It’s Time to Democratize the Crisis: Join A Global Community of Countries Mobilizing to Do Just That
“The communes of the next revolution…will trust the free organization of food supply and production to free groups of workers—which will federate with like groups in other cities and villages not through the medium of a communal parliament but directly, to accomplish their aim.”
P. A. Kropotkin, The Commune of Paris, Freedom Pamphlets, no. 2, London: W. Reeves, 1895.
The Challenge of Our Time
What would it mean to “democratize the crisis”? This was the theme of the “Global Teach-In 2020: Democratize the Crisis” held May 26th of this year in the U.S. and twenty countries in total over twenty five locations. How can we create democratic systems to address the massive health, economic, political and media challenges generated by the coronavirus crisis? At the Global Teach-In, David Graeber of the London School of Economics emphasized the need to expand our political imaginations to consider possible alternatives. This expanded imagination is of critical importance because the crisis has exposed the limits to the normal workings of the “economy,” a term whose standard usage Graeber suggested often promotes a limited understanding of actual problems and needs.
Greater public participation can be an alternative to organized irresponsibility. We need what the social critic Paul Goodman called, “Utopian Thinking”—alternative designs for the future which are rooted in present day possibilities. In education and politics, the philosopher Hannah Arendt believed a permanent citizens’ mobilization could overcome the limits of representational democracy. The Global Teach-In involves the public in planning and does not simply share expertise with the public. The public tests out what ideas make sense in their local context by deliberating over them. This deliberation process builds on a long tradition of town meeting democracy (as in the United States) and study circles in Scandinavia as well as the general assemblies of the New Left, Occupy and Extinction Rebellion movements.
The coronavirus crisis has exposed the limits to political, economic and media systems in which power is concentrated in persons whom Lawrence Beryl Cohen called “formulators.” These persons concentrate authority and resources involving political decisions, the organization of work and the distribution of knowledge and representational power. Their power helps generate, maintain and aggravate crises. It has led to dangerous working conditions, homelessness, hunger, and shortages in health equipment. Their stupidity led to needless deaths, deforestation, and failures to act early and systematically with the necessary health and safety procedures. We can deconstruct or criticize what they have done. We can try to petition politicians to do the right thing and expose them. But ultimately it is only by addressing their power to make bad and stupid decisions where we can find comprehensive solutions.
The power wielders, as Seymour Melman called them, have concentrated power at the public’s expense. They often promote short-term interests and use public relations and advertising techniques to confuse people and divorce themselves from responsibility. We have what C. Wright Mills called a system of “organized irresponsibility.” This means that those who are responsible for problems fail to take responsibility for them. They organize or manufacture a system where no one who actually has the power appears to be responsible. Strangely, the coronavirus has forced politicians and companies to temporarily stop mindless growth, but it has not stopped their future power to destroy the planet. We have a horrible plague which has simultaneously gained a power that social movements have lacked to stop mindless growth, but this has occurred without key decision makers being sufficiently responsible.
The crisis has exposed the limits of established health security regimes particularly in nations lacking public healthcare or a social welfare system facilitating the ability of sick people to stay at home. The fact that most people don’t own their jobs and many forms of employment depend on face-to-face interaction or direct engagement with products or services creates a divide in the workforce. Some politicians have used the crisis to concentrate power and various media have promoted a misunderstanding of either health risks or proactive solutions. Yet, where does the political mobilization opportunity associated with this crisis come from? The answer to this question can be found in another asked by Global Teach-In participant, British scholar and activist Hilary Wainwright. She asks whether a new politics of the left can “be achieved from within existing political institutions, or does it require new sources of power to be built in society and the economy as a base for new political institutions?”
