How Do We Get There from Here?
BY BILL DUNNE
The new world order of imperial capital is irreparably broken. It rapaciously concentrates obscene wealth and power in the hands of a tiny and unaccountable ruling class, wealth and power extracted at hideous cost from the lives of the vast majority of the world’s people. It carelessly squanders our world’s actual and potential riches on wars of conquest and subjugation and ostentatious displays of opulence at the price of an ever-escalating body count, rampant poverty and privation, and ecological destruction on an unprecedented scale. It callously pits brethren and sistren of our class against one another in an accelerating race to the bottom of social well-being and security, making the human rights of material sufficiency, self-determination, democracy, and real freedom meaningless buzzwords. This dysfunctional system of exploitation and oppression is a disaster for we, the people, that cannot be repaired or reformed. It must be replaced.
Replacement of imperial capital’s roughshod reign over the global body politic requires nothing short of revolutionary change. Merely shuffling the faces operating the social institutions or even revamping those institutions will not be enough. Scrapping the old basis for social organization and building a new one predicated on egalitarianism, socialism, and democracy is the only solution. That conclusion is not hard to reach. Harder to see is what that revolutionary destination will look like and, at least as important, how to get there from here.
Previous waves of struggle broke against and even over the rocks and reefs of ruling class hegemony and even succeeded in washing away monarchies and colonial regimes and some egregious abuses of human rights in some places. Having crested, however, they all receded and their revolutionary potential evaporated, frequently leaving the bourgeois ruling class establishment even stronger and its victim proletariat in more dire straits. Indigenous insurgencies, internal insurrections, national liberations, coups d’etat, and sundry other regime changes have left the capitalist paradigm at least as firmly entrenched today as it ever has been – shaky as its own inherent contradictions might make it.
Moreover, the hegemons of imperial capital have learned to erect better breakwaters against the sea of people and to employ neo-liberal mechanisms of exploitation and oppression to drain yet further the efficacy of already inadequate strategies for revolutionary paradigm shift. What is necessary, therefore, as the new wave of revolutionary struggle rises, is innovative thinking that is a product of our unique times and circumstances and arms us with new strategies and tactics toward implementing the fundamental change we so urgently need.
One such innovation is creating an alternative economic base. Our side of the barricade is plagued by a chronic lack of resources. Such resources have not been and will not be sufficiently available through cadre financing the movement’s activities by selling their labor individually in the existing economy. And extracting that surplus value in the form of wages requires contributing at least as much to the enemy’s system. Nor will the movement be able to replace the capacity to buy resources with direct use of its cadre’s and supporters’ labor while the capitalists control (“own”) the means of production and the products thereof.
Wage slavery and the schedules it entails further limit activists’ ability to contribute their time where and as needed and subjects their movements to potentially hostile scrutiny. Creation of financial and transaction records is another liability of wage slavery. And dependence on “working for the man” to sustain both activists and political activity gives “the man” leverage over the movement and subjects the movement to the vagaries of the enemy economic system. As long as capitalism rules, we couldn’t avoid these impediments to progress even with a coup d’economie. So we need to build an alternative from below.
Building an alternative economic (and social) base predicated on collective living and working arrangements would gradually eliminate that dependence. It would give the movement’s cadre greater access to and control of material resources, facilitate the interaction required to lay out the most effective political work, and increase activists’ freedom – and privacy – to do that work. And if would allow the movement to develop and refine – unify theory and practice into powerful praxis – the social, political and material relations on which our new society will be founded. In these days of infloglut where competing theories vie for attention across endless pages of unpracticed rhetoric, a functioning and growing demonstration model capable of replication would go a long way. Further, an alternative economic base would permit these benefits to be derived without sacrificing its people’s surplus value to the greater glory of capitalismo, chaining its people to the system’s means of production, and subjection its people to the overseer’s oversight.
The collective living situations would be social units of choice, analogous to an extended household or family but without the hierarchy and biology traditionally associated with those forms or an affinity group with greater durability than that term usually connotes. People would abandon single or nuclear family isolation in favor or living together as a group. They could occupy a large house, all or part of an apartment building, or even several structures in the same immediate vicinity. Such an arrangement would allow the participants to take advantage of concurrent use of resources, economies of scale and proximity to one another.
