Where the ‘political’ meets the ‘economy’?
By its very structure and processes of functioning, representative democracy means that many voices don’t get heard and the COVID-19 pandemic shows that many lives don’t matter. This is a critical failing because right at this moment, we need to act urgently to change the ways we live. We have spent the last 50 years, two generations, overshooting Earth’s very material limits, exploiting it.
Capitalist enterprises are hierarchical and elitist. What is produced, how and for whom is set by capitalists within the bounds of marketplace rules of balancing books and satiating debtors. Similarly, capitalist states—governments created to manage the social and political spheres of capitalist activities—are hierarchical. Yet, right now, production needs to take account of both social and environmental values instead of only monetary ones.
The abstraction of money and market-based practices cannot do the jobs we need them to do. We need to get in the driver’s seat. This is all the more difficult because all governments and many citizens increasingly prioritize financial balances. They see these as their limits and they lack skills and experience in cooperatively governing according to social needs and ecological limits.
Yet, since the mid-1960s, certain citizens have felt things going awry and acted. Grassroots movements have slowly and surely adopted and developed a plethora of mobile, flexible and appropriate ‘alternative’ politics—consensual, horizontal, decentralized, multidimensional and open networks that communicate and collaborate on the basis of need. These ways of operating—using techniques of direct, participatory democracy—should supplant the reign of capitalist politics, money and markets.
A key barrier to implementing a postcapitalist future is resistance to these types of horizontal forms of decision making and organization. The simplistic belief in hierarchical, centralized organization with members and constitutions is legion within the Left. It is most characteristic of the reformist Left, especially unions and political parties, and a distinguishing feature of radical and reformist wings.
I first encountered horizontal political organization in the women’s liberation movement 50 years ago, working by way of assemblies with no permanent spokespeople or other positions that weren’t fully accountable and always liable to challenge. Transparency was a first principle. It drove media and conventional politicians mad. They had no person or organization to manage, manipulate or besmirch (although, nor surprisingly, women’s liberation was vilified).
Direct action and non-violence, relating as equals in collective deliberation and action, have a long history within anti-capitalist activism, such as the Paris Commune of 1871. As Vincent Liegey and I write in Exploring Degrowth: A Critical Guide (2020, 54):
Non-hierarchical forms of organisation—often interpreted and referred to as ‘unorganised’ by those with triumphal confidence in hierarchical methods—highlight the value of every person’s understanding of the current circumstances, of each person’s right to be heard, to express an opinion and to act according to their beliefs, that is, to be respected and treated equally in everyday practice. If such organisation evolved in everyday resistance and protest action, it is also viewed as prefigurative. Prefigurative of a community-oriented form of politics necessary not only to combat but also to go beyond contemporary hierarchies that facilitate the reproduction of patriarchal and racial oppression, authoritarian exploitation, confrontation and a military approach to people and planet.
I lived in various intentional communities in the 1990s and have visited many more since. The ones I am attracted to tend to operate on horizontal forms of co-governance. Beyond assemblies or general meetings that might occur weekly to quarterly, the other essential form of non-hierarchical organizing is the working group. Open to anyone to join with knowledge and skills freely shared, working groups are permanent or short-term and direct their collective attention and activities to a task or area of whole group concern. Generally a rotating contact point and coordinator are responsible for briefing newcomers and reporting to assemblies but participants come and go with fluid and dynamic individual and collective roles. The advisory working group is subject to assembly decision-making. Everyone learns to lead and follow in engaged and conscientious ways.
Techniques of consensual and collaborative decision-making are sophisticated. During the pandemic, organizing wholly online, a forming cohousing group that I belong to often had 25–30 members spread over two screens. Our discussions and decision-making supported by a series of pre-established protocol, coloured cards that allow for signalling an intervention or vote of a particular kind (including, a question, comment or block). We were designing a 30-dwelling establishment with common spaces both inside and out. Using Zoom tools, we could discuss in groups and re-join the larger one, share screens, you know the drill. It worked!
This approach is born out in an eight-author collaboration to produce a Pluto Press book in the FireWorks series Empire’s Endgame (2021). The co-authors describe that, instead of each writing a chapter:
we opted for an anarchic mix of collective thinking, noisy and very funny discussion, silent writing, and remote editing … The more we worked like this, the more synergy our writing took on. Our aim was that when we read the final product, we would no longer be able to recall who had written what. In a landscape of personal brands and an academic culture that values celebrity over collaboration, working against the imperative to be a distinct, singular voice offered us a different approach to the challenge of writing. (Preface, 2020 draft)
It’s right that such consensual, horizontal, decentralized, multidimensional and open networks have their challenges. Yet at a point in history where we need to act as a mass in solidarity if we are to succeed, I argue that this kind of organizing has much more potential than representative and elite-driven vertical organization typical of the traditional Left. It should ring alarm bells that such an approach mimics capitalist politics more generally. But, is it surprising in an age where even the Left has moved towards the Right, as in neoliberalism?
We know how to live sustainably—simply and modestly, with appropriate technology and by relocalizing economies so that they are neither inward looking nor isolationist. We know the values we need for sustainability—values of inclusion, commitment to fulfilling everyone’s basic needs, celebrating diversity, and socio-political justice along with climate justice.
In short, we have the practical techniques and material means to implement such sustainable futures. But our political economy stymies advances in the only direction, it seems, to put a break on species extinction. This is the ‘wicked problem’ facing the world and Earth today. We have become a pest species, weeds of the world.
There seems no doubt that capitalist forms of organising production and exchange, now entrenched as a dominating global system, are inappropriate and totally inadequate to the task at hand. Capitalism progresses around the abstract principle of money, a creature of the market that only operates via drives for growth and fails to meet everyone’s real needs.
It is time we put trust and faith in one another rather than the coin of the realm.
Anitra Nelson is an activist-scholar affiliated with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (MSSI) at the University of Melbourne, Australia.