The Politics from Below as Rich in Morality, Low on Cash
The classification of politics from above and below was developed by Zelig Harris in The Transformation of Capitalist Society and by various other thinkers. This idea involves thinking about who directs planning processes and whether initiative is left to intermediaries rooted in the established state and transnational corporations (from above) or popular initiatives, social control and alternative institutions (from below). At the Global Teach-In Karen Baker-Fletcher, Professor of Systematic Theology, Southern Methodist University, gave an example of a mobilization from below. She explained how Paul Quinn College transformed its football field into an organic farm. This historically black college in Dallas now “generates more than 20,000 pounds of organic vegetables every year” according to a PBS profile. This example provides a model for how resiliency can be promoted in the face of the corona pandemic.
This kind of activity is being replicated throughout the globe. Jia Tolentino, in a May 11th article in The New Yorker, profiled many diverse mutual aid efforts propping up in the United States:
In Aurora, Colorado, a group of librarians started assembling kits of essentials for the elderly and for children who wouldn’t be getting their usual meals at school. Disabled people in the Bay Area organized assistance for one another; a large collective in Seattle set out explicitly to help “Undocumented, LGBTQI, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Elderly, and Disabled, folxs who are bearing the brunt of this social crisis.” Undergrads helped other undergrads who had been barred from dorms and cut off from meal plans. Prison abolitionists raised money so that incarcerated people could purchase commissary soap. And, in New York City, dozens of groups across all five boroughs signed up volunteers to provide child care and pet care, deliver medicine and groceries, and raise money for food and rent.
These efforts focus on reallocating resources without the necessary intervention by a state or government.
The New York City efforts illustrate that one solution for democratizing the crisis is to use social media from below and provide a direct voluntary aid response. For example, Bushwick Mutual Aid (BMA) is a decentralized group of Brooklyn residents organizing to provide aid to their “community in the wake of the COVID pandemic.” Since they began, the group claims that they have crowdfunded about “$30,000 to purchase [and] deliver groceries and essential supplies to 471 families, feeding over 3,000 people, most of whom are Spanish-speaking and low-income, all with the backing of 550 registered volunteers across Bushwick.” This group began on March 13th of this year as a Facebook group for neighbors to share tips, such as where to go to find toiletries and for people to offer free assistance running errands and delivering food. Another group, Brooklyn Mutual Aid, began by putting up flyers announcing they would “run errands, mail letters, or pick up groceries and prescriptions for people with a high risk of serious complications from coronavirus.”
These groups have been able to deliver direct help in response to the crisis, but are often removed from the greater economic, media and political resources of incumbent and established corporations, governments and NGOs. If and when these incumbents fail, we must advance mutual aid groups to the next level.
The Politics from Above as Rich in Cash, Low on Morality
Other solutions involve mobilization from above, where those with greater resources are deployed to raise larger sums of money, albeit at a social cost. Here we need to explore the limits of corporate-sponsored social change initiatives. For example, MIT’s Solve initiative explains that: “Members of the Solve community champion Solve’s mission to address world challenges and directly support the Solver teams who are implementing solutions to those global challenges.” To join this initiative requires that one invests $5,500 annually. They add, “100 percent of Member donations go towards Solver grants and support to help Solver teams implement and scale their work.” The problem here, aside from the obvious financial setback, is that Solve is sponsored not only by Save the Children and the Nature Conservancy, but also by Nike and Johnson & Johnson.
A report in September of last year on NIKE noted that the company “has not committed to eliminating hazardous chemicals from its supply chain. These chemicals are a big problem for workers who are exposed to them and even those who wear the products.” Furthermore, “Nike’s use of hazardous chemicals has also been criticised by Greenpeace, who have voiced concerns regarding the pollution of waterways.” NIKE has been faulted in the recent past for paying “poverty wages to the thousands of women in their supply chain that sew the football shirts and shoes of players and supporters,” despite paying millions to others (like the French national football team) to advance its brand.
