TOP 2014-02-06

The Solidarity Economy as a Strategy for Revolution

There are three roads to revolution. Some focus on seizing state power, others on revolutionary expropriation. The third strategy is to think seriously about how we would actually like to organise our lives and then to start putting these ideas into practice, constructing the new world directly, as a parallel alternative to capitalism. Let’s be clear that the solidarity economy already exists and people are already fully engaged in the approach that I am describing. I am not messianically opening a new revolutionary pathway; I am merely reporting on a fruitful line of action, introducing it to newcomers, as well as offering some ideas about how it could develop to those who are interested.

Concretely it’s about setting up projects which attempt to take care of one particular aspect of the economy, and to do so in a ‘prefigurative’ way - that means, as far as possible, to emulate the way that this part of the economy might work in a full post-revolutionary society. Needless to say, this means that imagining that future society, having some kind of vision, becomes an important element of the strategy. Projects might well just latch on to certain key ideas, like eliminating hierarchies in their organisation, being non-profit and following ecologically sustainable practices - but it’s only if projects embrace a more radical and wide-ranging vision, thinking about how their project would interact with the rest of society in a hypothetical future, that they will constitute a genuine movement for social transformation. It won’t be possible to emulate a post-revolutionary society straight away, of course. The idea is that this process takes place in a piecemeal fashion, gradually constructing the new society from the ground up.

So yes, it’s a transition, and yes, it involves accepting ‘transitional states’ that aren’t ideal. That’s not a weakness. As projects develop and as more and more projects spring up and co-operate with each other, the vision will become more refined and good practices, know-how and methodologies will be shared and cultivated. But most importantly, co-operation between more and more projects will allow them to marshall more and more of the economy on their own terms - that is, on collective terms, gradually becoming less dependent on the market economy and offering an integrated systemic alternative in its place. By collaborating with our peers to organise production, and distributing according to need rather than purchasing power, we will cover food, housing, education, healthcare, transport and eventually everything that we need and desire. The “dual power” scenario will become gradually more evident, and people will be aware that there are two opposing systems operating in parallel - the market economy, a crisis-prone behemoth that privileges the few while exploiting the many, and the new “solidarity economy” which is based on mutual aid and co-operation, where decisions are made directly by the people involved, and ecologically sustainable practices are encouraged and normalised, competition is eliminated and ‘exchange’ (i.e. the use of money or bartering) is increasingly becoming redundant in favour of free agreements between producers and consumers about how they collectively meet their own needs. More and more, you’ll have a choice about which system to use to get what you need.

At this point, the most optimistic possible scenario is that capitalism will finally succumb to its own contradictions and collapse. It might start with yet another one of its devastating crises, but this time, the strength of the solidarity economy will ensure that it won’t be able to muster enough power to save itself. This is a key feature of the strategy. We know that capitalism depends upon accumulation of capital, on endless economic growth; it depends on being able to feed on more and more of the world, monetising and commercialising more and more of life. By building a new economy that specifically rejects the logic of the market economy, by demonetising and de-commercialising more and more of our lives, and protecting this new sphere of life with the most resilient forms of solidarity and sustainability that we can come up with, we ensure that capitalism has less and less of the world to feed on for its endless growth. So it’s less likely that it would be able to recover from another great depression.

We suck life out of capitalism and restore it to the commons. In the optimistic scenario, all that will remain is a final push to take over the remaining parts of the economy and scale up our vision to meet the needs of capitalism’s new refugees. Not a small task by any standard, but do-able. In the more realistic scenario, however, corporations and the state will probably fight back and try to destroy the new economy as it develops. A whole chapter of the strategy could be devoted to the question of how to protect ourselves against this, to make it less likely, and what to do when it happens. Perhaps strategic non-payment of taxes would be enough to liquidate the government and disband its armies. Or perhaps some violent conflicts would occur, but we would fight in defence of the new economy, rather than being on the offensive. There won’t be a sudden upheaval or a final battle. This entire process is the revolution: the process of gradually building up the new world, defending and expanding it bit by bit.

Examples

The most advanced progress has been in the digital realm with the Open Source Software movement, proving to many a naysayer that a non-monetised, non-profit and highly participative structure can in many cases produce better software than corporations with big money. Among the most successful examples are Linux, the kernel at the heart of hundreds of free Linux-based operating systems; LibreOffice, an office suite (a fork of OpenOffice); the GIMP, a photo editing program; Inkscape, a vector graphics drawing program; Blender, for 3D modelling and animation; and the Apache HTTP Server, the software which powers the majority of the world’s web servers. The related open content movement has produced thriving communities of people sharing their photography, music, clip art, text and other media using (for example) Creative Commons licences, allowing them to be freely redistributed, and in many cases, built upon to make new works. Public domain books and musical scores are also being scanned and collated into free online repositories. We also have wikis, in which content is produced collaboratively online; Wikipedia has certainly damaged the encyclopedia market irreparably. All of these efforts operate almost entirely outside of the logic of money and markets - people are motivated to contribute for non-monetary reasons, and the content is guaranteed (by law - more on that later) to remain in the ‘commons’, so that it can’t be privatised or ‘enclosed’ again. The reason why these projects have been as wildly successful as they have is because they are digital: copying and re-using digital content is built into the very nature of the computer and the network, and digital copying has practically zero cost.

