Reflections on Radical Transformation: Moving from a Singular System Story to Pluriverse

By Penn Loh

This essay is a confession of sorts, from someone who believes that other worlds are possible and has worked in grassroots movements to fight against injustices and unsustainabilities for the last three decades. While we still have plenty to fight against and now aspire to a Just Transition to a new economy, next system, and solidarity economy, we are challenged to articulate theories of radical transformation. We are well beyond the 20th century framing of state-centered socialism as the replacement for capitalism. Yet the idea of everyone forming coops and elevating people and planet over profit seems not strategic enough.

In this essay, I reflect on my own journey of disentangling from a western, modern, rationalist mindset towards a more open perspective of transformation — that many worlds are not only possible but already here. This mindset starts with the belief in a single objective reality (or universe) governed by natural laws that can only be discovered by science. However, a more open perspective doesn’t simply reject systems thinking and structural analysis that have conceived of capitalism as a system with global reach and coherence. Rather it places this rational mode of thinking into perspective as one of multiple ways of knowing and being – not the only way. It recognizes that there are life ways, diverse economies, and worldviews that persist and coexist despite pressures to erase them. It goes beyond the idea that we have to have either capitalism or another all-encompassing alternative. As I will try to articulate, this kind of “either/or” thinking is part of the roots of the crises we face and can lead to solutions that replicate the erasure of diverse ways of being, not only in indigenous communities but within the modern world. It also runs counter to the pluralism that solidarity economy movements have espoused and the radical inclusivity and intersectionality that our social justice movements proclaim.

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I begin with the community organizing theory of change that I started with in the 1990s and became increasingly frustrated with by the 2000s. I continue with the revelations of new and solidarity economies in the latter 2000s and now some limitations of those ideas. I conclude with thoughts on how we need to reconceptualize the very categories that have undergirded our theories of change (namely economy, society, and environment) and embrace a pluriversal approach, a world in which many worlds fit (as expressed by the Zapatistas). Note that I draw heavily on Arturo Escobar and Ethan Miller’s recent works[1], but that these ideas are also rooted in practices, strategies, and liberation struggles of peoples across the world. These include indigenous peoples as well as those who have been resisting what Escobar labels “heteropatriarchal capitalist modern/colonial world systems”.

Coming of Age at the “End of History”

I came into adulthood and was politicized during the so-called “end of history” in the latter stage of the Reagan administration. US imperialism had succeeded against a dying Soviet (state-centered) communist bloc. American-style neoliberal capitalism was inevitably going global, since “there is no alternative”. Though I was of a generation mentored by veterans of the New Left movements of the 1960s and versed in a Marxist political-economic understanding of the “system”, we eschewed the fragmented ideological sectarian remains of the radical movements of the 60-70s, which we saw as overly dogmatic, often lacking in anti-racist commitment, and at times cultish.

In the early 1990s, I was swept into the burgeoning environmental justice (EJ) movement that centered anti-racism and integrated environment into a justice perspective. The core EJ strategy was building the power base in affected communities. While we fought against environmental racism, EJ was ultimately about community control and building healthy, livable, and just communities.

Thus, we put our efforts into base-building organizations, developing leadership one person at a time, and waging grassroots campaigns. In my time with Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE) in Boston, we and our partners were successful in stopping the siting of new polluting facilities and cleaning up toxic sites. But we were also winning incremental policy gains locally and statewide. We won the conversion of dirty diesel buses in the regional transit fleet to cleaner alternatives. We passed a statewide EJ policy. We built regional networks of grassroots EJ groups to “scale up” our power. By the end of the 90s, systemic change, to us, meant changing the “rules of the game” through policy. We only had to build enough people power. And there were indications that the strategy was working. EJ and other social justice forces, though in our own lanes, were winning living wage ordinances, inclusionary housing policies, criminal justice reforms, and more.

Into the 2000s, we began to reckon with the fact that despite the “wins”, conditions in most of our communities were not improving. Rather, more threats were piling on – from the foreclosure crisis to the climate crisis. Worse still, many of us were paid staff working in nonprofit organizations that were mired in the nonprofit industrial complex. We often felt as if we were on treadmills, running faster only to stay in place.

Rather than radical transformation, we felt like we would take one step forward, only to be pushed back two steps. For example, we won cleaner buses, but then had to fight against fare increases induced by structural deficits in transit funding. In some cases, we were just reproducing the “system” such as winning the public clean-up of toxic brownfields, only to make it more attractive for private developers to gentrify our communities. By the time of the great recession in 2007-2008, it was clear that we had no theories of transformation that felt compelling or attainable.

