Localism in the Age of Trump

First Published by Richard Heinberg on Common Dreams on Dec 8, 2016

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‘Trump’s ascendancy probably represents not a victory for localism or even populism,’ writes Heinber, ‘but merely a co-optation of legitimate popular frustrations by a corporatist huckster who intends to lead his merry band of cronies and sycophants in looting what’s left of America’s natural and cultural resources.’ (Photo credit: EtiAmmos/Shutterstock.com)

2016 will be remembered as the year Donald Trump—a wealthy, narcissistic political novice with a strong authoritarian bent—was elected president of the United States after campaigning against economic globalization. The events are fresh enough in many people’s minds that feelings are still raw and the implications are both unclear and, for many, terrifying. For those who have spent years, in some cases decades, denouncing globalization and seeking to build a localist alternative, this is surely a vexing and confusing moment.

When the World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference in 1999 erupted into “the Battle of Seattle,” demonstrators voiced arguments that might resonate with the average Trump voter. They asserted that, for the United States, globalization was resulting in the offshoring of manufacturing that would otherwise have occurred domestically; that while American consumers were gaining access to cheaper consumer products, the hourly wages of workers were stagnating or falling in real terms due to competition with foreign labor; and that the investor class was benefitting significantly while the wage class was losing ground. All of these points were more recently driven home, to great effect, by The Donald.

However, the localist critique of globalization went much further than anything Trump himself has articulated. Anti-globalization activists decried a “race to the bottom” in environmental protections with each new trade deal, as well as the global loss of thousands of indigenous languages and locally-adapted forms of architecture, art, agriculture, and music in favor of a uniform global commercial culture dominated by corporate advertising and centralized industrial production methods. Further, teach-ins organized by International Forum on Globalization (IFG) beginning in the 1990s; books by the movement’s intellectual leaders (John Cavanagh’s and Jerry Mander’s Alternatives to Economic Globalization; Kirkpatrick Sale’s Dwellers in the Land and Human Scale; Michael Shuman’s Small-Mart Revolution and The Local Economy Solution; Helena Norberg Hodge’s Ancient Futures); and thousands of on-the-ground locally rooted cooperative efforts scattered worldwide promoted a vision of a green, sustainable, equitable bioregionalism.

Throughout the last couple of decades, some on the political left argued against localism and for globalism. Returning to a politics and economics centered in the community, it was said, would undermine the grand liberal vision of a borderless world with protections for human rights and the environment. Liberal globalists argued that climate change can only be fought with international treaties. It is by becoming global citizens, they intoned, that we can overcome ancient prejudices and fulfill humanity’s evolutionary destiny. Localists responded that, in practice, economic globalization has nothing to do with moral elevation or with worker and environmental protections, but everything to do with maximizing short-term profit for the few at the expense of long-term sustainability for people and planet.

That philosophical dispute may continue, but the context has shifted dramatically: the commanding new fact-on-the-ground is that the American electorate has for now sided with the anti-globalist argument, and we face the imminent presidency of Donald Trump as a result. Should localists declare victory? As we’re about to see, the situation is complicated and holds some opportunities along with plenty of perils.

True, voters rejected a predatory trade system that, in Helena Norberg Hodges’s words, “put ordinary people in permanent competition with each other.” However, Trump is not a one-man government; nor does he stand at the head of an organization of people with a coherent critique of globalism and a well thought-out alternative program. His administration will reflect the ideas and ideals of hundreds of high-placed officials, and Trump’s key appointees so far consist of business leaders, Republican insiders, and former lobbyists. They also stand to be the wealthiest cabinet in the history of the U.S. government. Crucially, not even Donald Trump himself has a clear idea of how to actually implement his stated intention of bringing back jobs for American workers. His first stab at the task, persuading the Carrier company not to move its air conditioner manufacturing operations to Mexico (actually, fewer than half the jeopardized jobs were saved), entailed doling out huge tax breaks—a tactic that Bernie Sanders rightly points out will simply lead to other companies announcing outsourcing plans so they can win similar concessions.

Let’s be clear: Trump’s ascendancy probably represents not a victory for localism or even populism, but merely a co-optation of legitimate popular frustrations by a corporatist huckster who intends to lead his merry band of cronies and sycophants in looting what’s left of America’s natural and cultural resources. This would be the antithesis of green localism. Indeed, we may see an activist federal government attempt to trample local efforts to protect the environment, workers’ rights, or anything else that gets in the way of authoritarian corporatism. Congress may train its gun sights on local ordinances to ban fracking and GMOs, and on firearm regulations in states with the temerity to stand up to the NRA. Trump’s message appeals as much to tribalism as to anti-globalization sentiments—and only to members of certain tribes.

What should we localists do, then? Bernie Sanders, who ran on a far more genuinely localist platform than Trump’s, says he might work with the new president if conditions are right. In a recent interview with Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, Sanders said he would cooperate with Trump where there was common ground, but oppose him wherever the new President impinged on the interests of workers, people of color, immigrants, women, or the environment:

[T]his guy talked about ending our disastrous trade policies, something I’ve been fighting for 30 years. He talked about taking on the drug companies, taking on Wall Street, taking on the overall political establishment—‘draining the swamp.’ We will see to what degree there was any honesty in what he was saying.

Trump has also promised to keep America from invading more countries. Good luck with that.

