I offered the following remarks at the First Annual Schumacher Lecture, at Plaats de Kleine Aarde, a community land trust in Boxtel, Netherlands, on September 14, 2023. The event was convened to explore the launch of a new organization, Schumacher Lab Netherlands.
I wish to thank the organizers of this event – Natasha Hulst, Shinta Oosterwaal, Reinout Wissenburg – and de Kleine Aaarde, for bringing us all together on this special occasion to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the book Small is Beautiful. And for Susan Witt's steadfast stewardship of the Schumacher legacy at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics over the past 43 years!
The global impact of Small is Beautiful, written in 1973 by E.F. “Fritz” Schumacher, continues to reverberate. Why? Because it had the audacity to critique economics from the perspective of a well-lived life. It offered an honest measure of standard economics and the society it had produced, and declared it sorely deficient and outrageous.
Both the premises of economics and the institutions they engendered were called out for being grotesquely large, rigid and inefficient, ecologically harmful, and anti-democratic. Instead, here was a brave and brilliant renegade calling for an economics that honored “the organic, the gentle, the elegant and beautiful.” He even included a chapter on the idea of Buddhist economics! He openly celebrated the actual experience of life over the desiccated theories of the discipline, saying, “An ounce of practice is generally worth more than a ton of theory.”
This sort of wisdom has profoundly inspired people for decades. It gave hope that a more humane, eco-friendly future could be credibly pursued. Then this window of fresh air was abruptly slammed shut. The arrival of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and the power-surge of neoliberal capitalism in the 1980s forced the small-is-beautiful ethic to the margins, as a ruthless market/state system aggressively pursued environmental deregulation, austerity budgets, corporate subsidies, growth-driven energy policies, globally integrated commerce, and capitalist power over democracy. The promise of the 1970s was put on ice. You could say that, politically and culturally, we are only just now emerging from the fantasies that neoliberal capitalism imposed on the world for the past forty years.
And so we convene on the fiftieth anniversary of Small is Beautiful. How best to commemorate this landmark book? I believe the most significant homage we can pay is to this book is to make his vision real in our time. Fortunately, this is exactly why this event has been convened. This gathering is an invitation to help imagine, and build, a new vision for our troubled, some would say doomed, world. This event is about creating a new organization – and catalyzing a larger movement – that could help enact a more place-based economy aligned with living ecosystems and social need.
In truth, our times don’t just require a new movement. They require a new type of movement, because the old movements and ideologies and organizations are not achieving what are needed. Too many of them are artifacts of an archaic, fading order of economics and political action.
Think about it: It’s been more than three decades since we first learned that science had confirmed the reality of climate change. The 2008 financial meltdown – 15 years ago! -- revealed the arrogant power of global finance and capitalism – and yet the liberal state still has not significantly reformed those financial structures. Progressive political parties and NGOs have been largely impotent in forcing changes in climate policy, financial policy, corporate accountability, taxation, and social redistribution.
We are essentially caught up in some already-discredited mythologies! The drive to impose capitalist "development" on the world is not liberating non-white peoples around the world. It is locking them into the doomed economic paradigm from which we all need to escape.
If we are to inaugurate some serious change – structural change, ethical and cultural change – we will need to come up with a more astute theory of change and how to pursue it. We can no longer march into the halls of parliaments, courts, and city governments expecting that solid facts and rational arguments will carry the day. We’ve tried that. We’ve also learned that scientific knowledge alone can’t solve our problems, if only because science can be co-opted and politicized. In addition, science can’t address social values such as economic fairness, structural racism, and feelings of social solidarity and human dignity.
This says to me that we need to identify other, more effective fulcrum points for transforming the world. It’s become clear that representative democracy as now constituted isn’t really a vehicle for actualizing change. It is mostly about containing, co-opting, and neutralizing popular demands for change so that The System as it exists can continue as it wishes, unimpeded. And yet paradoxically, many illiberal, authoritarian forces in contemporary politics want to strengthen the power of the state to cancel dissenting opinion. They want autocratic rule and less democracy, and certainly not a liberal polity of cultural tolerance, civil liberties, and pluralism. As many rock-solid norms about democracy, governance and even national identity have crumbled, the polarization is locking us into a shambolic, no-win governance system.
So what is to be done? What strategies might make progress?
