Movement praxis prefigures system change

Movement praxis prefigures system change

James Anderson is a Ph.D student in Mass Communications and Media Arts at the Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His research interests include social movements, political economy, world systems analysis, critical pedagogy, prefigurative direct action and satire. He believes praxis makes perfect. He also says his words are his weapon, and, like so many others, he believes another world is possible.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a non-partisan organization aimed at broadening economic debate, recently released a report showing that revenue generation will do much more to reduce deficits, promote economic recovery and reduce extreme levels of inequality than cuts geared towards gutting public services like education (1). Funding for education should of course not be gutted, but it is equally important to recognize the inherent social use value in such shared parts of the public commons, whatever market exchange value gets arbitrarily attached to them.

The EPI report suggested some specific economic measures be taken. Measures include taxing capital gains as ordinary income, eliminating the inherited stocks and bonds tax loophole, taxing carried interest like regular income so effective tax rates of millionaires and billionaires no longer stands below those of middle income working people, repealing the deferral of foreign profits for US-based multinational corporations that make money abroad while reaping the benefits of US society they don’t contribute to, and enacting a small financial trade transaction tax to levy Wall Street trading. The latter would help reduce the kind of high-risk speculation that helped produce the protracted crisis starting with the near meltdown of the capitalist world economy in 2007-2008.

EPI estimates project several trillions in revenue over ten years with the aforementioned reforms alone. But reforms are not enough. The previous system of incremental reforms no longer functions. “That system is dying before your eyes,” Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland Gar Alperovitz said in a recently recorded lecture(2). When so-called “liberal” and purportedly “progressive” policies look a lot like the same pro-corporate, big bank beholden bull-poop that created the current situation in which the  richest one percent in the US owns 42 percent of non-housing wealth (3), and the wealthiest 400 individuals own more wealth than the bottom 185 million taken together (4), alternatives are needed ASAP.

When the bullish banksters of Wall Street do their dirty business (double entendre most definitely intended), they don’t politely go potty without affecting others. They drop serious turd bombs and stink up the entire system.  Then they expect the public to clean it up (read: bail them out).

Bloomberg reported that our generous too-big-too-fail public subsidy for the private cartel capitalists controlling the major financial institutions (and as far as they’re concerned, the world) amounted to $83 billion a year (5). We’re supposed to accept bully banksterism in stride, celebrate ceaseless capital accumulation and laud the lavish bonuses Goldman Sachs execs and other Wall Street cronies accrue.

Wall Street’s casino behavior are not confined to an expensive vacuum. Real people living near the base of the trickle down pyramid amass endless debt and/or get homes and futures foreclosed upon as consolidated wealth yields consolidated political power and all of the inequalities that inevitably follow.

Statistics are staid, but they don’t lie.  More than 46 million Americans live in poverty (6). The March 2013 unemployment rate for people under 25 stands at just over twice the national average (7). A recent UNICEF report revealed that despite boasting the world’s highest GDP, the US comes in fourth from the bottom in terms of child well-being in a list of 29 countries (8). We rank higher than only one nation on the list in terms of child poverty rates.  About one in every seven children in the US lives in poverty.

Yet the Wall Street generated inequality diarrhea characterizing society does not end there.  Every level of governance is impacted as hierarchical organization and top-down decision-making makes profits for the few at the expense of many.

The impact on education is especially pronounced.  Its evisceration as a public good has become a mere market externality for the “free market” endorsing “Masters of the Universe” — the same CEOs and hedge fund managers who hypocritically go crying to the nanny state for help whenever their shenanigans shake the very foundation of their ideological edifice.

It seems the “Great Moving Right Show,”(9) marches on unimpeded. Commodification of education, marketization of the university and commercialization of all collegiate life continues to turn what should be a shared social commitment for the greater good into a business model mill. Maximization of individual and collective creative capacities takes a backseat to maximization of allied corporate profits. Educational commodification solidifies social stratification. A select few students atop the social strata come out primed to fill their societal roles. Most emerge as institutionally complacent and indifferent quasi-intellectuals, for-profit professors comfortable in academe and divorced from social suffering, and in other spheres as peoples of relative privilege functioning as a moderately affluent consumer class. “Of course, there are brave intellectuals all over the world such as Ai Weiwei, Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky, Stuart Hall, Olivia Ward, and others who do not tie their intellectual capital to the possibility of a summer cruise, the rewards provided to those who either shut up or sell their souls to the intelligence agencies who offer research funds,”(10) but such socially engaged scholars are the exception, not the rule.

