Around the world, social movements are rising up in response to the multiple crises of our time. However, only few seem to focus on the task of building concrete institutions that could challenge existing structures and change the rules of our system.
The world is facing one crisis after another. From climate breakdown and mass extinction to economic instability, inequality, and injustice. Political and economic institutions around the planet appear to have little plan (or willingness) to lead us out of this mess. And on top of everything, we now have to face a pandemic with another financial crisis likely to follow.
These emergencies are leading more and more people to question the way our current system works. A new wave of activism is rising up, trying to shape a better future than the one we seem to be headed towards. From the environmental and climate movement, to feminism, social justice, democracy, human rights, economic transformation, and a new progressive internationalism.
Act 1: Raising Awareness
While these movements are diverse and cover different (although interconnected) issues, they appear to have something in common: Their visible actions mainly focus on raising awareness and networking: The internet is flooded with manifestos and petitions to sign, webinars to watch, podcasts to listen to, new alliances to join, and so on. Such actions effectively disseminate information that makes people aware of a certain problem and urges them to join collective demands for change.
However, highlighting a problem is only the first step on the path towards a solution. Information is only meaningful if we know what to do with it. To give an example, most people by now agree that we should reduce global emissions, but that does not mean that they know what exactly to do to build a low-carbon economy. Last year’s climate strikes brought millions to the streets, but had little impact on international climate negotiations or major elections.
The problem is that our system is largely governed by vested interests (for example, through the influence of fossil industries) that have proven incredibly skillful in resisting policies for social and sustainable transformation. Every carefully framed argument that activists (and scientists) publish is easily counteracted by endless waves of distraction, distortion, and defamation that impedes a meaningful public debate regarding these challenges.
Act 2: Civil Disobedience
This has led many activists to step up their game with another form of activism: to actively disrupt and resist the current system. Take, for example, Ende Gelände, who regularly organize mass actions to occupy coal producers and power plants, or Extinction Rebellion, who try to pressure political leaders through the disruption and blockade of urban infrastructure.
Many of these actions also seem to be largely about raising awareness and networking, i.e. by achieving news coverage and building connections among those involved. For example, the disruption of coal pits is unlikely to affect extraction levels in any meaningful magnitude. And this is probably not the aim. The coal pit, after all, is only a symptom of the disease, with the sickness being the relations of power that are weaved through our society.
That being said, there are also many examples which have successfully prevented large infrastructure projects, like the Zone to Defend (ZAD) against the French Aéroport du Grand Ouest, or the resistance against the Austrian Zwentendorf Nuclear Power Plant. There are also forms of civil disobedience that are less visible, such as occupations of houses that prevent families from eviction, or blockades to protect local ecosystems from destruction.
Such actions of resistance can prevent and slow down the worst effects of our system, opening space to develop alternatives. But how exactly do we build up an alternative?
Act 3: Counter-Institutions
Overall, attempts to change existing institutions have proven wearisome and difficult. Of course, that should not stop us from trying. We should however, in addition to existing efforts, consider the construction of concrete alternatives that challenge existing structures directly. Instead of demanding changes from those in power, counter-institutions could be designed to gradually shift power back to democratic control, while creating sustainable livelihoods.
counterinstitution noun (as defined by Merriam-Webster)
coun·ter·in·sti·tu·tion | \ ˌkau̇n-tər-ˌin(t)-stə-ˈtü-shən, -ˈtyü- \
: an institution formed to oppose or counteract another institution
…they have started creating small, democratically ordered counterinstitutions to help them alter or dismantle the “official” behemoths … — Harvey Cox
Suppose we want to improve the financial system. If we stop banks from speculation and force them to direct their investments into social and sustainable ventures (instead of fossil infrastructure, weapons, housing bubbles, etc.), this would make financial markets more stable and free up resources for the provision of actual human needs. Unfortunately, conventional banks have a strong incentive not to do this, as it is not the most profitable course of action for the investors and owners they serve.
An alternative could be to build financial cooperatives that are democratically governed and designed to increase human wellbeing instead of profits. Such institutions give people an easy action to take: open an account at this bank and protect your savings from being misused for harmful activities. By doing so, people also become shared owners of a cooperative. While such ownership would not be transferable (i.e. it cannot be sold for profit), it would give people power to participate in their bank’s decision-making.
To give another example, consider the provision of clean energy. Public pressure on energy suppliers has mainly resulted in greenwashing, i.e. small actions that make them appear ‘green enough’ to avoid being a political target, while they continue expanding fossil infrastructure. Cooperatives like Som Energia, in contrast, give people the option to be part of a collective shift to renewable energy, not just by supplying its members with renewable electricity, but also by actively integrating them in the production of energy. If such initiatives scale up, they could effectively remove power from corporate energy suppliers by draining their demand.
