"We commissioned the greatest political philosophers of our movement to contribute a thought-piece that encourages intellectual curiosity, strategic thinking and tactical innovation within the global Occupy movement. We call it Theory Thursday. This week’s contribution is from Christopher Key, a movement philosopher in NYC. Christopher is a Zuccotti. That is a term we use to distinguish the founders of the first Occupy Wall Street encampment and assembly in Zuccotti Park. To read this article on your device, download the unabridged ebook edition." - Micah White
For a truly transformative revolution to take place a parallel, alternative society must be created that is robust enough for the people to live their entire lives within it from cradle to grave.
People would be born in this new society's hospitals, be educated within its schools, work within its institutions, and be buried in its grounds, all the while drawing entertainment, friendship, and meaning from those around them. Such institutions must go beyond simple charity, beyond providing people things, and instead be a means through which people are able to provide for themselves in a manner that directly challenges the prevailing order while not replicating its neuroses. Any successful revolution will co-opt the functions of the society it opposes because society, essentially, is these functions.
Secession Versus Mosaic
There are two ways that this can be accomplished. One is a secessionist model, the way of communes and collectives. Under this model, the community would generate everything it needs by itself, being a self-sustaining closed loop society that can simply separate from the dominant order with little to no ill-effects. While such things are wonderful experiments in sustainability and community living, their isolation, both geographic and social, makes them poor tools for mass revolution. While they may well achieve the cradle to grave totality that a parallel system needs and, within its limited sphere, create and sustain a new model for the way things are done, their isolation means that they cannot effectively engage with society as a whole, because it is that much more difficult to interact with them in a meaningful way. This reduces them, at best, to sociological museum pieces that can be observed and commented on, but never really experienced on the scale that is needed to transform large sections of society. In addition, because someone has to go out of their way to interact with and observe these communities in action, the only information that most people will have about them is that which has been supplied by other people, which means that these communities have that much less control over their own message and image. Since, by definition, they are out of the mainstream, this means that the dominant order will be the one that gets to tell people who and what this community is. This means that, despite their intensely practical nature, their demonstrative impact is limited to a rather small sphere. Finally, it should be noted that such communities are rarely sustainable in the long run because, historically, children raised within them tend to leave them behind, making their lifespan only a few generations at most, and just one or two more commonly.
Not that this means a secessionist model is automatically doomed to failure. For a secessionist community to thrive, however, it must directly address a practical problem that is faced by many people, such as lack of farmland to grow food, regardless of ideology. Once again, the alternative must be directly demonstrated through the amelioration of some sort of practical difficulty. This is the difference between, say, the Zapatistas in Mexico and a small commune in upstate New York formed for the explicit purpose of practicing orthodox Marxism. The intentional community is just that: intentional. Its formation is a matter of choice, a bold project intended to explore the depths of political and social possibilities but, ultimately, remains a matter of curiosity on the part of its founders. For the likes of the Zapatistas or Brazil's landless workers movement, however, such a community is a matter of survival, and those who also want to survive are the ones who are drawn to them.
However, there still remain significant outreach problems among those that are not naturally inclined to join such a community. While blunted by the perspective of those who experience the problems that a secessionist community is built to address, their image among mainstream society will still largely be controlled by those who oppose them due, once again, to a lack of direct, everyday engagement among the population as a whole. Its main impact will be on those within this community and those who are in similar circumstances to those who first formed it. Their specialized demographics mean that it is much more difficult to reach outside of this circle and into mainstream society as a whole. Additionally, if the community is set up to address a specific problem faced by a certain set of people, then those who are not facing this problem will have little reason to join it, which means there is a fixed number of people who would be potentially interested in joining such a community.
These challenges are less of an issue with another possible way, which is the mosaic model, where the individual components of the new society exist side by side with those of the current established order, decentralized but linked into a single network. While a secessionist model has every aspect of its parallel society contained in a single place, with participation limited only to the people living within the community, the mosaic model has each of its functions handled by a different group, each of them gaining their means of support through interactions with these other groups. Rather than being geographically and socially isolated, these institutions are, by design, directly engaged with society. People don't need to go out of their way to see these institutions operate. They will see them just by living in the same area, and will thus more easily be able to participate if they have an interest or need.