Play-it-safe pedagogies of privilege remain the norm even as greater numbers of students go deeper and deeper into debt — the average amount of student debt upon graduation is about $25,000 (11) — with grim prospects for rewarding work after obtaining a degree. Unemployment and underemployment rates for college graduates is substantially higher today than it was before 2007 (12). That is not all. As we know by now, it gets worse. EPI data shows the underemployment rate for young college graduates is at 18.3 percent compared to 9.9 percent pre-crisis (in 2007), inflation-adjusted wages for young college grads declined 8.5 percent since 2000, and the “cost of higher education has grown far more rapidly than median family income, leaving students with little choice but to take out loans which, upon graduating into a labor market with limited job opportunities, they may not have the funds to repay” (13).

Students who struggle to repay loans are, in effect, locked into a neo-feudal system of debt peonage.  The functioning societal purpose of dominant institutional pedagogy, contrary to free market fallacy and ever-elusive, illusory achievement ideology, is to transfer wealth from the public into tiny pockets in the private (corporate) sector while transferring the social burden onto individuals.

It can be a heavy burden to bear — too heavy for some.  The psychological toll became too much for Jason Yoder, a graduate student in organic chemistry at Illinois State University who accrued $100,000 in debt, was unable to find a job in his field, found himself unable to pay off his loans, and proceeded to take his own life because of it in 2007(14).

Suicides — real people taking their lives — do not factor into market equations.  Such incidents are externalities not considered in neoliberal economic equations.

And at present even more educational cut backs and tuition hikes seem imminent. Market-based reform programs dominate the educational policy itinerary across the nation, and much of the globe.

However, not all people are on board with austerity measures and market-oriented education reforms.  That could be because those reforms have “delivered few benefits and in some cases harmed the students they purport to help” (15).

Students, activists and workers actively oppose the dominant logic, and are defending their collective right to public education, as well as to decent lives and a viable democratic polity.  To wit, a two-month long student occupation at Sussex University in the UK to inveigh against neoliberalization (privatization) and outsourcing of campus services came to an end as April began (16). Likewise, 50-plus students, faculty and staff at Cooper Union in New York occupied the office of the school’s president to protest the administration’s decision to end the school’s storied practice of free tuition (17). Moreover, more than 150,000 Chileans participated in the first official national student march of the new school year the second week of April to call for free, quality public education(18); more than 150,000 filled the streets of Santiago a little less than three weeks later when students, workers and activists turned out for Chile’s May Day demonstration (19) Students at Indiana University went on strike in April against tuition hikes with hopes of reigniting a higher education movement (20).

Not to be outdone, K-12 public education activists are also shunning both apathy and austerity in favor of organized antipathy, like the students and parents holding a sit-in demonstration at Williams Elementary and Williams Middle School in Chicago to protest the proposed school closing (21).

Members of the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago showed solidarity with striking fast food and service workers in St. Louis, Mo., on May 9, following the April 24 strikes in Chicago at McDonald’s, Macy’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Niketown and other locations, which were the largest strikes involving fast food and retail workers in the city’s history (22).

Playing Defense while Prefiguring Alternatives with Direct Action and Direct Democracy

To be sure, demonstrations to defend education and pro-labor actions are of enormous import.  Pressuring the current system serves a purpose, but political engagement can’t stop there. Obviously it makes sense to organize so that the sacrifices previous generations made were not in vain. Whatever meaningful changes that can be made within the existing system should be made to ensure decent lives for people now. That pressure can reconfigure the contours of the current paradigm, making it more conducive to the process of fundamental transformation. Indeed, improving people’s situations in the present can and should be done in ways that begin to construct a vastly different future.

