An essay by Stevphen Shukaitis
The problem is that you can’t study utopia. The study of utopia is the ethnography of nowhere. There is no ready made existing liberatory society which one can go and study, takes notes on, and then return and try to recreate here. It is also debatable even if one could find such an existing situation that trying to recreate such out of the context where such emerged would be the best of ideas. And that’s the problem of utopian vision, is that it doesn’t exist anywhere – that’s implicit in the word. But there have existed a multitude of examples of cooperative structures and non-hierarchal social practices that have existed through out history. Little slices of liberation and non-alienated experience – what Pierre Clastres describes as the “vast constellation of societies in which the holders of what elsewhere would be called power are actually without power; where the political is determined as a domain beyond coercion and violence, beyond hierarchal subordination.” (1977: 5) And that’s the starting point of reformatting a non-vanguardist approach to the creation of utopian social theory…
The alternative approach that I would put forward for creating a radical visions would be to look at the existing forms of cooperative economics and social practice that have existed through out human history and around the planet, and to try to draw out their underlying logic into a more generalized pluralistic vision. Such an approach draws from an ethnographic practice and approach (though trying to dispense with the more noxious forms and tendencies that such has exhibited by the less ethical of researchers). This would not be just a shift in one’s approach, but the beginning notes of what very well could be an extensive and on-going project. Thus instead of asking “how can we run the economy so that it creates solidarity?” or “how can we manage individual interests and communal interests?” the question becomes looking at different existing forms of practice and drawing from them, rather than trying to impose upon them. The role of vision through this becomes not declaring what should be based upon utopian abstraction, but trying to figure out what could be based upon the experiences contained within existing forms of social relations.
Just sit back for a second and list some of the examples of cooperative structures that you can think of: local community gardens, multitudes of cooperative an worker collectives, the Mondragon, time stores and labor exchanges, collective farms from the US to Russia, the Mararikulam cooperatives in India, the Kibbutzim, neighborhood assembleas from Argentina to New England, the ejidos and autonomous communities in Chiapas, gift economies and exchange clubs, free stores, squats, alternative currency systems, cooperative water management in Bali, communes and intentional communities, practices and concepts such as guanxi (China) and the potlatch (Kwakiutl), and so forth. Perhaps the question should not be whether a world based on cooperation and without hierarchy can possibly work, but why the many examples of how such structures haven’t been looked at in terms of creating a more holistic version before?
The question task then becomes looking at the different existing forms of cooperative enterprise and social structures and asking they might fit together into a more general social vision or system. How might the different elements interact? If one applied the logic of the Argentinean neighborhood assemblies to the economic structure of a factory in Prague, what might that look like? How would these different cooperative structures work between communities, between regions, and globally? How would it be possible to best coordinate resources and create forms of cooperation across regions while maintaining the highest possible level of autonomy? How can one start creating these types of structures now in a fashion where they form a sustainable community infrastructure?
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