From Neoliberalism to Solidarity Economy

The “green jobs” movement of the mid-to-late 2000s presented an opportunity to join economic and environmental justice (labor and greens). But for some of us, it was challenged by a lack of analysis of capitalism. Were green jobs going to save capitalism or transform it? When the great recession hit, it was clear that we lacked a vision for another world or even strategies that could imagine a world beyond neoliberal capitalism.

Thus began a search for alternatives and a re-engagement with theory. We defined what a green economy means from an EJ perspective. We claimed that by fighting environmental injustices, we were laying the seeds for a more sustainable and just future. In Boston, we launched the Green Justice Coalition to fight for higher statewide energy efficiency standards to address climate change, create good jobs, and provide access to greening for our communities. At the same time, we got inspired to launch companies that were owned by workers and community to do this greening work. We wanted to create our own green jobs, instead of waiting for others to hire us.

In Boston, the excitement to build community-owned businesses and worker cooperatives was palpable. Even though we had always conceived of power as having both political and economic components, our work had largely been confined to the political. Now, we were exploring how to directly build economic power. Three of our community-based organizing groups who were leading the Green Justice Coalition joined forces to develop a business plan for an energy efficiency company that would employ a dozen workers. Though our plans stalled because none of us (who were all smaller nonprofits) knew how to raise the startup capital (~$150,000), our radical imaginations were sparked.

We quickly connected with those who were talking about a “new economy” that was sustainable, just, and democratic. We learned about social and solidarity economies across the world, in Mondragon, Quebec, Brazil, and beyond. We gravitated to the solidarity economy frame because it had grown out of community-based social justice struggles in Latin America and because “solidarity” names a core value (in contrast to “new”). We challenged the emerging new economy movement to recognize that it was not “new” but that people of color and other front line communities have been practicing solidarity as a means of survival for millennia through mutual aid, coops, and many other practices. We embraced the core principle of pluralism embedded in solidarity economy movements and the explicit justice frame that SE networks in US were building.

Making the Break with One World World towards the Pluriverse

For the past decade, we have seen a growing desire for transforming the economy (and changing everything). Through formations like the Solidarity Economy Initiative, we have been supporting community base-building groups to develop vision and strategy to fight and build at the same time. These desires for radical transformation are seen in Black Lives Matter, Green New Deal, Just Transition, and more. These aspirations articulate a positive vision of what the world can be like, going beyond just what we are against (white supremacy, extraction, exploitation, patriarchy, …). And there is commitment to addressing these root problems in an intersectional way with a plurality of approaches that are brought into being by those who have been most affected.

But how do we bring these aspirations into being? How do we avoid the “false solutions” that are based on the very ideas that created these multiple crises in the first place? Even if we acknowledge multiple pathways towards transformation, built in place, how do we develop strategies to fight against and dismantle national and global structures of domination, while building and nurturing the worlds we want to inhabit? What are our ideas of how transformation might happen?

Though we recognize the false binary of capitalism or communism binary, are we still assuming that transformation is the replacement of a singular system (capitalism) by another all-encompassing system? These ideas of a universalizing “system” are not just capitalist, but rooted in western modern rationalistic thinking. It is this mindset that has universalized whiteness as normal, that enables settlers to imagine empty landscapes to colonize. These ways of thinking not only constrain our imaginations of possible futures, but also help to reproduce the structures that we are trying to change.

This mindset has been characterized by John Law as the One World World, premised on the belief that there is only one single knowable, objective reality that is separate from ourselves, waiting to be discovered or explained by “science”. The One World World (OWW) sets up the binaries that separate individuals from communities, humans from nature, subjects from objects, local from global, and theory from practice (among many others). OWW denies the existence of and invisibilizes the many diverse worlds (including variants of capitalism) that are actually existing and in practice.

There are other formulations of reality (ways of being) that are premised on the idea that there are multiple realities, or worlds. These other worlds are deeply relational. They are based on the idea that we don’t exist, except in relationship to one another and all the other beings and Earth systems that are in constant interaction and interdependence. Individuals do not exist prior to communities (which is the starting point of much of western liberal political philosophy); I am because you (or we) are. Worlds are brought into being (co-produced) by our being and doing in them.