Johnson & Johnson not only sponsors Solve but also another endeavor called Global Citizen, the sponsors of an annual music festival. This year, Global Citizen sponsored, with the help of Lady Gaga and other celebrities, “One World, Together At Home.” This event was supposed to “show unity among all people who are affected by COVID-19, as well as celebrating and supporting the brave frontline health care workers around the world who are doing incredible, life-saving work.” The company for its part declares: “we believe good health changes everything – it’s the foundation of vibrant lives, thriving communities and forward progress.” Noting that they are “the world’s largest healthcare company,” they claim that they have used their “reach and size to combat disease, advance maternal and child health, expand access, and help build the health workforce of tomorrow.”
Johnson & Johnson is a morally compromised brand, however. As a Common Dreams report in August of last year noted, the company was ordered that month “to pay $572 million in fines for its role in perpetuating the [opioid] crisis.” This was “the first decided case against a corporation accused of contributing to the opioid epidemic in the U.S.” The report explained that Johnson & Johnson used contracts with poppy growers in Tasmania to supply “60 percent of the ingredients that drug companies used in opioid painkillers like OxyContin, contributing to the deaths of about 400,000 Americans in the last two decades—including 388 Oklahoma residents just in 2017.” Essentially, Global Citizen is engaging in a moral money laundering operation. Drug addicts pay an informal tax to the company which uses the funds to buy good will from outfits like MIT and Global Citizen. Needy people are helped based on a profit mechanism which contributes to addiction and death, even while the charity brand is advanced with the help of celebrities purporting to save lives.
The Politics From Below as Bad Design
One might end the story here: another deconstruction of corporate malfeasance in which those branded as heroic actors actually turn out to be villains. The problem, however, is that the plot is far more complicated. Even progressive and “left” forces may find it hard to democratize the crisis. One reason why is what Michael Learner has referred to as “surplus powerlessness,” i.e. the fact that left movements unnecessarily can render themselves less powerful by their very design.
Crises sometimes can therefore expose the limits of even grassroots social change organizations. In practice surplus powerlessness can be seen in how left groups sometimes engage in specific forms of branding and targeting which artificially reduce their capacity to connect issues and promote topical agendas that do not correspond to their original charters. Crises create immediate opportunities if one links the short-term specificity of a crisis to a longer-term institutional change. Yet, many social change organizations have relatively fixed agendas attached to narrow framing systems that end up petitioning the government or corporations rather than building systems to oppose these actors or even lobby them more systematically. NGOs can become harvesting operations for passive “public audiences” so that politics is nothing more than brand validation.
One activist recently wrote me about a specific progressive organization’s inability to participate in coalitions “if they are not controlling the event or have the power,” then “they have no interest” in that event. To sell their brand, organizations many differentiate their product as a “unique commodity” and therefore meet the specifications of short-term oriented foundations, the media, politicians and others. In this way, they attract consumers of the brand and build up their power base. This salesmanship is appropriate to the filtering systems that control and channel financial, media and political capital for the left and larger NGO sphere. Foundations can limit agendas just like journalistic frames and traditional politicians. NGOs and even protest movements passing through these filters constrain frames and agendas. There are at least two books about this theme, including Protest Inc.: The Corporativization of Activism and The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.
Can Progressive Presidential Campaigns and Green New Deals Move Beyond Political Scarcity?
It is not just that activists are puppets of the financiers’ supply system, however. There is also a demand by some activists themselves for the kind of patronage which does not support or endorse visionary change. Essentially, we have two sides to the problem. On the one hand, economic, media and political filtering mechanisms perpetuate disconnected agendas which are highly specialized. On the other hand, such mechanisms generate activists with emotional, psychological and career investments in highly specialized brands tied to limited organizing routines. In this way the political ecosystem is polluted by a stratum of individuals who cannot readily seize opportunities when crises arise because organizing around the crisis contradicts their preformed and packaged agenda. Or, a crisis is simply harvested to sell the same narrow agenda as mainstream politicians and even NGOs were selling before even if it is sold under a new name. The failure to innovate ends up reproducing the politics of scarcity, with atomized social movements and a failure to accumulate economic, media and political capital outside the sway of power brokers. Even social movements can generate a leadership class which administers de-activated citizens.