In the physical realm, things are more difficult, but a cornucopia of projects has emerged. We have Community-Supported Agriculture and food co-ops, which attempt to bond agricultural producers and consumers closer together. Other groups (like Food Cycle and Abundance, Neighborhood Fruit and many others) are redistributing surplus food - things the shops can’t sell, surpluses from people’s allotments or gardens, as well as ‘foraged’ fruit and nuts - based primarily on need, hence outside of the usual market logic. There are community gardens and community kitchens of various kinds, as well as art collectives, tech collectives, cinema and cafe collectives owned by non-profits and to some extent collaboratively managed for the benefit of its users, or for the community at large, along with all kinds of other workers’ co-ops and the secondary co-ops (i.e. umbrella organisations consisting of co-ops) that link them together. Like most of the projects mentioned here, these efforts embrace collective ownership and workers’ self-management, using consensus, general assemblies and/or other forms of direct democracy for their decision-making. Alongside a whole host of exciting developments in open electronics are fab labs, which make small-scale manufacturing tools more available to a community. These are not to be confused with hack labs, which are shared living spaces for software developers who collaborate or share ideas. Then there are free shops, free stalls, ‘giveboxes’ and so-called ‘really really free markets’, all based on the principle “bring what you don’t need, take what you do, no restrictions”. There are gift circles, or resilience groups, and skills pools, which aim to bring people together who can meet each other’s needs entirely without money, as well as their online incarnations in the form of gift networks (UseTogether, Freegle, Streetbank, alles-und-umsonst, justfortheloveofit). Couch surfing, or hospitality exchange (some examples here) perform a similar function in the specific domain of finding a place to stay. Less radical alternatives to all these are the various kinds of time bank, LETS and complementary currency systems, which distance themselves to various extents (never enough) from the mainstream market economy. And then there’s the dizzying array of attempts to live in a community with some degree of self-sufficiency, in eco-villages, intentional communities or housing co-ops.

While digital content is already quite far along the path of freedom, the physical infrastructure that supports the internet is still largely in private hands, and is increasingly subject to censorship and surveillance at the hands of governments. And while the internet is decentralised to a large extent, there are in fact centralising and decentralising tendencies within it. Services that mine user data such as Apple, Google and Facebook sadly still exist to satisfy corporate interests and they comply with any draconian government intervention; moreover, they are highly centralised nodes in the network, with severe implications for privacy, security and user freedom. There are open source and decentralised alternatives, however, including the Diaspora social network, pump.io and many other examples. To deal with the private ownership of the physical network infrastructure, we could expropriate the telecommunications industry, but the dual power strategy suggests a different route: build a new internet. And this is precisely the goal of Project Meshnet (in tandem with other supporting projects), which could result in a totally decentralised wireless internet with a mesh network topology. This can also be used to deploy inexpensive, ad hoc computer networks in parts of the world where there is no internet access.

Taking control of our own energy and transport needs is also an important part of this strategy. The Transition Town movement unifies many of these efforts, although the emphasis is on ecology sustainability rather than prefiguration. The two aims seem to go hand in hand, however. By building up a decentralised renewable energy grid and using eco-renovation techniques on our dwellings, we are “preparing for peak oil” and “re-communalising the means of production” at the same time.

These kinds of projects are now so numerous that many websites have sprung up just to catalogue and discuss them - although these websites might well be more numerous than the projects. Try the Common Spark Collective, Vivir Bien, Sharewiki, the Gift Economy, OuiShare, the P2P Foundation, Anders Leben (German), Solecopedia and Demonetize.it. Some localities have a website to map and catalogue all of the solidarity economy projects in their area - see Solidarity NYC for a good example, or to get involved if you happen to live in New York City.

Projects for Systemic Change

It has already been noted that some companies claim to be part of the ‘new’ economy, more often referred to as the “sharing economy”, but are actually anything but. It’s not that hard to spot them: they get funding from venture capitalists, they’re highly monetised, steeped in the usual consumerist-oriented marketing hype and instantiated in hierarchically-organised private (or stock floated) profit-making companies. Not surprisingly, they entail a further deterioration of working conditions in the direction of greater precarity. I have no desire to dwell on them for precisely this reason, but it is important to be clear that these companies (like Airbnb and TaskRabbit) have nothing to do with the strategy I am advocating. They are trying to cash in on the ‘sharing’ and ‘solidarity’ rhetoric, which is exactly the problem - this is explicitly not something you are able to cash in on. ‘Sharing’ is subverted to become ‘underused asset utilisation’, just another excuse for extending the reach of market forces into previously non-commoditised zones.

It’s conceivable, however, that some projects start off with laudable and radical goals but then become co-opted, perhaps by the lure of a money-making opportunity. Other projects might seem to be in a grey area because they aren’t fully demonetised or have chosen, for whatever reason, to be legally registered as a profit-making company. (For example, the Mozilla Corporation is allowed to make a profit, but is in fact wholly owned by a non-profit foundation, having chosen this structure for the sake of ‘convenience’.) To help in distinguishing a ‘genuine’ solidarity project from a co-opted one, I would suggest using the following three criteria which sketch out an ‘ideal’, or prototype. An ‘ideal’ project should be:

One project which seems to meet all of these criteria deserves special mention: the Catalan Integral Co-operative (CIC), which is centred geographically on Barcelona. It’s a legally-registered co-operative and uses a network of face-to-face local assemblies as its organisational form. It aims to meet people’s concrete needs, particularly in the areas of housing, food, health and education, and to this end it brings together a number of the projects we’ve already mentioned. It organises food co-ops, has a virtual complementary currency called the ‘eco’ to allow people to exchange other goods and services, and also has an experimental intentional community called Calafou under its rubric, which is one of its ways of helping people with housing. The official entity of the co-operative is useful here because it acts as the legal owner of the community’s buildings and land, and could be used in the future to be the ‘owner’ of other things, but since the co-operative is de facto community-run, the overall effect is collectivisation.

