision-making power and control so that those currently at the top have the same consumption ceiling as the rest of us. Decisions about who should cut-back on their consumption levels today and how to reduce carbon levels for an environmentally sustainable future tomorrow should be made by all according to how they are affected—self-management.
The overall purpose, however, should be how to reorient life, cities, and social relations, so that great social and material benefits accrue from less, and even more to the point, less ecologically destructive production and consumption. For example, we need to replace many private goods, such as cars for transportation, with far more efficient public forms—in a myriad of ways.
Sustainability & The Need for Revolution
Some have argued that “We need to stop consuming fossil fuels and defeat global warming over the next twenty to thirty years,” and they are right. However, not only will doing so take at least as much coordination of energy and resources as transforming society’s defining institutions, specifically, moving toward a post-capitalist economy, but as long as capitalism’s defining features of private ownership of productive assets, markets, and corporate hierarchies exist, any progress made towards “greening society” will always be threatened by market pressures pushing for production and consumption of private goods and services over public ones, hiding the true social and material costs of economic activity, and using resources where the guiding ruling class interests are profits and power over people and the environment. Consequentially, our efforts for a sustainable society will be rolled back and undercut if we don’t address the roots of the problem, and aim for their transformation.
Strategies for Self-Management: 3 Orientations
We have, I think, a real need right now to democratize decisions as to how a city shall be and what it should be about, so that we can actually have, if you like, a collective project about reshaping urban—the urban world. I mean, here in this city [New York], effectively, the right to the city has been held by the mayor and the Development Office and the developers and the financiers. Most of us don’t really have a very strong say. I mean, there are kind of community organizations and so on. So I think the democratization of the city, of city decision-making, is crucial. And I think we want to reclaim the right to the city for all of us, so that we can all actually not only have access to what exists in the city, but also be able to reshape the city in a different image, in a different way, which is more socially just, more environmentally sustainable and so on.
– David Harvey
Today there are urban and rural movements on every continent seeking access and rights to resources and social space. These and other movements could be building blocks towards a participatory society where people exercise self-managed decision-making control over their lives and over society’s institutions. I want to highlight three strategic orientations, the problems we face, and institutional forces working against us. I believe all three orientations are necessary and interdependent for the final goal of realizing a new society.
Orientation 1: Reforms
The first orientation I want to discuss is reforms. Reforms are a way to improve poor social and material conditions today in the hope that things will be better tomorrow. Today, on all continents, there are many groups working to improve the conditions that dispossess them.
For example, in South Africa, the Shack dweller’s movement (Abahlali baseMjondolo, “ABM”), Landless People’s Movement, the Rural Network, and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, are all part of a Poor People’s Alliance for radical social justice. In Kwazulu-Natal the Shack dweller’s (ABM) have been engaged in a fight against the province’s “Slums Act” by using both legal means and direct action. It has been estimated that 10 percent of South Africans “still live in shanty-style developments, which were first set up on the outskirts of major towns and cities during white minority rule.” (BBC / ABM site) The South African government plans on displacing thousands of shack dweller’s to make room for the 2010 Soccer World Cup. “The government has made plans to develop ‘World Class Cities’ by eliminating the ‘slums’ which are home to millions” says ABM partner organization War on Want. The Act is expected to lead to the eviction of large numbers of shack dwellers from their homes and into temporary housing in so-called “transit camps” that are often located far from vital services and job opportunities and lack decent water and sanitation facilities. As of today ABM and others are still trying to contest the constitutionality of the Slums Act and ensure a place for shack dwellers in the city and with dignity.
Similarly, in Brazil there is the exemplary Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), the largest social movement of its kind. In a 25 year period the MST has taken over 35 million acres from large land owners, an amount “larger than the country of Uruguay” (Stedile). The MST has settled thousands of families and built hundreds of schools and homes. This strategy obviously aims, and has succeeded to a large extent, in the redistribution of rural land. In Brazil’s urban centers, another movement—Movimiento de los Trabajadores Sin Techo (MTST) has emerged in the past years. Taking on MST’s tactics, they occupy urban spaces for living areas.
Where I am from, in the U.S., regionally and across major cities nationally, there is a Right to the City movement. Its overview page states:
Right to the City was born out of desire and need by organizers and allies around the country to have a stronger movement for urban justice. But it was also born out of the power of an idea of a new kind of urban politics that asserts that everyone, particularly the disenfranchised, not only has a right to the city, but as inhabitants, have a right to shape it, design it, and operationalize an urban human rights agenda.
The Right to the City Alliance was established in 2007 and includes more than 40 member organizations spanning 7 states and more than a dozen local jurisdictions. Regional networks include Boston / Providence, DC / North Virginia, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, and San Francisco / Oakland. The movement engages in campaigns for civic engagement, public and subsidized housing, tenant’s rights, and provides resource, technical, and legal support and advocacy services.
