Illustration: Volker Straeter

Utopianism of the spirit

The history of different imagined and desirable futures is longer than the current epoch of capitalism through which we are suffering. Arguably, utopian thinking goes back at least to Plato’s notion of an enlightened oligarchy ruling over his Republic. The degree to which such futures were or were not utopian (and whether this was or was not a bad thing) has been a cause of sharp disagreement among critics of capitalism. Karl Marx was particularly scornful of utopian thinking among socialists but there continued to be utopian speculations in the writings of William Morris, Edward Bellamy and a number of anarchist thinkers.

This is from Thomas More’s original Utopia, published in 1516, half a millennium ago:

In all other places, regardless of the prosperity of the country, unless the individual takes care of his own needs, starvation will be his fate. This self-preservation has priority over the common good. Here... no-one ever lacks anything. There is no begrudging the distribution of goods, poverty and begging are unknown; although, possessing nothing, all men are rich. For who is richer than he who lives a happy and tranquil life free from the anxieties of job holding and domestic troubles?1

More touches on a sensibility that could help us build the kind of post-growth future currently so necessary to our species survival: an ecological democracy that takes the individual off the consumer treadmill and revalues the quality of daily lives. Much other utopian speculation tends to this kind of peaceful, radical egalitarianism. However, when utopians stray into providing detailed schemes for how the future should be organized, they get into choppy water.

For a conservative, the most irritating thing about utopians is that they always want to return to first principles. The unquestioning belief held by the dominant political class is that first principles should just be assumed to be embedded in our current way of life – the glorious heritage of our noble ancestors having been won by some heroic (usually military) past struggle. If this is not taken as an article of faith, it opens the door to all kinds of speculative and destabilizing questioning.

Is our democracy really democratic? Do we really have equality of opportunity? Can we not find a better source of social cohesion than individualistic self-promotion? Is our current obsession with growth compatible with the ecological survival of the human species? Is it fair for some people to starve while others live on billions of dollars’ worth of inherited wealth? It is pretty clear that those who want to build an alternative to capitalism cannot help but think about what that alternative is going to look like. The warning that arises out of the utopia debate is that we need to be pretty careful about how this is done. Make your utopia open-ended and non-dogmatic, not some ‘terminal point’ in history where all human suffering disappears. Avoid being glib. Eschew grand abstractions like the unfortunate ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Steer clear of detailed blueprints or techno-fantasies. Instead, explore grounded possibilities of how people’s lives could and should be better.

We are bound to identify elements of what is occurring in the present as anticipating what might be in the future. Thus, for example, the collapse of the permanent employment economy could presage more democratic and less compulsory forms of work. Or the evolution of civil society and social movements could anticipate a form of self-governance closer to the ideal of democratic self-rule than our current limited forms of political representation. It is also worth remembering that at one time such causes as ending slavery, and child labour, or introducing the eight-hour day were thought of as impossible utopian dreams.

The German philosopher Ernst Bloch took an idiosyncratic utopian stance and was a source of inspiration in the 1960s for both European radicals and the liberation-theology movement that shook the Catholic Church. Although by no means a believer in blueprints, his work The Principle of Hope is considered a classic utopian text for the modern era.2 Bloch died in 1977 but he surely would have recognized some modern developments – the Latin American attempt to recraft a socialism for the 21st century, for example, or the defence of the commons against market predators that is sprouting up almost everywhere – as ‘prefigurative elements’ of a different potential future.

Illustration: Volker Straeter

A democratic commons

The commons at its most basic includes the earth and all its ecosystems: the atmosphere, fresh waterways and oceans, soil, forests, and all forms of life that interact with them. We all need and have a right to have access to these in order to survive. An expanded definition would also include those things we hold in a collective sense – public healthcare, libraries, sidewalks, bus and subway systems, public insurance, pensions, urban and wilderness parks, public broadcasting, museums, public education and so on.

