Redrawing Boundaries: Rethinking the Utopic and the Constellations of Change After the Pandemic
Updated: Aug 4
Themes: Social Justice, Organizing, Anti-Racism, Black Lives Matter
No single template of social or economic democracy will see all of society adequately uplifted. This is because no one model can meet the needs and interests of all involved. Instead, we must assign credibility and resources to the micro-movements of social justice-oriented actors in local and global sites, investing in a multiscalar democratic system that exceeds borders. These small-scale movements which center community-level change constitute a larger constellation of transformative world-changing possibility. It is through localized worker/citizen-led activations that equity across margins is achieved; we must not wait to secure equitable outcomes “‘after the revolution’” (Wright, 2010, p. 8). Instead, we must allow concepts of socio-economic fairness to incite it.
Reifying or Reimagining the Status Quo?
It is frequently argued that in the work of rebuilding our social worlds, equity must be secured after equality. This logic privileges the interests of a hegemonic White subject, one who is already afforded generous access and benefits over more marginalized persons. As well, it favours a generalized, unidimensional model of rebuilding, one which denies the value and existence of a politics which “‘connects the dots’” of isolated but complementary world building efforts (Gibson-Graham et al., 2017, p. 19). Such reasoning appears to illuminate the positionality of the most prominent theorists in the field of social and economic democracy – non-racialized persons influenced by a systemically exclusionary epistemology. Erik Wright (2010) touches on this when identifying the prominence of mockery and cynicism in response to “radical visions” of alternatives to our status quo (p. 8). Such attitudes work to diminish the interests and actions of marginalized persons, sidelining them to a periphery where, in imagining and wishing ‘differently’ of their historic, present, and future conditions they are assigned the label of ‘radical.’
Black scholar Caroline Hossein (2019) draws further attention to the tacit violence enacted towards racialized people within the social economy sphere which, though deemed a “‘safe space’” for its shelter from capitalism, rarely, in its writings, cites Black scholars or examples of its existence in Black life (p. 214). Indigenous peoples, whose practices within the socio-democratic economy manifest their traditional worldviews, face a similar fate in that their diverse economic contributions and needs are often ignored in popular theorizing (Kuokkanen, 2011, p. 217-8). Malleson (2014) acknowledges these shortcomings, such that economic democracy as it is theorized in the mainstream fails to “address systemic issues of sexism, racism, or ableism” and offers greater benefit to more advantaged persons/nations (p. 208-9). Yet, he appears content at its equalizing of economic decision-making for moving us “on the right track” (p. 213), read, in practice: continuing to deny historically marginalized persons their dues. Hossein (2019), on the other hand, appeals to us to “politicize the economy so that it is conscientious of the lived experience of excluded people” and, with this, their interests (p. 224). So too must we politicize our theorizing of what the ‘economic’ looks like to ensure it is responsive of – and secures justice and inclusion for – intersectional and marginalized persons. Malleson (2014) asks, “if economic democracy is a directional reform, where exactly does it point?” (p. 199). In taking up a multiscalar approach to visioning a new dominant democratic system inclusive of diverse efforts, we can ensure that the movement towards economic democracy directs itself towards equitable outcomes identified by and for affected communities.
Limitations undoubtedly exist to securing socially just, democratic worlds, but these constraints are troubled when this new world building is broken into incremental steps. Individuals must ideate and work towards realizing “‘real utopias,’” pragmatic, otherwise configurations informed by our visioning and force of will (Wright, 2010, p. 6). Of course, these utopias will be multiplicitous and plural, reflecting specificities dictated by each originating visioner though it may be that some are working towards similar goals (Malleson, 2014, p. 198). To reach these desired utopic end states, actors must journey through “accessible waystations,” studying, at check-in points, which outcomes they have come closer to and/or achieved (Wright, 2010, p. 6).
This scaffolded process offers tangible opportunities to organizers to evaluate the efficacy of the work they undertake in microlevel socio-economic democratic movements. Gibson-Graham and the Community Economies Collective (2017) refer to isolated initiatives that connect as part of a larger constellation of “otherwise.” They write that, “thinking and acting differently [but mutually] in discreet locations can have global consequences” (p. 19), touching on how respective efforts towards ‘utopia’ can result in reciprocally beneficial community-specific outcomes that go beyond local boundaries. ‘Real utopias’ encompass the “tension between dreams and practice” and enable us to clearly see future worlds that disprove the assumed immutability of extractive capitalism, inspiring us to reach towards democratic unknowns (Wright, 2010, p. 6).
Racialized and otherwise marginalized people have been forced to reconfigure their lives and livelihoods to survive the status quo (Hossein, 2019, p. 219). As such, they are uniquely positioned to imagine and enact otherwise(s). The current context of COVID-19 and the déjà vu-inducing rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has surfaced innumerable real utopias which map on/into larger global ecologies. One prominent case is the plight of seasonal migrant agricultural workers who are granted neither permanent residency nor citizenship in Canada, consigning them to unsafe work conditions and housing (Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, n.d.). ‘Accessible waystations’ that activists have outlined include the creation of a proposal to the federal government for a pilot permanent residency program, expanding workers’ knowledge of occupational health and safety, encouraging public engagement with educational campaigns on current conditions faced by workers, and lobbying government to ensure that labour inspections are conducted in these workers’ sectors. We must “do more than simply tweak the edges of the system” (Malleson, 2014, p. 213) to secure substantive, just futurities. What is necessary is building an entirely new system informed by common interests with accountability secured through measurable progression.
