Skip to main content

Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

A Crisis of Jurisdiction in the Economy

An Interveiw with Gopal Dayaneni

Article type
February 15, 2022
Body paragraph

Organizer, teacher, co-founder of Movement Generation and co-organizer of Seed Commons and Peoples' Solar Energy Fund, Gopal is a key facilitator, convener and thinker in the climate justice movement. He has been involved in Climate Justice Alliance, ETC Group, Ruckus Society, Cooperation Richmond, and the Center for Economic Democracy, and he teaches Ecological Systems Thinking at Antioch University, and in Race and Resistance Studies at San Francisco State University.

You can find Movement Generation at and Seed Commons at



Dru Oja Jay: Welcome back to Half-Past Capitalism. We went on a little bit of a break for a few months, but but we are back, and this show is where we talk about alternatives to capitalism as if they were possible. The show is part of the Harbinger Media Network, and our guest today is Gopal Dayaneni, a co-founder of Movement Generation, Justice and Ecology Project. He teaches ecological systems thinking at Antioch University and in Race and Resistance Studies at San Francisco State University. He's involved in too many organizations and initiatives to list here, but some of them are the Ruckus Society, the ETC Group, Climate Justice Alliance, Center for Economic Democracy, Seed Commons and quite a few others. He was also a colleague of mine when I worked at ETC Group, which I I don't anymore as of a few years ago, but we got a chance to work together quite a bit. Welcome, Gopal.

Gopal Dayaneni: Hey, Dru, I'm so excited to be in conversation with you. It's just a real gift to reconnect. It's been a little bit of a break since we talked.

Dru Oja Jay: Yeah, nice to see you again. So just to jump right in, your work spans like a just a huge number of sort of movement related activities, direct action, climate justice, campaigning, narrative strategy, ecological systems. But I wanted to focus this conversation at least to start on your work around capital and narratives. And I guess by the capital, I mean, financing. So you've worked with Seed Commons and People's Solar Energy Fund on something that you call non-extractive finance. And I'm just wondering, I think that concept is a great place to start. Like what is non-extractive finance?

Gopal Dayaneni: Yeah, so I'll just start with like a simple definition of non-extractive finance and a more simple explanation. And then I'll maybe kind of, you know -- even though it seems like I'm engaged in a lot of different things, they're all actually deeply interconnected. And that's where I think the commons of capital piece is so important.

So, you know, the current structures of finance -- are that people are tools of capital. And my friend Ed Whitfield, who's also part of the Seed Commons, points out that the nature of finance now -- the nature of the economy the dominant economy anyway -- is that, you know, that which should be sacred has become instrumental, and that which should be instrumental has become sacred. So that which should be sacred -- our relationships to each other and the and the rest of the living world of which we are part -- should be sacred, and capital should simply be an instrument that allows us to to fulfill those relationships in a good way. And instead, it's inverted and capital has become sacred and our relationships have become instrumentalized. And non-extractive finance is the is basically the idea of reorganizing our very relationship to capital such that we are essentially having capital be a tool that people and communities control.

And the way I like to talk about it is creating a commons of capital. And so non-extractive finance is the mechanisms that we use at the Seed Commons, is basically local, autonomous, revolving loan funds based on a few key principles: the first and most important being debt subordination. And that we lend, we share capital, to support worker- and community-owned cooperatives. And all of the repayments, the return that the co-ops give back, goes into building those commons of capital so we can go right back out into the communities. So the idea is that the wealth generated in a community stays in a community and is controlled by the community for the creation of productive enterprises that that we as people are in control of.

And the principle of debt subordination is the idea that, you know, if you go to a bank and you get a loan, then the first thing you have to do every month is pay your debt. Debt subordination is the idea that the repayment of the debt happens only based on the productivity of the enterprise. So you basically profit-share from these worker- and community-owned cooperatives. And by profit, I'm talking not about the way we think about profit in terms of the extraction of wealth from other people's labor, or the labor of the living world, but the surplus that you create from your own productive activity as worker-owners and community ownership. And that surplus is shared back into the community in the same way that you would share it, like in a work-owned cooperative, you would have disbursements. One of those disbursements is back into this commons of capital.

And we call it the Seed Commons because it's basically a seed library. You just replace the word seed with financial capital. And so in a seed library -- folks are familiar with seed libraries -- they're not like book libraries. You don't go borrow a book, read the book and return the book. A seed library, you go, you borrow seeds and you go and plant the seeds and you return the seeds you grew from what you planted, and you always return more seeds than you borrowed in order to grow the seed library. When they lend you the seeds, they don't just say, "Oh, here's a good seed. Go take it home and do your best." In order to ensure that the seed library is sustained, when they lend you the seeds, they share with it the knowledge from which the seeds came, how the seeds grew, what we learned about growing from these seeds. And when you return the seeds from what you grew, you are obligated to also share the knowledge of how you grew them. Because the diversity of tomatoes don't just come from the diversity of seed, they also come from the diversity of the soil. How much sun it got, whether you saying to the plants or not. Like, there's all kinds of things that go into the diversity of seed, right? So in that same way, you want to return that knowledge so it helps grow the the knowledge.

That's also part of this commons of seed, or commons of capital. And of course, if you're a member of a seed library, you have an obligation to help govern and you have responsibilities to the library and you don't just get to take, take, take. You've got to give in lots of different ways. And just replace the word 'seed' with 'capital' and and you've got basically the model of a Seed Commons. There's no credit exclusion, so you don't check people's credit because we are radically inclusive, meaning we seek to support those who are most excluded. There's no collateral. So you can't like -- a group of folks can't say we're going to take your house or your car, or whatever. The only thing that collateralizes the loans is the assets that are purchased with the loan if the project fails. So if the Co-op goes under, we are only entitled to recover what we could possibly get from what the loan provided, nothing else. And that's because you never leave a community worse off than if they hadn't taken the loan in the first place. And your repayments are through profit sharing.

