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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

OCCUPY! CONNECT! CREATE! - Imagining Life Beyond "The Economy" (part six)

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October 21, 2011
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by Ethan Miller

Previous: Part Five, "Beyond the Market and the State" (principle #3)...

Principle 4. From Necessity to Possibility

There are no "economic laws," and there is nothing necessary or inevitable about economic dynamics. We make our economies, and therefore we can make them differently.

Economists have been the priests of the possible. When they appear in public to address some issue or key question, it is most often to tell us (directly or implicitly) what we can or cannot do, what is or is not viable, what is reasonable and what is merely naïve dreaming. They seem to have it all figured out: direct access to sum total of human potential. Interested in social change? In imagining a more equitable and democratic future? In exploring new possibilities for how we might live together responsibly? Don't get too excited until you talk to the economists. They're the ones who sign your permission slip.

Does it sound familiar? Can you picture the hard-nosed realist, secretly resentful for all that time spent learning obscure math or business strategy while you were dreaming of a better world, snickering at your aspirations?

Well of course we look foolish to the mainstream economists and their apologist friends! The whole structure of their "economy" is set up to do exactly this: to narrow the field of possibility in such a way that makes certain kinds of proposals, and certain ways of life, seem non-viable, impossible, ridiculous. Even some (though not all!) of the "left" economists play this game: instead of offering their skill and creativity to help us make viable that which we aspire to create, they pull out the laws and logics and tell us: "no."

It's time to begin consciously and systematically ignoring anyone who claims that they have figured out what can or can't be done. As the Chinese proverb says, "Those who say it can't be done should get out of the way of those doing it." We are finished with the politics of economic "laws." Every such law, every such "necessary logic," every claim that some possibility is closed must be met as a suspected ploy to shut down creativity, imagination and experimentation. This is not to say that everything is possible-it is not-but simply that we do not yet know where the line is between the possible and the impossible, and stories that stop us from exploring this frontier are stories that we must leave behind.i

We stand at the crossroads of multiple converging crises. The economic institutions on which so many of us depend are collapsing; peak oil (among other key "resources") is knocking at the door; political instability lurks in the wings; ecosystems are disintegrating; and the entire climate of the planet is becoming increasingly volatile. Nobody knows how to solve these problems, or how to mobilize humanity into a common, rapid process of reconfiguring our ways of life. This is something that the 1% and the 99% have in common: we face a terrifyingly uncertain future. There is no reasonable response but for us to experiment. As C.S. Holling says, "The only way to approach such a period in which uncertainty is high and one cannot predict what the future holds, is not to predict, but to experiment and act inventively and exuberantly via diverse adventures in living."ii

Experimentation means shifting from the skeptical world of "no" to the open and creative world of "let's give it a try." But it does not mean chasing windmills or wandering aimlessly into fluffy fields of hopeful rainbows. For many of us, experimentation is not even a choice, but a harsh reality that we face as the systems we have relied upon unravel. We experiment because we need to seek new forms of livelihood. The question is about how we engage with this seeking. We can cling to the hope of restoring the lost order, and we can look for scapegoats to blame for its collapse. We can go it alone or in small groups of self-seekers, grabbing whatever can be found in a world of scarcity. Or we can find and create new communities of learning in which our experimentation is collective, shared, and seeks to build something in the world that might contribute to an equitable and resilient future.

In this work, we must be clear that "viability" of our proposals and our projects cannot be determined in the terms set by the experts and managers of the current economy. Every society creates the conditions of viability for its own practices: certain things are permitted, and others forbidden; certain things are supported, and others denied. We must remember this: capitalist businesses did not spring up magically into the world already "viable." The supposed practicality, efficiency and creative power of the market economy was not simply waiting, ready-to-go, for its successful release into the world. The world had to be radically transformed so that these institutions could become possible and viable.

Political struggle and creation cannot be simply about realizing that which is already possible, but must be about changing the conditions of possibility themselves so that new forms of life can be born.

This is our task: to begin envisioning and creating relationships and structures that make new ways of living and new forms of livelihood more and more viable. This is the work of making visible, and then connecting, the practices of cooperation and solidarity that already exist in our midst-the work of a solidarity economics. It is in part through our linkages, and the strength that we gain from mutual aid and collective action, that the conditions of viability begin to change. This connection creates a space of learning through which we can begin to understand what kinds of broader institutional changes might deepen this viability.

The question of what economic reforms to fight for should always be asked with this in mind: will this reform help to change the conditions of possibility for other kinds of cooperative, equitable and ecological livelihoods to gather strength? Will this open the door to new possibilities for grassroots, democratic organization? Will this help to strengthen movements that are fighting to take back commons, build collective power and enact new ways of living?

Principle 5. From "The Economy" to Economic Solidarity and Democracy


We must no longer think of economics as the objective analysis of a "system." It must now become an active practice of solidarity and democratic organizing.

"The economy" is something that is built for us. Livelihoods are what we, collectively, make for ourselves. We must cease to see economics as the study of a "system" that stands apart from us, and that we can influence only by demanding regulations from politicians or accountability from corporations. We must begin to see economics as something that we do, and the economy as that which we make. To the extent that this power of making our own livings has been taken from us, we will take it back.

Our social movements must begin to make a tremendous shift. We have protested, we have expressed our outrage, we have demanded changes, we have struggled to win. But we have not yet begun, in a serious, strategic and connected way, to build our own economies. This is the power that we handed over to the experts and the policy-makers, and this is the power that we must reclaim: if we want to live in a just, democratic and ecologically-viable world, we need to organize ourselves, organize our resources, organize our collective power, and build this world in the here-and-now. No waiting for a better president. No waiting for the "recovery." No waiting for the revolution. Just the hard, slow, but powerful work of reclaiming commons, learning how to make democracy work in our lives and organizations, constructing new forms of shared livelihood, connecting them together in webs of mutual support and recognition, and fighting to overcome or transform every obstacle that gets in our way.

This is the call: Occupy! Connect! Create!

Final part: Part Seven, "Occupy, Connect, Create!...


The full version of Occupy, Connect, Create can be downloaded here (as PDF): 


i See J.K. Gibson-Graham, A Postcapitalist Politics. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

ii Quoted in Diane Dumanoski, The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive On a Volatile Earth. New York: Crown Publishing, 2010, p.213. Emphasis mine.

Gratitude to Kate Boverman, who inspired this piece and provided crucial ideas and support, and to Michael Johnson, Annie McShiras, Cheyenna Weber, Len Krimerman and Anne O'Brien for their excellent thoughts and edits.

Ethan Miller is an activist, educator and researcher working to cultivate and support movements for solidarity-based economic transformation. He works with Grassroots Economic Organizing and the Community Economies Collective, and has lived for the past ten years at the JED Collective and Giant's Belly Farm in Greene, Maine. Ethan is currently on a hiatus in Australia, working on a PhD at the University of Western Sydney with the Community Economies Research Group.

Email Ethan at: leaving.omelas (-at-)



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