Measuring Affects of Participation
An equitable democracy would dictate that those most impacted by decisions should have the most say in such rulings. This conforms to the Principle of Affected Interests (PAI) which dictates that those most touched by an outcome must receive the greatest say in its verdict (Fung, 2013, p. 263). Such a principle acknowledges that individuals hold membership to any number of bodies for which decisions are to be made, resulting in a dynamic model of influential participation (p. 253). This notion also acts as a technique of regulation, one that requires governing organizations to democratically engage their patrons, hearing from and then responding to the needs and interests of those most touched by the organizations’ judgements, deepening organizational accountability to ‘members’ (p. 254). Concurrently, PAI enables explicit community building between individuals within the same circles of membership, as the degrees to which they are impacted, being common for persons within the same bounds, highlights their shared investments and so ensures their thoughtful collaboration with (and for) one another.
PAI fits well in democratic contexts of governance and offers a tangible way to ensure historically marginalized voices are amplified. Active engagement is encouraged with PAI, for example one-member, one-vote practices within co-operatives which, when aligned with the Principle, might supply additional votes to workers most impacted by tabled decisions like those with time limiting family care responsibilities and/or living further from job sites to avoid inflated rent having a greater say on the co-op creating more work from home options. Passive engagement is also noted within PAI and can include the adoption of cultural norms and perspectives (p. 255). This is exemplified in the caremongering social movement that has arisen out of the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in corporations taking up the practice of care-washing, painting their organizations as being ethical and nurturing in public outreach. As Archon Fung writes (2013), “[p]rivate, civic, or extraterritorial power may be brought to a heal, democratically speaking,” due to the influential power individuals can wield through PAI (p. 265).
It is essential though that mutual agreement be reached on how best to prioritize competing interests and judge when participation in decision making is warranted (p. 263). Economic democracy requires developing democracy in the workplace, “democratizing the market, and increasing local control over finance and investment” (Malleson, 2014, p. 199); with this focus on benefit to ‘the people,’ it is clear that PAI could fittingly inform participant engagement in this new world. PAI can also be played out in social decision making, resulting in individuals most affected by the COVID-19-related closures of social services being included in conversations about alternative service provisions and re-opening. Health and wealth disparities have come to a head during our current moment – the collective social movement to remedy and atone for this imbalance offers an example of preliminary PAI being enacted.
Let it be clear that otherwise(s) are already being imagined through the continued emergence and survivance of democratic socio-economic practices contra to neoliberal capitalism. Such ways of being demonstrate a pragmatic idealism and efforts towards securing ‘real utopias’ for underrepresented communities. These alternatives to our status quo can act as “building blocks for a community economy” (Gibson-Graham and the CEC, 2017, p. 11) and map onto a larger constellation of re-worlding efforts from which we must learn. Systemic shifts require substantive, just action, hence the need to consciously adopt engagement and regulatory techniques like the Principle of Affected Interests. Though at first glance seemingly silo-ing, the individual activations by grassroots organizing bodies to secure their respective social justice work to chart a vast constellation of transformative world-changing possibility. These micro-efforts are always-already ongoing and, if well resourced and socially valued, will move us more rapidly towards a global network of ‘otherwise.’ It is through localized worker/citizen-led activations that equity across borders is achieved; we must not wait to achieve equitable outcomes “‘after the revolution’” (Wright, 2010, 8). Instead, we must make space for concepts of socio-economic fairness to incite it.
Other contacts for Gabriele Simmons: https://www.linkedin.com/in/simmons-g/
Farmworkers Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. (n.d.). Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. https://migrantworkersalliance.org/category/reports/farmworkers/
Fung, A. (2013). Chapter 11 – The principle of affected interests: An interpretation and defense. In J. Nagel & R. Smith (Eds.), Representation: Elections and beyond (pp. 236-268). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Gibson-Graham, J.K. and the Community Economies Collective (CEC). (2017, February). Cultivating community economies: tools for building a livable world. The Next System Project, 1-37. https://thenextsystem.org/cultivating-community-economies
Hossein, C. (2019). A Black epistemology for the social and solidarity economy: The Black social economy. The Review of Black Political Economy, 46(3), 209-229.
Koukkanen, R. (2011) Indigenous economies, theories of subsistence, and women: Exploring the social economy model for Indigenous governance. American Indian Quarterly, 35(2), 215-240.
Malleson, T. (2014). After Occupy: Economic democracy for the 21st century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wright, E. (2010). Envisioning Real Utopias (pp. 1-9). London: Verso.
 This arguably is the case within social democracy as well which tends to operate from a(n impossibly) ‘neutral’ perspective.