So this is one model of non-extractive finance. But basically, you know, the dominant form, the -- you know, we always talk about land as the quote unquote mother of all enclosures. But now capital -- the enclosure of capital -- capital is the keys to all other enclosure, and the enclosure of capital has now become the enabling enclosure of all other enclosures: intellectual enclosures, cultural enclosures, enclosures of identity, border-ism. They're all dependent on the control of the flow of capital, who has access and under what conditions. And so this for us, this is deeply connected to climate justice. It's deeply connected to rights of Mother Earth. It's deeply connected to worker- and community-owned cooperation, right? It's all of it. And here's why: from my perspective, the foundation of addressing climate justice is not -- what people think of climate justice, is this win-win. You can win on climate, you can win on social justice issues. And it's not, of course, it's the only way to win. It is social inequity and the exploitation of the labor of the living world that created the crisis in the first place. And so then the question is, how do you create -- live into -- economies that are not based on endless frontiers of extractivism and exploitation? And you do that through commoning. Commoning is based on consent, and enclosures are based on entitlement. And so in the same way that we need commons of land, and we work on that, and we need food sovereignty as a commoning of food systems, we also need a commoning of capital, because it's the enclosure of capital that facilitates all other enclosures. And so that's the intervention we're trying to make. People's Solar Energy Fund is the same idea, it's just specifically trying to create non-extractive finance mechanisms for community-owned-and-controlled clean energy projects. So basically community solar cooperatives.

Dru Oja Jay: It's great, I mean, yeah, listening to you speak, I'm just like, "of course, that's that's the way it should be." Like, it's embedded in the web of relationships and it's feeding the web of relationships, whereas the way capitalism works or a bank works is to immediately alienate you from all those sort of web of relationships that you're in and be like, "bottom line, are you going to give us a return or not?" But I guess on the flip side, you know what sort of occurs to me listening to this is, I guess the typical thing, which is it's precisely that one dimensionality that gives capital its dynamism, that makes it expand just so fast. Because it's just always focused on that one criterion, like how can we increase the power and returns of capital? That's it, nothing else. And so this sounds like something that is, you know, ethically, holistically, on a human level, infinitely better, but is going to grow much, much more slowly. And so, you know, I guess in in a context where we're on a timeline, a pretty, pretty objectively constrained timeline in terms of the climate, just as one variable, I guess how do you see the contradiction in terms of like how slow moving you have to be to do things in that good way, versus how fast we have to move to actually address the crisis as it exists?

Gopal Dayaneni: Yeah. Well, there's a couple of things. Well, first I would -- this is a larger conversation, but I'd complicate the sort of fixed timeline kind of discourse around climate -- like the climate urgency, and climate desperation piece, which you and I talked about before, actually. Because I do think everything we do changes our relationship to how things will unfold. The whole way the mainstream of the carbon fundamentalist climate discourse has talked about timelines presumes not that everything is linear and static, as opposed to every intervention we make changes how we will navigate the future that arrives and which future arrives. But that's a separate thing.

So there's a really important principle here, which is -- and the question you're asking is the question we are all always asking ourselves about what a post capitalist future, or what alternatives to capitalism -- how do we scale them at the pace necessary to confront capital? And the problem is, our imagination of scale, or the way we think about scale, is to look at something really big and then say, "we need to get that big," as opposed to understanding that there's other ways to think about scale. And so there's two different aspects of scale I want to lift up here. One is like an actual scale. And so if you think of scale, not in terms of size, but scale in terms of relative balance and relative impact. Something can be really, really small and really dense, like a marble and tip the scales. And something can be really, really large and take up a lot of space in our movements and not actually tip the scales at all, like a balloon. And we have a tendency to focus on ballooning things in order to look big, but in that process not actually having the kind of weight or impact that we need to actually tip the balance. So and then the question is, how do you -- like a marble isn't good enough, and anybody's ever played with marbles as a kid like, you know, you put your marbles in a bag, and you can carry a bunch of marbles around. And so right now, I think there is a problem in a lot of our our social movements -- like, so the other the other principle here is the other way to get to scale is to aggregate to scale. Instead of trying to build, one thing that's really big is to aggregate a bunch of things that are autonomous, self-governed, community-based, but have a unifying vision and shared strategy, common frames and some level of connective tissue that allows us to to express our scale differently as opposed to just trying to be a big thing.

And in that that aggregation for me is the idea of not just marbles, but marbles in a bag. So the Seed Commons isn't going to grow very fast, if we can only do one loan at a time or one co-op at a time. But when you have 30 loan funds currently and $25 million, and everyone is autonomous and we're constantly putting more capital out there, and building more commons of capital, and then creating the conditions where we get better at it, so more people are coming, we can grow more loan funds. You know, you have this experience of like you actually both can scale faster -- there can be an accelerated scaling because it's distributed -- and then we federate, and that's how we have the shared capital, shared learning, and shared infrastructure that we need. That's the same thing. Like, if you have one organization who says "we're going to do solar cooperatives," and then you go and you're like one at a time they work with the community, and one at a time they put up solar co-ops, that's not going to work. What you need to do is look around and say, "oh my God, in every community, people are having the very same idea," which is how do we take control of our energy infrastructure, and liberat it from investor-owned utilities, or private utiliies, or even public utilities that operate like investor-owned utilities, and create community control of our energy infrastructure? And every single one of those projects you look at and you're like, "this is nowhere big enough for the scale of the problem." But it's because we haven't actually told the story of all of those projects together that we are unable to see the scale. So there's a narrative dimension to this too, which is we haven't done a good job of telling the story of all of it together.