Yet, myriad forms of direct action are needed to address broad-based systemic concerns.  Direct action and direct democracy are basically two sides of the same coin: “the idea that the form of our action should itself offer a model, or at the very least a glimpse of how free people might organize themselves, and therefore what a free society could be like” (23). Call it “building the new society in the shell of the old,” intentional “prefigurative politics,” or, to borrow the Greek anarchist declaration, simply say “we are a message from the future” — all are cases referring to “that sphere in which action itself becomes prophecy” (24). The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement displayed — and saliently still displays — that kind of prefigurative praxis, putting ideas about a future free and caring society into practice on some small level in the present. Operating on horizontal principles, OWS embodies a “dual power” approach, attempting “to create liberated territories outside of the existing political legal and economic order, on the principle that that order is irredeemably corrupt” (25). Serendipitously, various social movements are still stepping up and meeting the call, creating autonomous communities while defending real human rights that extend far beyond the largely rhetorical or circumscribed definitional confines of those rights espoused by establishment Non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

There are occupations of homes to keep hard-working people from being evicted as a result of predatory lending practices and poor economic conditions they did not cause.  Just as the Spanish M-15 — a.k.a. Indigandos — movement in Spain helped inspire the initial occupation of Zuccotti Park in September 2011, the ongoing fight against evictions in Spain (26) has inspired Occupy Wall Street (OWS) offshoots in the US, like Occupy Our Homes, with efforts exemplified by a Michigan family’s recent campaign to keep their house (27). Bank of America sold the family’s home last year without bothering to notify them.  A couple of years prior, in 2009, Bank of America also did not bother to pay any taxes (28).

The OWS chant, “Bank of America, Bad for America!,” appears as apt as ever.

Directly Democratizing the Workplace and Economy

Other forms of workplace democracy exist, and there are prominent models throughout the US, some of which, like the Chicago-based New Era Windows, have arisen in direct response to monopoly finance capital logic, and in defiance of major financial institutions, like Bank of America.

When Bank of America refused to extend a line of credit to the Republic Windows and Doors company — after receiving $25 billion in the federal bail out — Republic told the workers the company would be forced to close up shop. Factory workers who had been denied the pay owed to them saw it differently.  “Bank of America, bad for America,” became another apt rallying cry.

“No, we’re not leaving,” then-Republic worker Rocio Perez said. “This is where we’re staying” (29).

The workplace occupation ended in a settlement, and after another long struggle, workers recently celebrated “the grand opening of their new unionized, worker-owned and -operated business,” having “launched their own window business without bosses,” having purchased “the factory collectively,” with every intention to “run it democratically” (30).

In fact, the Midwest has birthed multiple burgeoning co-operatives. The Art Theater Co-op, located in Champaign, Ill., illustrates how artistic production can be democratically sustained (31). Perhaps the most significant economic democracy project in the region is Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio (32). Evergreen is reinvigorating impoverished areas through an innovative, sustainable and localized wealth-building initiative. It puts workers and communities in charge of the decisions that directly affect their lives.  Alperovitz has been a long-time proponent of Evergreen and similar projects. He advocates decentralized planning and democratically-run worker co-op collaborations with community anchored institutions that are firmly rooted in local municipalities (and unlike transnational corporations, cannot just get up and leave to seek out the lowest wages in the world). Hospitals can be formidable anchor institutions (33) but so can universities.  Alliances can undergird new movements and projects for appreciably freer association than the top-down “do what you’re told” orders of decision making that predominate.

A slew of these promising alternative alliances prefigure alternative economic paradigms.  New School University visiting professor Richard Wolff writes and speaks often about worker self-directed enterprises, like the worker-owned Arizmendi Bakery co-operative in San Francisco (34). Workers at that bakery decide for themselves how they go about producing delicious artisan breads and pizzas. (I’m told the gourmet pizza with tomatoes, gorgonzola cheese, rosemary oil and fresh basil is simply exquisite (35). Arizmendi’s is actually named after José María Arizmendiarrieta Madariaga, who founded the Mondragon corporation of federated worker co-operatives in the Basque region of Spain.  Despite external economic turmoil it has persevered since 1956 and continues to thrive.36

The co-operative enterprise demonstrates how to go about democratizing wealth and the workplace, but it also evinces a model for democratizing education.  Notably, Mondragon has its own university system.  The worker-owned, participatory decision-making principles practiced at Mondragon and at many places around the world demonstrate how institutions can reify more egalitarian ideals, ridding places of bureaucratic administrators, incorrigible corporate boards of directors, and anti-democratic boards of trustees controlling universities.