The definition these days is often extended to include the products of human labour/knowledge, forming a kind of intellectual commons, including such intangibles as medical knowledge, genetic and computing codes, access to radio and TV frequencies and the freedom of digital space. Some commons are local (neighbourhoods or water supply), some are regional (watersheds and forests) while others are global (oceans, biodiversity, the internet).

Since the birth of capitalism there has been a constant pressure to transfer the ownership and control of common resources into private hands. In the earliest days of privatizing land in Britain, this process came to be known as ‘enclosure’ – a word now largely associated with unjust expropriation and exclusion. It is a term still applicable today as commonly held resources are taken for private profit, mostly by large corporations with the complicity of the state. Conventional economics would have it that this is the most efficient way to exploit such resources for the good of all. This view underpins the capacity of mining companies, private utility providers, international agribusiness corporations, for-profit health providers and others to take away from the commons and then sell back to the public – or at least to those sections of the public with the means to pay.

Such privatizers avoid the use of the notion or language of the commons, relying instead on a ‘frontier’ metaphor so that they may paint themselves as bold pioneers. The implication is that this frontier was somehow ‘empty’ when in reality it was just commonly held. The alienation of commonwealth means a loss of control not only of services and resources themselves but also over how they are developed. In the case of the natural commons, this process almost always sacrifices sustainability and ecological health for speed and expediency at the lowest possible cost.

The Global South still contains large numbers of people who depend on a natural subsistence economy rooted in access to the commons. These include those practising slash and burn and other forms of small-scale agriculture, inshore and offshore artisanal fishers, forest people who hunt and harvest, and nomadic peoples, many of whom are dependent on access to common grazing land. Often (but not always) such people overlap with indigenous societies. Such people can be described as living ‘off the grid’. There are also smaller, but still important, groups of people in the Global North in this position.

These people have, by their very dependence on direct access to the commons, become humanity’s first line of defence in preserving its integrity. The commons is not just a battlefield between corporate predators and those who resist them – it is also a source of hope for those willing to imagine a world beyond capitalism. It represents a space between the private market and the political state in which humanity can control and democratically root our common wealth. Both the market and the state have proved inadequate for this purpose.

An alternative to capitalism must in the end be based on a more complex sense of the human than orthodox economists’ notion that we are all hardwired to a rational calculus of individual costs and benefits. The influential commons theorist and Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom proposes a different, more optimistic, notion. She believes that: ‘we live in a web of social relations infused with norms and values; we are intrinsically co-operative and as a result collective action is possible and may lead to sustainable and equitable governance practices.’3 Ostrom opens up the debate about how the commons should be governed rather than just assuming the market abetted by the state can handle the job – she sees a process of ‘deliberative democracy’ as essential if there is to be proper human stewardship of the commons. Others carry the analysis further and see in the commons the potential to restructure the underlying configuration of power between markets, states and societies.

While struggles over particular aspects of the commons have become everyday events, what is often missing is a more comprehensive sense of the commons as a whole that needs protection and extension. Such a commons must include the upstream (watersheds, fisheries, local food production systems, sustainable forests) as well as the downstream (public goods and services such as water, electricity, sanitation and communications). This commons should be governed by a system of democratic checks and balances that ensures ecological health as well as sustainable livelihoods for people at both ends of the stream.

Illustration: Volker Straeter

A continent turns left

Latin America’s history of repression is both very ancient and all too modern. The genocide of the Spanish conquistadors gave way to years of bloody dictatorships that smothered democracy in favour of Washington Consensus capitalism from the 1970s to the 1990s. Tens of thousands died for merely trying to exercise rights that gringos have long taken for granted. Chile under the Pinochet regime became a neoliberal model to be bandied about by its US sponsors for other Southern countries to emulate. In this exemplary autocratic paradise, the only real freedom was that given to private capital to go wherever its investment inclinations led. It was a model that enshrined inequality, in a region that was already the most unequal in the world.