And so we're comparing Exxon with my local People Power Solar Co-op in Oakland, you know, Chevron with People Power Solar Co-op. That's not the comparison. The comparison is all of those communities everywhere who are engaged in all of these interventions around community control of energy. So that to me, is how you scale. It's also like -- and you and I have had this conversation before, too -- like, I do not believe we are going to co-op our way out of capitalism. That is insufficient. First of all, it's really hard to run a co-op and we've all been a part of those -- or at least you and I have been a part of those and we know it's a lot of work. It takes a lot of energy, especially if you want to have productive sustainability, if you want your co-op to actually be able to thrive. What we're trying to do, what we really are focused on, is bridging the gap between organizing and the co-op movement, and really bringing a cooperative enterprise and new economy into grassroots community-based organizing and making those connections so that the economic power we're building in our communities can be leveraged towards various forms of political power, direct action, other kinds of commoning. You want to get your commons of capital to a place where you, as a community, can say "you know what, we're going to put it towards this community need that we have because because that's a need we have, and that need isn't going to get met if we do not self-govern."

And I think that gets back to the larger question here, which is something that we say a lot in Movement Generation, "if we're not prepared to govern, we're not prepared to win." And I like to point out -- I always ask people in my classes, I'm like, "raise your hand if you think the rent's too damn high," and everybody raises their hand and I'm like, "raise your hand if you pay your rent," and everybody raises their hand. The problem isn't the traditional notion of the consent theory of power, that we all buy into the legitimacy of the system. That, I don't think is the primary problem anymore. Most people -- many, many people -- certainly a critical mass of people, get that this system is not meeting their needs. And the problem isn't primarily actually coercive power. People are not primarily worried about getting kicked out, or put in jail, or being evicted from their apartment as the primary reason they pay their rent. That isn't actually the case, either. The primary reason people pay their rent is they have no other way to get their housing needs met. And until we as a social movement are answering that question, we're never going to win.

The problem is compliance. People are forced to comply. It is not that they consent to the system. And it's not primarily -- though, for some of our communities moreso than others -- it's not primarily the coercive power of the state or corporations to force you to do shit. It's primarily compliance: we have no other way to get our needs met. And so that, I think is -- the basis of a real revolution is not some kind of struggle for power. It's actually the exercising of rights, and it's when the people are organized enough to exercise the right to self-governance, and to meet their needs, that they have a legitimate basis for contesting the legitimacy of existing authority. And the only way we're going to do that if we start actually organizing ourselves to meet our needs and demonstrate that we can self-govern better than the pretense of mandate of the state to govern, or the claim of corporations that they can do everything better than us, you know. I went off the rails there, sorry.

Dru Oja Jay: No, it's great. You touched on all the themes that I wanted to get into. I'm going to try and maybe zoom in on some of them, one by one. But yeah, before we go into more of the narrative stuff, I'm curious just to hear on the very concrete level, how's it going with Seed Commons and with the solar project? Like, what kinds of businesses are being started? How are they doing? What kinds of struggles are they facing?

Gopal Dayaneni: Yeah. So I'll speak to Seed Commons first, because it's a lot more developed and it's not -- first of all, we didn't like invent the model, right? Folks who are familiar with the co-op movement will be like, "oh, that sounds like Mondragon." And this idea of non-extractive finance, I think some of the languaging has come from The Working World and the Seed Commons over time, and sort of developing ways to talk about it. And all of our communities going back generations, our ancestors have had commons for resource sharing, like for common pool resources, and capital should be a common pool resource in the same way that water and land have been.

And what is financial capital anyway? It's just a degraded form of clean air, fresh water, healthy soil, and our time and relationships, you know, so it's about the restoration of that. Seed Commons, you know, the original spark of it was The Working World, an organization that Brendan Martin and a few folks went down to Argentina to support the recovered factory movement in the early 2000s, and basically took a little bit of capital that they had, or cash that they had from the US and started on La Base, which is a revolving loan fund in Argentina, specifically for the recovered factory movement -- the occupied factory when capital flight happened in Argentina, and workers just locked themselves in and took over the factories. And that was thriving and people said to them, "you know, that's just because it was in Argentina that you could do it." So they went to Nicaragua and had been doing it there, and then came back to the United States around 2008 to support the New Era Windows and Doors, which was the the unionized window and door factory that the workers locked themselves in and ran the factory, instead of getting -- when the factory was going to get sold and they were going to get kicked out. And then they bought it, and now they own it and run it, and it's a work owned co-op.

We started with just a small amount of money. It's now about twenty five million dollars, the loan fund, in just a few years -- five years. We support a whole range of cooperatives from cafes and print shops, and restaurants, and green construction building co-ops, zero waste co-ops, childcare co-ops. There's a housing co-op -- we supported a community in buying out a trailer park home, so that they now own their own trailers and the trailer park as a community, as a one of the most extractive and exploitive housing structures in the United States. So there's a lot of co-ops now across the country. And some of the loan funds are newer, and so have only done one or two loans. Some of them, like Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy, and The Working World, have done dozens and dozens of loans. So it adds up to over 100 loans. I think now it should be noted that we have a very, very low loan loss, and that's because the debt subordination literally means that if something doesn't work out for your co-op, it's our responsibility to pivot and help figure out how to make things work. And so we adjust terms as we need to. And this is an interesting thing. This is a useful thing to note about design and organizational structure, right? Our purpose is to support worker and community ownership, building a new kind of economy that communities are in control of, and therefore it is structured such that the loan funds only succeed if the projects succeed. And because of that structure then, we are in a different kind of relationship. So we provide technical support, we look for other resources, we find ways to support.