The project is explicitly a reaction to the economic crisis, which has hit Spain, even Catalonia, particularly hard. Many people have been evicted from their homes because they can’t keep up with rent payments; hundreds more live under the threat of such eviction, alongside extremely high unemployment. The CIC expresses the realisation that the people can no longer rely on the state to help them, since the state was complicit in the economic crisis and is now responding by cutting vital services. But the response is constructive: they won’t provide for us, so we’ll provide for ourselves and help each other. The movement is unashamedly anti-capitalist and anti-state, but doesn’t claim any affiliation to the Anarchist movement, despite being located on the site of the world’s most successful Anarchist revolution. Their rallying point is the “integral revolution”, a holistic transformation that directly incorporates all of our needs. To that end, they have called for an international movement, and many similar efforts are already popping up, mostly in Spain, to emulate the unique approach of the integral co-operative.

The criterion of being “system-oriented” is certainly an exhortation to form larger co-operative projects, whether these manifest themselves as federations, as secondary co-ops or as a looser international network, but being explicitly opposed to capitalism and opposed to market exchange are vitally important parts of this too. Mondragon (Spain) and Legacoop (Italy) are two examples of large and financially successful secondary co-ops, but they don’t have a political agenda or an anti-capitalist perspective. As a result, they suffer from all the problems that come with being part of a market economy - they are forced to make narrow cost-benefit decisions, forced to be competitive, and this often leads to business decisions that are bad for workers, and often bad for consumers too (closing down an entire section for example). The message here is quite simply this: that if an organisation isn’t revolutionary, if it isn’t aiming for systemic change, then it’s hardly surprising that systemic change is not what we’re getting. Co-operatives, even large and powerful ones, clearly aren’t enough on their own. To be an agent for lasting change, a co-operative must have a plan for reducing and eventually eliminating its dependence on the market economy. Over and above the general maxims above, this means that a project should:

CECOSESOLA is another large and successful secondary co-operative centred on the city of Barquisimeto in western Venezuela. Particularly remarkable is the fact that they managed to build a $3 million hospital without any state funding or credit from a bank. The hospital, or Co-operative Integral Health Centre as they call it, has facilities for radiology, endoscopy, surgery and most other specialisms as well as a number of alternative therapies. It was funded partly by donations and ordinary fundraising activity, but it seems clear that a significant portion of the cost came from the profits from their other activities, chiefly the food markets (or “fairs”) where dozens of agricultural associations sell their produce. Together with the six other health clinics that they already operated in the city, the network employs 70 healthcare professionals, can offer everything from dentistry to acupuncture and also carries out activities aimed at promoting healthier lifestyles and preventative care. Members of the co-operative and their families can see a doctor, pediatrician or gynecologist at no charge, and receive discounts for every other service. They pay a small monthly fee, which includes a contribution to a collectively-managed solidarity fund to help a member or their family with more major unforeseen healthcare costs. Non-members pay a rate which is advertised to be around 50% less than the cost of private health services. It is worth noting that public health services are completely free and universal. While reliable information about Venezuela is hard to come by, it seems to me that CECOSESOLA members were probably mistrustful of the public hospitals and probably did not benefit from the Barrio Adentro mission which particularly targeted the poorest sections of the country - or perhaps they just wanted to be in charge of their own healthcare provision anyway.

The CECOSESOLA co-operative can claim to be ‘not-for-profit’ only in the strict sense that profits are reinvested and are not the aim of the business. But a business it most certainly is, and it clearly aims to make a profit precisely so that it can reinvest it to fund expansions and new facilities. The same could be said of many small and medium-sized businesses that do not even claim to be non-profit. On the other hand, it is by all accounts a highly participative organisation, which uses consensus decision-making, has regular face-to-face open meetings and features a conscious rejection of hierarchy and positions of power. So it falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between a highly market-oriented co-operative like Mondragon at one end, and the more radical CIC in Catalonia. Again, we can use the “prefigurative, demonetised, system-oriented” triad as a guide.

Crowdfunding

I almost wasn’t going to mention crowdfunding. But it’s actually quite important, perhaps crucially so. Community groups often use it to fund expensive legal battles, but it has at least two other functions. First, in the long transitional period where the solidarity economy isn’t enough to cover all our needs, most people still need money; this is one way that they can get it without relying on selling their labour power. Gittip embodies precisely this function, using a ‘patronage’ model, allowing people to do unpaid work, such as social change activism or open source development, whilst being financially supported by regular donations from patrons. Similarly, Patreon does the same thing with a specific focus on creative pursuits and the arts. These systems can be used to provide things that are “free at the point of use”, whether it’s free online videos or free workshops to underprivileged communities, and to relieve some or all of the pressure to have a ‘normal’ paid job on the side as well. Gofundme is another crowdfunding website for funding specific one-off causes - some people, for example, have got high medical expenses paid for them through the generosity of the world community. People who donate to these causes don’t necessarily get anything in return, but they see value of some kind in that person’s life or in the work that they’re doing, and this motivates them to contribute. Crowdfunding can be a virtuous circle, with many crowdfunded projects motivated to “pay it forward” and donate to other projects in turn.