Specifically for localists, there may be opportunities to collaborate on the revival of domestic manufacturing. However, if that happens on Trump’s terms, the lion’s share of benefits will likely go to business owners. Trump says he wants to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure for the country, and many localists would agree the nation needs an enormous investment in electric rail, public transportation, and renewable energy technologies if it is to mitigate climate change and the impacts of oil depletion. Yet the infrastructure Trump favors consists mostly of more fossil fuel-dependent highways and airport runways, which we already have way too much of, thank you very much; and he proposes to get that infrastructure built by giving tax breaks to corporations, whether they actually produce anything or not. Collaboration with authoritarian leaders always leads to moral quandaries, as Masha Gessen details in a recent thoughtful essay in New York Review of Books. But there may be few incentives to tempt localists to work with a Trump administration.

Another strategic response to the new leader would be resistance: block him from doing bad things, voice displeasure in creative and strategic ways, and pour metaphoric sand in the gears of the new administration. There will likely be lots of awful things to oppose, including efforts to privatize public assets, including federal lands and even whole government agencies; efforts to weaken consumer protections, women’s rights, immigrant rights, worker protections, environmental regulations (including reversals of steps to deal with global climate change and stays on oil pipeline construction); assaults on civil rights and civil liberties, workers’ rights, prisoners’ rights, public education, and more.

Resistance at the local level actually holds considerable promise. As Heather Gerken wrote in a recent article in The Nation,

States can significantly slow down or reverse federal policies simply by dragging their feet and doing the bare minimum necessary. That’s how state and localities have thwarted federal education reform over the last several years. Sometimes states just pull their enforcement resources. . . . Some states even engage in a form of civil disobedience, as many did in refusing to enforce parts of the Patriot Act.

If Trump’s authoritarian personality were to become the main driver of public policy, non-compliance could be the order of the day for elected or appointed state officials, local police officers, prosecutors, juries, state and local agencies, school boards, and teachers—and not just in blue states, nor just in big cities or college towns. Already, according to Gerken,

. . . cities including Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have promised to be sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants, while Governor Andrew Cuomo has insisted that New York will be a “refuge” for Muslims and other minority groups. These promises have made the incoming administration so nervous that it has threatened to cut off all federal funding—a threat that is plainly unconstitutional.

Consider a worst-case scenario: At some point after Donald Trump is fully ensconced in the White House, a widespread disaster occurs—perhaps an economic crisis for which the Great Recession was only a dress rehearsal; maybe a natural catastrophe—and the president declares a national emergency, suspending the Constitution. Congress and the Supreme Court decline to resist this unprecedented power grab. While he is making well-publicized efforts to deal with the immediate crisis, Trump decides to use the opportunity to punish his enemies, issuing arrest orders for journalists, left-leaning college professors, immigrant-rights and environmental activists, and anyone else who has managed to offend him. Public vocal opposition to the administration becomes foolhardy. In such circumstances, only quiet but effective local resistance would stand much chance of saving careers and perhaps even lives. Thankfully, as Gerken notes, “As hard as it is to control Washington, it’s even harder for Washington to control the rest of us.”

This Trumpocalypse scenario probably won’t materialize, and we should all pray it doesn’t; I describe it here only because it seems far more likely to occur under the coming presidency than any in recent memory, for reasons I’ll return to below. In any case, the Trump administration may be shaping up to be one of the most centralist and anti-local in history, battling thousands of communities determined to thwart and resist federal policies at every step.

One line of resistance deserves special attention: the protection of vulnerable places. All geography is local, and the salvation of that grand generality, “the environment,” often comes down to a fight on the part of local citizens to defend a particular river, forest, or at-risk species. This is likely to be especially true during the tenure of a federal administration committed to rolling back national environmental regulations.

As important as resistance efforts will be, pouring all our energy into opposition may be poor strategy. Just as important will be building local alternatives—cooperative institutions and enterprises, including community land trusts, city-owned public banks, credit unions, and publicly owned utilities investing in renewables. Such constructive efforts have, after all, always been the main work of committed localists.

Transition U.S. recently published a report highlighting “25 enterprises that build resilience,” including Bay Bucks, a business-to-business barter exchange program in California’s greater San Francisco Bay Area with more than 250 participating local businesses; CERO in Boston, MA, a worker-owned energy and recycling cooperative; Cooperative Jackson, in Jackson MS, which is developing a network of cooperatives engaging in a range of services and pursuits from child care to urban farming; and Co-op Power, a network of regional renewable energy cooperatives in the Northeastern U.S. These are merely representative examples of what amounts to a fledgling global movement that has emerged partly in response to the Global Financial Crisis. It goes by various names—the sharing economy, the solidarity economy, the cooperative economy, the local economy movement—and takes many forms, all with the aims of decentralization and self-organization, and of meeting human needs with a minimum of environmental impact. Sometimes municipal governments get involved, investing public resources into worker-cooperative development. Further, localist successes are often shared internationally—in programs such as Sister Cities International and United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), which is effectively an international league of municipalities—so as to seed similar efforts far afield.

*          *          *

The next four years may be a time when much that is beautiful and admirable about America is attacked, looted, liquidated, and suppressed; and when some of the more shameful elements of the country are empowered, amplified, and celebrated. If there is a political corollary to Newton’s third law (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction), then the radical policy shifts promised by Trump will engender an enormous backlash. It is as yet unclear what forms that backlash will take, but much of the energy unleashed will be expressed locally.

