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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

What We Need Is Some Culture

December 27, 2016
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CULTURE EATS STRUCTURE 1                                                                                                                      

A few days ago I submitted a long essay to The Next System contest that proposes a different kind of movement building strategy, one that emphasizes culture building. It is a three-part essay that is a fairly substantial expression of my basic thinking about our movements for deep democratic change. Below is an overview of the whole piece.

Here are the GEO links: Part I--The Case for the Power of Culture-; Part II--The Components of a Cultural/Structural Strategyand Part III--Developing a Democratic Praxis



My basic argument is four-fold. One, democratic institutions emerge from democratic cultures not from think tanks. Two, democratic processes can be one of the most effective ways to minimize polarization and find common ground among our working and middle-classes even in the face of strong disagreements and persistent racial and gender disunities. In fact, we don’t really have any other basic tool for this work. Three, developing and widely promoting powerful pedagogies for civic/popular education programs are essential for re-vitalizing grassroots democratic processes. That is, programs designed specifically to equip ordinary people to develop powerful democratic praxis for identifying and achieving their objectives. Four, the vibrant local democratic cultures that can emerge from this re-vitalization will probably be the most hospitable environment for cooperative/solidarity economic projects.


Our recent election results now give powerful reasons to seriously question how well informed the whole Left has been in their assumptions about the basic political realities in our country. Identity issues and class issues have to be woven together and re-framed so they are much more inclusive and nuanced. In this way they become freer of unquestioned assertions of what is and what should be. This will require intense and extensive re-development of basic democratic skills and dispositions both within our movements and at community and regional levels across the country. And it will be a very long haul. Yet, this needs to be our alpha priority no matter how long this will take. In fact, it should be an unending process that runs as long as we want there to be a democratic America. However, this concern hardly enters our think tank processes that churn out big system proposals because they are sold on “big is better,” “big is essential,” “now is our moment for becoming big.”


Our grand visions and models of new economies, next systems, and various kinds of 21st century democratic commonwealths are like trees being planted in a toxic soil of ungrounded abstractions and fantasies. Our movements are simply not equipped for big scale projects yet. We are not powerful enough at the grassroots. Personal and collective empowerment is our greatest need, and that has to be grounded in the grassroots where ordinary people and activists can talk face-to-face. Moreover, we don’t understand enough about the nature of power and the dynamics of empowerment to do this kind of work at this time.


To address this need I propose that we begin thinking and imagining transformative strategies that are shaped by interwoven cultural and structural objectives. After all, culture and structure are inseparable. Transforming ourselves and the kinds of roles we identify with is the beginning of transforming our cultures. To transform our cultures and our selves involves finding the gaps, cracks, and other openings in the established world around us. These can be highly creative spaces, like the ones where jazz and rap and Macintosh-like enterprises came into being. That’s where most new ideas and practices get started. They are home to all “blessed unrests.” This is where we can build spaces for personal and collective democratic change. Such beginnings are intensely local, which is the case for all emerging co-operative/solidarity economic ventures. That’s why the regional space is the scale we should focus on now. It is where collective support is both most needed and can be most directly connected.


I identify four primary structural components for a polycentric regional cooperative/solidarity network. Such an infrastructure, by itself, however, has no organic life. Awareness, connection, and community come through culture. There are three legs a regional democratic culture has to have to support a local cooperative/solidarity movement: belief, empowered mutuality, and the norms and best practices for thinking together.


Finally, I present two governing pedagogical principles—intellectual humility and empathic listening—for shaping powerful civic/popular education programs, and summarize the pedagogical practices, norms, and guidelines of a democratic praxis developed over 36 years by an intentional community, Ganas in New York City, which is still in use.


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