Take, for example, a volunteer ambulance service: even if they, themselves, never avail themselves of its services, people will constantly see its vehicles traveling from place to place and know that it is possible to get ambulance service under this alternative model. If they should ever find themselves in a situation where they need such services and call upon them, the demonstration of this model's viability will be even stronger and will better understand its superiority.
Further, because it exists among society rather than apart from it, it is easier for people to make side by side comparisons between the revolutionary institutions and the mainstream ones, and to choose the revolutionary institutions for getting their needs met, which not only builds loyalty to the alternative system but weakens the current one by denying it access to the resources and support it needs to sustain itself. In the greatest of all ironies, capitalism will simply be out raced. If it continues to exist at all, it will do so only as a quaint historical curiosity, perhaps as a theme park where people dress in period costumes and speak in old dialects to educate students on what life was like before participating in non-market networks of mutual aid became simply how things are done.
Because each of these institutions will only have a piece of what is needed to sustain themselves and the people within them, they will have to depend on each other for their existence and comfort and so will, by necessity, have to be outwardly facing in nature. Solidarity will be not just a sentiment but a survival mechanism, which makes ironing out any disagreements with each other a matter of life and death. It will be through cooperation, not competition, that any of these institutions will be capable of continued existence, for none will be able to sustain themselves completely without the support of other institutions. Withdrawal, the logical conclusion of the secessionist model, will simply not be possible.
The mosaic model is also advantageous because it is modular. You don't need to have everything in place at once to start building up a robust network. You can build up their capacities over time, and experiment with what does and doesn't work. It's inevitable that, at least in the beginning, some engagement with mainstream society will be necessary. A farm might not be able to grow enough produce at first to be anything more than a supplement; a clinic may need to tap into the grid for the power it needs to run its machines; a carpentry crew might need to buy its tools and equipment from a capitalist firm. So long as such arrangements are understood, in the long term, to be temporary, and the institutions make weaning themselves off of their dependence on the dominant order as high priority, however, these short-term concessions should not stand in the way of eventually achieving what I would call a stateless sovereignty: an ability for people to live entirely within a parallel society and provide for themselves by interacting only with the alternative economy.
Astute readers may note that just as there are many communes and collectives that follow the secessionist model, there exist myriad specialized collectives, mostly in urban areas, that follow the mosaic model, and they haven't been successful in starting the revolution either. If a mosaic model is so much better, what explains its lack of success thus far?
One reason is lack of effective networking. While an area might have an abundance of individual collectives, all diligently working toward their own particular goals, they have not often worked together on a consistent basis. While a city might have one organization concentrating on food distribution, another focused on providing medical services and a third offering child care, they have tended to remain isolated from each other, with each thinking of their own particular project as some sort of separate endeavor, as opposed to being part of one large network that can boast all of these things simultaneously.
Another reason is simple lack of resources, material and human, with both problems usually feeding into each other. Revolutionary groups tend to be small and, because of this, usually have limited access to resources that they need to fulfill their missions. Anyone with even a passing familiarity such with groups know that they tend to run into constant problems regarding access to equipment, supplies and even a place out of which they can operate. Part of the reason for this is that, starting out, they only have the resources–material, intellectual and social –that their individual members can bring to bear, and there tend not to be a lot of individual members who consistently show up.
But this is not always the case. There are large, robust collectives that manage to consistently operate with an adequate amount of resources. If resources were the only stumbling block, this would be puzzling. However, another reason these specialized collectives have yet to build to a serious revolution is that they tend to be rather insular. Put bluntly, many contemporary collectives appeal only to other revolutionaries, and do so by design. Organizations founded by revolutionaries tend to attract only other revolutionaries. Much like it is in capitalism, it is folly to think that the new system will be composed entirely of true believers, but radical insularity presumes just this, which limits them only to those who would be inclined to agree with them anyway and becomes, at best, a support system for other revolutionaries. A big reason for this is because it is generally only other revolutionaries that will know about their existence to begin with. This means that, even in a large city, these groups can be isolated from the population as a whole. While they may, spatially, be among the community, culturally they are as isolated as a country commune.