Many organizers will tell you that we must bring in established politicians and leaders to promote the changes we want to see. The problem is doing that without also building alternative power accumulation mechanisms. This limitation becomes clear when we look at the recent Sanders campaign. Left politicians running for office have become the default mechanism to overcome the logic of progressive groups caught up in their atomized silos. To his credit, Bernie Sanders has responded to the coronavirus crisis by using his network to support charity activities aiding those directly hit by the crisis. He and others have tried to link a progressive national healthcare system to the limitations of the incumbent regime in which hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and insurance firms profit while patients and front-line health workers suffer. While such moves are certainly commendable, they will prove insufficient for addressing the larger problems which Sanders himself addressed when he tweeted on June 30, 2019: “We are taking on: -Insurance companies -Drug companies -The fossil fuel industry -The private prison industry -The military-industrial complex -Wall Street -The NRA -The billionaire class -Donald Trump.” So Sanders wisely linked issues and even created a funding mechanism beyond the grasp of elite sponsors. Yet, was even that enough?
The defeat of Sanders suggests that a candidate cannot possibly take on all of these interests without the existence of some other supporting mechanism. The defeat of Sanders and Jeremy Corbin in the United Kingdom suggests that a candidate cannot possibly take on all of these interests without the existence of some other supporting mechanism. These candidates were supported in theory by supporting networks like "Our Revolution" and "Momentum." Yet, the supporting mechanism cannot simply be a collection of social movements, trade unions, unaffiliated activists and Internet-based sponsors. Some argue that Sanders made mistakes which are debated as being more or less relevant because of the concerted opposition of elites. Even if Sanders had won the nomination, which turns out to be a big “if,” he would have still faced massive opposition from various industrial complexes and “billionaire class” (or their proxies) after the election. Sanders argued that he would rally the people politically to oppose such forces, but one might ask whether even that strategy would have proven sufficient. Corporations are known to engage in capital strikes against their opponents and thereby bend even states to their will.
Bernie Sanders combines a politics from above (being in the U.S. Senate, regularly featured in top-down mass media) with a grassroots activist machine from below (generating millions of dollars in funds and involving millions in more bottom-up social media networks). Yet, this mechanism cannot sufficiently compete with complexes of power based on economic accumulation. The basic problem here is not Sanders’s tactical mistakes vis-à-vis Joe Biden or whether or not the “billionaire class” opposed him. The really fundamental problem is how to amass the scale of power necessary to oppose those who dominate decision-making within the United States and the global economy. In contrast to political campaigns, the typical corporation integrates diverse kinds of capacities, like economic, media and political power. It does not merely petition power, it generates power by producing commodities or services and exchanging economic capital for other forms. It operates on the scale of tens of billions or dollars and utilized media and economic platforms worth billions more.
Another solution to silos and economic mobilization is advocacy of a Green New Deal. Such plans have begun to rally diverse constituencies concerned with global warming, social exclusion and jobs. Even networks like CNBC had a town hall with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about “The Green New Deal.” AOC’s green new deal plan also supports manufacturing, yet there are no significant manufacturers involved in or aligned with this plan. Therefore, one needs to discuss ways to engage or push manufacturers to embrace or support the plan. One can’t argue that the plans and money would sufficiently entice companies to back a Green New Deal when many if not most companies don’t want the money and don’t lobby for the plan. In essence, the Green New Deal, like Sanders’s own campaign, comes up against the same obstacle of corporate power. President Roosevelt’s own New Deal plan was partially a reaction to a mass movement related to a financial crisis. Yet, the current movements supporting the Green New Deal are hardly on the scale of the movements which triggered the original New Deal. Moreover, Global Teach-In participant Jon Rynn has argued that many Green New Deal plans are badly designed, i.e. they themselves are merely another branding exercise.