In Boston, the city I live closest to, City Life/Vida Urbana is a member organization of the Right to the City Alliance. In 2008 alone there have been over 1200 home foreclosures, and about 2400 threatened evictions, affecting perhaps 4-5000 people. City Life has stopped or delayed more than 300 evictions.
While the above examples are all exemplary movements, one can see that the South African and Brazilian examples, representing millions of members, are much further ahead in their organizing engagements than those of us in the U.S. However, our movements can humorously boast that we have more websites than many of our organizations have members!
Orientation 2: Revolt
Following shortly on the heels of your own uprising last December, and consistent with some of the tactics I read about taking place here, students at the NewSchoolUniversity in New York occupied some of their own faculty buildings. This was sparked by a vote of no confidence in the university’s President and Vice President and because they were acting out of interests contradictory to the interests of students, staff, and faculty. The students used occupation as tactic to raise demands and get them met. Some of their demands were:
– resignation of the NewSchool president, and others on the Board of Trustees
– abolition of the grading system
– student and faculty cooperatively plan curriculum
– have the administration be elected and recallable by students, staff, and faculty
– to have social justice curriculum
– have the university serve community interests and needs
– disclosure of university investments to ensure the university is not funding war, torture, labor, social, or environmental injustice.
– implementation of a socially responsible investment committee (comprised of students, staff, and faculty).
There were many other demands, and they have won some, and they are still fighting for others. However, this occupation was a tactic employed around part of a much larger long-term vision of broader society, as exemplified by one of their slogans, “Occupy Everything!” As New School Radical Student Union organizer Meaghan Linick-Loughley said, “All this is trying to push the university into the direction of a self-managed university, even though these are only small steps.” (See video interview)
Other examples of occupation tactics in the U.S. include the sit-down strikes in the auto industry of the 1930’s Depression-era where workers used occupations to get demands met, however did not try to run the factories themselves as newly re-organized workplaces. More recently, last December 5th the famous Chicago Republic Windows and Doors factory gained international attention when 260 workers occupied their plant for 6 days. Workers there used factory occupation as their tactic of choice bringing back Depression-era tactics in the U.S. Weeks after taking $25 billion dollars in public bailout money Bank of America cut off its line of credit to the factory causing the company to halt operations and terminate its workers with only three days notice and without severance packages. Adopting the slogan “You got bailed out, we got sold out!” the workers occupation struggle earned them a victory settlement totaling $1.75 million dollars covering eight weeks of pay, two months of continued health coverage, and pay for all accrued and unused vacation. United Electrical Director of Organization Bob Kingsley described the outcome as “an historic victory for America’s labor movement.” Today the plant is re-opening under new ownership with all the workers hired back at their old wages. This was an inspiring example of occupation as a reform tactic to improve the conditions of workers today.
The most recent example of the occupation tactic being employed in the U.S., also in Chicago and paralleling the Windows and Doors story, is the worker’s struggle at the 122 year-old Hartmarx business suit factory. This is the company that outfitted now U.S. President Barack Obama in the navy blue suit he wore on his inauguration night.
Hartmarx is in bankruptcy and its biggest creditor is Wells Fargo which, like Bank of America, also received $25 billion dollars public bailout money. There are offers to buy the company but Wells Fargo wants to liquidate it. On Monday, May 11, 650 workers voted to occupy their factory if the bank decides to liquidate. The struggle of the Hartmarx worker’s is still unfolding.
There are of course excellent examples of occupations and takeovers around the world, where many lessons can be learned, from France, the U.K., Canada, and even your own country. However, one significant example outside the U.S. that you may be aware of is Argentina. In Buenos Aires, Argentine workers have adopted the MST strategy of “Occupy, Resist, Produce” to take over and administer their own factories. These takeovers erupted during and after Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis and social rebellion with wide spread occupations of work places and community spaces for autonomous organizing and implementation of self-managed social relations.
In the student and worker examples above, the lesson I draw from occupation as a tactic, and I hope to hear and learn more about yours here—as I understand that you have a very deliberate occupations’ movement that has been organizing for years—is the difference between occupations as a tactic to get demands met, or occupations as social centers for activism and organizing—which are both very positive and exemplary things—and the use of occupations consistent with our ultimate objectives of redefining social and material relations away from oppressive and hierarchical ones, and towards classless and self-managing ones—for the administration of all society’s institutions by ourselves and for ourselves. This should include all economic institutions for the production, consumption, and allocation of the material means of life, political institutions for adjudication, legislation, and for the creation of self-governing law, as well as all media, educational and cultural apparatus’—culminating in the total self-management of society.
Orientation 3: Revolution
I want to propose that orientations toward reform (improving our lives today), and revolt (uprising and rebellion) should lead, ultimately, to the conscious transformation of society’s defining institutions and the totality of social and material relations—Revolution. We do this with a grander vision in mind and to always do so in such a way that leaves us more empowered, more in control, and closer to winning the new society. If we pursue reform or revolt for their own sake, without our eyes on the prize of winning society wide revolution, we will always run the risk of having society’s institutions roll back our struggles for the forward looking change we hoped for.