These more relational worlds are still with us. These include ways of being developed from historical struggles of marginalized peoples and age-old or indigenous traditions, that many of us are still connected to. Intersectional organizing and emergent strategies are about practicing and producing these more relational worlds. The many mutual aid efforts that have sprung up in response to the COVID pandemic are examples of these other worlds in action. Our fights are not only with the “system”, “the man”, or “capitalism”, but over the nature of reality itself – what Escobar calls ontological politics. How do we pursue a politics of transformation that produces a pluriverse where many worlds can co-exist without destroying one another?

Deconstructing Sustainable Development

To further examine the consequences of OWW thinking, let’s look at the familiar conceptualization of sustainable development as the overlap of three spheres of sustainable: economy, environment, and society.[2] Each of these spheres are seen as distinct (and separate) arenas of action with their own rules, logics, and institutions. In the EJ movement, we grappled with how to properly define how these three spheres should interact, critiquing neoliberal market approaches. We celebrated winning “clean” natural gas buses as an example of sustainable development that furthered social equity, cleaner air, and economic well-being.

But within the sustainable development construct, we did not question what kind of economy was producing the well-being. We did not explore how environmental benefits for city residents might be linked to harming the lands and peoples where natural gas was being extracted, including indigenous territories. Ultimately, we did not question the conceptualization of economy, society, and environment as separate domains.

Yet, none of these dimensions could ever exist without the others. Even drawing them as their own spheres makes invisible the connections and interrelations that make life possible. Society has never been separate from environment or our material means of existence. Environment has never been only the natural areas that are “out there” or a resource base to be extracted. Economy and free markets have no meaning or existence outside of people or our interrelations with living and nonliving systems on earth.

Concluding Thoughts

Transformations towards the worlds that are aspired to by solidarity economy, Just transition, Movement for Black Lives (and many others), are unlikely through OWW thinking or the sustainable development construct. We are not stuck in capitalism, because there never was a singular capitalism. And even within capitalistic worlds, there are still non-capitalist domains of life that persist. We already inhabit and are cultivating other worlds through day-to-day practices as common as growing food and giving it away, cooking for friends, and caring for our elders.

Yet, we can remain stuck in OWW approaches to social change. When we aspire to radical transformation, to “change everything”, we must also decolonize our minds of a modernist, rationalist, way of OWW thinking that tells us there is only one singular world, upon which we have either this or that variety of political-economy. It cannot simply be about replacing a unitary dominant capitalism with another singular system. Rather transformation is the unleashing and cultivation of a pluriverse – creating, as the Zapatistas have said, a world where many worlds fit.

Politics and power are central to navigating the trajectories of change that emerge when we start to shift towards multiple worlds. To build pluriversal power, we have to consciously counter and disrupt dominant OWW thinking.[3] To do that, we need to build spaces of being/doing/knowing where there is collective autonomy to create worlds together. We can weave these practices into our personal lives, communities, work and livelihoods – any of the settings in which we are living. And we can cultivate the ways that we already have, re-membering and honoring lifeways and traditions that modernity has sought to erase.

We have to embrace both/and strategies. We have to fight for reforms and build the new at the same time. We have to take an intersectional approach that looks at the confluence of multiple modes of domination that have evolved in various places and to understand that a class analysis cannot be separated from race, gender, and other lenses. A pluriversal politics does not outright reject or negate western modernist mindsets. Rather it rejects the idea that it is the only mindset, the only reality. In fighting and building, we are inhabiting and working with elements of the modernist world, while also assembling and cultivating others.

Finally, we must make the road by walking from where we are. Everything is place-based and contextual, so we can all start and make change from wherever we are. And the worlds that we build in our places, are not only valuable inspirations for others, but can link up with other worlds to create the pluriverse where many worlds can fit.


[1] See Arturo Escobar’s 2017 Designs for the Pluriverse and 2020 Pluriversal Politics (both Duke University Press) and Ethan Miller’s 2019 Reimagining Livelihoods (Univ. of Minnesota Press).

[2] This section draws from Ethan Miller’s tracing of these spheres as a “trio” of concepts that have been historically and mutually produced in western modernity.

[3] I’m thinking here along the lines of Antonio Gramsci’s war of position and JK Gibson-Graham’s breaking of capitalocentrism.

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pennloh

Senior Lecturer and Director of Master of Public Policy and Community Practice, Tufts University Department of Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning

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