Collective living means that fewer of most things are necessary. 10 (or 20 or whatever) people living together do not need 10 cars, 10 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, 10 washers, etc. Indeed, they need very few things separately and individually. Living in isolation, however, they may need all of these things and many others on call against their occasional demand, a low-return investment that will incur additional costs such as gratuitous use, storage, etc. In addition, people living together are more likely to use material resources – appliances, tools, spaces, utilities, etc. – together, diminishing their cost. And the more people, the more likely maintenance and repair skills will be found in house, so to speak. Everyone’s informational resources being available together would be particularly useful – a library that would facilitate research, study groups, and disseminating information.
Economies of concurrent use fair into economies of scale. Rental or purchase of housing for 10 will cost less than acquisition of 10 single or even five double occupancy dwellings. Accommodations for more people tend also to come with other facilities such as extra rooms, land, garages, workshops, increasing return for expenditure. Commodities can virtually always be obtained at lower unit cost when obtained in larger quantity, decreasing the cost of group over individual living. And larger numbers of people make it more likely that individual and group needs can be satisfied internally rather than requiring recourse to outside expertise.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of collective living to political activists is having their comrades in close proximity. They are readily and routinely available for discussion, planning, cross-fertilization, and as sounding boards as well as for aid in the actual work. That diminishes the time, necessity, and expense of arranging and traveling to meetings and the attendant movement of materiél. It also diminishes reliance on potentially insecure and less than fully reliable and sometimes untimely communication, which will be increasingly important as the struggle develops. Further, the collective will be more capable of meeting it’s members’ social needs within the group, minimizing the liabilities of fulfilling them elsewhere. Moreover, collectives provide a degree of social security. Whether or not they are associated with a collective working situation (as, ultimately, they most effectively would be), the presence of a number of people would mean that loss of a job or an illness ro injury would not be calamity it might be for the isolated individual. And that is only the most obvious social security function.
Living collectives would also prefigure a necessary change from the disconnected nuclear family living in competitive isolation as the basic unit of social organization. People might choose to maintain such traditional relationships within collectives, or they may expand or modify them to reflect a better understanding of human personal relationships. Each collective’s internal relations would be up to its members. As they made the transition to new social forms, the collective would provide a more lasting personal social infrastructure and a more effective and secure platform for individuals’ and the group’s activities in the community and in furtherance of the struggle, whatever its internal organization. The variety of relations that would result would show us the most effective way(s) of transcending imperial capital’s socio-economic conditioning to individual separateness and competition and learning the social skills that tend to be depreciated and atrophy thereunder. If our side of the barricade can’t make the personal transitions to collective relations on the micro scale, how will we make revolutionary change on the macro?
The collective working situations would be business organized on socialist principles to provide some product or service to other collectives, the community, or/and the larger economy. Initially, they would be small, determined by the skills, inclinations, and resources of their participants. Their intent would be to financially support the people involved and their political activity, give them greater control over their time, and provide them access to materiél and facilities. It would also be to allow them to facilitate the development of additional collectives and assist in the community on principles of mutual aid, as well as demonstrate the efficacy of collectivist labor relations.
A collective bakery, landscaping operation, rent-a-wreck enterprise, computer services project, alternative energy unit, construction crew, appliance or other repair and renovation undertaking, farm, small business facilitator, and a hundred others would each be capable of paying for the needs of their operators. Such economic collectives would have to compete in the larger economy, at least at the outset, and some would undoubtedly fail. But that potential is not a big hurdle, given the intellectual resources and commitment on our side of the barricade.
The collective would also have advantages in its very collectivity – in not being motivated strictly by the bottom line and traditional capital return requirements that bleed resources from an economic operation or subject to the mistakes of an autocratic boss. The surplus value of a collective’s workers formerly extracted by capitalists would be available to reinvest in the collective until it was financially secure and then increasingly into other collectives, political work independent of the business, and direct outreach to the community.