The wider historical context within which Trump and anti-Trump forces collide will have enormous significance. While there is often no way to predict events like natural disasters, major terrorist attacks, or the outbreak of a major war, there are sometimes prior warnings. Currently one warning sign is flashing bright: the likelihood of a serious economic downturn within the next four years. Debt levels are unprecedented, a cyclical recession is already overdue, and our oil-based energy system is running on fumes. Hard times for the economy usually result in rejection of the government that’s in charge when the crisis happens to hit. Which means the anti-Trump reaction will likely eventually be intensified even further, though it also means the Trumpocalypse scenario described earlier in this essay might have a handy trigger.

Trump voters were not all racists, misogynists, and xenophobes. Many were simply ordinary Americans fed up with a government that tolerated or actively supported the dismantling of the American middle class through global trade deals and corporate influence, and who also sensed the decline of American civilization (which, it must be said, is inevitable in some way or form). They voted for a man who promised to make America great again; what they’re actually likely to see is more economic turmoil. Trump promised not to touch Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid, but the team he’s heading promises to gut those programs. One way or another, many Trump voters will likely feel betrayed. This could translate to a deepening national political cynicism, or to action.

Can we enlist those people and many others not just in opposing Trump, but also in building genuine local alternatives to the globalist excesses that elected Trump in the first place? That can only happen as the result of thousands, perhaps millions of honest conversations among neighbors, friends, and relatives, in towns and cities across the nation. Arguments about politics often accomplish little, but efforts to find common ground in community projects that meet people’s needs could eventually change everything. Localism done right—that is, in an inclusive rather than exclusionary way—offers the best path toward maintaining and building national cohesion. And stronger communities, local economies, and greater self-reliance are all things that many people in Trump’s America would support.

Localism is a long, slow, patient path that requires trust, patience, and hard work. Such mundane work may sound boring in a time of political crisis and turmoil. But it may soon get a lot more interesting.


Richard Heinberg is a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of twelve books, including his most recent: Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels. Previous books include: Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future; The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies; Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines; and The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality.

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A Few Thoughts on Studying the Most Radical Social Movement of the Twenty-first Century

First published by John Foran, on Resilience.org  | MAR 14, 2016

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Introduction

We are living through an unprecedented crisis, in a world beset by massive social problems – the obscene poverty and inequality that neoliberal capitalist globalization has wreaked on at least two-thirds of humanity, the immobility of the political elite almost everywhere, and cultures of violence that poison our lives from the most intimate relations to the mass murder of the world’s wars.

These interconnected problems are rooted in long-standing processes of inequality – patriarchy, racism, colonialism, capitalism, and now corporate-controlled globalization – whose ongoing, overlapping legacies are making the early twenty-first century a crucial hinge of history.

And now, with climate change, we are facing a perfect storm of suffering. In fact, given the timeline that climate science is screaming at us, we confront a crisis of humanity and of all species that must be resolved for better or worse by those living on this precarious planet today.  We are called by the urgency of the crisis to “change everything” as Naomi Klein puts it, and to do so in something like the next two decades.

With other observers, activists, and scholars I believe that only the assembling of the broadest, most powerful social movement the world has ever seen has a chance of doing this in the narrow window the science imposes on us. The movements for environmental, climate, and social justice that I have spent my life studying and now participate in must become much stronger than at present.  But my reading of world history leads me to believe that they can succeed.  They must, if we are to safely navigate the present crisis and even come out of it living in ways that are far more egalitarian, deeply democratic, and fulfilling than the world we presently inhabit.

Those of us who are academics (or journalists, or writers and creators of culture of every kind) need to focus our minds now, I think, on the “wicked” problem of climate change, to reinvigorate our own disciplines and work on our interdisciplinary skills (another way of saying learning how to connect the dots) and bring all this into a wide open dialogue, in ways that are consistent with the first principle of sociology, of ecology, of systems thinking, and, ironically enough, of Buddhism, as I understand it (and of Gaia theory, for that matter):  everything is connected.

How Strong is the Climate Justice Movement?

The movement I study and am part of is growing, getting bigger, stronger, smarter, more diverse, and more creative with every passing year – and that’s important.

But it’s still not enough.

The task – and the question on every scholar-activist’s mind – is how do we get from where we are to where we need to be?  And how do we do that thoughtfully, quickly, and for the long haul?

If I had to try to sum up the broad outlines of what the climate justice movement is planning going into 2016, it would be something like Resist, Rethink, Retool, Re-imagine…

What Happened in Paris at the UN Climate Summit?

Let’s do a global stock take – as the UNFCCC [United Framework Convention on Climate Change, which oversees the annual climate summits] likes to call it – of the recent “Paris Agreement.”  I’ve thought about this a fair amount, gathering into a bundle some of the fascinatingly divergent analyses, and as Paris recedes into the rear view mirror, more and more I’m coming to the view that that’s where it belongs – behind us.  Paris comes down to a cynical joke played on the peoples of the world.

The Paris Agreement calls on the world to keep global warming “well under 2 degrees, and as close to 1.5 degrees as possible.” That is useful, but like the rest of the high-minded words in this non-binding agreement, it is merely “voluntary” and “aspirational,” and at the rate these negotiations have been going for two decades, it will take at least the next ten COPs for them to get any traction (the COP refers to the Conferences of the Parties, as the climate negotiations are called, followed by the number of years since the first in 1995, making Paris COP 21).

We can’t let them delay that long, or the window for two degrees will close…

I titled my blog post on the day of the treaty “Paper Heroes.”  I think I may have stumbled onto one of the deep truths of what went down.  Paris was so triumphalist and so flimsy that it bears comparison to the shrillness of the know nothing/do nothing crowing of the Trump campaign. 