One barrier to the Green New Deal is lack of support from parts of the labor movement. In June 2019, Umair Irfan explained in Vox that various energy unions including the United Mine Workers were “skeptical” as to whether the Green New Deal built “a bridge sturdy enough to carry workers over to a future with cleaner energy.” While the resolution contains “language about a jobs guarantee,” there was “no mechanism in the resolution to fund those jobs nor any specifics about how much they will pay, where they will be, and what benefits will be provided.” Maine did pass a Green New Deal plan, but that state has relatively few workers tied to dirty energy interests. A report by Rachel M. Cohen in The Intercept noted how labor opposition is rooted in the belief that workers in dirty industries feel that Green New Deal plans are weak in providing job guarantees or competitive wages. Promises of jobs don’t carry the same sway as actual, incumbent jobs for some workers and unions. The need to convert industries so that jobs are saved is an old, neglected history. Likewise, the historical precedent of the Tennessee Valley Authority and other New Deal type institutions is valuable. Yet, while social amnesia about best practices is one problem we cannot wish expanded production platforms into existence by referring to the grand historical past.
The Green New Deal therefore risks becoming an abstract set of ideas and budgetary proposals and distribution system which lacks both an internal system of wealth generation (by being decoupled from actual—meaning really existing and committed—production platforms) or a significant motor for change (by relying simply on social movements using petitioning power). The bailout packages are already sponsoring corporations, but with few if any environmental restrictions. Yet, this merely shows that money transfers don’t in themselves end up by changing corporate designs.
A Politics from Above and Below
Any meaningful social movement system must figure out how to advance networks of solidarity and mutual aid like Bushwick Mutual Aid has done from below, with the economic power marshalled by groups like Global Citizen from above. The former model is limited by economic scarcity, the latter by moral scarcity. Many years ago the activist and political philosopher John Gerassi explained one risks being so “radical” as to be totally outside the orbit of power (marginalized and ignored) or so engrossed in gaining power as to be totally co-opted. Gerassi explained the modalities of deconstructive armchair leftists and so-called pragmatic incremental elite appendages or Alinsky organizer types. We also have grand policy proposals light on organizing and activist organizers light on theory. So how do we move beyond the limits of each?
The mutual aid model shows how service provision is a mobilizer. Yet, we must also link mutual aid to innovation, production and economic accumulation. We now see diverse innovation platforms producing health commodities linking innovation to mutual aid. Given the global scale of the crisis, transnational social production networks have emerged in which innovators pool resources across the globe to design and produce equipment like ventilators. Trade union engagement in production can often be the link between grassroots mobilization from below and the accumulation of economic power directed from above. One key strategy is to mobilize diverse groups seeking a Green New Deal and have such groups encourage the conversion of existing, incumbent producers. Another strategy involves the creation of new cooperative platforms or the use of cooperatives as mutual aid actors. At the Global Teach-In, Sizwe Mkwanazi, who works with the Africa Cooperatives Institute of South Africa, discussed the role which cooperatives can play in promoting resiliency.
One way to extend mutual aid, solidarity, and cooperative forms as innovators, producers and engines of accumulating power (for alternative energy, mass transit, and other public goods), is to mobilize consumptive power. In a profile published in Reuters, Bruno Latour, the French sociologist, argues that proactive environmental political change can occur when we “stop buying the things we don’t want” and “the power of the consumer is intense.” He also worries that “the scale of the crisis, which has put millions of people out of work around the world, will in fact send environmental concerns onto the back-burner.” The Green New Deal must be materialized by linking consumptive networks to actual networks of innovators and cooperatives.
Howard Lisnoff recently argued that “the left exists now in splintered ways and primarily in its many expressions on the Internet.” If the progressive communities and millions of affected communities could properly mobilize the Internet’s and mass media power, however, then they might promote alternative networks of innovation and cooperation simply by consuming differently. That is the logic of “move your money campaigns.” In the last six months, Amazon’s stock has risen by about 11%. This indicates that Internet-based consumptive power is still a salient force despite lockdowns, sickouts, strikes and a global depression. While Amazon’s pernicious labor practices are well known, less well known is the example of the Strike Bike, which occurred in 2007 when striking workers took production into their own hands. In this example, 135 striking workers in Nordhausen protesting the closure of a German bike company started to produce a limited number of “strike bikes” to prove their company’s viability. Independently of the ultimate viability of this initiative, today we see a growing market for such projects given the near term health limits to congregating in mass transit, the ecological crisis, and mass unemployment.