Increased control by a collective’s members over their time would make it more possible for them to aid other nascent collectives, do independent political work, and be involved in the community. They would not need leave of a boss to, for example, take time off to help another collective set up its operation, participate in organizing and carrying out a demonstration, clean up a vacant lot, or celebrate a community event. The collective would also be able to delegate members to sit on community councils and aid in non-governmental social services such as security, education, poverty relief, urban revitalization, information gathering and distribution, etc. The planning, preparation, and execution of such things often occur incompatibly with a rigid nine-to-five schedule.
Of course, any kind of economic activity imposes some time demands; the point is that in the alternative economy their management would be in the hands of the collectivists, giving them much greater flexibility to respond as conditions demand. To what collectivists devote their time and when and with whom is also much more closely held information, and held by comrades rather than at best neutral supporters of the status quo. Plus, nothing requires the collective’s economic work to be done strictly nine-to-five, five days a week.
Perhaps the greatest benefit a collective can confer is access to materiél, equipment, facilities that can otherwise be employed in addition to making a living. A bakery could serve as a gathering place, where numbers of people coming and going and maybe hanging out a bit for coffee and pastry would aid community consciousness, interaction, and coordination without appearing out of place. It could serve as a distribution point for literature and perhaps other food staples acquired in low-cost bulk by a food collective and packaged for pickup at minimal cost by individuals. Nor would use of the space have to be limited to hours of operation. Food preparation equipment could also be used to cater community and other political events as well as providing direct aid to needy individuals in the form of wholesome foods. It could be a venue for political art – be it static posters, etc., or a performance, as in music, poetry, prose, theatre, etc., etc.
Other economic undertakings would work similarly. A rent-a-wreck lot could provide cheap transportation to a community, many of whose members cannot afford private vehicles and/or need a vehicle only occasionally and do not have adequate access to public transit. That would encourage people who otherwise can’t to get out and about and become more involved in their communities and make private vehicles less necessary. Overall use would thus be reduced, an environmental as well as an economic efficiency. And a dozen or a score of vehicles can get a lot of people and equipment to a demonstration or other event. There is no denying the benefits of having inexpensive, reliable, and anonymous transportation available.
A landscaping group could help redistribute resources from wealthier communities by using its equipment and expertise to aid exploited and oppressed communities in remediating environmental damage and establishing community gardens and parks in vacant lots and on rooftops. Capitalists are unlikely to allow “their’ equipment to be used for such purposes. And trucks and shovels and tarps, etc. can be put to a multitude of uses.
A construction crew could provide expertise in assisting communities to challenge the abysmal conditions many landlords and public housing authorities permit to exist, and the tools and materials to help improve them. It could also develop capacity in community members to convert supplies already available into better living standards on their own.
A computer services provider could help communities obtain access to the benefits of the technology not only by making lower-end services accessible but also making the hardware itself available. One way to accomplish that would be through an Internet café type establishment, another through providing last year’s equipment at rock-bottom prices. Given Moore’s law and planned obsolescence, computer equipment prices depreciate much faster than utility. Everyone doesn’t need state-of-the-art equipment or services. In the modern age, however, everyone should have at least basic skills and access to the technology and the web. Such skills and equipment are woefully disparately distributed, even on our side of the barricade.
An alternative energy unit could bring wind, solar, biomass, and other off-the-grid energy services to communities to which they are still science fiction. This is an increasingly important function in these days of ever-escalating fuel costs and climate change. And we don’t want to leave big brother’s hand the only one on the light switch.
A farm could provide cheap and nutritious food to communities presently gouged by the capitalist food distribution system as well as establishing links to other food producers toward the same end. Food production and distribution is a key element of economic, political, and social independence.
A repair and renovation – second hand – project could make available a variety of products – clothing, furniture, appliances, etc. The unavailability of such goods contributes to needlessly low living standards and reduces commerce in many areas and makes people susceptible to credit card and rent-to-own style scams.
A small business facilitator would not only help launch and/or maintain businesses outside the base, but would contribute to the friendliness of the small business segment of the mainstream tot eh alternative economy. That would increase the openness of the owners and employees thereof to the alternative’s labor and property relations and perhaps to assimilating into it. The facilitator would also be able to assist collective economic endeavors and channel them in ways that would be synergistic and hasten their integration toward supplanting the enemy economy in their areas.