Rich City Rides Bike and Skate Cooperative -- which is a a black-owned bike and skate worker-owned co-op in Richmond, California, and part of Cooperation Richmond -- when it was time for them to to do it, they got a loan to do a redesign of the shop. We realized that it was cheaper for us to put the new floors in ourselves, and since some of us had experience doing that, that was our responsibility to learn, and we put in the floors. So it's a different kind of relationship, right? So it's actually very successful and growing very fast, and we're trying to deploy the capital as quickly as we can. And that is not to say that there are not contradictions. Transition is, in part, the process of navigating contradictions. It's not like we get to -- If you think "half past capitalism," -- you know, it's like "half past capitalism" is kind of like is the glass full or the glass half empty kind of thing, like you have to recognize that we're trying to navigate the contradictions of that. You know, contradictions are inevitable, it's hypocrisy that's intolerable, right? So the question for us is how do we navigate the contradictions?

And for me, I think that's like, you need a finely tuned moral compass, and a community of practice: that's what it takes. So some of the contradictions that we have to struggle with is, you know, we are still dependent on the inward flow of capital in order to support the co-ops. The productive capacity of the movement isn't enough to be self-sustaining. And we hope to, and plan to get there, but we're still dependent on sympathetic folks who have access to capital. So that's often foundations or wealthy lefties who inherited money, or things like that to invest into the co-op, and invest into the Seed Commons, the financial cooperative, so that we can then deploy it. But they don't have any control over the projects they don't have any equity shares or anything like that. So that allows us to be autonomous, and for the co-ops to be in control of their own self-governance. But that's one of the things that we have to work on.

There's a cultural challenge, which is the moment you start talking about lending and capital, we've all deeply internalized the dominant expectations of what that looks like, and power over, and presuming that the person who is the lender has power over you. And so even though we're lenders in that sense, our due diligence isn't about deciding whether you will or won't get a loan. It's about ensuring that your project is going to be as successful as it can be, because that's what you need. That's what we're here for, and that's also what sustains the loan funds. And so our due diligence process can be a lot more intense than just going to a bank to get a loan, because the bank's due diligence is "do you have enough shit that we can take? If you fail to make your number, we don't care whether your business is going to succeed or fail, as long as we can take your shit." And you know, that's just wrong, that's just wrong.

So our thing is like, "no let's work together to make sure this is going to work for you," because there's no point in straddling a community with debt it can't handle. That's just wrong. But there's always the cultural dynamic of like, "oh, things aren't going perfectly for us this month." You know, you've got to really cultivate the relationship that people feel like they can say that, and they can say, "yeah, things haven't really worked out great." That's OK. Life is complicated, and we're going to figure it out together because that's because we're not just trying to -- you know, it's not just about building the commons of capital, it's about demonstrating that we can self-govern at scale things as important and necessary as capital, as land, as housing, as food, as water. And that's what the food sovereignty movement is. That's what the energy democracy movement is. That's what the transformative justice movement is. These are movements that are about the practice of self-governance, of some of the hardest things for us to wrap our minds, and communities, and culture around. Energy. Harm and hurting. Feeding people. You know, these are the things that we need to demonstrate that we can do. And people are doing it everywhere all the time. Maybe we're more than half past capitalism, and we just don't realize it.

Dru Oja Jay: Oh, I'm looking forward to taking the show to ninety nine percent. Yeah, I mean, I just want to focus in on one little aspect, which is that every time I hear the word federation, I'm like immediately intrigued because that implies that somebody has figured out how to break down what it makes sense to centralize, what it makes sense to decentralize, and then how to balance whatever power dynamics result from those choices. So can you talk a little bit about that? How did that evolve? What precedents were you basing things on and where did you end up?

Gopal Dayaneni: Yeah, that's a great question. So you know the way -- and I just want to be clear -- the way I'm using the term 'federated' is from sort of a subsidiary standpoint. So all of the lending, all of it happens at the local level. So it's like local revolving loan funds are autonomous. The way we think of the Seed Commons itself is shared learning, shared services, and shared capital. And that's what's happening at the federated scale. We have a sustainability committee that reviews and supports the local loan funds, and moving loans through, and approves the loans on behalf of the whole of the Seed Commons, made up of members of the Commons who have been active in successfully deploying loans in their local loan funds. And that can that can grow and rotate, and that's that's a really robust mechanism. All the members are part of the governance body. So then we have our governance meetings and it evolved out of The Working World. There was a time when The Working World and the Seed Commons was one thing, because it was the first loan fund, the largest loan fund, and had developed the model, and the folks at The Working World said, "you know, we can't just like, try and be everywhere at once. The smart thing to do here is to propagate the model, allow descent with modification, allow people to customize it, and to learn, and grow, and build that. And then together we build the infrastructure we need." And what's happened is The Working World is now just a member of the Seed Commons, and it's just one of many loan funds. And other loan funds have grown such that it's not, you know -- and we're still very appreciative and dependent on the history, the legacy, the knowledge of The Working World, and of many other co-ops and loan funds who've been very successful, and they provide coaching for new loan funds. You know, we coach each other. We often collaborate -- two loan funds might collaborate on a loan if there's an overlapping relationship, and then everyone has access to this shared pool of capital out of the Seed Commons. We even do shared fundraising, like we raise money together and then democratically govern it's redistribution to the loan funds. And the key principles are the same principles of any cooperative. Radical transparency with each other, democratic decision making processes -- you know, all of that. You know, the thing you say with any worker-owned co-op is not everybody has to do the books, but everybody has to know how to read the books -- it's a similar kind of thing. There can be division of labor. It doesn't have to be everybody does everything, but it does have to be that everyone knows how everything works.