Will the movement use it against its architects (the well-meaning capitalist reformists of the UNFCCC and the enlightened wing of the one percent) and against our enemies – the fossil fuel industry, the political elites, the rich, the banks, and all the rest?  That’s a certainty.

Will we throw the cynical references to indigenous rights, a gender perspective, vulnerable nations, human rights, and intergenerational equity into their faces?  Yes, we will.

Will we seize on the phrase “climate justice, as some call it” they so patronizingly let appear in the text – yes, we intend to make them come to rue the day they wrote them, and force them to understand these words, if we can.

To hold the line on climate change to “dangerous” levels (that is the best we can do, and we are headed for “extremely dangerous” – in all probability catastrophic – at present), we would need something akin to a radical climate moonshot, an ecosocialist World War II-type war effort, a great transformation of everything that is so wrong about the world we live in.  Everything.

How do we do it? Or “What I’ve learned about how to change society radically (in a good sense, of course!) in the last thirty-six years…”

Revolutions – and other movements for radical social change[1] – require broadly-based alliances of people from multiple classes, both (or more) genders, and cross-racial/ethnic alliances to succeed.

People get involved in such movements when one or more political cultures of opposition and resistance gain adherents (Foran 2014).  The origins of such political cultures start with the experiences of people, in the grievances they endure and the emotional and political responses they fashion using every available cultural tool and historical memory they possess. For example, when collective discourses like environmentalism or feminism are available in the form of consciously articulated ideologies, would-be social actors take them up and put them to work locally, and in this way they tend to diffuse through activist groups into local settings and circulate among social movements. Perhaps more importantly, popular idioms or folk understandings – what student of revolutions Eric Selbin calls “rich stories,” or cross-generational political imaginaries in the language of my research partner Richard Widick – are also available for use, providing new social actors as well as seasoned activists with locally understood, everyday terms such as fairness, justice, or democracy. In the case of climate activism, this might mean justice, buen vivir, historical responsibility, or intergenerational equity.

When these take hold in a large enough social group or wider society, often through the work of some kind of radical/progressive organization or network, a social movement can gain enough committed followers to take decisive action. The forging of a strong and vibrant political culture of opposition is thus a collective accomplishment, carried through by the actions of many people.

In any given society, there usually exist multiple political cultures of opposition, for people do not necessarily share the same experiences, speak similar idioms, or respond as one to the call of formal ideologies. The most effective social movements find ways of bridging the differences through the skillful creation of a common goal, such as the concise demand for “System change, not climate change!” raised at COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009. When this happens, a movement’s chances of growth and success are considerably increased.

Such alliances, and the political cultures of opposition that motivate them, are an indispensable factor in the making and success of revolutions.

There are, of course, also political and economic factors involved in a revolution’s success.  I explored these in depth, and developed a model of the causes of revolutions in Taking Power:  On the Origins of Third World Revolutions.

Unfortunately, all twentieth-century and anti-colonial social revolutions fell short of the achieving the dreams of those who made them.  The reasons for this include:

~ fragmentation of the broad revolutionary alliance after it came to power

~ intense outside pressures, usually from the First World, often from the U.S.

~ pre-existing inequalities, both within and between countries

~ lack of popular participation in governing (related to the first factor)

But 21st-century movements for radical social change – recall that my definitions is not restricted to revolutions – look different from their 20th-century counterparts because:

~ they are mostly non-violent

~ they are more horizontally organized

~ they are even more diverse

~ they have dynamic new political cultures of opposition and resistance

They also feature exciting political cultures of creation…  Movements become even stronger when to a widely felt culture of opposition and resistance they add a positive vision of a better world, an alternative to strive for that might improve or replace what exists. As David Pellow  has put it: “Many movements begin with a grievance or a critique, but what sustains them and pushes people out into the streets (or underground) is often a vision, a dream of something better.”

These movements are coming to power or attempting to do so, in some strikingly new ways: through elections, as in the case of the “Pink Tide” governments in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela (and now attempting this in Europe, or even with the Bernie Sanders campaign);  through occupations of public spaces, as in the wave of the Occupy movements of 2011 and others since;  through regional or local power-taking, or of re-making the nature of power altogether, as the Zapatistas have been doing in Chiapas since 1994; and through global networks such as the global justice movement of the 2000s, and now the global climate justice movement.

All of these movements are increasingly intersectional in terms of both their social make-up (crossing race/ethnic, gender, and class lines) and the issues they are connecting the dots of.

The movements that are most likely to succeed will feature some new combination of 1) stronger social movements and political cultures of opposition and creation, and 2) new kinds of parties, joined in 3) some new kind of networked structure, and 4) operating locally, nationally, and globally.

In a nutshell, the sum of my study of revolutions and movements for radical social change in the 20th and 21st centuries so far is this:

We may need a combination of both a dense network of movements and a totally new type of political party to achieve anything like deep radical social change.

These movements will have to develop both powerful political cultures of opposition, and compelling political cultures of creation.

At least these are hypotheses for scholar-activists to debate!

Conclusion:  What is to be done?

As for the global climate justice movement, might it prove to be the most radical social movement of the twenty-first century?

It could if we make it so.  We need to operate on all levels:  local to global, and from short-range defensive action against every fossil fuel project and electoral ploy, to medium-range reforms (like the Bernie Sanders campaign perhaps?  Come to think of it, the Sanders campaign is pretty short range at the moment, isn’t it?), to long-range radical (anti- or post- capitalist?) change.