The possibilities for collective enterprises are multitudinous, limited mostly by imagination and the commitment of the collectivists to establishing an alternative economy. Each such collective would redistribute a selection of tools, vehicles, buildings, land, materiel in a community that currently goes into producing wealth and power for capitalists and are then locked away – idle and segregated from the expertise and labor that gives them value – to the collectivists, their communities, and the revolutionary movement. The collective would not merely recover its workers’ surplus value and deny it to the capitalists, it would increase that value control of time and means of production. These are essential elements of more effective struggle.
Such collective businesses would start small and isolated. Some would die, victims of inadequate organization and planning and/or the vagaries of competing in the late capitalist economic system. And, small and isolated, the survivors’ effectiveness in empowering the movement would be limited. But! Given an intrinsically more effective form of organization, commitment, and a need for their services, they would prosper and proliferate. They would absorb an increasing proportion of the labor available and supply an increasing proportion of the goods and services demanded in their areas of operation, enhancing not only their economic influence but their social and political influence as well. As their capacity increased beyond supporting the people involved, those people would have greater resources to devote to direct community support and other non-income producing socio-political initiatives.
More important for the formation of an alternative economic base, as economic collectives multiplied and strengthened, they would also increase their interaction with each other. The goal would be to supply one another’s needs and to create and spin off collectives in sufficient proximity to allow their interaction and integration through forging multi-layered links – not merely a net, but a chain mail fabric. Some collectives’ conditions, time, and place might leave them relatively isolated, but that doesn’t mean ineffective or necessarily suggest a permanent limit. Spatial separation is no absolute barrier to integration, especially in this day and age. Indeed, making a point of establishing connections between proximate and distant collectives, or groups of collectives, is an important element of building the base and securing it and its members. It also opens the benefits of comparative advantage.
The farm collective, for example, would make a point of supplying the bakery, the raw food distributor, the community feeding program, etc, to the extent possible while maintaining its economic viability. The landscapers’ trucks and implements could help the farm at harvest time or the construction crew move material for a larger than usual project. Rent-a-wreck and computer services could provide transportation and record keeping to collectives without the capacity to handle them efficiently or whose capacity was temporarily reduced or exceeded. They could be supplied food and clothing and appliances and power from the farm, bakery, food distributor, repair and renovation recyclers, alternative energy purveyors, etc.
Eventually, the alternative economic base would be virtually self-sufficient, able to supply all of its communities’ basic necessities independent of the enemy economy in all but the goods derived from the largest and most complex industries. And it would do that while still drawing resources from that adversary without contributing more than the barest minimum to it. Where there were unfulfilled needs, those extracted resources could be devoted to forming collectives to fill them or provide adequate substitutes. Collectives would exchange members, products, and services and maintain regular communication and transportation between those at distances and other base areas. That would further facilitate benefiting by specialization and comparative advantage. It would also improve the mobility of activists while diminishing their visibility and vulnerability. Increasing vertical and horizontal integration would aid in the alternative economy’s expansion and in securing it.
That economic freedom from capitalist relations could then be translated into political and social freedom as well. As the alternative economy expanded, it would increasingly support replacement of the existing system’s non-income producing social institutions. Public service organizations such as social welfare, health maintenance, education, fire, security, housing, light and power, infrastructure preservation would evolve to increasingly challenge and replace those of the imperial capitalist social order. Democratic interactions within and between economic producers would be translated into the community as those social producers were spun off from economic producers into separate collectives within the fabric of collectives. The producers of social goods and services would be entities whose income is not derived from their activities but redistributed to them by political means. These new institutions would represent the logical evolution of the social service initiatives the collectives had undertaken in and with the community.
People support and are loyal to the economic organization that provides sustaining work, goods and services, and economic connection. But that is not enough for the society we would create; its democracy must be economic, social, and political. Loyalty, support for, and participation in the alternative economy would be enhanced through formalization of the political and social functions – by its expansion into the social and political terrain not normally reached through the economic infrastructure. This would be the foregoing spinning off into independent entities of social services previously handled ad hoc by the collectives and the political empowerment of their constituencies within the economic base through those institutions.