Our political system can be sidestepped through alternative institutions as well. This is the idea of citizens’ assemblies, a carefully designed democratic and participative process to make important decisions. Based on tools of sortition and collective deliberation, whole nations can participate in such assemblies. Iceland, for example, used such a process to write a new constitution. Citizen assemblies are also the third demand of Extinction Rebellion, who envision them as a tool to make binding decisions for climate action.
Many more examples exist for almost every public institution and private sector. Cooperative and social principles can be applied to manufacturing sectors (Austria’s best example being the shoe-producer GEA), supermarkets can be replaced with food co-ops, farmers can shift to community-supported agriculture, renting platforms can be replaced with community sharing networks or platform co-ops, education can be shifted to democratic schools, software developers can join the open-source community, and so on.
I find counter-institutions particularly interesting because of their potential to give people agency. Ideally, they open a door for all kinds of different people to become activists by shifting what they already do (e.g. banking, using energy, etc.) to alternative structures. Those who walk through this door become not just embedded in alternative forms of production, but also in an organized structure that gives them meaningful and concrete ways to contribute.
Another benefit is that such projects can give people identity. They can integrate people into a community and make their efforts part of a collective endeavor. Many actions become much more relevant if they are done as part of a larger group, which counteracts the infamous free-rider problem. The result of such actions is very concrete: they produce meaningful goods and services or facilitate a process to achieve binding political decisions.
Thirdly, many of the mentioned examples have the potential to create stable employment. This is quite relevant as many activists suffer from a precarious lifestyle. By engaging in economic activities directly, we can redirect the flow of money towards good jobs. This can make activism more inclusive for people who would otherwise struggle for economic survival. It could also provide movements with more resources and energy to maintain their efforts.
Finally, counter-institutions might also be helpful when it comes to raising awareness. The idea is to convince people not through argument but through practice. By giving people experience with a more social and sustainable way of organizing and in showing them examples that are both feasible and empowering, such projects have the potential to trigger a very different psychological process of reflection rather than a debate.
Building effective counter-institutions is extremely difficult. They are usually neither profit-oriented nor present in the stock market, so there is no venture capital to be raised to start such projects, and there are only so many projects that can be crowdfunded each year. Furthermore, democratic decision-making is much harder in practice than in theory. It can take painstaking amounts of time to come to collective agreements, and, if not done with care, can result in tensions and violence that destroy a project before it has even started.
Existing governance can also create barriers. Take the Austrian initiative to create a bank for the common good. The project gathered more than four million Euros from over six thousand members, yet their ideas were rejected by the financial authorities in a year-long application process which used up so much capital that the plans fell apart. Iceland’s new constitution, previously mentioned, was also never implemented, as it didn’t pass through parliament even though it got 67% of approval in a public referendum.
Economic sustainability, while listed as a benefit before, is also one of the main challenges. Most projects need a significant amount of time and success to become self-sufficient. Many cooperatives and ecovillages seem to survive only because of subsidies and donations, or by extracting money from a limited set of eco-friendly and rich consumers. Such projects are unlikely to scale up or multiply, limiting their potential to challenge the mainstream and contribute to transformative change.
This means that to start such a project well, one needs to find a large and motivated team willing to invest a lot of time and resources. This is made difficult as we live in a time where many people want to be as flexible and as free as possible, rarely committing to long-term projects with high personal stakes and uncertain outcomes. The stakes involved in writing this article, for example, are very different from the prospect of leaving a stable and convenient life to commit to working full-time on a project whose success would be uncertain for many years to come.
A final challenge is that initiatives for social change should be inclusive and diverse. Yet the start-up difficulties just described can easily lead such projects to become collectives of extreme privilege. If counter-institutions can only be founded by those with freely available time and resources, there is a danger that their perspective will be narrow, and their project will end up benefitting only their own class. This can be avoided by actively searching for collaboration outside one’s own bubble, and by channeling financial compensation (if available) towards those who need it most.
There is probably no golden rule for activism and no silver bullet to save the world. Our society is complex and ever changing. Different strategies come with their own advantages and drawbacks. Everyone has their own circumstances and perspective to consider. As long as we share a common vision of where we want to go, we should aim to support and trust each other’s beliefs and commitments towards certain approaches.
Nevertheless, I hope that this article has made a strong case for building concrete alternatives to challenge existing institutions, while being honest about the challenges and drawbacks of this idea. My central message is that if we want to build a different economy, we should aim to support and join those who engage in meaningful economic activities themselves. I believe that such projects are making a big contribution toward social transformation and a good life for all.
The author thanks Sara Fromm, Nina Clausager, Ruth Fulterer, Rebekah Breding, and David McAndrews for their help and support with this article.
This article is part of a series on degrowth.info discussing strategy in the degrowth movement. The introduction to the series and an ongoing list of contributions can be found here.