The video game industry is changing drastically because of these developments. Until recently, because of that blasted market economy, video games could only get made if they managed to secure funding from big profit-hungry publishers. They only accepted projects which were low risk, which essentially means hampering the creative impulse and resorting to the same old formulas time after time. This has held back the artistic potential of the medium, and resulted in a destructive and stressful working environment for game developers who were constantly scrutinised by executives interfering with their work to make it more marketable. Crowdfunding, largely using Kickstarter, allowed game developers to be funded by their fans or potential fans, instead of by publishers, and this has genuinely freed them from many of the usual dictates of the market and of capital. It’s not, in itself, a revolution, and it has its own pitfalls and limitations, but it’s one step away from the market and closer to the commons, which is exactly the process that this revolutionary strategy advocates.

The second major function of crowdfunding is to pool our purchasing power in order to acquire land, tools and buildings, which can then be used for community projects. Time to examine that in more detail.

Appropriation of Land and Buildings

A revolution of our material circumstances requires that we take possession of the means of production. This is, necessarily, the goal of all the revolutionary strategies discussed. For the revolution to progress, we need to get our hands on land and factories, and we need to use them in prefigurative ways to meet our needs directly. In the traditional Anarchist strategy, the means of production are (eventually) expropriated by force. This is indeed one way of acquiring them, and this method could also be used by prefigurative projects in the constructive strategy that I’m advocating here. However, this kind of expropriation is prone to failure for exactly the reasons that the Anarchists are biding their time - we don’t have the muscle to get away with it, but the state certainly has the muscle to crush our attempts. Actually, there have been some successes. There are recent and ongoing attempts in the south of Spain to occupy and expropriate unused arable land from wealthy landowners who aren’t using it, spearheaded mostly by the militant SAT/SAC unions. The biggest success story is that of Marinaleda, where expropriated land is now farmed by a co-operative, and the town is popularly considered to be a Communist utopian paradise. But this strategy has only really worked in this region because of a curious loophole in Spanish law, which allowed these land occupations to be legalised after the fact. In comparison, a recent attempt at land occupation in Austria called SoliLa was brutally repressed.

The alternative to occupying and expropriating land or buildings is to buy them. This might seem heretical because after all, property is theft, and we shouldn’t have to buy back what was stolen from us in the first place. And it might sound impossible because of how expensive they’ve become due to speculation. But actually, it’s not impossible and it can be done. It happens routinely when people decide to live in housing co-ops, and sometimes there are crowdfunding activities to buy a space that is already being used by a community project. But there is a new kind of endeavour I’d like to talk about which involves the collective purchase of land and buildings for solidarity projects. An example is the group called PaG (Projekt auf Gegenseitigkeit) in Germany, which aims to acquire and provide spaces for suitable projects to experiment with new social and economic models. Suitable projects are those that aim for subsistence, ecological methods, as well as equality and solidarity in their day-to-day running and an explicit desire to become independent of private property and the “capitalist exploitation logic”. It consists of a legally-registered foundation trust and an association that manages it. They search for real estate that is suitable for a would-be project, and assist the project to raise as much money as they can; as much as possible must come from donations or from the participants themselves, as there is an explicit desire to keep away from the pernicious grip of bank debt. The land or building is then purchased in the name of the foundation, which grants a lease to the project members. However, since project members become full voting members of the group, which makes all its decisions in general assemblies, arguably project members are still the ones in control. The reasoning behind this methodology is that once land or buildings are purchased, they should never return to the free market nor to speculation. If a project fails or comes to a natural conclusion, its dwellings remain the legal property of the PaG foundation, which can then lease it to a different project that meets their requirements. If the project had been independent, then its closure might result in the sale of the buildings back into the ‘wild’ of the market. Member projects also benefit greatly from the assistance that PaG provides (and the experience of its members who have already been through the process) in finding suitable real estate, fundraising and the legal side of things.

Three projects have so far been supported: a mini-ecovillage called Wukania, a co-housing project and a project for “non-commercial agriculture” called Lokomotive Karlshof, which started in 2005. “They grow potatoes and give them away” according to one article’s blunt description. They manage this largely because of the solidarity they receive from the network and their neighbours. PaG had already purchased the land; the neighbouring farmers helped them out with tools; and the twelve of them also use some of the land to cover their own vegetable requirements. They have a network of interested parties, lefty groups in and around Berlin - these are the recipients of the potatoes and also the people who help out when help is needed, organised over a simple mailing list as well as meetings in the “potato café” in Berlin. People come from all over to help them with the harvest. Production is planned in advance according to the stated potato requirements of the people on the network. The project is experimental and has certainly suffered a number of problems and setbacks in its already long history (it’s no longer run by the same group of people). Theoretically, however, it appears to meet the key criteria mentioned above: it is a demonetised project with a focused economic activity (i.e. potatoes) nourished by other kinds of solidarity and embedded in a prefigurative collectivisation structure.