With the added challenge that definition of “medium-range” in our critical present moment has been shortened to something like “from now to the next four years” and “long-range” “from now to the next 10-15 years” because that’s all we’ve got to bend the arc of climate justice.

But it can be done.  We will not “save” the world.  My reading of climate science makes me agree with ecosocialist scholar-activist Brad Hornick on this point:

All thinking clearly about climate and political realities can do is change the nature of the struggle.

It’s not an easy prospect as it requires heart-wrenching personal and collective existential crisis (questioning meaning in all facets of life and work).

I’ll say it now: there is conclusive evidence-based scientific determination of irreversible physical changes that will by necessity cause catastrophic destruction to civilization in the coming decades. Full stop.

We are at the point where we need to acknowledge these truths. It will come now or later – and if it comes later it will hit us much harder, and will mean deterioration in the relevance of certain life/work/political strategies.

It’s hard to say it better than that.  Consider this essay a wake-up call, colleagues.  A call to arms, comrades.  The time is now.  We are the available ones.  All of us.

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[1] Radical social change means, for me, “a deep transformation of a society (or other entity such as a community, region, or the whole world) in the direction of greater economic equality and political participation, accomplished by the actions of a strong and diverse popular movement.”

Boston Coworking Collective Prioritizes Community Over Profit

Originally Published by Cat Johnson on Shareable.net

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In 2008, Boston-based user experience designer Benji Mauer was feeling the isolation of working from home. He and his friend Benjamin Spear decided to rent an office together, but they couldn’t find one small enough. Rather than give up, they decided to get a few more people onboard and rent a larger one. They found an old industrial space with “a lot of character.” They opened the doors and started working there two months later. They called it Ad Hoc Boston. It was the precursor to Make Shift Boston, a coworking space run by a member collective of 10-15 people with a strong focus on creativity and social justice.

Initially, the space was just shared office space, with the handful of people working there making decisions about the space needed. After two years, the roughness of the building was “getting old”; the ceiling was falling in and there was brick dust everywhere. The officemates found a new location nearby, but conflict about the direction of the space emerged. Some in the core group were focused on entrepreneurial ventures while others, including Mauer, were more interested in working on social justice projects. The group eventually disbanded and the social justice crew created Make Shift Boston.

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Make Shift Boston’s members focus on social justice issues

Members of Make Shift Boston, which is located in a former radical bookstore in the South End neighborhood, now include writers, filmmakers, developers, designers, playwrights, artists, and more. Among the social justice issues they’re working on are net neutrality, food insecurity, the prison industrial complex, capital punishment, supporting local fisherman in sustainable practices, black radical projects, political plays, and supporting nonprofits.

“We really care about who we share space with,” says Mauer. “The culture we have right now is pretty precious and awesome.”

To become a member of Make Shift Boston you have to be admitted by full consensus of the current members through an application, an interview process, and a free trial month. Once admitted, members join one of the various committees, have full decision-making power in the space, and can host events and “do a lot of other cool stuff.” For Mauer, this is what coworking is all about.

“The spirit of coworking, to me,” he says, “is people who want to work with other folks in a coworking-style situation—coming together, of their own volition, to make a space that is their own and supports the work they want to do in the world.”

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Make shift Boston member meeting

At Make Shift Boston, members all have a say in management of the space and financial issues. It’s a consensus-based organization that everyone has an equal financial stake in. At this point, Make Shift Boston is financially flush, and they “don’t need to be a whole lot more than flush” to continue.

“Once you take the profit motive out of it and [are focused] on creating a space that works for the members and works for the community, that isn’t really needing to scale in any way to fill anyone else’s pockets,” says Mauer, “what you end up having this really dynamic space that is at this equilibrium and isn’t extracting anything from anybody who’s involved with it.”

In addition to being a coworking space for members, Make Shift Boston is a lively community hub for artists, performers, organizations, and groups. It’s an alternative, neighborhood space where people can connect, gather, celebrate, and work.

“Boston’s a really expensive city,” says Mauer, “and there aren’t a lot of third spaces—spaces that fit in-between stores and coffee shops, and home. Make Shift Boston, in a lot of ways, exemplifies that, because it’s so affordable as a rental space and because we have such an amazing network of people that come through it either for work or for events.”

He adds that people see Make Shift Boston as an option for making something happen that they couldn’t do in their house because they don’t have enough room. Because of the members’ radical values, the space is a better fit for some community projects than public spaces, such as public libraries, which may have issues around political content.

The biggest challenge in collectively running Make Shift Boston is that the members are busy and don’t have as much time as they might like to put into the space. This means that sometimes things are left undone. But, where consensus decision-making can sometimes devolve into lengthy discussions the members of Make Shift Boston have a good track record for working together to make decisions.

“Consensus decision-making with 13 or 14 other people doesn’t always go well,” says Mauer with a laugh. “But, incredibly, so far, it’s been totally amazing… Even if there is disagreement, “there’s not some guy in an office over there who’s going to say, ‘We’re going to do it like this and there’s nothing you can do about it.’”

For those thinking about creating a similar space, Mauer says, go for it.

“I hope that more people who feel dissatisfied with the coworking options in their area consider starting their own space in this way because it wasn’t really that hard,” he says. “Say rent is $3000, you divide it between 15 people. Don’t sweat it. Then, once you’re in it, you’ve got this cool space and you get to do all this amazing shit with it that you might not be able to do in a space you don’t own.”