Clearly, interconnected emergent movements hold promise, and these alternative ways of being and doing evince old forms of socioeconomic organization as outmoded.  Neoclassical, neoliberal, neoconservative and even moderately progressive Keynesian economics are not the key.  Vertically oriented centralized state socialism and contemporary capitalism with its concentrated coordinator classes no longer cut the mustard for most people — and growing numbers of people realize it.  Moreover, we have entered “the mother of all critical junctures” (37) a serious “systemic crisis,”(38) a “Convergence of Crises,”(39) occurring in a “period we may call the structural crisis of the system”(40) whereupon the world system has neared its asymptote and will begin to “fluctuate wildly and repeatedly, leading to bifurcation”(41) an “Age of Transition”(42) and a new historical system of to-be-determined dimensions. While oppressive structures still delimit human potentials, at this pivotal epochal moment opportunities and desires for a more just society abound.

These alternatives illustrate just how wrong the late Maggie Thatcher when she announced that there is no alternative (TINA). People have figured out TINA lies. Indeed, not only is there an alternative, but there are many interconnected networks of different ways of doing things.  Veritable, realistic ideas about how to transform society suggest possibilities aplenty. Because market valuations do not value human life essentials, and because the market economy cannot account for community, social justice-minded folks created a sophisticated — but not overly-complicated — system called Parecon, or participatory economics, which is an evolving model based on principles of equity, solidarity, diversity and self-management.  Parecon puts decision-making power in the hands of nested worker and consumer councils (43). The dominant system of inbuilt scarcity predicated on money created as interest-bearing debt that promotes inefficient competition and unsustainable growth is itself unsustainable (44). It too shall pass following a collective consciousness shift away from endless commodification.  The “ceaseless accumulation by dispossession” (45) drive that characterizes the really existing capitalist world economy searches for more and more markets as it transforms all goods, services and social relations into commodities. It alienates us from each other. It puts a price on once reciprocal interpersonal exchanges. But the aforementioned consciousness raising occurs concurrently, bringing about new lifeworlds. Philosopher and educator Paulo Freire called that kind of critical consciousness elevation conscientização (46), and various forms of public pedagogy (e.g., collective direct actions, critical artistic creations, radical alternative media) embody the prefigurative praxis of a large scale social movement — or that of interdependent solidarious network of autonomous movements.

Evolutionary conscientização necessitates world system wide transformation, but that fundamental change will happen from the bottom-up, starting at the local level. It is the age-old but also incipient “form of social relations established and sustained through non-hierarchical forms of communication” called horizontalidad, a “living word reflecting an ever-changing experience”(47) that “implies the use of direct democracy” (48). As a concrete conceptual articulation, horizontalism encompasses “the ideas upon which many of the social relationships in the new global movements are grounded,” emphasizing inclusivity and a “break with the logic of representation and vertical ways of organizing” (49). Through a dialogic, prefigurative process, all the aforestated interwoven efforts actively reconfigure the dominant system — or more accurately, to transform the current system of domination.  Significant social movements and emergent alternatives to the prevailing socioeconomic order point the way.  Still, no rigid formula exists, nor should it. As hip-hop artist and activist Lonnie Atkinson is fond of saying, “An economy ain’t nothing but a recipe,”(50) and social organization (or prefigurative free association), by extension, could be considered much the same. Adding little — but potent — ingredients at the right time(s) and appropriate places can catalyze reactions and cook up something radically different. Thankfully, young folks and plenty of older kindred spirits have a taste for something different these days. We have refined palates and none of us are afraid of experimenting in the collective kitchen.  So a luta continua!  And bon appétit!


1          Rebecca Thiess, “Many options exist for raising revenue in a smart and progressive manner,” Economic Policy Institute (April 18, 2013).

2          Gar Alperovitz, “The Next American Revolution: Beyond Corporate Capitalism and State Socialism” [Video Documentary], Media Education Foundation.

3          Edward Wolff, “Recent Trends in Household Wealth in the United States: Rising Debt and the Middle Class Squeeze–an Update to 2007,” Levy Economics Institute (March 2010).

4          Alperovitz, ibid.

         “Why Should Taxpayers Give Big Banks $83 Billion a Year?,” Bloomberg (February 20, 2013). See also: “Remember That $83 Billion Bank Subsidy?  We Weren’t Kidding,” Bloomberg (February 24, 2013).

6          In 2011 46.2 million Americans — 15 percent of the population — lived in poverty. See Carmen DeNavas Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor and Jessica C. Smith, “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011,” U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, p60-243 (September 2012).