But things are changing. These days inequality in Latin America has dropped to its lowest level for 30 years – and this at a time when the rest of the world is seeing the gap between rich and poor grow dramatically. It is notable that Venezuela under the Bolivarian policies of Hugo Chávez (and now Nicolas Maduro) has the most equal distribution of income on the continent. Where Left governments have excelled is in seriously addressing long-neglected poverty via targeted social programmes. In many cases, extreme poverty has been cut in half over the past decade. There has also been strong support for the co-operative sector (the number of co-ops in Venezuela went from around 700 to tens of thousands4) and for worker takeovers of mostly bankrupt or deserted businesses (particularly in Argentina, but also elsewhere).

There have been a number of direct-democracy initiatives devolving power to local community councils in Venezuela and to indigenous territories in Bolivia and Ecuador. In Brazil, the left wing of the Workers’ Party pioneered the idea of a participatory budget in the southern city of Porto Alegre, building on dissatisfaction with conventional urban structures. Although this has had mixed success locally, it has become an important standard of municipal democracy on the continent and beyond. A focal point has been to move beyond granting welfare from above to local power embedded in workplaces and communities.

The Aymara and Quechua peoples of the Andean highlands are today using the pre-Inca tradition of ayllu (a self-governing, highly flexible form of home community based on collective rights) as a way of resisting outside domination. For these people (and many others), these traditions are not museum pieces but can be ‘re-inscribed’ as part of a living tradition that has shown a remarkable ability to adapt in order to survive.

The best political thinking within the Bolivarian movement draws from Mexico’s indigenous Zapatista movement’s notion of ‘leading by following’ or ‘leading from behind’. The basic idea here is to identify those popular tendencies at the base of society that are pushing forward a radical democratic alternative and to foster and sustain them in their endeavours. So movements to take over factories and estates or to set up community-controlled health clinics are encouraged rather than artificially created from above.

The basic tension within this kind of leftist movement is between those who think that their goals are best achieved through a more efficient top-down politics, be they career-minded bureaucrats in Caracas or timid social democrats in Brasilia, and those who insist on a new kind of democratic ecosocialist politics from below. The seductive luxuries and pomp that come with national power will always be dangerous, as will a tendency towards an easy pragmatism that drowns dreams in practicalities.

The differences express themselves over both limits and methods: popular assemblies or bureaucratic dictate; behind-the-scenes manoeuvres or the politics of the street. In Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina, there is real disagreement between the Left in the streets and that in government. The Ecuadorian government of Rafael Correa, in particular, has had some sharp disagreements with the country’s Left over issues of the environment, resource development and indigenous rights.

Here, as elsewhere, there is a political cost to giving in to the pressures of the corporate Right. If politics is the art of the possible, and agitation the art of the desirable, they need to be kept in creative tension without either being entirely abandoned. The large demonstrations spearheaded by activists for free public transportation that shook pre-World Cup Brazil in June 2013 were further proof that the political class, whatever its Left credentials, is on notice to deliver the goods.

The fundamental point is that these are not smooth, well-oiled political machines underpinning worked-out leftist electoral projects. Instead, this ‘21st-century socialism’ is something a good deal messier. It is rather a diverse and multifaceted movement from below, without which any electoral successes would lose both their way and their meaning. This is also why its gains will not be easily overturned by this or that defeat at the polls, the death of a leader or the subtle (and not-so-subtle) pressures of the predators of corporate globalization.

The movement is made up of slum-dwellers, students, indigenous people, squatters, workers (both in and out of employment), those who survive in the informal sector, teachers, farmers, activists, environmentalists, trade unionists and many, many others. It is not that all of these individuals and groups agree in some facile show of unity – far from it. It is that they have all found a political home from which they can fight for their rights and to bring a world beyond capitalism a little closer.

Illustration: Volker Straeter

A reciprocal economy

By the early 21st century we had truly arrived at a different time and a different culture on the Left, with a ‘movement of movements’ coming together to share experiences and perspectives at World Social Forums on almost every continent. A persistent orientation of that contemporary Left, at least the part that still seeks a way out of capitalism, is what has come to be called the ‘autonomist’ perspective. This grew out of French radical theory and the Italian New Left but is today lodged in the thought and actions of the global justice and Occupy movements, while informing the politics of many other social movements.