 

Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter

MakeShift Boston Co-working Space from Helen Matthews on Vimeo

Plan C for Advancing the Commons Transition in Greece

Excerpt:

Plan A is the name for the capitulation towards the demands of the creditors, now the most realistic possibility; plan B is the Grexit which offers Greece an independent path within the same economic logic, but with basic sovereign powers to protect and advance their own interests; plan C stands for a Commons Transition, which can take place either under conditions laid out by Plan A or Plan B, but which could become the main strategy under conditions of a revival of popular power and democracy.

Read More here

Between city and country: domestic workers building food sovereignty

Written by Karen Pomier , Tanya Kerssen

In Latin America and the Caribbean, domestic workers make up 18% of the female labour force. Migrating from rural areas to work in the city, many maintain both rural and urban identities. With strong connections to their family’s farm on one hand, and playing a key role in buying and preparing food in urban households on the other, they occupy a strategic position within food systems. In Bolivia, increasingly well-organised unions of domestic workers are using this space to both empower their members and educate urban consumers about indigenous foods, healthy diets, agroecology, and the importance of supporting the small farm economy.

Photo: SITRAHO-SP

Photo: SITRAHO-SP

Like many countries of the global South, Bolivia has experienced large waves of internal migration in the past few decades – especially from rural farming areas to urban areas such as the capital, La Paz.

They are keenly aware of the need for urban, worker and consumer solidarity with rural producers

The causes of rural out migration include neo-liberal policies that undermine the price of peasant-produced crops, and climate change, which makes agricultural production increasingly uncertain. As a result, many Bolivian women from farming households find themselves forced to move to cities in search of work – often before the age of 15, with little formal education, and many from indigenous backgrounds. Indeed, while rural out migration is typically portrayed as male, the ‘feminisation’ of migration is increasingly recognised.

In the worst cases, these vulnerable young women become victims of human trafficking. Others end up working in private homes as domestic employees charged with cleaning, preparing meals, and providing child and elder care. Working conditions for domestic workers vary widely, from near-slavery to relatively dignified jobs. But in general, this sector, which comprises an estimated 72,000 workers, 97% of whom are women, has languished in the shadows.

Despite the challenges of organising often fragmented and isolated domestic workers, remarkable progress has been made in forming unions to defend their rights. In 1993, the National Federation of Domestic Workers’ Unions (FENATRAHOB) was founded, which now comprises 13 unions from Bolivia’s nine departments. The unions work to defend domestic workers’ and women’s rights, and provide education and resources to their members. They also work to build the self-esteem and cultural identity of their members, most with roots in rural areas, by strengthening links between the countryside and the city.

Domestic Workers in Search of Dignity and Food Sovereignty

Dignity and Food Sovereignty In 2009, the domestic workers’ union of La Paz, SITRAHO (Sindicato de Trabajadoras del Hogar), launched the Domestic Workers in Search of Dignity and Food Sovereignty project, with the goal of providing members a political education in food sovereignty, and increasing the direct marketing of healthy, ecologically produced food.

With support from the Interchurch Cooperative for Development Cooperation (ICCO), SITRAHO opened its Practical School for Women Domestic Workers (Escuela Integral Práctica de Mujeres), which carries out programmes focused on leadership skills, financial management, and entrepreneurship. Among these, the Programme in Gastronomy and Food Sovereignty provides training to the union’s 2000 members in culinary arts, food safety, and other practical food management skills, together with a political education in the principles of food sovereignty. The curriculum focuses on the use of local products, procuring ingredients from family farmers’ organisations, and revaluing indigenous foods. These principles are then applied in the homes where SITRAHO members work, thus spreading the values of food sovereignty to middle and upper class families. The programme also runs its own lunch counter selling healthy, ecological, locally sourced, and affordable dishes with a focus on consumer education. Most of the consumers are working people from the San Pedro neighbourhood, where the restaurant is located, with the profits used to support unemployed or elderly union members.

Rural and indigenous identity

The practical school for domestic workers is transformed into a restaurant during lunch hours. Photo: SITRAHO-SP

The practical school for domestic workers is transformed into a restaurant during lunch hours. Photo: SITRAHO-SP

Many domestic workers remain closely connected to their rural villages, with family members still engaged in farming activities. They are keenly aware of the difficulties farmers face, and of the need for urban, worker, and consumer solidarity with rural producers. Rosalía Lazo Lazo, who came to La Paz from the rural province of Omasuyos at the age of 14, comments, “since we started in 2009 I’ve heard from a lot of peasants and indigenous farmers and this makes me remember my childhood and think of my parents who still work in the fields.”

Many domestic workers are from Quechua or Aymara indigenous cultures and are familiar with native indigenous foods such as quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), cañahua (Chenopodium pallidicaule), açaí (Euterpe oleracea) and muña (Minthostachys mollis). These foods are often unknown to urban residents, and are not found in supermarkets that primarily sell imported products and processed foods with homogeneous tastes and textures. Through the Domestic Workers in Search of Dignity and Food Sovereignty project, not only do domestic workers value foods from their own food culture, they also introduce these foods to their employers.