7          Heidi Shierholz, Natalie Sabadish, and Nicholas Finio, “The Class of 2013: Young graduates still face dim job prospects,” Economic Policy Institute (April 10, 2013).

8          “Child Well-Being in Rich Countries,” UNICEF Office of Research, Report Card 11 (April 2013).

9          Stuart Hall, “The Great Moving Right Show,” Marxism Today (January, 1979).

10        Henry A. Giroux, “Lockdown, USA: Lessons From the Boston Marathon,” Truthout (May 6, 2013).

11        Center for Popular Economics, “Economics for the 99%,” (June 2012).

12        Shierholz, Sabadish, and Finio, ibid.

13        ibid.

14        C. Cryn Johanssen, “The Ones We’ve Lost: The Student Loan Debt Suicides,” Economic Hardship Reporting Project (July 2, 2012).

16        Bree Allegretti, “Occupy Sussex comes to an end as police move in,” The Independent (April 2, 2013).

18        Weiru Fang, “More than 150,000 take part in Chilean education march,” The Santiago Times (April 11, 2013).

19        Lila Cantor, “More than 150,000 fill the streets of Santiago in May Day march,” The Santiago Times (May 2, 2013); See also Daniela León Lira, “Breaking Down the Barricades: Chile’s Defiant May Day in Photos,” In These Times (May 2, 2013).

20        Rebecca Burns, “Indiana University on Strike Against Tuition Hikes,” In These Times (April 12, 2013).

21        OccupyCPS, “Chicago middle school students, parents hold sit-in demonstration to protest school closing,” Chicago Indymedia (May 3, 2013).

22        Stand Up! Chicago, “Chicago Fast Food and Retail Workers Board Bus to Join Striking St. Louis Workers,” Chicago Indymedia (May 9, 2013).

23        David Graeber, The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2013), 233.

24        ibid.

25        ibid, 259.

26        Amy Goodman, “The Growing Global Mmovement Against Austerity,” Truthdig (November 15, 2012).

27        Shab Bashiri, “Michigan family fights to save home from Bank of America,” OccupyOurHomes.org (April 25, 2013).

28        According to David Graeber, one of the initial activist organizers of Occupy and professor of anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London: “In 2009, Bank of America earned $4.4 billion, paid no federal taxes whatsoever, but nonetheless got a tax credit of $1.9 billion.  It did, however, spend roughly $4 million on lobbying, money that went directly to the politicians who wrote the tax codes that made this possible,” cited in David Graeber, The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2013), 16.

30        ibid.

31        Find more about the Art Theater here; and for information on its evolving co-op structure see here.

32        For an introductory video that explains the Evergreen Co-operatives model see here.

33        To listen to a discusson of the role of anchor institutions in fostering community wealth and equitable prosperity at the local level see “Leveraging the Power of Anchor Institutions to Build Community Wealth: A Community Forum” [Video Stream], Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

34        Ed Rampell, “An Interview with Richard Wolff,” Counterpunch (April 16, 2013).

35        For Arizmendi’s gourmet pizza menu.

36        See the MONDRAGON corporation website for more.

37        Robert W. McChesney, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy (New York: The New Press, 2013), 93.

38        Alperovitz, ibid.

39        Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity: Civilization and the Human Sense of Self (Berkeley, CA: Evolver Editions, 2007/2013).

40        Immanuel Wallerstein, “Structural Crisis in the World-System,” Monthly Review (March 2011).

41        Wallerstein, ibid.

42        Charles Eisenstein, Money, Gift & Society in the Age of Transition (Berkeley, CA: Evolver Editions)

43        Michael Albert, “Summarizing Participatory Economics,” ZNet (December 1, 2012); see also Michael Albert, “Alternative Economy Cultures Documentations,” [Video file], ZSpace (April 9, 2009).

44        Eisenstein, ibid.

45        This phrase is a combination of ideas about dominant characteristics of capital outlined by others.  For further discussion of defining qualities of capitalist hegemony see David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and Crises of Capitalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); see also Immanuel Wallerstein, World-systems analysis: An introduction. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

46         Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 1970/2000).

47        Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini, Occupying Language: The Secret Rendezvous with History and the Present (Brooklyn, NY: Zuccotti Park Press, 2012), 40.

48        ibid, 36.

49        ibid, 38.

50        To listen to Lonnie Atkinson’s Parecon-inspired rap album check out his Zspace page featuring free music downloads.