Models for a Parallel Society
Making non-revolutionaries the focus when accomplishing practical, concrete goals should address these issues. The model should be participatory in nature, existing as a means for people to provide for themselves, not to be provided for. The participatory nature of this system is vital because it instills a level of commitment and ownership that simple gratitude cannot match and, furthermore, allows for sustainability in a way that a purely charitable model would not. Those who benefit from the system should also be the ones who contribute to it. The more people it reaches, the more people it will have to support it. Starting out, focus should be on the needs that are most under served in a population, a place where capitalism has left gaps that can be filled in by alternative economic models.
Since the entire venture will collapse without new people constantly joining, at least at the start, outreach is a survival skill. A network will not survive without constantly making new contacts and expanding its scope. Meanwhile, by making the network participatory in nature and eliminating the barrier between server and served, you address the problem caused by lack of people which, in turn, can help address the problem caused by lack of resources. This also helps address the problem of such networks appealing only to other radicals; there are only so many radicals out there. If a network is successful in solving practical, concrete problems, its appeal will spread to anyone that it touches, because the results will speak for its efficacy.
One possible model for such a system is what could best be described as a network of networks, each constituent part devoted to meeting some specific need. For example, one part of the network would be composed entirely of individuals and organizations interested in creating a food distribution network, another would be dedicated to meeting medical needs, another would ensure public sanitation, and so on and so forth. Within each of these individual networks would, in turn, be smaller networks that work on the individual needs of that particular network as a whole. So, within the food network, one part will focus on producing food, perhaps through farms and gardens, another will focus on distribution, while another would handle food safety. Each of these networks would be composed of still smaller networks as needed. For example, the food production network would, itself, be composed of seed gathering networks, soil quality networks, and harvesting networks.
Individual networks would act autonomously on matters directly pertaining to them. However, discussions that would impact other parts of the network on some unavoidable, inescapable level (such as if, say, a particular crop can only be grown where another project already operates) would be discussed with all the relevant stakeholders, with courses of action decided upon through careful conversation and debate on what they feel is the best course of action. This is to ensure that decision making does not become a top-down affair -- the wider scale a decision, the more people the conversation will necessarily involve. This also ensures that people do not get bogged down in endless meetings concerned with minutiae that have nothing to do with the majority of people there -- the only decisions made will be the ones that directly concern the participants, which maximizes the autonomy of each network as well. However, considering that decisions tend to ripple throughout a network, such conversations will probably involve multiple networks.
Because whether or not a decision pertains to someone is not always immediately apparent, a transparent information structure will be vital so that, even if a debate isn't necessarily germane to one network, its members will still know about it and be able to judge for themselves whether it's relevant to them. How these debates happen and how people will judge whether or not a decision pertains to a particular network is, of course, a decision that affects all people in the network, and so no matter what it is that people decide, this overall structure must be determined with full participation and input from all members of the network.
Step one is getting a large starting base of people, which will require extensive networking, possibly with community groups already in the area that already have people and resources that can be utilized, which avoids the previously mentioned pitfall of having isolated, discrete organizations that don't work together.
While there are doubtless many different ways to do this, one possible method would be to call a large general meeting of as many of these organizations as possible, as well as individuals who may not be a part of any of them but are nonetheless interested in what they do. Once gathered in one place, the group as a whole can examine their collective capacities and resources and decide for itself the specific areas on which they can focus, such as food or transportation or home maintenance and repair. The general group can then separate off into breakout groups organized along each of these areas and begin the work of planning and implementing their specific part of the overall network. While not necessary, it may also help to have a group within this network composed of members of all the various other organizations that will focus on one-off projects and events that concerns itself with immediate problems and issues that can be addressed right away, rather than long-term needs such as food or medicine. People may also find it prudent to have a similar group devoted to outreach and visibility, giving new people interested in participating an easy conduit through which they can engage.
Depending on how many people come in at the start, it may be possible to only form one or two networks that meet a few immediate needs, say food and medicine. This is okay. The important thing, in this model, is to get the first few networks off the ground. Once these groups are assembled, they can focus on growing their base by increasing participation, and creating new networks that meet new needs, with the goal being the creation of a cradle to grave totality that generates the stateless sovereignty that will form the basis for the post-revolutionary economic system.