This “non-commercial agriculture” is a step up from Community-Supported Agriculture in terms of solidarity, at least according to Andreas Exner, who has experience of both. Exner is involved in setting up a similar project in Austria. He is one of seven adults who have pooled some of their own financial resources to purchase a plot of land; they plan to be completely self-sufficient in food, on a vegan diet, and additionally, to give away 20% of their production to others, for free, perhaps by means of a food co-op. While such efforts are inspiring - and indeed, one of their main covert goals is to set off a “chain reaction” of solidarity by example - they clearly aren’t the endpoint of a revolution either, nor are they necessarily the stepping stones that everyone needs to walk over. Exner identifies four important “next steps” for this new agricultural movement if it wants to become truly independent of the market economy: to have more involvement of consumers in decisions of the producers; to make sure that land used for community agriculture projects is collectively owned (ideally by an umbrella organisation like PaG or the much larger Terre de Liens in France) with collective decision-making structures; to set up new initiatives to provide the inputs for agriculture, including a non-marketised sharing of seeds; and finally, to start planning production on a regional level, rather than just at the level of individual projects. This latter idea distributes the risk of individual projects failing to provide consumers with what they need, and prevents consumers from then needing to resort to the market economy. It would be no easy feat at all to get this far along in the strategy, and Exner pragmatically points out a number of tricky problems.

In the future perhaps these sorts of umbrella organisations would develop into community land trusts with large amounts of land at their disposal. Consumers and producers should be equal partners in such an organisation, and it is vital that hierarchical and representative forms of decision-making are avoided at all costs - not really because that’s the “nice” thing to do, but simply because any concentration of power in such an organisation could be catastrophic, especially if market forces were allowed to sneak back in. Some umbrella organisations exist which assist with the collective purchasing of real estate, and facilitate the co-operation between them, but the de jure owner of the property is a project-specific co-operative, and not the umbrella organisation - this applies to Radical Routes in the UK, for example. Both models have their advantages and disadvantages, but either way, some kind of federation of producers and projects is imperative. Such a federation should serve more than just the sharing of skills and expertise, and more than just financial and legal support. It should specifically aim to use the strengths of each producing member organisation to directly meet the needs of its members, internally using a prefigurative (that is, non-monetised and non-market) system of distribution, as far as this is practical at the time.

So there are three ways of appropriating the means of production:

I haven’t discussed the third possibility because of my anti-state position, but others are exploring this possibility. There is however, a fourth and even more radical option - which is to ignore the existing means of production and build entirely new ones. At first this might sound crazy, but many projects in the solidarity economy use exactly this approach. Open source projects, for example, are about writing new pieces of software, not ‘pirating’ existing ones. Project Meshnet is about creating a new internet infrastructure, not taking control of the existing one. Open Source Ecology, which we’ll discuss below, uses a similar tactic for agricultural and industrial machinery. And if we have to stop using fossil fuel power stations anyway, then it makes sense to build a new localised energy system from scratch, using renewable technologies under community control, making the expropriation of the existing energy infrastructure unnecessary.

People who advocate a “resource-based economy”, a concept associated with technocracy and the Zeitgeist Movement, believe that our existing infrastructure is so technologically primitive that there is no point in expropriating it anyway. They advocate building a new kind of farm based on hydroponics, so that the acquisition of arable land is again unnecessary. And they have ideas for new kinds of transport network too, like vactrains, maglev and bit cars. Combining all of these ideas together, it’s actually not entirely absurd to think that we might be able to build a new society from scratch without having to take much from our ailing capitalistic neighbour at all. (One of the biggest challenges - probably - is the extraction and recycling of important metals, but that is beyond the scope of this text.) However, there’s no need to choose one tactic and stick to it: I think we can use a combination of these four tactics for getting our hands on the “means of production”. Do whatever works in your particular locality.

Transfer to the Commons

The overall approach can be understood in terms of a shifting locus of control over the means of production. In ancient times, as well as in many if not most pre-industrial societies, land was part of the commons and was managed by the communities using it. During industrialisation and the transition to capitalism, the means of production were forcibly removed from the commons by a process of ‘enclosure’, putting them in the hands of the state and/or wealthy landowners who then enjoyed autocratic property rights over them. This occurred most violently in the colonisation of the Americas, and continues to this day in the neo-colonial land grabs and economic exploitation of the South. Privatisation gives control to private owners, whilst nationalisation gives control to the state. Either way, control rests in the hands of a minority, an unaccountable oligarchy (although their level of accountability varies, of course). The process we are envisaging here is one where the means of production return to the commons, so that they are controlled directly by the people and communities who use and need them, for the express purpose of meeting their needs. When this process succeeds, private property as such ceases to exist or becomes irrelevant. This isn’t really ‘expropriation’, since it’s not a case of merely removing something from one owner and giving it to another; its true name should probably be ‘unpropriation’, the act of removing something from ownership altogether. There is now a wealth of literature and a growing interest in the concept of the commons, both in its historical and its contemporary manifestations. An excellent and very succinct introduction has been written by Christian Siefkes. David Bollier has a collection of links to books, videos and other resources on his blog, designed for newcomers, and there’s also the School of Commoning.