Domestic workers are generally responsible for making all household food purchases and for preparing three meals per day. This gives them tremendous influence over families’ food choices, what kind of food system they support, and whether they promote corporate value-chains or the peasant economy. Rosalía comments, “I know farming is hard work and that people in the countryside need support. My mother still wakes up very early each morning to look after her sheep, and frost or hail sometimes damage her crops. Consumers don’t value ecologically produced products, preferring instead to buy imported produce. But in my last job, I would buy cañahua for the kids. It was hard because they preferred to eat junk food, but I would say to them, don’t you want to grow up to be big and strong? And they then would eat it! Nothing is impossible when you believe in what you do.”

Alliances with family farmers

Over the past few years, SITRAHO has formed partnerships with important food advocacy groups, small businesses, and producers’ organisations including the Association of Organic Producers of Bolivia (AOPEB); the Coordination of Peasant Economic Organisations (CIOEC); Fundación Sartawi which promotes sustainable agriculture in the municipality of Calamarca (south of La Paz); Madre Tierra, a chain of organic food stores in La Paz; and Slow Food Bolivia. SITRAHO has made a commitment to source food from these small farmer organisations and local businesses to strengthen the local food economy and support small scale farmers.

In October 2014, SITRAHO co-organised La Paz’s first Ethical Food Fair (Festival de Comida Consciente). The women of SITRAHO were in charge of preparing all of the dishes offered at the fair, with an explicit commitment to educating people about non-GMO and ecologically produced ingredients sourced from local farmers’ organisations. Piero Meda, a farmer from Calamarca said, “we work closely with the union of domestic workers to bring healthy food directly to consumers.”

SITRAHO’s partnerships go well beyond food sourcing, consumer education, and helping to create local markets for small farmers. They also translate into political alliances with farmers on important issues of agricultural policy. For instance, SITRAHO is an active member of the Bolivian Consumers’ Collective, a broad-based coalition of workers, activists, and consumer groups, which recently issued a declaration condemning the government’s support of transgenic crops and industrial agriculture.

Looking ahead

SITRAHO’s Domestic Workers in Search of Dignity and Food Sovereignty project is a powerful example of collective efforts to repair the social, economic, and ecological damage caused by rural outmigration. Such rural–urban alliances are critical to supporting declining peasant economies and to building food sovereignty in the city and the countryside.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges faced by the union so far is the history of trauma of many of its members. Many domestic workers have been victims of trafficking, child labour, and abuse, experiences that often manifest as internalised oppression. Whereas many domestic workers feel a strong connection to their rural roots, others aspire to the urban, consumerist values of their employers. They have often been subjected to intense racism and may reject indigenous foods so shopping at the supermarket or buying imported food can symbolise status and acceptance.

Thus, building food sovereignty requires tireless, ongoing work to dismantle racism, sexism, and classism; recover rural identities; and construct class-based alliances that link workers and peasants, producers and consumers, in a collective struggle. These lessons from Bolivian domestic workers can be applied much more broadly, to efforts around the world, to create community-based food systems rooted in justice, sustainability, health, and culture.

Karen Pomier and Tanya Kerssen

Karen Pomier is a Bolivian agronomist and activist who works with SITRAHO, in support of the Domestic Workers in Search of Dignity and Food Sovereignty project.
Email: karenpf@hotmail.es

Tanya Kerssen is the research coordinator at the Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First in Oakland, California, USA (www.foodfirst.org).
Email: tkerssen@foodfirst.org

First published: http://www.agriculturesnetwork.org/magazines/global/rural-urban-linkages/domestic-workers-building-food-sovereignty

Greece’s solidarity movement: ‘it’s a whole new model – and it’s working’

Greece Debt in Doubt?

 

“A long time ago, when I was a student,” said Olga Kesidou, sunk low in the single, somewhat clapped-out sofa of the waiting room at the Peristeri Solidarity Clinic, “I’d see myself volunteering. You know, in Africa somewhere, treating sick people in a poor developing country. I never once imagined I’d be doing it in a suburb of Athens.”

Few in Greece, even five years ago, would have imagined their recession- and austerity-ravaged country as it is now: 1.3 million people – 26% of the workforce – without a job (and most of them without benefits); wages down by 38% on 2009, pensions by 45%, GDP by a quarter; 18% of the country’s population unable to meet their food needs; 32% below the poverty line.

And just under 3.1 million people, 33% of the population, without national health insurance.

So, along with a dozen other medics including a GP, a brace of pharmacists, a paediatrician, a psychologist, an orthopaedic surgeon, a gynaecologist, a cardiologist and a dentist or two, Kesidou, an ear, nose and throat specialist, spends a day a week at this busy but cheerful clinic half an hour’s drive from central Athens, treating patients who otherwise would not get to see a doctor. Others in the group accept uninsured patients in their private surgeries.

Greek elections: young, broke and voting for change

“We couldn’t just stand by and watch so many people, whole families, being excluded from public healthcare,” Kesidou said. “In Greece now, if you’re out of work for a year you lose your social security. That’s an awful lot of people without access to what should be a basic right. If we didn’t react we couldn’t look at ourselves in the mirror. It’s solidarity.”

The Peristeri health centre is one of 40 that have sprung up around Greece since the end of mass anti-austerity protests in 2011. Using donated drugs – state medicine reimbursements have been slashed by half, so even patients with insurance are now paying 70% more for their drugs – and medical equipment (Peristeri’s ultrasound scanner came from a German aid group, its children’s vaccines from France), the 16 clinics in the Greater Athens area alone treat more than 30,000 patients a month.

