Friday, December 2, 2011

V515x7: Governing Sustainable Communities

Today, the most creative, energetic forces addressing the planetary problems of poverty, social inequity, pollution, resource depletion, violence, and war are grassroots citizens’ movements” (Roseland, 194).

POSTED AT 12:26 AM ON Nov. 30, 2011  (UPDATED AT 06:22 PM ON Dec. 1, 2011)

Local Occupation and Utopian Governance

Certainly these are not synonymous…and I would never want them to become so.  Utopian visioning is instructive, expanding both our conceptual horizons and discursive toolkits.  It can reveal for us the logical extremes of our oft-too-simplistic hopes; it can call us – not only to a greater mindfulness of complexity in the unfolding of social affairs but, also – to moments of pause in which we can meditate on the linguistic limitations of human reasoning, as it is perpetually foiled by novel – often noetic – experiences.  Though the constant flow of moments often furthers this frustration, some ages are more turbulent than others, as we wind around a bend and meet a new terrain.  We are in such a time of great frustration; yet, like all surprising setbacks, this is a time for joy and play…rich soil for creative expression and logistical innovation.

Again I find myself struggling – with great happiness – to articulate my thoughts on this subject, if nothing else than for my excitement in beholding the superabundance of quotes, quotients, and notables to cite.  This week’s readings have resonated with me, in a deep and powerful way...both with regard to my experience of the Occupy movement and to my hopes in a sustainable and socially-equitable future.

Conceptual Conundra and Bureaucratic Schizophrenia

 On the very same morning that I read the clip from Ecotopia, the book and its prequel were cited, as I was lunching with our local, internationally renowned, permaculture activist, Keith Johnson.  But I’ll get to that in a moment.  For now, I quote Roseland, as he articulates what I fumble to say [I apologize for the length, but it is absolutely on-point]:

Another key step toward sustainable communities is conceptual and organizational.  One of the greatest obstacles to sustainability is the reductionist administrative mindset that subdivides problems and prevents the left hand of government from understanding what the right hand is doing.  For example, despite considerable trumpeting of environmental protection programs…most sober analyses of public budgets and spending estimates conclude that governments spend billions of dollars more on program and policies that create pollution and encourage environmental degradation.  Such bureaucratic schizophrenia is perpetrated all levels of government as well as throughout academia. (195)

Reading this made me want to jump out of my chair to find Roseland and give him a bear-hug of solidarity.  I cannot adequately convey the sheer absurdity one would face, if seeking validation for this argument in the de facto canonical polisci literature.  What are often blinding flashes of the obvious (BFOs) can all too frequently be obscured by doctrinaire academo-speak [yes, I just made that word up, like a good little social-scientist] and faddish methodologies.

To bring this back to a conversation on concepts, I was recently interviewed by Kasey Huff, a new reporter from the Harold Times, regarding my role in our local Occupation.  Though I often put-up a stink about the HT’s consistent habit of misquotation, I can only offer the gist of my favorite question that she asked:

What, do you think, is the biggest misconception that people have about the movement? What would like other people to understand?

Though this might have come from one of the two, other interviews I had on that day, it was brought up again, tonight, at the Democracy for Monroe County dinner-meeting, to which three or four Occupiers were invited to come speak.

So where do you see this going? When will it set targeted goals and things to change? It has to have more structure and direction to become politically effective.

My answer to this last statement is the same I have for the rest:

No, in fact, it does not. It does not need more structure, more direction, more targeted goals, more “endgames.”  The biggest misconception about the movement doesn’t have anything to do with the movement itself.  It has to do with most people’s conception of politics, in general.  Quite frankly, imho, the political discourse in this country is incapable of articulating the depth, breadth, and gravity of concerns many occupiers – and latent occupiers – have. 
But, what is more worrisome is the fact that the current political discourse is insufficient for the purpose of capturing the extremely novel characteristics of our current, global, socio-economic conundrum.  This is no repeat of history…this movement is unique from any other in American history (link) and our moment in the demographic and resource structure of the Earth is entirely novel: we cannot hope for technology to save us; there is no place left for the neoliberal capitalist exchange to shift its burden; there is no new resource found to drive rapid “growth;” there are no new “alien” cultures left to demonize.  We can only reconceptualize, if we mean to survive.  Rethink, reduce, reuse, recycle.  This is truly a revolutionary mantra.

Such is the greatest wisdom in what many jeer as the movement’s most obvious folly.  To relegate the existential crisis of our failing global order to the dry and banal concepts of politics-past is insulting at best…and dangerously ignorant, if you wanna be real about it.  As if we haven’t already been thrice-hoodwinked by the shifting meanings of “liberal” and “conservative,” people still hem-and-haw like claiming a “republican” or “democrat” identity is, somehow, politically efficacious.  If these stylized identities ever did matter – as more than a fear/uncertainty response, pride, or the need to “other” thine enemy – they have long-since ceased to.