Preventing parts of the commons from being re-privatised is an important part of a movement that expects to co-exist with a market economy for the long haul. This is the function of legal instruments and is the reason why I’ve highlighted them. In the Open Source world, such considerations are already very sophisticated. Open content that hasn’t been explicitly released into the public domain is still protected by copyright and is therefore still intellectual property from a de jure perspective. However, the licences permit them to be freely copied and modified, and the so-called ‘copyleft’ or ‘share-alike’ licences incorporate an additional requirement that all modified versions have to be released under an identical licence. The ‘copyleft’ clause thereby prevents re-privatisation and commercialisation of the work - without it, a software company could take an open source product, modify it for their own purposes without sharing their modifications, then profit from the new version. This is analogous to, say, a housing co-op selling its building back to a property speculator - it constitutes a step backward in the transition process. And if there were no licence at all, the Open Source and open content movements would be just illegal, simply because of the way IP law works in most countries. That’s analogous to illegal squats and land occupations. We talked about how PaG becomes the legal owner and ‘curator’ of property that it purchases for projects: in a similar vein, the Free Software Foundation is the de jure owner of a number of free software projects, but exists to protect their ‘commons’ status, rather than to exploit their value as a capitalist would.

To some people, an interaction with the law seems obvious and pragmatic; for the more radical ideological types like me, it requires some reassurances that it won’t lead to co-option. I would anticipate that when capitalism finally collapses, private property law will at some point become redundant, and so will all the legal structures that we’ve carefully negotiated to help us with the transition. At some point, we may be able to abolish the state and the law just as if we are pruning a dead artifact of the outgoing era, as their obsolescence will be obvious to everyone.

Industry - or, Abolishing the Factory

Much of the above discussion was about agriculture, and indeed, I think it would be justifiable to focus on this aspect of production above any other, for several reasons: food is, of course, a primary and unavoidable human need, one which goes tragically unmet for a shockingly unacceptable number of people in the world today; at the same time, industrial agriculture is the biggest single contributor to anthropogenic climate change. For these reasons, the task of rethinking and remodelling agriculture has an urgency and an importance which simply cannot be understated. Food sovereignty is now a basic and widespread demand in the developing and developed worlds - that is, to make our land, water and food systems both ecologically sustainable whilst also repatriating them into community stewardship.

However, some comment on how industry fits into this picture would be useful. The task is essentially the same - to bring this aspect of production under community and workers’ control, at the same time as bringing the inputs, i.e. natural mineral resources, into the commons. This process is probably a lot harder. Governments occasionally see it fit to mutualise land in the form of community trusts, but they rarely undertake a similar process for industry, which remains either privatised or nationalised. Expropriation of factories is one possibility just as it is for land. This happened, with varying success, during Argentina’s economic crisis in the early 2000’s. Other attempts have, expectedly, been repressed by the state. The final option of ‘buying out’ a factory is certainly a possibility, but buying out an entire industry, especially when many of them are tied to multi-billion dollar transnational interests, is impractical. Meanwhile, isolated workers’ co-ops would be precarious in such a landscape, still having to participate in the market in order to obtain the many inputs that their production requires. The situation might not be quite this hopeless; in fact, I paint this picture largely in order to make a more radical possibility all the more tantalising and provocative - the possibility of transforming industry altogether.

In most cases, industry is highly centralised and geared towards mass production, taking placing in big factories which are often the property of larger multinational companies. Another paradigm is emerging, however, one which is decentralised and geared towards small-scale production. Probably the most ambitious project is that of Open Source Ecology. This project aims to document the 50 devices which they consider to be necessary for modern civilisation to function, which they call the ‘Global Village Construction Set’ - this includes the tractor, the welder, steam engine, wind turbine and even the 3D printer. A distributed group of project contributors are designing a low-cost, modular and durable version of each of these devices, publishing the plans and detailed do-it-yourself building instructions under open sources licences and making them freely available.

The genius of this endeavour should not be understated. We observed previously how the open source and open content movements have enjoyed a success as yet unparalleled in the physical realm. But of course, behind every physical product and every industrial process there is a base of knowledge - information about how that product is built and how the process works. This includes technical drawings with precise measurements, a list of required materials as well as assembly instructions. Before the physical realm can even function, the information realm is vital. We can therefore leverage the tools of open information to make this knowledge accessible and free, even if the means of production themselves are still behind the barriers of private property and money. And Open Source Ecology have explicitly set out to lower these barriers too, by making their designs low-cost and durable - in fact, it is supposed to be possible to use scrap metal as the main manufacturing input, and all of the devices will themselves be recyclable so that they can serve as inputs for a new manufacturing process. Beyond scrap metal, the project aims to list all of the other tools and materials that are required, with information about where to get them cheaply. For the countries of the South, where technologised agriculture is often far too expensive, this could be a hugely important tool for a self-managed kind of sustainable development.