Dru Oja Jay: This is where I'm super curious because I feel like if you have a bunch of autonomous things -- I don't know, regions or collectives or whatever -- naturally, some of them are just going to, through happenstance, have access to more resources and as a result, get more power in relation to the others, and more influence, and more experience, and knowledge, and capital, and all these different things. And then that's going to create lopsided, centralizing tendencies within the federation overall. So I'm just curious, what does it look like, let's say you get a million dollars coming in to Seed Commons and then you have to vote on how to distribute that. Like, are there shared criteria that you base it on?

Gopal Dayaneni: Yeah, each time we develop shared criteria, people put in their proposals. We try and make sure everybody gets something. We do some evaluation. There's a committee that's a volunteer committee, that people can sign up for, to be helping do that criteria stuff. Every single meeting is all done remotely via video conferencing platforms, and we record every single meeting that anybody can have access to. And really, the reality is when we have a situation where we've got a bunch of money and we're inviting local loan funds to say what their needs are, to be able to access it, it's like what you discover in lots of other things. Like people's assumptions about how people will behave is -- you know, the self-interested is not actually true, right? Like when you are part of a community of trust, and caring, and collaboration, your -- and we've we've done this and many other local run funds have done this, where there's like, "we're not going to put in for money this time because we're doing pretty good." Or we'll adjust, we'll look at the different things and we'll say, "OK, we think this group could use more. This is our explanation, we invite people to give feedback." It's all based on trusting relationships.

Now, it is true that the longer you've been doing it, or the more capacity you have -- or maybe urban loan funds might be more successful than other loan funds, or some communities are developing cooperatives are harder, or we might have less capacity or skills, or we're learning as we're going. All of those things are there, but because it's a shared pool of capital that everybody has access to, it's not the case that -- I mean, as you were developing that locally, then you have more and more of a sort of a dedicated pool for your community. But that doesn't take away from all of -- the majority is going back into the common pool and we're all just looking to access a common pool. Everybody's not trying to like build their loan fund to be the biggest. They're trying to fill their loan fund to meet the needs in their community. And of course, there's lots of all different kinds of classic movement struggles that we've had over time around like trusting relationships between folks of color and white folks, who maybe have more expertize because they started it, or because they came out of finance or whatever. Not that -- there's a whole lot of folks of color in finance, too, you know, especially out of Occupy. Folks who who were in their twenties and thirties on Wall Street during Occupy, who looked up and were like, "what the fuck am I doing?" and are looking for other ways of being in the world, you know, and those folks have contributed to this movement as well.

And again, the capital is the instrument. It is in service of building our relationships and our community infrastructure. It's not the end in itself. It's not the more capital we accumulate in our loan funds, the more we get to control other people. That's not the point. The point is the restoration of capital to communities.

Dru Oja Jay: It sounds to me like like this model, continuing to work as it scales, is really -- I would hypothesize anyway -- that success would be based on continuing to grow that sort of relationship. I don't know, intensity and density between the different people, the actual human beings in that network. And so I'm curious. And does that pose sort of a challenge in terms of facilitation. How do you keep those relationships cross-pollinating?

Gopal Dayaneni: Yeah, I wish. I mean, I wish we were at a scale now where we were like saying, "maybe we need to be multiple financial cooperatives." That would be a problem I want to have. You know, $25 million sounds like a lot of money to most people in the co-op movement, but that $25 million does not begin to touch the scale that we need to be at, right? It's amazing, it's amazingly good work, and I do not believe -- change is not incremental and linear. There are opportunities for tipping points. There's what kind of infrastructure we build will be more resilient in the face of different kinds of crises. Like the financial institutions that weathered the financial collapse, and in2008, 2009, 2010, they were the credit unions because credit unions weren't allowed to get involved in the extractive derivatives markets. And so credit unions actually fared very well or didn't experience the kind of suffering that was visited upon the big banks and that they so rightly deserved, and shouldn't have been bailed out for anyway. So I do think there are big questions of how we change over time, how growth happens.

Do we need to have some more? Maybe we get to a scale where we're going to have to regionalize, and there's still like -- you know, I look to models like the MST in Brazil, and other large subsidiary forms of self-governance. You know, you've got two and a half million people living in over twenty thousand autonomous settlements throughout Brazil who manage to govern collectively, starting with the level of the family, and the nucleo of 10 families, all the way up to every few years they have a congresso that's representative of all the settlements, all the encampments. And it all starts from the bottom up. And, you know, yes it's hard, but hard and bad are not the same thing. And there are challenges and struggles, but that's the nature of governance. You know, that's what it means to try and steer an economy at any meaningful scale. So I think I those are big questions, and we are not -- one of the things that I think is really valuable about the Seed Commons -- this is also true for People's Solar Energy Fund, which I haven't spoken about nearly as much, but I do think is an equally important kind of intervention -- it's a related intervention -- we're all part of the same community, but it's like the scale of community solar projects is like, you know, these are millions of dollars projects -- so it's a lot to finance and you're grappling with interconnectivity with utilities and state policies are different every single place. But one of the things that I think has been really good about the Seed Commons and PSEF is that assumption isn't that this one thing will forever keep getting bigger. It's instead like we're constantly reflecting on how do we govern well, given where we are? What changes do we need to make? Maybe we need two sustainability committees. Where we're going through loans faster than we can manage, maybe we need to say conversions get their own sustainability committee, and new co-ops get their own sustainability committee, and we get more people involved in those processes because we're just growing faster than the small group of people who are trying to review loans can handle, and we're all basically volunteers. We have a few staff, obviously. We pay folks and all the loan funds are nonprofits and we're all trying to staff in ways that are not exploiting of people in the community who are trying to do this work.