I pray and believe that Occupiers, everywhere, will never take the name of an existing party or some slot on the ideological spectrum, as these are functions of an oppressive and categorically inaccurate system of political classification that has asserted upon our collective unconscious something that is akin to indoctrination.  If you think this is Orwellian hogwash, what I will say for social-science is that it had some moments of brilliance when examining the “social construction of target populations.” And if you’re down with philosophy, you know Lukes and Foucault called this, years ago.  The very structure of the existing, variegated political order imposes itself upon us and reproduces itself through our thoughts and behaviors.  Though we could get into the long-standing “structure-agency” debate, I refuse to waste your time with yet another polarization that I categorically reject as being a false-dichotomy.

Conventional thinking about government and politics are limiting, and only we can liberate ourselves.  Though I’m no Rastafarian and am loathe to draw connections between its thought-leaders and the Occupy movement (given the abuse of this connection, with respect to prior social movements and the narcotic connotations some implied), Bob Marley had it right in Redemption Song: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.” And, again, this echoes the wisdom of Roseland:

Citizen organizations provide many innovative programs and concepts, and furnish whole new paradigms for problem definition, because they are able to tap and organize information laterally…enabling rapid syntheses of overlooked and new information into fresh approaches and paradigms.  Today, the most creative, energetic forces addressing the planetary problems of poverty, social inequity, pollution, resource depletion, violence, and war are grassroots citizens’ movements. (194)

Institutions and Grassroots Governance

Though it remains a rather unconventional “citizen organization,” the multiple assemblies and working groups of the Occupation movement are much more institutionalized than many occupiers would like to think.  However, I see no problem either in the fact that it is institutionalizing or in the fact that occupiers deny this.  The willingness to deny organizational structure and consistent process is a good thing, to me, because I see it as a buffer against over-institutionalization: if, at any time, some occupiers feel their faith in the horizontal, non-hierarchical association being shaken, they are sure to step-up their involvement to keep their belief a reality. 

Yet, as I have offered in previous quotes, institutionalization can be a very helpful thing.  Further, it is a common misconception that institutionalization implies rigid structure or vertical hierarchy.  To review Ostrom’s best-practices of common-pool resource management institutions:

Ostrom’s Common-Pool Resource Management Principles:
1. Clearly defined boundaries
2. Rules on the appropriation & provision of common resources, adapted to local conditions;
3. Collective-choice arrangements that allow most users to participate in the decision-making process;
4. Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the users;
5. A scale of graduated sanctions for resource users who violate community rules;
6. Mechanisms of conflict resolution that are cheap and of easy access;
7. Self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities;
8. In the case of larger common-pool resources, organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small local CPRs at the base level.

Though one might argue that the designation of roles – especially those for monitoring and enforcement – directly implies hierarchy, there are two things to keep in mind: (1) the roles can be functions to be carried out, by everyone, or can be instituted on a rotating basis; (2) no part of this list is a necessary or sufficient condition for successful management: they are simply factors that were found to be most prevalent in observed instances of success.

Nonetheless, the Occupy movements seem to have in common a decision-making structure that is advocated by Roseland: broadly-inclusive, consensus-based choice, within a structure of voluntary association and with respect for individual liberty in autonomous action.  Though each occupation has developed a different form of consensus – many deviating from the 10 “guiding principles” conveyed by Roseland (192) – this is entirely acceptable to me, as it resonates with Ostrom’s second design-principle regarding the adaptation of rules to local conditions.

So, with respect to many Occupiers struggling to come to terms with the fact that some kind of structure – either rule-based or normatively enforced – there seems to be an echo of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, at least as Wheeler and Beatley characterize a portion of it: Le GUin goes beyond simply describing this utopia to explore the problems it faces…inherent tensions between anarchic decentralization and the need for some sort of organizational structure. The society has difficulty being completely self-sufficient, and by cutting itself off from other worlds it has lost much of its own heritage and the benefits of trade and communication. (385)

Rethinking and Revitalizing Capital

It must also be remembered that social systems are structured not only by political (collective decision-making) institutions, but by economic (mode of material exchange) institutions as well.  To change one without changing the other would be shortsighted, if not impossible; and, indeed, this would be a very good thing to consider, as the effects of our national and global economic system are a great source of the ecological ruin, political corruption, and social disparity that have caused this turbulence in the natural and social fabric of our world.

What remains shocking to me, circling back to the opening paragraphs on the power of concepts, is the fact that – regardless of their level of discontent – most people balk at the idea of paradigmatical shifts in our political and economic systems.  To me, it seems that folks are more comfortable re-arranging the bars of the cage, rather than opening-up and/or eliminating them altogether.  I see this every time someone gasps at the mention of anarchical societies or bartering economies. 

