I often despair of the sad state of political/cultural commentary, even (or especially) among the established journals of progressive thought. The substance and sensibilities seem so stale and predictable, so focused on Washington, so resistant to really new ideas. Consider The Nation magazine’s clueless, near-reactionary reviews of books about copyright and Internet culture, and the general neglect among U.S. political mags in focusing on the Transition Town movement, Solidarity Economy and other emergent strands of the worldwide commons movement.
What a breath of fresh air, then, to encounter a new British magazine Stir [as in "Stir to Action"], just released into the world by its editor Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh. I immediately confess a bias because Stir features an essay by me, but I contributed the piece in ignorance of what the first issue would look like. Now I am eager for the next issue to appear! The magazine is a highly thoughtful, provocative look at the creative energies of local community action. It doesn't pander to prejudices; it challenges them in a constructive way.
“The reason for this existence of this magazine,” writes Gordon-Farleigh in his opening preface, “is the self-evident need to move beyond the idea of critique as a catalogue of crises and problems by producing and referring to various social groups and communities’ strategies that will inspire and en-courage us to surmount the particular challenges we face…. Critique has been more than adequate in describing and naming the problems we face, but has been insufficient in devising feasible and viable ways of living and exchanging that are not subordinated to wealth creation.”
Stir makes good on its founding premise by featuring a rich variety of fascinating essays and profiles about local action. I was especially taken by “The Practice of Unknowing” by Marianne Maeckelberg, a Dutch anthropologist, who clarified for me something that I had intuited but had trouble articulating: that the very forms of knowledge about the commons are radically different from those of 20th Century politics.
Our political culture has traditionally insisted upon a “monoculture of knowledge” dominated by the nation-state, science and credentialed experts. The new “alter-globalization” movements, by contrast, are about developing “alternative practices of knowing.” These alternatives consist of:
- the idea that knowledge is collectively constructed;
- that knowledge is context specific, partial and provisional;
- that a distinction must be made between knowing something and knowing better; and
- the idea that ignorance is useful.
This may sound terribly arcane stuff, but to me these ideas lie at the heart of the struggle to reclaim the commons as a human-friendly alternative to the neoliberal state and market order. Groucho Marx famously said, "Who are you going to believe -- me or your lyin' eyes?" We have to find new ways to validate our own subjective, context-specific knowledge.
Here’s a final quote from Maeckelbergh’s piece; then go read the entire article:
As the world grows increasingly interconnected, the specific histories of each context are coming into contact with each other and we see a growing need for a system of “governance” that allows for a multiplicity of subjectivities. It would perhaps be “easier” if everyone could share one subjectivity, but any form of governance based on this criteria can only fail, since never in the history of the world have people shared a single subjectivity and there is little evidence that this is either possible or desirable. What we need instead is a means for including people in decision-making without the prerequisite of uniformity – a form of sovereignty that is not premised on a template of “good governance” presumed to be universal.
Why is it so important to re-conceptualize the legitimate forms of “knowing”? Because this struggle to validate local, subjective ways of knowing “is not only about reclaiming knowledge, but it is fundamentally about what it means to be human,” writes Maeckelbergh.
The inaugural issue of Stir has a pleasing diversity of pieces. It also includes a Zen-like essay, “Mastering Masterlessness,” by Nina Power, about the paradoxical notion of an "ignorant schoolteacher" and how "an education predicated on the equality of intelligences" offers the best way to overturn existing hierarchies.
“Local Acts of Resistance Counter Global Systems of Domination,” by Haleh Zandi of Planting Justice, looks at the empowerment that young people experience in managing their own urban gardens.
The theme of community empowerment is also well-explored in a video about “Transition Heathrow,” about a neighborhood's successful resistance to attempts to build a third runway at London's major airport. “A Community Bill of Rights,” by Ben Price, profiles the work of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which is creating legal ordinances to protect communities that won't run afoul of the U.S. Constitution.