Dru Oja Jay: But I mean, even with the the level of the size you have now, I mean, it seems like it would be a challenge to keep people relating to each other, as non-abstract entities, across geographic barriers, and so on.

Gopal Dayaneni: Yeah, but people have very concrete needs, right? You know, people are constantly like, "anybody have documents on how to do this? Anybody ever negotiated a lease with a landlord for a co-op? Can somebody look at... And remember, the order in which I said it: shared learning, shared services, shared capital. People think that the barrier to their dreams is access to capital. That is a barrier to your dreams, but that's not the primary barriers to dreams. No amount of money is going to suddenly make you understand how to democratically self-govern with eight or 10 or 20 or 50 other people. So often we think the barrier to our dream is the access to capital, and it turns out there's a whole bunch of other things in the way first. Like how do we democratically self-govern? Is this actually sustainable, productively sustainable? Meaning will we actually break even? You can have the most radical, visionary idea for a co-op, and if you can't break even, if you can't navigate that particular contradiction, you know you're not serving anyone because you will fail.

So the shared learning is a really big part of the relationship building, and the radical openness to just sharing curriculum, sharing tools, coaching each other, that has been a really, I think, a really important part of it. And we have, you know, regular meetings and getting together. And different people, and different loan funds will have different kinds of capacity at different times. And that's also OK. You know, it is OK for us to recognize that that we all contribute at different levels, in different times. And the same with People's Solar Energy Fund, the member meetings are opportunities for people to talk about, have actually the conversation about like, "how are you navigating insurance questions?" But the People's Solar Energy Cooperative is this shared infrastructure that can negotiate the financing for all of these communities together, and create this kind of access to capital that's needed to do these big projects.

Dru Oja Jay: So I want to zoom out a bit before we run out of time, to talk a little bit about, I guess on the one hand, you're involved in things like direct action training, movement building, campaigning work, sort of big picture meta narrative work on technologies, ecology, sustainable practices of agriculture and permaculture, I mean there's all these different things. Can you paint a picture of how your work in Seed Commons, or the climate movement in general, fits into all that? How does all that weave together.

Gopal Dayaneni: So so I'm one of the co-founders of an organization called Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project, and we're a collective. So we're a democratically self-governed organization that's a nonprofit. But for us, the nonprofit is just an instrument of the work. Again, the nonprofit doesn't hold our identity, the political project holds our identity, and the nonprofit is the tool we use to get the work done. But within that, everybody gets it's a flat democratic organization. And we developed a way -- along with a whole bunch of other folks in the climate justice movement -- this idea of of what we call the Just Transition Framework. And folks can go to Movement Generation and download this little booklet called 'From Banks and Tanks to Cooperation and Caring.' And for us, the failure of the climate movement is the obsession with the atmospheric concentrations of CO2. If you really want to understand the climate crisis, it's insufficient to look up at the atmosphere and count carbon. That's just the emerging consequence of a whole other problem, which is the erosion of living systems, and the exploitation of labor, the labor of the living world everywhere at once, all the time. And so long as that is happening you'll have this other problem. And so for us, this notion of the restoration of a right relationship to land, labor, and living systems is the solution to the climate crisis.

There's an expression by the Coup, the band the Coup, Boots Riley, you know, one of their albums, I think, is called Pick a Bigger Weapon. And it's like, "Yeah, you know what that is? It's economy." Its economy. We need to build -- we need to live into the economy we know we need, and crash it into capitalism. That's what we need to do. We need to provoke a crisis of jurisdiction over who is entitled to govern our communities and who defines our economies. Because so long as we're just fighting against what we don't like, we'll be stuck, we will be easily assimilated. That fight will be easily assimilated and navigated in the existing structures of global capitalism and extractive-ism. It's when we are actually provoking a crisis that's about meeting people's needs, and democratically self-govern. So for me, all of it fits together under that and we think of it around -- you know, I mentioned the basis of revolution is is not just the struggle for power, it's not getting enough people together that you can fight against the existing power. All revolutions are rooted in rights. It's when a people can assert rights that they can test the legitimacy of existing authority. And the only way to an assert a right is to exercise it. If you believe housing is a human right, then you have to exercise that right. And any economic activity which is an infringement upon that right is a form of violence, because rights are not given and rights are taken away. Rights are exercised and they are only ever violated, and that's the origin of violence. And so we have to actually say "if we believe that health care is a human right, then all economic activity should be subordinate to that right, and anything that isn't is illegitimate. So that's how we should be thinking about it, and the way we organize economy is an expression of our responsibility to assure those rights.

