Luke's Notes

Building Utopia from the Bottom Up

Crossposted with slight revisions from LaPSe of Reason 2023.This blog is an introduction to themes from my book Alternative Societies.

Alternative ways of living are less an escape from society and more a method for transforming it. We should learn from a global multitude of lived utopias, and scale them up to a plural, intersectional, green, decolonial, international, democratic socialism.

Climate change, war, poverty, extremism, and culture wars greet us each day. Gramsci recommended ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. But we can have optimism of the intellect too, grounded in thriving alternatives globally. They are here and now and provide bases for alternative futures too.

The classic alternative to capitalism is communism. We should examine what went wrong in attempts at communism and the implications. One approach could be that we try alternatives bottom-up rather than top-down, another that we do so on a small scale within capitalism before attempting them on a grand scope. One micro-communism within capitalism is cooperative ownership. Coops go against alienation and exploitation and facilitate empowerment, cooperation, and equality. They experience problems, incipient hierarchy and cooption for example, but none that are irremediable. Wider public ownership and redistribution are about collective control for the good of all society and equality, rather than private ownership for private profit, polarisation and elite power. Public ownership is popular, even amongst supporters of the right.

Some advocate less work and a slower life, with more free time for citizenship and care, departing from the fast short-attention society in the search for one of greater depth, offering a better quality of life and based on non-materialistic satisfactions and therefore greener. This can be pursued through individual lifestyle change. But not everyone has the time or money to slow down. So, cultural, political, and structural change is required. People worldwide practise eco-localism and bioregionalism for reproduction of their lives, especially women and those in the Global South. Alternatives to big tech and surveillance capitalism include a decentralised federated or democratically owned media and internet.

There is alternative education, influenced by advocates like A. S. Neill, Paolo Freire and Ivan Illich: dialogical and democratic, developing from students’ experiences as much as from teachers’ curricula, as much about self-development as academic, and existing beyond institutions and accredited instructors. Intentional communities do not take away the care, love and nurturing of the family but locate them in alternative living arrangements which work better for some. Food countercultures like freeganism and alternative social centres are based on different value systems: anticorporate, for need over greed and waste, public over private spaces, community outreach and green. Prison abolitionism implies the need for equal and communal societies that reduce bases for crime. Indigenous, restorative justice addresses the roots of problems, building reconciliation and community, in place of adversarialism and punishment.

Such alternatives have already been pursued in many places. There was the radical collective democracy of Fatsa in Turkey, and the more enduring but challenged democratic, green and feminist Rojava in Syria. Radical alternatives are practised in Chiapas in Mexico and the communist village of Marinaleda in Spain. Cooperation Jackson in the USA combines cooperatives in society with mainstream politics – as with the Cleveland Model responding to racism is central. Participatory budgeting has spread from Porto Alegre in Brazil through the world. Municipalisms like Barcelona en Comú devolve democracy by local state action and promote dialogue. In Preston, Cleveland, and beyond, community wealth building keeps investment local, fostering co-ops in place of an extractive economy. It can also be green and good for health and happiness.

These examples include local sustainable social reproduction; co-ops; greater gender equality and anti-racism; accessible housing; alternative justice; communal living as well as the family; alternative education; and bottom-up, pyramidal, confederal, multilevel, participatory democracy.

Are these alternatives too separate, avoiding the political power needed to reorganise all of society? In fact, they do not disengage from society. They have to interact with capitalism and government. They create contradictions in society rather than stepping aside from it; non-market and non-capitalist principles contrast with mainstream institutions and values. They link up with formal politics. Polarisation between micro-experimentalism and organised politics is false. We should adopt a multilevel approach: social alternatives and politics.

Localisms should not just be local, or we will get insularity and competition and their global impact will be limited. They must be scaled outwards and upwards. Higher-up political action can play its part in this. Local alternatives can then impact on urgent problems like climate change, and we can ensure equality and universality across society. This entails national public ownership. But public ownership should be democratic and extend participation beyond managers, experts and workers, to the broader community. So, a pluralist democratic socialism.

Alternative globalisation is unlikely through global politics. There are too many clashes of interest and ideology for radical agreements at this level. But you can make progressive international change through links between actors who do have things in common: sub-global internationalism, as in South–South cooperation.

One way we can have alternative globalism is in the free movement of people. Open borders are morally right for reasons of obligations, equality, and freedom. International migration boosts the economy and employment. Contact between groups increases tolerance and integration. The young and educated are more open to international migration than the old, and to post- or non-capitalism. This may be a cohort rather than lifecycle phenomenon, meaning they hold this perspective through life rather than becoming conservative with age. This creates an expanding social base for alternatives to capitalism.

Socialism is about economic equality and bringing society under collective control. These are necessary for solving climate change, social problems, injustice, and conflict. But socialism must be democratic and accept that not everyone will be suited to it. Socialism can be better at liberalism than liberalism, providing the popular democracy and equality for all to be free. But this requires that socialism, while not adopting liberalism, be friendly to pluralism and individual freedom; socialism with pluralism rather than pluralism with socialism.

For some, socialism is Eurocentric. It must be decolonial, accepting indigenous knowledge and values for post-development and the ecological reproduction of life. Yet, Global South initiatives do sometimes echo values of socialism, such as equality and collective ownership and control.

What I have outlined amounts to a democratic socialism of collective ownership and equality. It involves plurality, multilevel change, and theory grounded in practice rather than imposed. Local prefigurative experiments must be scaled up and combined with state-led and sub-global international politics. The result is plural, multilevel, liberal, green, intersectional, decolonial, international, democratic socialism.

These themes are covered in more detail in Alternative Societies.

Related blog: For Pluralist Democratic Socialism