This is, of course, but one example. Presumably, each network will have its own quirks, variation accounting for local resources and conditions, and all will be run in slightly different ways. However, regardless of the specifics, in general the most important parts of any network are active and open participation, transparency, autonomy and accountability, and modularity. While the particulars may vary, a successful network will incorporate all of these main principles. As time goes on and networks grow, the various ways in which these networks operate will form the basis for how the communities they serve will govern themselves.
Regardless of the particulars, though, the focus in general should be on fixing specific problems, which is essentially the purpose of any societal institution. This need not necessarily be done in the exact same way that our current society functions, and given that the whole point of a revolution is to produce a root and stem change in the fundamental ways that society operates, a wholesale replication is not even a desirable outcome anyway. But, ultimately, people accessing these alternatives need to be better off doing so than they would be accessing that which is offered by mainstream society. This is the metric against which all such networks must be measured.
Process and Defense
There is no purpose of creating a new society if it degenerates into a copy of the old, which has been the fate of all too many revolutions in the past.
So while it is indeed important to consider what sorts of decisions will get made, even more important is how they will get made in the first place: who took part in this decision? Who got to speak? How were people made aware that the discussion was taking place at all? And what sort of process will evaluate the decision so it can be changed should the need arise? These factors must always be considered to create a new society, because current society almost completely ignores them. As current society is hierarchical in nature, the network must operate non-hierarchically, with no one part having direct authority over another. If the organization is capable of doing this, then even if people within it were power-hungry and authoritarian, there is no outlet through which these desires can be expressed and it becomes that much less likely that a single person or group can dominate the process. Hierarchy is vulnerability: it presents an inviting target for opponents, is an easy access point for subversion, and encourages power struggles that can pose existential threats to the entire project. Furthermore, it is inefficient, as groups lose the ability to act autonomously and must instead seek approval for their actions from some director or manager.
While it will probably not happen at first, there may be some push back from the dominant order, especially as the revolutionary economy starts co-opting the functions that give the state its power. Early on, this will probably take the form various rules and regulations, and the potentially violent enforcement thereof. Current society does what it can to maintain the monopoly it has on every day life and possesses numerous rules on what one can or cannot do, some of which are well intentioned, but mainly are demonstrations of its territoriality over people's lives. For example, a network might want to set up a group home somewhere, or even build one themselves, but may run afoul of things such as zoning and planning regulations that prohibit such a use on that particular property. Working within legitimate channels, such as getting a zoning variance for the aforementioned group home, might work and may represent the optimal solution at a particular time, but this cannot be guaranteed. Utilizing the system's mechanisms should be seen as only a pragmatic measure undertaken as a last resort, considering that the whole point of this endeavor is to set up an entirely new system within the shell of the old. A revolution is predicated on a refusal to acknowledge the dominant order entirely and so its laws are to be seen as merely practical obstacles on the way to providing something better. With this in mind, though, it may be a good idea for a network to set up a defense group that will actively work to prevent incursions that would inhibit the work that it does through media outreach, direct action and good old fashioned protest.
As time goes on, though, more severe reactions may occur. Although a mutual aid network may seem innocuous at first, not worth the consideration of serious attention from the state and capitalist economic system, the networks may eventually come to encounter the thuggish repression that always seems to accompany legitimate challenges to the powers that be, starting with riot police and, if those prove ineffective, escalating to rifles and tanks, bombers and drones, against which the chances of victory are slim. Slightly more manageable would be infiltration and sabotage such as that enacted by COINTELPRO a few decades ago, though this too has proven to be hideously effective against movements in the past.
In both cases, the efficacy of the network must be its strongest defense. By the time the state finally realizes that there is a legitimate threat within its midst, there must be enough people within these networks across the country that action against them would necessarily mean action against their friends and loved ones. The more engaged and integrated with the community that a particular network is, the more problematic blunt force repression becomes. Therefore, being outward facing and participatory in nature is a matter of survival. Should a network achieve this level of growth, violent repression will backfire spectacularly. If it does not, if it is composed entirely of politically aware radicals, then the state will have no problems firing at will, because the guns will be aimed not at "us" but at “them.” If you live in a niche, you will die in a niche.