However, what moves me from shock to frustration is the tendency of many to take categorical concepts – democracy, anarchy, capitalism, socialism – and treat them as if they are singular, concrete entities.  Clearly, they are not.  Without going into the loads of boring detail, a few questions should be sufficient to provoke thought:

Is democracy in America, the UK, and Norway all the same?

Is capitalism in America, Japan, and China all the same?

Of course, the obvious answer is that they are not; further, the real answer is that there is no such “thing” as “capitalism,” just as there is no such “thing” as “anarchism.”  These are ideal types that we use to structure our thoughts and attempted behaviors; and these always, radically depart from their ideal form, whenever they are put into practice.  This is why stigmatized concepts like “communism,” and “anarchism” must be embraced as valid intellectual traditions from which many useful concepts can be drawn and incorporated into new ways of thinking about collective behavior and social order.

An illustrative point, close to my heart, is the fact that multiple types of markets can exist within a broadly capitalist system.  This is true by point of fact that many communities embrace skillsharing economies, barter economies, and local currency as means of encouraging economic and human development within their communities. 

In fact, I have a hard time, now, separating Ostrom’s work from these varieties of social exchange – such as different forms of “Solidarity Economies” – as a number of Workshop scholars and I were asked to author articles for a recent issue of Grassroots Economic Organizing, which, coincidentally, devoted its latest issue to the Occupy movement.

Circling the Square

How our political and economic systems will change is uncertain; yet, I would bank every dollar to my name that they will, indeed, change and that such change will come within the next five years (if not sooner).  But this is a good thing, as the need for change becomes obvious when we look around to see the environmental destruction, social dislocation, and politico-economic disparities of our current world. 

And this is why I embrace the Occupy movement and will fight alongside Occupiers and non-Occupiers alike, until we realize that there is no separation between the 99% and the 1%...only a temporary and perceived distinction within a human community of the 100%.   As I mentioned in my last post, the goal I accomplish every day at the Occupation is the goal of community-building.  This has begun at an intimate, social level…but our Occupation – and many around the country – are moving to incorporate material exchange and skill-sharing, in new and contextually appropriate ways. 

A social expansion and skill-sharing opportunity I’m most excited about is education on permaculture techniques.  Following his Occupy-supportive FB posts, it took only some messages and a lunch to get Keith Johnson to visit the park...and some of us have volunteered to come help-out on his plot.  This was, for me, a great joy, as I hope the Bloomington community will begin, more and more, to see that the values embodied in and advocated from the local Occupation are commensurate with many of those of the community, at large…art, music, and sustainability being the most prevalent and basic among them.  Not only is Keith helping to show this to his vast network of sustainability, local food, and permaculture activists, but he has begun to share his knowledge with us, which would like to share with you (in the form of free permaculture lectures he linked to our page):

And, so, with much happiness, I find myself reflecting on earlier posts in this blog, especially that of September 27, 2011…about two weeks before the start of the Bloomington Occupation:

Social activism in pursuit of social justice, equity, and sustainable practices has been something I've always admired, so to think of my parents having enough conviction about this issue to stand-up and protest makes me pretty proud of them (although I'm already proud of them for a number of reasons).

Now, it seems, the square has been circled, as I find my turn – and conviction – to stand-up in protest.  And, truly, my conviction has been tested in ways I never would have guessed, as I and many of my fellows faced what many feel was an excessive use of force by an undercover IUPD officer, on the night of the Occupation of the Kelley School of Business. It will be tested again, many times, I'm sure...but, hopefully, not always to this extent.

In considering my motivations and this time in our shared history, I ask you to take a moment and watch this talk by Grace Lee Boggs, given on the day that I met her:

Grace Lee Boggs: The Next American Revolution (clip) 


  1. An anarchist in our midst! OK, you get the participation award.

    Let's have lunch. I want to learn more about this movement.

    Thanks for introducing me to Amazing Grace.

    This all reminds me of my generation. When we were young anarchists trying to transform the "establishment." We were fed up with war, social injustice, and environmental degradation.

  2. Sorry, my last comment got locked up before I could finish. In many ways, we Baby Boomers became a more flawed version of the same establishment we hoped to transform. Thanks to our failures, your generation now has a much more formidable challenge with fewer options and less time.

    Yes, this is a problem for the 100%, not one party or another, and the solutions will likely come from the grass roots and from courageous individuals willing to get involved, like your parents and their son.

  3. Hey Ryan - Thanks for the background info on the Occupy movements, your blog was extremely informative and helped me to form my own thoughts on the movement, which I've posted in my own blog.