I draw inspiration and guidance from Václav Havel, the Czech playwright. When he and other cultural dissidents in the 1970s faced a totalizing, repressive system impervious to change – in his case, the totalitarian Czech government – Havel had a counter-intuitive response. He called for the development of a "parallel polis." A parallel polis is a community-created safe space in which people can mutually support each other, directly produce what they need, and build a kind of shadow society – outside of the machinery of the dominant political system.
The idea of a parallel polis serves many important purposes. It offers a cultural zone in which people can move beyond group-think, debunk official propaganda as needed, and expand their imaginations about what is possible. A parallel polis is not an escapist fantasy of retreating to communes and gated communities. It’s about building horizontal, convivial relationships with one another, which over time can give rise to a prefigurative new order. In a parallel polis, people can start where they are – with their local circumstances and personal talents and shared needs – and begin do what needs to be done. They can speak the truth and express wholesome values. They don’t have to stay quiet, self-deceive themselves, or lie in order to get by. People can reclaim their dignity and a sense of social solidarity. They can recover some measure of hope by refusing to compromise from the outset, and instead muster the courage to try to do what is actually needed.
In a sense, there is already a parallel polis in many countries, including The Netherlands. It’s just that the people living in this parallel culture haven’t yet discovered each other. They haven’t asserted their collective presence as a vibrant Republic of Commoners. They remain too isolated and disaggregated, and perhaps too demoralized or fearful of boldly stepping out in new directions. Or they may be trapped within organizations or institutions anchored to obsolete frameworks and goals, which could be summarized as:
- “Pursue economic growth at all costs because everything depends on it;” and
- “Privilege capitalist finance and markets as the best decisionmakers for our future;” and,
- “Rely on centralized, hierarchical institutional power as the most effective way to get things done.”
It’s crazy, I know! Our so-called leaders don’t understand that there is a whole ‘nother world out there, one that’s already enacting some very different paradigms of democratic action, creative problem-solving, social solidarity, economic fairness, and ecological stewardship. As I show in my book The Commoner’s Catalog for Changemaking, there is a big, buzzing pluriverse of projects, movements, communities of practice, literature, and visionaries who are already, right now, developing tomorrow’s answers. They include:
* The degrowth movement that is pointing the way to a post-capitalist macro-economics that can meet needs without economic growth and consumerism, while reducing inequality and carbon emissions.
* Elements of the co-operative movement that are helping emancipate and empower ethnic and racial groups, and moving beyond consumerism and growth.
* The growing bioregional movement, and transition town networks and relocalization projects that are making regions more self-sufficient and ecologically committed.
* The many localized alternatives to industrial agriculture – agroecology, permaculture, traditional and Indigenous farming, urban agriculture, Slow Food, relocalized food chains – not to mention the post-capitalist “convivial conservation” movement.
* The many projects that are decommodifying land to make it more accessible and affordable, such as community land trusts and informal community networks of gardening, hunting, fishing, and sharing.
* Open source software, hardware, and peer production are powerful symbols of commoning. By decommodifying code and hardware design, they are enabling tech innovations to be shared and improved by self-organized communities, at minimal or no cost. Creative Commons licenses have made it possible to legally share billions of creative works without permission or payment. Everyone knows about Linux and Wikipedia, but there are also peer production movements focused on citizen-science, open access scholarly publishing, and open educational resources. More recently, we’ve seen the rise of digital autonomous organizations, or DAOS, and Holochain, a powerful set of network protocols that go way beyond the blockchain.
* One powerful offshoot of the open-source revolution is cosmo-local production, a system that facilitates the sharing of design and knowledge globally, and the physical production of things locally. This process – which has obvious implications for reducing the use of carbon fuels -- is being used to design and produce motor vehicles, furniture, houses, electronics, and farm equipment. Relocalization, anyone?
* Urban commons are empowering ordinary people in Barcelona and Seoul, Korea, and Italian and French cities and towns, through childcare and eldercare commons, participatory budgeting, community gardens, and various types of commons/public partnerships.
I could go on. I haven’t even mentioned mutual aid networks and care communities… or alternative local currencies and regional mutual credit systems and Timebanking…. or regional WiFi systems like Guifi.net in Catalonia….or water commons that protect and allocate water in dry regions of the world….or arts and culture commons that let artists reduce their costs and take greater control of their art-making.
The novelist and activist Arundhati Roy’s once declared, memorably, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” That call to action, from 2003, is now terribly outdated. We’re not only hearing another world breathing. We’re hearing the loud, intense roars of another world, even on noisy, busy days! The problem is that this pluriverse of system-change players remains largely disorganized. They are marginalized and eclipsed by the raw power of the market/state system. And so, for now, we live in an interregnum, waiting for the old order to implode and a new post-capitalist polity to be born.