It doesn’t stop there. The construction set includes the tools necessary to build more of the same devices; once you have one GVCS, it becomes easier to make another. That way the idea spreads, replicating itself. The related project RepLab is designing an open source FabLab, a workshop that can produce new tools and machinery, including, crucially, a copy of itself (of course, split into components that you can fit together). Again, the inputs consist of low-cost materials like scrap metal. The machines in the RepLab will be computer-controlled and capable of producing all kinds of products, using open source CAD plans as the guide. As the wiki says: “In go scrap metal, plastic and silicon - out come bicycles, saucepans, tractors, medical equipment, mobile phones, laptop computers, Internet nodes, solar turbines, sculptures, robots and whatever else you can imagine”. Automation is extended everwhere possible: circuit boards can be printed, plastic can be moulded, metal and wood can be cut and joined, fabric can be cut to shape. With this goal in mind, the Arduino project is working on a low-cost open source microcontroller - a programmable microchip capable of controlling this kind of machinery. The open source nature of the projects is key here. While the intellectual property regime of copyrights and patents is designed to allow people to make money out of designs and inventions, the open source movement is designed to do the opposite - to prevent people making money from designs, and to allow inventions and innovations to spread freely, where others deploy them, modify and improve upon them and then release this new version freely once more, so that the cycle repeats as a virtuous circle. Intellectual property would only get in the way - it would require hundreds of designers to be paid licence fees constantly, making the whole thing unworkable. Everybody benefits if the designs are part of the commons.

We might therefore be heading for a world where industry is brought to a human scale, realising E.F. Schumacher’s vision of ‘appropriate technology’. Instead of planning the production of consumer goods for thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, producing them in big factories far away from the communities that need them, we may face a very different picture: as an individual you can simply go to your local FabLab, browse through a collection of open source designs for the product you want, download it, and set the machinery to work; in no time, you’ve got what you want. For smaller and simpler products, a 3D printer in your own home may be good enough, so that you don’t even need to go anywhere. This is the limit of decentralised industry, and a tantalising one. As you go about life, you will come across products that you like the look of, and it will have a tag that you can scan with your phone, which allows you to call up the design for the product to see how it is made and what it is made of; then, when you get home, you can transfer the design to the product database in your local FabLab and get yourself a copy of that product, perhaps customising it to your taste (colour and size), since the product is most likely designed to be modular and extensible. The product design is then available for others in your community to take advantage of. If you improve upon the design in a more substantial way, then you can upload it to the online product database for others to enjoy. Contributors can still be acknowledged, of course, and software can make this attribution automatic and transparent. This is not just a fantasy: go to Thingiverse and print yourself an open source wind turbine, because this is already a reality.

Similar possibilities are being pursued for agriculture, too: some people are investigating hydroponics and ‘vertical farms’, for example, which might allow for food production with dramatically fewer inputs and in an urban environment. Christian Siefkes talks of ‘garden farms’, spaces within a community which could function both as small-scale agricultural production and recreational spaces at the same time, as part of an evocative description of a hypothetical future society that has brought all of these decentralising possibilities into reality.

As you can see, the idea of ‘small-scale’ decentralised industry does not imply sacrificing material comforts or quality of life. On the contrary, it dramatically improves them, even having the allure of a futuristic technotopia. The Open Source Ecology tools, like the open electronics movement in general, are designed to have at least the same efficiency and productivity as their counterparts on the market, and to exceed them in durability. Even though we’re talking about “returning” to the commons, this isn’t about returning to a previous stage of human technological development. We return with all of the new knowledge we have gained, and we put this knowledge to work in our favour. Now, I certainly think it is possible that we can make a sustainable commons-based society work perfectly well even if it sticks to centralised mass production in factories, and the Anarchist movement agrees. But if it is possible to abolish the factory, that menace of inhumanity, then surely, I argue, we should do so without hesitation.

Objections to the Dual Power Strategy

The “dual power” strategy has got a lot of bad rep for very strange reasons. It’s frequently dismissed as idealistic and unworkable, as if trying to live outside the rules of capitalism were somehow completely impossible. It’s difficult, for sure, but what revolution is easy?

Joseph Kay writes: “The historical credit union/co-operative movement failed not because it wasn’t participatory enough, but because you cannot out-accumulate the accumulators. While workers co-ops may serve some purposes in the present … they do not represent a strategy for social change because to do so they would have to out-compete existing capitalist firms.” Obviously the strategy I’m talking about is much, much broader than just the co-operative movement, although the co-operative as a legal form and as a productive model is clearly an important part of it. One might similarly suggest that the entire ‘solidarity economy’ can only be successful as a strategy for social change if it can out-compete the market economy. But the whole point of the solidarity economy is not to be bound by the rules of the market at all. It shouldn’t even try to compete with it. From the point of view of an individual co-op, it doesn’t go out of business immediately; in the meantime, it should specifically aim to free itself from the market and to have a more long-term vision about how it can be less and less encumbered by it in the future, in part by co-operating with other similar projects as they arise. Strategies for being resilient against market-induced shocks will emerge, and this will become easier as the movement grows and we can start practising genuine mutual aid. In summary, it’s true that just setting up lots of isolated workers’ co-ops is not, on its own, going to make a revolution, but that’s why the rest of the whole process is necessary.