Moreover, when people no longer have to rely on the enemy system for jobs, security, education, health, and a social safety net, they are less likely to see that system’s agencies for administering them as necessary evils whose abuses must be tolerated. Enhanced involvement in the base would thus translate as decreasing involvement in and thus support for the status quo’s system of exploitation and oppression.
Agencies of repression (police, FBI, etc.) would find themselves increasingly pressed to obtain informers and information, a critical necessity for efficacy in their counterinsurgency role. They would also find it ever more difficult to carry out their occupation functions in proletarian communities without eliciting the resistance of large numbers of people photographing, recording, protesting, and otherwise impeding their accomplishing repressive tasks. Interference to their carrying out the likes of evictions, debt collections, warrant execution, street-life harassment, and enforcement of bourgeois property rights and legal edicts would escalate.
Social impediments would also emerge as in pickets and other actions against the authors and executors of such functions. Agents of repression too zealous in the role of jackbooted thug might find opposition not only on the job but with people showing up where they live to picket and otherwise protest. Political impediments like lobbying, lawsuits, electoral pressure, local ordinances, etc. would become more possible and effective. That would give mainstream political forces things to worry about in their own base areas. And the administration of suppression, repression and oppression would become physically more difficult, even if only by as little as protesting people getting in the way. All of that would make enforcing the status quo more difficult and costly: if “they” wanted to come (however they might come), “they” would have to come deep – meaning they couldn’t come as much and each coming would be more alienating.
When a landlord, for example, refused to perform necessary health and safety repairs ro renovations, a construction collective could make an analysis, forward it to the community health and safety collective, which would find the landlord at fault. Tenants would then withhold rent via the tenants’ association, which would arrange the requisite work with the plumbing, electrical, whatever collective(s). They community legal services group would oppose the landlord legally if and when s/he sought to sic the agencies of repression on the tenants. Other collectives that provided services to that and other landlords in the area could boycott them, and their tenants could engage in solidarity rent slow-downs or strikes. Other people would engage in a spectrum of protest.
As time taught the police to expect ever greater expenses and controversy and other liabilities from efforts to enforce anti-popular property relations in the alternative economic base areas, they would become ever more inclined to let the legal/political process play out. That would buy time and space in a favorable situation, a success in itself, if not outright victory. And it would decrease the market value of the contested property and absentee-owned rental property generally – making it more available for acquisition by the community housing collective. That would increase the possibility of relocating tenants into community housing in the event of a loss in such a struggle.
Collective media – publications, radio (of all kinds!), Internet, even TV, would help mobilize community awareness of such issues in real time. It would also create public pressure and link the issues to other status quo interests so as to encourage favorable resolution. To the extent the controversy of the moment implicated legal bias in favor of the establishment in housing or other applicable law, media attention would help the situation create timely consciousness of the particular injustice and its connection to systemic injustice. Pressure to change not only specific laws but resistance to the status quo would ratchet up. Media exploration would be heard and thus push such pressure and alienation from the bourgeois system both within and without the base area. Attacking the legitimacy of bourgeois law and relations within the economy system is as necessary as it is in the alternative areas.
Such media mediated efforts may, indeed, change the law(s) in question or result in lesser or non-enforcement. Or they may create public sentiment against the law and its system. Multiplied by many events and issues like challenging the depredations of a slum lord, such destabilization of the status quo from within the base area is serious action under and behind enemy lines; it would incline at least some sectors of the system to avoid antagonizing the base area. And a viable media within the collective economic base area prevents those sectors not so deterred from counterattacking an isolated and unsuspecting community incapable of rapid response.
The evolution of the alternative economic base and its attendant social and political institutions would eventually and intentionally result in de facto free zones, areas independent of control by outside authority. Ultimately, the base area would refrain from paying taxes, deny agents of repression access to its turf, and declare all property and labor relations to be those of the collectivist alternative economy, polity, society.
When a base area was ready to become such a free zone, ti would have the capacity to defend itself not only physically, but politically and socially as well. It would also have the support of other nascent and established free zones where the contradiction would not be playing out so sharply. The cost of suppressing areas where labor and property relations had been overturned and the subversion of imperial capital’s authority had become its overt denial would be only part of the equation. Having to deal with demonstrations, strikes, riots and legalistic and political challenges beyond the pale of the free zones will make the system reluctant to become mired in counterinsurgency when that inflames its own areas and leaves them less controlled.