Autonomists believe that it is not enough to take over the existing institutions – the state, jobs, weapons, factories, technologies – and turn them in a different liberatory direction. Instead, they place their hope in a radical ‘exit’ from the system after which ‘everything must be reinvented’. In doing this they ask questions that subvert not only capitalism but much of the classical socialist tradition as well. Why participate in an economics of centralized growth that spreads inequality while destroying the biosphere? What would be the purpose of any self-management if workers continued to produce the same weapons and waste? For the autonomists, hope lies in the refusal both of work and other forms of participation dictated by capital’s system of command.

But exit isn’t enough. After we are out the door, what then? The autonomists need to overcome their distaste for debating the possible shape of a post-capitalist future. Still, their emphasis on seeing the seeds of that future in the present remains a fruitful antidote to the suicidal refrain that ‘there is no alternative’.

Every day, all over the world, people are working to create alternatives: there is, for example, a vast co-operative economy made up of production and consumer co-ops, worker co-operatives, credit unions, co-operative poolings of capital, co-housing schemes that involve hundreds of millions of people. Some are very large, such as the dense network of Mondragon co-ops in the Spanish Basque country, while others are tiny urban neighbourhood or village ventures that vary widely in strength and resilience.

In some places these co-operatives are a large and important player in national economies. In Italy there are 16,000 producer co-operatives, while, with five million members, Italy’s consumer co-ops are second only to those of Japan, and account for 60 per cent of the country’s home and healthcare system. Their track record has also been good. Over the past two decades, while Italy’s corporate sector has been cutting its workforce, the largest producer co-ops have been growing both in terms of jobs created and of market share. The retail co-ops, meanwhile, have enjoyed sustained growth while keeping their prices lower than their competitors’.5

Co-operatives provide over 100 million jobs worldwide, which is 20 per cent more than the number employed by transnational corporations. These co-operatives are in turn rooted in a broader social economy made up of NGOs, self-help groups, trade unions, voluntary associations (often with unpaid leadership), all engaged in not-for-profit activities. This is not to say that this social economy is in opposition to capitalism – in fact it often plays a kind of damage-control role, ameliorating some of the social fallout resulting from the shredding of the safety net. Nevertheless, millions of people are choosing to work in alternative fields attracted by reciprocal values beyond the ethos of individual self-advancement and with at least the possibility of more democratic input than that dictated by traditional capitalist command. The value of reciprocity is key here.

Without some kind of reciprocity society would no longer be able to exist. Without what the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber calls a kind of ‘baseline communism’, life would simply cease to operate. If we treated each other – our friends, our neighbours, our children, our parents, even strangers – strictly on the basis of profit and loss, life would be intolerable.6 So why shouldn’t we make the principle of generous reciprocity so present in everyday interactions the basis of economic life rather than the current model of competing egoism?

For this to be effective we need a shared vision of a different future that can act as a political pole of attraction shifting the destructive momentum in which we are caught. Only if this starts happening will we be able to stop preaching to the choir and reach out to those who live in the suburbs, populate the shopping malls, hold down two or three low-paid jobs to feed their kids, and see no way out of the spiritual desert that capitalism is quickly becoming.

To create an ecological democracy means to reinstate active citizenship as the centrepiece of political life that can draw hundreds of millions of people into shaping an alternative way of living. If such large numbers are to buy in, we need to be much more convincing in laying out our vision of how things could be different.

  1. Jacoby,The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy, Basic Books, New York, 1999.
  2. William K. Carroll, ‘Crisis, Movements and Counter-Hegemony’, in Henry Veltmeyer (ed)21st Century Socialism, Fernwood Publishing, Halifax, 2010.
  3. Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  4. Jeffery R Weber, ‘Venezuela under Chávez’, 21st Century Socialism, Fernwood Books, Halifax, 2011.
  5. John Restakis, ‘Tax Justice and the Civil Economy’, in The Great Revenue Robbery, edited by Richard Swift, Between The Lines, Toronto, 2013.
  6. David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, Melville House, Brooklyn, 2011.

Richard Swift