The clinics in turn are part of a far larger and avowedly political movement of well over 400 citizen-run groups – food solidarity centres, social kitchens, cooperatives, “without middlemen” distribution networks for fresh produce, legal aid hubs, education classes – that has emerged in response to the near-collapse of Greece’s welfare state, and has more than doubled in size in the past three years.

“Because in the end, you know,” said Christos Giovanopoulos in the scruffy, poster-strewn seventh-floor central Athens offices of Solidarity for All, which provides logistical and administrative support to the movement, “politics comes down to individual people’s stories. Does this family have enough to eat? Has this child got the right book he needs for school? Are this couple about to be evicted?”

As well as helping people in difficulty, Giovanopoulos said, Greece’s solidarity movement was fostering “almost a different sense of what politics should be – a politics from the bottom up, that starts with real people’s needs. It’s a practical critique of the empty, top-down, representational politics our traditional parties practise. It’s kind of a whole new model, actually. And it’s working.”

It also looks set to play a more formalised role in Greece’s future under what polls predict will be a Syriza-led government from next week. When they were first elected in 2012 the radical left party’s 72 MPs voted to give 20% of their monthly salary to a solidarity fund that would help finance Solidarity for All. (Many help further; several have transferred their entitlement to free telephone calls to a local project.) The party says the movement can serve as an example and a platform for the social change it wants to bring about.

Syriza supporters in Athens

In the sleek open plan, blonde-wood office she used when she was a successful architect, Theano Fotiou, a member of Syriza’s central committee, was packing leaflets for the last day of campaigning, with the help of a dozen or so exceedingly enthusiastic young volunteers. She is seeking re-election in the capital’s second electoral district. “The only real way out of this crisis is people doing it for themselves,” she said. “If people don’t participate, we will be lost as a country. This is practice, not theory, a new social ideology, a new paradigm – the opposite of the old passive, dependent, consumerist, individualist model. And the solidarity projects we have now are its incubators.”

Fotiou said a large part of the first stage of a Syriza’s government’s programme – ensuring no family is without water or electricity (in nine months of 2013, 240,000 households had their power cut because of unpaid bills); that no one can be made homeless; that the very lowest pensions are raised and that urgent steps are taken to relieve child poverty, now standing at 40% in Greece – was largely inspired by what the party had learned from its involvement in the solidarity movement.

“We’ve gained so much from people’s innovation,” she said. “We’ve acquired a knowhow of poverty, actually. We know more about people’s real needs, about the distribution of affordable food, about how not to waste things like medicines. We’ve gained a huge amount of information about how to work in a country in a state of humanitarian crisis and economic collapse. Greece is poor; this is vital knowhow.”

If the first instinct of many involved in the movement was simply to help, most also believe it has done much to politicise Greece’s crisis. In Egalio, west of Athens, Flora Toutountzi, a housekeeper, Antonis Mavronikolas, a packager, and Theofilos Moustakas, a primary school teacher, are part of a group that collects food donations from shoppers outside supermarkets and delivers basic survival packages – rice, sugar, long-life milk, dried beans – to 50 local families twice a month.

“One family, there are six people surviving on the grandmother’s pension of €400 a month,” said Mavronikolas. “Another, they’ve lived without running water for two months. We help them, yes, but now they are also involved in our campaign, helping others. People have become activated in this crisis. They are less isolated.”

In the central Athens district of Exarchia, Tonia Katerini, another now largely unemployed architect (“There’s not a lot of work for architects right now,” she said), is one of 15 people running a cooperative social grocery that opened a year ago and now sells 300 products, from flour to oranges, olive oil to bread, pasta to dried herbs. The business has grown rapidly and the collective’s members can now pay themselves an hourly wage of €3

supermarket

The local “without middlemen” market, one of 30-odd to have sprouted in Athens and several hundred around Greece, where farmers sell their produce for 25% more than they would get from the supermarkets and consumers pay 25% less, takes place only once a month, and the group wanted to set up a small neighbourhood grocery offering similarly good value, high quality foodstuffs directly from small producers.

Ninety per cent of the products the store sold were “without middlemen”, Katerini said, and about 60% were significantly cheaper than in the supermarket. Several come from other solidarity projects – the store’s soap, for example, is made by a collective of 10 unemployed people in Galatsi.

“All these projects, it’s very important to me, are not just helping people who need it, but they represent almost the start of a new kind of society,” Katerini said. “They are run as direct democracies, with no hierarchy. They are about people taking responsibility for their lives, putting their skills to use, becoming productive again.”

Katerina Knitou has devoted the past few years to preventing people from losing their homes. Part of a group of lawyers formed to fight a much hated “emergency house tax”, her focus has switched to the one in three Greek households fearing repossession or eviction – either because they are among the 320,000 families behind on mortgage or other debt repayments to their bank, or one of the 2.45 million Greeks who have been unable to pay a recent tax bill.

Knitou, a Syriza member like almost all those involved in the movement, gives free legal advice on how to avoid foreclosure and eviction. In the first half of last year 700 homes were either repossessed by the banks or foreclosed on by the Greek state over unpaid tax or social security bills. (With colleagues, Knitou also occasionally takes more direct action, disrupting – and preventing – planned auctions of repossessed and foreclosed homes.)

“This whole thing,” she said, “has made a lot of people very aware, not just of what they face, but also of what they can – and must – do. Expectations are going to be high after Sunday, but there are of course limits to what even a Syriza government will be able to do. It’s up to us, all of us, to change things. And honestly? This feels like a good start.”

First Published: The Guardian by Jon Henley in Athens