Mass media must involve more than proposing abstract ideas to incentive local groups to identify with brands and then petition states and corporations. In contrast, we must utilize ideas that empower groups to socialize consumption and production. Listeners must become active deliberators (to mediate and validate ideas) as well as consumers of socially produced, sustainable products and services. If we can take a mass media audience and convert them into cooperative consumers who support cooperative producers, then we will overcome the political scarcity dilemma. Even a circular economy that reduces waste requires active mobilization of audiences as consumers who validate the least wasteful products and services. At the Global Teach-In, Alhassan Pereira Ibrahim of the Centre for Democracy & Development, Nigeria, addressed how various local communities involving activists and professionals, are promoting more accurate and authentic representations of the truth regarding health issues during the crisis. These networks of media accountability are necessary to transcend the limits of established elite mass media framing.
Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright, has provided us with an outline of how we ca democratize the crisis in the media sphere. He discussed the need for a new kind of radio: “Radio could be the most wonderful public communication system imaginable, a gigantic system of channels — could be, that is, if it were capable not only of transmitting but of receiving, of making the listener not only hear but also speak, not of isolating him but of connecting him. This means that radio would have to give up being a purveyor and organise the listener as purveyor. That is why it is extremely positive when radio attempts to give public affairs a truly public nature.” Phase one of the Global Teach-In focused on expert opinion. In phases two and three of the Global Teach-In, we made the listener the purveyor or the formulator as listeners made plans for the future.
We have a model for systemic power accumulation in the actions of individuals, transnational social production networks and cooperative networks. Malcolm X organized hundreds of mosques which became political franchises and supported import substitution for local communities so that they could recapture the wealth taken out of them. He supported development in Africa through a “bank of technicians,” highlighting the need for people to gain control over the means of innovation. His charismatic persona gained him access to mass media, built up these local franchises that also aimed to develop local businesses. Today, cooperative variants of these ideas or attempts to socially control business exist in places like: Cleveland, Ohio; Jackson, Mississippi; Oshawa, Canada; and Preston in the United Kingdom. The Mondragon Corporation links a network of factories, industrial laboratories and a cooperative bank.
A key strategy must be to link political organizing, mass media broadcasts and alternative economic forms. We must link media power to encourage citizens to move their money out of dirty, military businesses and into clean and peaceful ones. Cooperatives must not become utopian islands in a larger sea of dystopia. There is a need for entrepreneurial platforms to “break out” or expand their resource base through the extension and exchange of power. This means that power in one sphere is transformed (or exchanged) with power in another, as Malcolm X’s example illustrates. Similarly, cooperatives must be part of other networks in the political and economic spheres. Media networks must engage and support a democratized technology. We need mechanisms to systematically accumulate power rather than simply deconstruct maladies and petition the state. This strategy of economic and social reconstruction necessarily involves not only equitable treatments of gender exclusion and reproduction, but social control or democratic governance for innovation, manufacturing, and the core “commanding heights” of the economy.
On May 26, 2020, the Global Teach-In discussed this alternative institution building agenda in both a broadcast and participatory event, which was distributed by the Pacifica Radio network in the U.S. with Canadian affiliates. The event was broadcast live on Facebook. The coronavirus crisis has exposed the limits of incumbent networks and institutions. The time for building alternative institutions linking mutual aid to systemic power accumulation is now.
Jonathan Michael Feldman teaches at Stockholm University and is the founder of The Global Teach-In. He can be reached via Twitter @Globalteachin. The proceedings of Global Teach-In can be seen at: https://www.facebook.com/globalteachin/.