So with rights comes responsibility. And what is economy? Economy is the stewardship, or care, or management of home within the boundaries of the rights that we have established, so that it is the expression of that responsibility. Collectively, that is all it should ever be. And then the question is, what are the rights upon which we want to mount a revolution? And given the moment that we're in on the clock of the world, as Grace Lee Boggs said, we would argue it's two things. It's rights of Mother Earth, and the right of living systems of function with integrity and dignity, and to be free of coercion and wanton destruction, and the related responsibility that comes with that is what we call new economic rights. And that's the right of people to the resources required to create productive, dignified and ecologically sustainable livelihoods. Those are collective rights, both of those: the rights of Mother Earth, and these new economic rights, are collective rights and individual rights. So this isn't the right to health care, the right to housing or the right to a minimum wage, it's the right to the resources required to meet those needs. And then you ask yourself, what are those resources? It's land, it's clean air, it's fresh water, it's control over our time. And guess what, in this moment of navigating the contradictions of the world, or into the world we want to be in, or trying to live into, one of those resources is capital -- is financial capital. So creating a commons of capital is part of creating a commons of housing as part of creating a commons of land. It's part of recognizing that larger thing. And as I said at the beginning, commons are fundamentally based on consent and cooperation. So free, prior, and informed consent. And consent is a foundation of everything we do, from our interpersonal relationships to how we organize our work. That's a key principle of commoning, and enclosures are entirely based on entitlement, whether it was the original title that was given to you by the King, or the title that's given to you on a piece of paper. And the enclosure, the ability to control who has access to a necessary and needed resource, and on what terms, and in this world who it ends up being that resource that's enclosed, that's what we're trying to disrupt and enclosure is what got us here. And so it's not just enough to be against the enclosure, we need to actually be creating the commons, or restoring the commons.

Dru Oja Jay: Yeah, I love the way you conceptualize that, and it's a very powerful and coherent story, and obviously clearly developed over...

Gopal Dayaneni: Oh yeah, by lots of people.

Dru Oja Jay: Yeah, by lots of people through a lot of dialog over a lot of time. Which is, I think what gives it that heft. I guess, bringing it back to the narrative piece, you know, you can't you can't just go into your classroom where people are raising their hands about rent and be like, "here it is," you know...

Gopal Dayaneni: Yeah, exactly.

Dru Oja Jay: So I'm curious. You've got the narrative that gives you that sort of philosophical, political, common direction and backing at the core, but how do you -- how does that change, or does it change when you go out to talk to the person on the street who you're canvasing? How does narrative play out in that context when you're trying to get them into that story? And then how do you move them through that, closer to that hot, dense core of what we're going for?

Gopal Dayaneni: So for one thing, you got to start with where people are at. Like, what are the living conditions that people are dealing with, and engaging with them there. And actually, quite honestly, I think things like giving talks to undergraduate students and just saying literally the question, "how many people believe rent is as a human right?" Everybody raises their hand. I mean, housing is a human right. Or actually an example I use a lot is, imagine how many people believe health care is a human right. And I'm very rarely in a space where people do not raise their hand. Of course, I'm not usually at, you know, the Heartland Institute meetings, so there is a question there. But I think that's a different kind of organizing that requires people from those communities. But when you when you ask people to describe what they imagine health care as a human right is like, "OK, describe what that experience is like if we had universal health care in the United States, what would your experience of health care be?" And people immediately go to where you could go to the hospital and you wouldn't have to pay anything, and you could see a doctor. And usually they say your medications would be free. You wouldn't avoid going to the hospital because you couldn't afford it. People usually say those things. Occasionally, somebody will say there's more preventative health care. Sometimes people will bring that up. But overall, people generally conceptualize health care as looking like health care looks like now just free. And then you get this interesting question: "Well that's interesting, because that health care system cannot be universal. It's entirely based on the extraction of wealth and resources and labor from people all over the planet and in this very community." The current health care system is a net transfer of life expectancy from poor people in the global South to rich people in the global North. In fact, it's a transfer of life expectancy [from] the African-American man three blocks away to the white man in the neighboring suburb. You have to reconceptualize health care if you want it to be universal, because the only qualification for accessing universal health care is what? Being part of the universe.

So, I think there are ways in which we can tell stories and draw out -- and because it's not that people don't have these values, it's that people can't imagine another way, right? One of the things that's enclosed is imagination, you know? It's like we don't have access to free imagination because we don't have other ways of seeing our needs get met. So I do think there's that aspect, and starting where people are at. And then there's just my invitation to folks listening to Half Past Capitalism, if you're one of those people who says, "I'm an anti-capitalist," I want you to see how well you can actually describe the contours of capitalism, because I think we have a tendency to say we're anti-capitalist, and to say we're against the system. But I think our ability to actually both describe the contours of capitalism, and describe the contours of the kinds of economies we imagine, I think really matters. And for me, being anti-capitalist is necessary but insufficient. Because I'm an anti-borderist, you know, like border-ism is wrong, and the nation state is not an object that we can -- you know, one of the failures of our socialist imagination is we think of the nation state as an object. And if we just took control of that object, we can make it something else. But a nation state is nation state-ism, it's the relationship of nation states, and it depends on this extractivist mode. So there's a whole bunch of other aspects of this that we've got to dig into, for sure.

Dru Oja Jay: I mean, I just wanted to conceptually get into that a little more. I mean, it's interesting because I think usually the way the sort of theory of change is conceptualized, is that you start with rent, or housing, or whatever is directly affecting people, or health care. And then you say, "OK, well, let's get involved in Medicare For All, and then let's get involved in this political campaign that has this Medicare for All, but a bunch of other things. And then you sort of gradually learn about those other things. And then the sort of last thing that people learn about in that is foreign policy, and like what you're talking about, then that transfer of life expectancy. And then the even further thing that people do, if they get that far, which is, you know, you're talking about a tiny, tiny number of people who get that far on that conceptual ladder, anyway, is that we start to talk about how to reconceptualize things so that it's not a zero-sum transfer of life expectancy. But that's so far down the line. But it sounds like what you're saying is, let's bring that right up to the front of the line in terms of, I think, a holistic approach from even after they just start talking about the rent or whatever. Like, let's talk holistically. I mean, is that your experience? And does that work? Can that work?