This entails orienting our reform and uprising strategies towards a final conclusion: the reorganization of society’s institutions for egalitarian relations between sexes; balanced divisions of economic labor for classlessness; for decentralized and participatory self-managed decision-making; for cultural fairness and diversity; and for environmental stability.
Ultimately, we seek to win a participatory society and the empowerment of all to have decision-making say over their own social and material lives.
Problems for all 3 Orientations: The (Counter) Revolution of Everyday Life
However, the orientations above are not without their problems. History has ample evidence showing that when Left movements unite and become a force to be reckoned with—meaning we threaten the balance of power that favors the rulers over the ruled—elites respond with counter-revolutionary subversion and brutality in defense of their interests. However, and I say this as a non-pacifist, history also has examples of societies transforming peacefully and non-violently when the majority of the population is organized and conscious about its desires for a new society. These examples show that in the contestation for a new society the real problem is not between state violence vs. an armed resistance. To paraphrase last century’s anarcho-syndicalist theoretician Rudolph Rocker, “The state has a monopoly on violence,” meaning that when it comes to guns, torture, tanks, planes, and bombs, the odds for the state’s brutal and successful suppression of an armed resistance are in the state’s favor.
However, when the majority of people rise up against elements of the population and the institutions that elevate them, those defined as the ruling class over the rest of us, as in the aftermath of the Argentine financial crisis of 2001, where people shouted “¡Que se vayan todos!,” or “Away with them all!” and ousted successive presidents in a matter of days; and again in April 2002 when Venezuelans peacefully rose up against the U.S. backed coup attempt to overthrow president Hugo Chavez, rolling back U.S. imperial aggression and achieving Chavez’ reinstatement; it demonstrates that it is possible for governments and imperialist aggression to be checked by popular power. The lesson here is that when enough people are organized—even if it takes decades—once a critical mass is reached, elites can be toppled instantly.
These examples point to an obstacle to overcome in societies where the balance of forces are not being contested or have recently stabilized. The goal then should be to organize as much as possible those receptive sectors of the population—working people, women, minorities and everyone else who wishes real self-management for all.
But more, another deeper problem exists. Whether in our patient day to day organizing efforts or in those moments where popular rebellion erupts and societal transformation begins to take root, there are more subtle counter-revolutionary forces at work than the state, elite, or media—even though these are very important. Whether in Paris ’68, Argentina 2001, or December in Greece there are pressures to “return to normal” and in every society something similar is at work attempting to rollback each new uprising. Every rebellion is challenged by not having sufficient institutional backing and shared strategic vision capable of carrying forward the momentum and objectives of the uprising towards transformation of society.
Counter-revolutionary forces are embedded in the very fabric of our struggle and these same forces emanate from society’s defining and oppressive institutions. Pre-existing social behaviors and material outcomes, such as mass apathy and self-interest, generated by the market, state, and old corporate divisions of labor (and sexism and racism) work against our desired changes and which we must constantly seek to not replicate ourselves.
In other words, remnants of the old society are so prevalent during times of upheaval, and for long afterward too, that they work to exhaust, restrain, and eventually roll back our efforts for the new society. These forces can often cause us to do more damage to ourselves and others in our movements than the state or any elite. So I think that, to the extent that our own movement organizations and institutions replicate pre-existing and dominant institutions, it makes it all the harder to escape the old society. That goes without saying for mainstream party’s or organizations, but I believe this is also the case for hierarchically organized Left parties, trade unions, or media and cultural groups, whose internal structures and roles are compatible with the dominant oppressive ones.
The solution to this problem is, I believe,—in addition and in complement to organizing a sympathetic populace—widely shared consciousness about the kind of society we want. This does not mean general proclamations or simply spouting values. It means understanding and sharing a belief in the benefits of classless divisions of labor and remuneration, along with self-managed workers’ and consumers’ councils over other hierarchical, centralized, or otherwise vague proposals. We should be clear in our desire for a society which is organized around institutions that can deliver solidarity, self-management, classlessness, and diversity, and we should know what those institutions look like. We need this not only to build a mass movement among ourselves allied around a vision that includes all aspects of society. But also to provide hope for all others who wish to control their own social and material fates. Our efforts wont’ be perfect but having a shared and conscious understanding means that together we can evaluate mistakes made and obstacles to overcome and plot our course closer towards the final victory.
[I want to thank Michael Albert, Andy Dunn, Mandisi Majavu, Steve Shalom, Marie Trigona, and Cynthia Peters for their input and suggestions on the presentation above. They are responsible for adding much strength and only I am responsible for any weakness.]
Chris Spannos is Staff with Z and editor of the book Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century (AK Press, 2008).