Without a doubt, the forces of repression will try violent suppression. But like the generals of anachronistic standing armies, they will be fighting the last war. Their tactics, brutal though they will be, will be half-steppin’ against the free zones and the organizations underlying them – until it is too late. That does not mean that we should not expect the worst, just that we will win. Even the most casual of glances at the news shows how willing imperial capital is to unleash the most terroristic suppression of challenges to its authority. Hence, even collectives too new to seem a threat or firmly rooted enough to seem warded against threats must be prepared for vicious counterinsurgency.
Think tanks and mountains of stolen wealth notwithstanding, imperial capital is not always correct (from its perspective) or effective in trying to impose its will. The neo-conservative movers and shakers of the latest imperialist attack on Iraq thought “liberated” Iraqis would welcome them with open arms. As a result, they did not go deep enough to prevent the resistance to occupation from becoming established. They thought they could implement their imperialist agenda on the cheap. History is replete with other examples of imperial capital failing to respond effectively to new challenges to its hegemony, at least initially.
Such circumstances suggest imperial capital is likely to mistake the threat posed by this new and different revolutionary strategy. By the time an inchoate alternative economic divergence even becomes visible to the ruling class, it will more likely be perceived as a cooption target – if a target at all. Plus, the integrated and interrelated nature of a collective based economic and political movement within free zones would make it difficult to penetrate and less susceptible to Cointelpro-type disruption tactics. The evolution from disperses and decentralized origins would also render it less susceptible to decapitation efforts; leadership and organized centers would be widely distributed, readily replaceable, and amenable to exercise via alternative pathways. By the time the ruling class recognizes the danger, it will have to consider the costs and risks of suppression and whether its by-then reduced capabilities will sustain that burden. That will further reduce its inclination to take the necessary (from its perspective) action. How well we do our jobs will thus determine how long and destructive the actual war of liberation will be: the later it comes in our development, the less capable will be the enemy to do anything about us.
As free zones become established here and there and everywhere, they will be increasingly able to render mutual aid to one another, focusing resources where the contradiction with the bourgeoisie is most sharply playing out. This is important, because without those resources we will be left without the tools of the struggle and subject to strangulation. Marx was right: revolution has a material base. Eventually, the free zones will expand to the point at which they grow into each other and merge. That will mean more turf, people, resources to be absorbed into and strengthen the revolutionary movement and less available for exploitation by imperial capital. Moreover, the efficacy of revolutionary social organization will be even more apparent to people in capitalists precincts of control when they are surrounded by the new revolutionary paradigm. They will see its better living standards as well as social, political, and economic equality, plus its democratic organization in stark relief against a dying imperial capital slap out of velvet to disguise its mailed fist. The final push will thus not have to be a hard one, more like the quicksand slurping closed over the dead body of imperial capital with nary a ripple.
Building an alternative economy does not mean abandoning more traditional forms of struggle. Labor organizing is still critically important due not only to labor’s potential to be politically powerful and radical, but also because alternative economy collectives are not likely to be producing cars or ships or airliners or operating railroads or ports or hotel chains in the short term. Party formation is also necessary to formulate, disseminate, and practically validate political theory, joust on electoral and other political fields, and supplant religions and other state institutions in providing social services. Demonstrations and other mass events are necessary both for consciousness and solidarity raising, as propaganda, as expressions of popular discontent, and to involve people, etc.
Verily, a major purpose of the alternative economy will be to support and facilitate these forms of struggle – precisely because the old ways of doing so will no longer be tenable. The alternative economy will work synergistically with these and other forms. The alternative economy will contribute the foundation and fuel to energize the struggle where the ruling class has erected bulwarks to prevent the usual labor agitation, opposition political action, and street protests from being the new waves from the sea of the people that will cleanse it from the socio-economic landscape. The alternative economy will raise all the forms of struggle into a tsunami from the very bedrock of that sea that will inundate and drown imperial capital, its ruling class, and their system of exploitation and oppression.
Bill Dunne # 10916-086
P.O. Box 2068
USP Big Sandy
Inez, KY 41224