Gopal Dayaneni: Well, there's there's two things here. One is, I would say I think that the arc that you said of traditional organizing makes the mistake of immediately defaulting to the assumption that the only way that the need can get met is if our only strategy is through the existing structures of governance. So let me just be clear, I'm not saying that there is not a role for that work, and that that's not important. I absolutely believe it's important. But I also think what's really important is that we are organizing in our communities to say, "how are we going to meet our needs?" Like when people talk about direct action or civil disobedience, you know, we tend to think of somebody jumping off a building with a banner, or somebody blockading something, or like the kind of environmental direct action, or even the civil rights era direct actions. But the real direct action is people directly applying their labor to meet their needs, regardless of the consequences. Direct action is people need food in our community, so we are going to plant trees in public space, fruit bearing varieties in public space. We are going to occupy this land that is slated for development and turn it into a farm like we did with Occupy the Farm. The assumption that there are not opportunities for us to get organized in finding strategies to meet our needs in our community, and then getting together and aggregating with other communities to grow that, and expand that.

Like, we're not going to grapple with universal health care, for example, community by community. But there are interventions we can make that help us stay organized and connected in our community, that allows us to then have even more legitimacy as we engage in larger organizing efforts. So I think the missing ingredient here is like we have a housing crisis. One strategy, and we need to have the strategy, is to fight at the local level, and at the state level to have a moratorium on evictions, to have rent control, to have just cause. These policies are really important. And at the same time, we need to be organizing commons of housing. We need to be creating community controlled land trusts. We need to be doing rematriation work, and supporting indigenous communities, and getting land back, especially in urban areas on Turtle Island to the tribes who are federally unrecognized, and do not have a land base because their territories are now high market value places like the Bay Area. Supporting that is a strategy that helps us build a different kind of power and a different kind of relationship to power. The principle that we use is this idea of what you feed grows, or what the hands do, the heart learns. And if all we do is feed our fight against the existing system, that's what we'll grow. And if all we do is labor against what we don't want, we'll learn to love the fight, and we'll have nothing left for our vision. But longing and longing isn't good enough. You have to actually work towards the world you have to live in to the world you want. And it's not like these are alternatives that show people what a possible future could be once we had state power. They are the strategy to get there. It is the practice of self-governance because that's the hardest thing. I think the left is scared to govern. I think we're scared to actually have to make the hard decisions and we don't have any practice.

What is transformative justice? It is the practice of addressing harm and hurting outside of policing and prisons. That is a system of self-governance, which we need. And that's what food sovereignty is. And the growth of the energy democracy movement in the US, the community-owned Cooperative Energy Movement is because of decades of work, fighting investor owned utilities, getting community choice aggregation, building the capacity of social movement actors, folks, people in community learning how to actually self-govern energy systems, and to be able to say, "You know what, we don't need an investor-owned utility. We are capable of self-governing energy." Stop bailing out PG&E -- that's Pacific Gas and Electric here in California. So I think the premise that, again, it's the scale thing. The premise is like, "Oh, we have to build enough power to battle at the scale at which they operate." I always say the scale of the problem does not dictate the scale of the solutions. The scale of solutions obviously have to add up to address the scale of the problem, but the scale of the problem doesn't determine what the scale of the solutions will be. And in fact, scale is part of the problem. Like the biggering, and biggering, and biggering thing of everything to quote, Dr. Seuss, is the problem. And we see this in the climate movement. It's like, "oh, if we only ever talk about the climate crisis as atmospheric concentrations of CO2, all we are doing is giving permission for those assholes who want to do geoengineering to legitimate their claim that the only way we're going to deal with this problem is to create a hundred year long volcanic eruption that covers the entire earth to block the sun. Really, that's the best you can come up with? How about returning land to indigenous people, so that they can actually teach us how to be in right relationship with the living systems upon which we depend? How about ending the fossil fuel industry and making a just transition to a clean energy democracy? Anyway, now I'm just...

Dru Oja Jay: No, I think that's an excellent place to wrap it up. I guess before before we sign off where should people find you or the kinds of things you're talking about?

Gopal Dayaneni: Yeah. Well, Seed Commons is, and I would encourage folks to check that out. People Solar Energy Fund is, but you can also just search for People's Solar Energy Fund. Movement generation is, and I encourage everyone to go and check out some of the stuff is happening. I'm no longer part of the staff collective, but I'm still very much a part of the community. You mentioned ETC Group. There's a bunch, and really, I'm easy to find you can connect with me, but really connect with the people in your community, in your neighborhood. Like, what are the needs that aren't getting met, and what can we do to meet them? Not what demands can we make to get somebody else to meet them? If we start to meet those needs, we are forcing them to address the question of why they are not. And yes, we need to put pressure on existing structures of governance, but we also need to take them over, and make them much more deeply, deeply democratic where people are in control of the decisions that affect their daily lives. That's how it used to be. The governance was integrated into every aspect of our lives. And now we live in a system that we inherited from Greco-Roman slavery, where some small number of people, because of the extracted wealth of others, get to govern as a form of recreation. You know, that's not democracy. So anyway, I would encourage folks to connect with the folks around them and start there, but I'm happy to also connect, folks.

Dru Oja Jay: Great. Oh, thanks again, Gopal.

Gopal Dayaneni: Thank you. It's great to talk to you.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.


Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
CAPTCHA This question is to verify that you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam.

What does the G in GEO stand for?