How to navigate the disorientation of a seismic world

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

Oregon State University
Our situation may seem hopeless, but we have a rich inheritance of ideas and practices from which we can draw. Monarchies have been overthrown, dictators pulled down. We can take inspiration from past revolutions to build a new framework for the future.

It is worth recognising the truly extraordinary things that mass movements of previous generations have accomplished. Monarchy-toppling revolutions, international labour organising, decolonial struggles, the world-wide feminist movement.

For many, the defining political sensation of our day is disorientation. We often feel torn apart in every direction. Even if we grasp the profound depth of the problems we face, navigating this seismic landscape towards something better always seems beyond us.

Complete ecological catastrophe looms into view—an unsettled future that is nevertheless approaching far too quickly. Climate change is our most obvious doom, without the democratic power—political or economic—to change course. Biodiversity collapse, soil degradation, and deforestation are comparable threats of similar causes.

Even as revolutionary new technologies appear—with the potential to free our lives from drudgery and connect us to one another in ways we had never imagined possible—our undemocratic economy has deployed them as tools of disruption.

Dreams of a post-scarcity technological future darken into one of permanent unemployment, while governments and companies develop unprecedented power for surveillance and propaganda. In a time when decisive marshalling of the public sphere for the public interest is more needed than ever, the state remains under near-total elite control.

And even as promising social movements are emerging from the UK, Latin America, Spain, Greece, Kurdistan, and elsewhere, reactionary movements of racism and hate are also on the rise. Our newfound uncertainty—amid refugee crises and economic restructuring—has fed vicious nationalist resurgences everywhere from Italy to India to America.

Collective action

How do we navigate this frightening and, yes, confusing new world? Even retrospectives on powerful movements of the past can be sources of despair. After all, it is tempting to think, how important and lasting could their achievements be if we’ve still been brought to this moment?

But it is worth recognising the truly extraordinary things that mass movements of previous generations have accomplished. Monarchy-toppling revolutions, international labour organising, decolonial struggles, the world-wide feminist movement—each has changed the world and each provides us with a wealth of practices and experiences for the present moment.

The international labour movement was built on the simple idea that even in a world where working people are ruled by others, they will always have the power to withhold their labour. Its strength came from the kinds of collective actions that anyone could participate in, which over time were scaled up to win sweeping changes for the lives of ordinary people.

Decolonial movements challenged and overthrew colonial apparatuses that had the weight and brutality of world empires behind them.

Feminist and antiracist movements across the world have demonstrated the ways in which social domination is rooted in the most intimate spheres of life and showed that a successful framework for social change must recognise the deeply entwined nature of the personal and the political. They have begun to reweave the entire social fabric of labour, families, and relationships.

Our situation may seem hopeless, but we have a rich inheritance of ideas and practices from which we can draw. Monarchies have been overthrown, dictators pulled down. The world has been shaken on its very foundations by popular movements before, and rebuilt anew. As Ursula Le Guin reminds us: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

Successes and limitations

Of course, each of the movements above had its flaws and limitations. Unions were often extremely hierarchical and can exclude women, and in the US, people of color.

Many decolonial movements became oppressive and authoritarian as they captured but failed to transform the state—and as their leaders became pawns of Western corporations and institutions.

Some strands of the radical feminist movement failed to address racism, classism, and imperialism: others were co-opted by capitalist forces and drained of any revolutionary potential.

These limitations prove illustrative as well, however. They have demonstrated that imperialism, ecological destruction, patriarchy, and class society share a common root—the problem of hierarchy.

Hierarchies between societies, genders, class, and ethnicities make it impossible for some to participate in the political process.

The institutionalisation of radical democracy, where everyone gets a say, is thus essential to creating lasting change. Only real democracy has the potential to simultaneously challenge the injustices of our day and assemble the building blocks of a liberated society.

A new framework

Drawing from past movements’ successes and limitations, we need a new framework to address today’s challenges. We believe that a convergent evolution towards just such a new framework is happening right now, emerging from the experiments and struggles of our time.

Leftists and environmentalists coming from backgrounds as diverse as the Kurdish freedom movement, black nationalism, the Mexican anti-colonial struggle, student debt strikers, and labor organising are shifting toward a politics of counterpower: rather than seeking to capture the state, they are building new popular institutions of genuine democracy within the existing system, to carve out space for survival and self-determination.

There are many names for this approach—communalism, radical municipalism, solidarity economies, democratic confederalism, Abahlalism—and many iterations around the world, from Rojava, Syria to Jackson, Mississippi to Barcelona, Spain to Cape Town, South Africa.

The movements share a commitment to radical democracy and inclusion, a focus on building local, resilient institutions, a skepticism of the state, and a determination to confront hierarchy in all its forms.

We argue that these strategies are promising not only because of their incredible individual work, but because when these clusters of community councils, assemblies, land trusts, and cooperatives are woven together into a coherent movement, they may begin to both proliferate and scale up.

Ultimately, they can supplant existing neoliberal political and economic institutions and grow into the foundation of an entirely new society capable of weathering the storm ahead.

Theoretical reflection

This column is the first in a biweekly series by The Symbiosis Research Collective, a publishing collective and study group comprised of activist-intellectuals who are brought together around questions of how to achieve such social and ecological transformation.

In 2017, some of our founding members won first place in the Next System Project's competition for the essay Community, Democracy, and Mutual Aid: Toward Dual Power and Beyond. Since then, we have been organising for a movement to revolutionise society through confederal direct democracy in North America.

Our goal is to help people build a new world right in the cities, towns, and neighborhoods where they already live. To that end, we are dedicating the next phase of our work to organising a gathering of municipalist and communalist projects in order to launch a confederation that can connect existing projects and seed new ones.

This project is guided by the spirit that only through lasting alliances can we actualise the vision of an egalitarian, free, and ecological society we so desperately need.

Effective movement-building requires the ongoing dialogue of theoretical reflection, practice, and debate. Over the coming months, we’ll be publishing reflections on a given theme in a bi-weekly series.

Some topics include the history of ecology and revolution, organising how-tos on radical municipalist chapters, energy democracy, alternative education, workers’ movements, and much more.

Ultimately, we aim to fit these pieces into a coherent guide to inspire others to join us in the growing radical municipalist movement. We’re honored and thrilled to have this column appear in The Ecologist.

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