Let’s proudly recognize that there are many, many brave, clever people who are already busy building a new world, many of whom are under this very tent! In the process, they are creating new arenas for living different sorts of lives -- more authentic, integrated, and satisfying lives. There are many, many commoners out there with extraordinary talents and practical skills, but they have not generally found each other.
I think this is why we are together today. The subterranean Republic of Commoners needs to step into the light of day. Its efforts need to be amplified and empowered. We need to figure out how to coordinate and elevate many unsung people and projects, and bring them into closer collaboration.
More generally, we need to imagine and incubate bold new ideas that can, incrementally and collectively, build a different economic and political logic over time. We need an organization to initiate and oversee practical research and development of these new ideas. And we need to deepen our understanding of the aliveness of the more-than-human world – and within ourselves – so that we can build a society that can honor and regenerate that aliveness.
The flourishing of life is, in fact, at the absolute center of this quest. It’s something that can no longer be treated as a peripheral concern of capitalist investment and profit-making. It cannot be treated as a leftover space that is grudgingly allowed by a state apparatus that really prefers to partner with wealthy millionaires and corporations. Unfortunately, it will be exceedingly difficult to disrupt the inertia of the market/state system and its aversion to change – and indeed, its aversion to working with ordinary citizens – unless we first develop our own novel types of institutions and cultures: our own parallel polis.
For now, as a thought experiment, let’s call this idea the Schumacher Action Lab. What might it look like? Obviously, there are many voices that need to be heard and brought into alignment. But here is my dream.
Start with recognizing the difference between an organization and a movement. An organization is about specific individuals sustaining themselves and pursuing a defined institutional mission and identity. A movement, by contrast, is far more open-ended, fiercely creative, and out of control. A movement is less coherent and branded than an organization, but only because it’s so busy, diverse, and filled with outward-facing purpose. A movement functions as a kind of super-organism, driven by its own creative autopoiesis, fierce metabolism, and self-reinforcing energies.
What we need here, with a Schumacher Action Lab, is not a traditional organization, but rather a brave organization that can help convene, host, and galvanize a larger movement. The organization itself must have sufficient definition, structure, and leadership, of course. But it must also be committed to the relationship-building and trust-building among a diverse community of commoners. It must be courageous enough to act on its convictions, and not be content simply to build a brand image and reputation. It must be open to newcomers and untried ideas so that the system can constantly expand as circumstances allow. But it must also have enough discipline and focus to be effective and rigorous, to show leadership, to follow through, to inspire and organize and stake out new territory.
A British commoner, Dil Green, made an astute observation about how commons situate themselves in the world. He said: "Commons are ‘meso-scope’ social institutions. Not micro/individual or macro/collective. But meso. Right libertarians prioritize agency at the micro level. Statist lefties at the macro. But it’s in the middle where life takes place, where we all live. The missing middle is key. Build commons!”
Building some meso institutions of commons first requires that we get beyond the private / public binary that tends to dominate these discussions. We also need to see that commoning is not about making blueprints for action; it’s about getting the right people together in a nourishing space, and empowering their collective wisdom and creativity to evolve the right solutions, based on their particular context and needs.
I envision an alliance of very different projects, organizations, visionaries and commoners who are mostly focused on making change directly, through their own peer governance and provisioning. The first priority shouldn’t be to mobilize and rally to persuade skeptical politicians and risk-averse bureaucrats to step up and do the right thing. That’s usually a fool’s errand and a waste of time, or at least, a disappointment. Yes, we still need to talk to those people, and we still need to legalize our commons and assist in their financing. But we can’t let projects become dependent on the vague promises of conventional politics, the opaque agendas of state agencies, and the short-attention spans of the media. Remember, this is about building a durable parallel polis that belongs to us -- our own Commonsverse that can get real things done.
For lack of other models, I often come back to the New Alchemy Institute of the 1970s in the US, which was a pioneering research center that investigated — and physically demonstrated — new types of organic agriculture, aquaculture, and bioshelter design with a systems perspective. New Alchemy was about DOING, not just studying. It was about reaching out to the public and the creative fringe. It didn’t just traffic in the "respectable politics” of academic research, think tanks, public policy, and litigation — whose limits today are painfully obvious.