He continues: “Brighton, where I live is something of a haven for workers co-ops. A friend of mine works for one of them, a refuse/recycling company, and the conditions there in terms of pay and hours are considerably worse than at the council service Cityclean. Now Cityclean has one of the most militant workforces in the city, with a history of wildcat actions including occupations to secure their conditions against both private (‘capitalist’) and state (‘co-ordinatorist’) bosses. Capital is a class relation, and any strategy for abolishing it cannot avoid class confrontation and struggle.” According to Joseph Kay, a revolution can only happen if there is a confrontation between classes. But since the classes are abstract economic relations anyway, it’s hard to know what should or shouldn’t count as a confrontation. Insulting your boss or having an argument with your neo-conservative neighbours sound like good examples of confrontations between the ‘embodiments’ of the two classes, and yet they have no revolutionary power whatsoever. And a group of people might put a lot of hard work into setting up a workers’ co-op, experimenting with new forms of decision-making, cutting through legal headaches and financial hurdles, trying to get past people’s psychological barriers - the capitalist-in-your-head - to convince them of a bold new concept. Does that really not count as a confrontation? Yet the strategy I advocate here will have a lot of those kinds of confrontations and much fewer of the ones that Joseph Kay is talking about. To set up new alternatives, we don’t need the say-so of bosses or capitalists. Sometimes, in the short-term, participants might sacrifice their standard of living to do so. Maybe. But the strategy is absolutely about avoiding confrontation with capitalists and just constructing something new and meeting our needs collectively right now, as soon as possible. People are then attracted by the examples they see around them and inspired to participate, inspired to constructive action by positive example, rather than incited into picking fights which won’t even get them what they want (if what they want is revolution).

In the Anarchist Federation’s pamphlet “An Introduction to Anarcho-Communism”, the dual power strategy is specifically criticised on two grounds (p.19). First, “These kinds of projects are highly vulnerable to attacks by the state”. But of course, reformist battles are also highly vulnerable to attacks by the state. You might get something legalised only for it to be made illegal again by a new government later; you might prevent a hospital from closing, only to have the government change the law so that you can’t do it again. And struggles at the workplace are vulnerable to attacks by the market and by the state: you might win a pay rise only to see the entire company go out of business the next year; you might pull off some militant strike action only to have it brutally repressed by actors of the state. Quite simply, revolution itself is highly vulnerable to attacks by the ruling class. That’s part of the whole nature of a revolution. So this criticism has no substance at all - it just restates something which is true of revolutions in general. And what if the dual power strategy is more vulnerable to attacks by the state? I’m not sure if that’s true, frankly, but if it were, wouldn’t that indicate that it’s probably more dangerous to the ruling class, and therefore more effective if you succeed? Well, I don’t see workers’ co-ops being made illegal; I don’t see gift economy websites being filtered; Open Source and Creative Commons licences have stood their ground in courts of law. Maybe the oppression will come in the future, and doubtless we will need to defend ourselves. That will be true with any revolution.

Second, “movements and organisations which start out trying to provide an alternative are often ‘captured’ by capitalism. They become part of it rather than an alternative, helping capitalism to manage people’s exploitation rather than challenging it”. This is called co-option or recuperation. And yes, it’s a real possibility. This is why I think it is imperative that projects use and cultivate an explicit anti-capitalist philosophy, that they should probably enshrine it in their constitution, and that they should use legal means to try to safeguard their project from falling back into the market economy for as long as the market economy still exists, so that even if the project itself has failed, any land or means of production that have been acquired should stay in the commons, and so should the knowledge and experience they have acquired. Simply put, recuperation is a prospect that can be prevented, and if it does happen, we have to be able to recover from it and have the will to try again. Hands up those who believe revolution is supposed to be easy. Hands up if you think we should give up if we fail the first time at something. Come on, this is basic stuff!

But on a deeper level there’s something odd about an argument which says that it’s better to completely go along with something until some distant point in the future where you might be able to overthrow it, rather than trying to build an alternative and failing. It’s almost like saying that vegetarians might as well eat meat until the vegetarianism movement is strong enough to overthrow the meat industry (which won’t be in the lifetime of the individual vegetarian). Which of these is more “captured” by capitalism: the member of a workers’ co-op who does without a boss, isn’t exploited, practises consensus decision-making in the workplace but ends up self-imposing 10 hour shifts just to get things done, or, the wage slave who is a full participant in the capitalist system, generating surplus value for their employer and taking orders from them? I can’t honestly see how any “revolutionary” can possibly say, with a straight face, that someone who tries to live without oppression and hierarchy, even if their attempt goes wrong and doesn’t live up to their ideals, is somehow pursuing a worse strategy than someone who is already resigned to being a wage slave all their life.

Finally, the Spanish Revolution of 1936–39 shows that even a successful Anarchist revolution following the traditional strategy is at risk of co-option, as Anarchists in that revolution ended up collaborating with the government.

The Next Step, Concretely

In my companion article, Ten Alternatives to Capitalism, I suggest that a new solidarity-based society will have up to six components: projects, communities, a federation of communities, a federation of producers, and two possible mechanisms for distributing tasks - a distribution pool and a gift network. In this article, we can see that all of these ingredients are already growing. Their embryos are right here in the midst of our current society. Workers co-ops and other solidarity economy projects are numerous and many are in advanced stages, but to represent a true, systemic alternative to capitalism, they will need at least one type of federation, based either on communities or on producing units, or possibly both at the same time. (The call for different types of producer/consumer federation could be compared to Michel Bauwens’ proposed commons-oriented institutions.) As it stands, there are several possible starting points for an organisation of this type:

As noted, I feel that the integral co-operative movement being spearheaded in Catalonia represents the most promising approach.

If you agree with this strategy for systemic change and would like to be part of it, then the next steps, very concretely, are:

Sometimes it’s hard for activists to see beyond the gloom of our broken world and our political impotence within it. With this constructive and pragmatic approach, however, there are good reasons to be optimistic about the future. I have written this article as though a solidarity and commons-based social transformation is inevitable. Why? Because if you can lift yourself from the gloom, you will see that the seeds of change are already germinating.