The other danger that exists is that of co-option into the dominant order, becoming yet one more amusing specimen in its already vast menagerie of organizations that seek not to overthrow the old system but to make life within it slightly more tolerable. This happens when people forget that building alternative institutions which address people's needs in a direct way is only a means to an end, namely revolution, not an end in and of itself. While this fate may befall a revolutionary network under virtually any circumstances, it will be hastened by exposure and entanglement with the mechanisms of mainstream society – involving itself in electoral politics, for example, or becoming too enmeshed in the nonprofit organization mindset, both of which create a dependency on the continued existence of the state and capitalist economic system in order to optimally function. This is, in fact, an even bigger threat than repression from the system, and will only grow bigger the larger and more successful the network becomes.
The true purpose behind the organization must always be kept in mind in order to guard against this happening. The goal is a fundamental transformation of all society in the way we live, work and play, which necessitates the eventual destruction of the state and capitalist economic system, both of which alienate us from our own lives for the benefit of a select few. Nothing short of this, in the long term, will do because the problems that we face necessarily emanate from these institutions. Thus, there must be frequent internal reflection to detect early any signs of creeping reformism. However, one cannot rely on reflection alone – the very structure of the network itself must be built so that the existence of the dominant order does not matter one way or the other, with every action of those within it reflecting the nature of the new society. This means things such as avoiding the use of market mechanisms in its operations as much as possible, mainly relying instead on in-kind exchanges of goods and services, and minimizing any interaction with the state. The network should operate as much as possible as if the revolution has already arrived.
While there is no doubt much frustration as to the speed with which the revolution happens, it must be known that, even in the best of cases, this is a multi-generational process that will require effort on the part of grandparents, parents and children in a great unbroken chain, not only to achieve the critical mass necessary to present a truly viable alternative to mainstream society but to ensure it remains robust for the future. We all carry within us the neuroses of our own pasts, and while great efforts can be expended to manage the authoritarian impulses learned from living in a hierarchical society and the ruthless selfishness learned from living in a capitalistic one, they will never be truly erased. While our work in building the foundations of a new society is important, we will not be the ones who will carry its banner; that honor will go to future generations that grew up in this new civilization having never known the spiritual sickness from which their precursors suffered.
Not realizing this has been why so many revolutions in the past have turned utopias into graveyards. The neuroses of the old order seep into that of the new. On a technical level, yes, a swift and often violent overthrow of the established power can quickly create new institutions and reorder the very structure of society, mainly because these things are usually done at gunpoint, which is one hell of a motivator. While this may be more immediately satisfying than the slow way, history shows that such revolutions tend to quickly unravel into a humanitarian nightmare. Revolutionaries don't even need to necessarily succeed for this to happen; witness extant militias today that have long ago abandoned all but the most faint of pretense of revolutionary aims in favor of becoming, essentially, armed gangs concerned more with controlling territory than establishing a new society. This is because a violent revolution, by its very definition, will be won by those who have no problem with using violence to achieve their aims. Why should this thinking evaporate once they come into power? It was though the gun that they seized power and it is through the gun that they shall preserve it, and we are back at the repression and alienation that necessitated the revolution to begin with, old wine in a new bottle. The gun answers only to its wielder. At best, you have replaced one type of oppression with another that shuffles the members of the ruling class but maintains the existence of that class none the same. It's not even a stable condition because the people as a whole have not been primed to work within this new society and so, themselves, continue to carry the same mindset that characterized the old one. A forced change produces violent reaction, and the only way to prevent this reaction in such a situation is to be more violent still – not an optimal solution by any means.
In the end, then, the revolution must be won through bread and medicine–not bombs and rifles. The key to creating a new social order is a network that aims to solve practical, everyday problems in a way that is superior to the current one, both in its efficacy and its appeal to those who participate in it. The revolution is not a tearing down but a building up. The revolutionary's goal is to break the current system's monopoly on every day life. Only then can a new society emerge.
Christopher Key is a Zuccotti—a founder of the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York City—who wants to see thousands of mutual aid networks spring up to challenge the dominant order.