If I were to channel this sensibility for our time, I think we need to have shared spaces in which to hear about Indigenous science, open source peer production, cosmo-local hardware design and production, urban commons, agroecology, novel types of digitally networked organizations, platform cooperatives, and commons-based arts and culture projects.
We need to listen to these and other voices precisely because they are not weighted down by the baggage of conventional academic scholarship, political parties and ideology, and public administration. These voices are practitioner-driven. They are open and inclusive and democratic. They often engage the inner, somatic, and spiritual lives of people. They reflect widespread cultural aspirations to deal squarely with climate change. They welcome direct action with post-growth ideas.
Mihnea Tanasescu, author of the book Ecocene Politics, has astutely noted that ecologies have three salient features that our institutions must be able to deal with. Those features are chance or contingency; dynamic change; and local grounding. Can our institutions be flexible and creative enough to deal with an economy beset by climate change, for example, or are they too rigid, top-down-driven, and obsessed with profitmaking over social and ecological need?
I’m excited about Schumacher Lab because I think it could be an incubator for the types of institutions we need. It could convene people to meet and engage with each other. Their “crazy” ideas could not just be validated, but embraced by colleagues in different theaters of action and taken to new heights.
A lot of people of doing great work in building a new type of economy. But their projects are generally so disaggregated and outside of conventional fields of inquiry, and so under-supported and under-theorized, that they often seem invisible or inconsequential. And yet, quite the opposite is true: the seeds of important transformations already exist. They just don’t have a nourishing space in which to arise and present themselves to other movements and the general public. They aren’t properly showcased and shepherded into mainstream circles.
There is a wonderful Buddhist saying, “Examine the nature of unborn awareness.” We need to reflect on WHY some of these ideas are not “going wide” despite the many demonstrable crises that they could help address. While I think there are external reasons for the suppression of these ideas, I also think we have our own internal prejudices and blockages that we need to examine. Our own theories of change, our sometimes-rigid sense of politics and identity, and our alienation from our inner wisdom and bodies. These things need our attention, too! Our inner subjectivities and openness to change need attention if we are to unleash different energies and perspectives.
Which is why I think the Schumacher Action Lab is not just about creating a new voice as an organization. The aspiration should be to change the very context of politics and culture by bringing new and daring ideas forward. By way of example: In the early history of Planet Earth, the emergence of photosynthesis in plants resulted in a huge surge of carbon dioxide flooding the planet, changing the baseline conditions for life and allowing new lifeforms to arise. I think we’re at that stage in political action today. That’s the analogy I would embrace.
Resistance to the outrages of The System is necessary, to be sure. But we need to do more than resist. We need to create. We need to create specific, functional alternatives that change the context of discussion and enlarge the horizon of what’s possible. Functional alternatives that morally indict the existing system and point to realistic options.
Amsterdam and the Netherlands are rich with such venturesome initiatives, from the Voedselpark, or Food Park – which is both resistance AND creation – and projects like the conservation group King of the Meadows. There is the urban commons, With My Own Two Hands. There are energy commons. There are the many new-economy projects compiled in the book Thrive, edited by Kees Klomp and Shinta Oosterwaal. There is the Commons Network led by Sophie Bloemen and Thomas De Groot. In other words, there is already a lot of creative experience and insight and experimentation to build on. There is already a seasoned cohort of civic innovators out there.
The basic plan that I envision is to:
1) Organize an eager, diverse group of commoner-partners around a shared vision of commoning;
2) Consolidate these networks of people by federating them into a coherent, loosely organized force; and
3) Use this decentralized network of people and projects to expose the actual limitations of the system, showcase the working alternatives, and begin to leverage power-shifts to the Commonsverse.
E.F. Schumacher had some wisdom for how to proceed. He said:
“And what is my case? Simply that our most important task is to get off our present collision course. And who is there to tackle such a task? I think every one of us, whether old or young, powerful or powerless, rich or poor, influential or un-influential.”
Let me conclude with this wonderful poem by Adrienne Rich that says much the same thing on a touching note:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save.
So much has been destroyed.
I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.
It is no exaggeration to say that the mission of the Schumacher Action Lab should be to help reconstitute the world. It needs to slough off old institutional structures and norms. It needs to devise new sort of commons-based governance and social togetherness. It needs to be inclusive and diverse, but with shared core commitments. It needs to strive for the rigor of academia but with greater flexibility and political commitment. I wish you wisdom and graciousness in organizing this much-needed organization!