Getting Free a sketch of An Association of Democratic, Autonomous Neighborhoods



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A Notion of How We Might Want To Live

We can turn now to a notion of how we might want to live. Let’s assume, for the moment, that we could start from scratch to build a totally new social world, building up our neighborhoods just the way we wanted. What would they look like?

I have imagined a neighborhood with the following features (see below for a Footnote on Terminology):

Households: Households are units of roughly 200 people cohabiting in a building complex which provides for a variety of living arrangements for single individuals, couples, families, and extended families. The complex will have facilities for meetings, communal (as well as some private) cooking, laundry, basic education, building maintenance, various workshops, basic health care, a birthing room, emergency medical care, and certain recreational facilities. Households are managed democratically and cooperatively by a direct assembly of members (the Household Assembly).

Projects: Projects include all cooperative activities (more than one person) in agriculture and husbandry, manufactures, higher education, research, advanced medicine, communications, transportation, arts, sports, and so forth, plus cooperative activities undertaken within the household itself (cooking, teaching, child care, health care, maintenance, etc.). Buildings will be designed and constructed for these various activities. Internally, projects are managed democratically and cooperatively by a direct assembly of members (Project Assembly). Some projects, perhaps most, are controlled, in the larger sense, directly by the neighborhood, through the Home Assembly. Other projects are controlled by agreements worked out among several or many Home Assemblies.

Peer Circles: Peer Circles are units of roughly 30-50 people. All persons in the neighborhood will belong to just one peer circle, located at their primary project. For some this will be in the household but for most it will be in a project outside the household, or even outside the neighborhood. All projects are broken down into such circles. These circles meet within the project to discuss issues, and, where necessary, coalesce into project-wide general assemblies. Votes are taken within meetings but tallied across meetings, within each project. Peer circle meetings are necessary because genuine face-to-face discussion and deliberation are seriously constricted in groups larger than 50 people.

Because households contain many persons whose primary project is not within the household, but who are nevertheless living there, and who will want to be engaged in the self-governing of the household, I will refer to the Household Assembly as a distinct entity, different from Project (workplace) Assemblies, even though the household includes Peer Circles for such projects as cooking, teaching, childcare, and healthcare.



Home Assembly: The Home Assembly is the core social creation. It is an assembly of the entire neighborhood, roughly 2000 people, meeting in a large hall designed to facilitate directly democratic discussion and decision-making. In practice of course the size of Home Assemblies will vary considerably. Its upper limit though is determined by the number of people who can meet in one large hall and still engage in democratic, face-to-face, unmediated decision-making.

An Association of Home Assemblies: Home Assemblies will join together, by means of a pact or a treaty agreement, to form a larger association. There will be an overall agreement which will define the association in general, as well as many specific agreements for particular projects.

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The Home Assembly is the neighborhood governing itself. The neighborhood makes its own rules, allocates its own resources and energies, and negotiates its own treaties with other neighborhoods. The neighborhood will control the land on which it lives, and all projects and households within it.

Please note what this arrangement of social relations does not have: hierarchy, representation, wage-slavery, profit, commodities, money, classes, private ownership of the means of production, taxes, nation-states, patriarchy, alienation, exploitation, elite professional control of any activity, or formal divisions by race, gender, age, ethnicity, looks, beliefs, intelligence, or sexual preference. This neighborhood, so organized, will be the basic unit of the new social order.

Those familiar with radical traditions will recognize in this sketch a melding of the anarcho-communist focus on community, the anarcho-syndicalist focus on workers control, and the feminist focus on abolishing the distinction between public and private spheres of social life. It is my belief that each of these cannot be achieved without the other. The achievement of workers control alone would leave no way for the community as a whole to allocate its resources (e.g., to decide whether to phase out a project or start up a new one), whereas the achievement of community control alone, without simultaneously controlling the means of production, is meaningless, empty. And the failure to democratize and socialize households, including them (and hence reproduction) as an explicit and integral part of the social arrangements, would leave a gender based division of labor intact, thus perpetuating the public/private dichotomy.

New towns have occasionally been built from scratch in recent decades, primarily by “developers” as commercial enterprises. Also, many completely new utopian communities were established throughout the nineteenth century in the United States, and perhaps elsewhere. It will surely be possible, given the resources, to build new communities from scratch in the future, at least on a limited scale. This will certainly be the exception though rather than the rule, especially at the beginning of this revolution. For the most part building from scratch will be out of the question for the first 50-75 years.

The actual task we face then is to transform existing structures (buildings, plant) and social relations into the desired ones. We need to try to imagine how our model neighborhood would look after having been converted from a typical urban neighborhood (rather than built from scratch). Let’s see first if we can convert the existing physical plant into something more useful for democratic, cooperative living, keeping in mind that this is the easy part; the hard part is transforming social relations (e.g., property, family, work, and play relations). I will deal with this more below in discussing how to get there.

Factories and shops can be converted easiest of all. These can be used pretty much as they are (after they have been seized of course). Space will have to be cleared somewhere in them for peer circle meetings and project-wide assemblies.

More difficult is how to convert a street full of individual residences into households. It can probably be improvised however as follows: build passageways and tunnels between the buildings; set aside certain rooms for workshops, child care, health care; block off certain streets to sort of enclose the unit; expand one or two kitchens into a communal unit; rearrange bedrooms; clear an apartment for a meeting hall.

It will also be difficult to find a meeting space for the Home Assembly. There are options however. There may be a union hall, a church, a roller skating rink, or a high school gym in the neighborhood. But also, warehouses, supermarkets, and department stores have large open floors which could be cleared and made into meeting halls. Most of these spaces however could not hold 2000 people. It may be necessary to begin with smaller Home Assemblies -- say five households of 200 each -- for a Home Assembly of 1000 members, instead of ten households for a 2000 member Home Assembly.

Later on, after the flow of wealth out of the neighborhood to the ruling class has been stopped, and after the stolen wealth of the ruling class has been re-appropriated, neighborhoods will undoubtedly want to, and have the resources to, build specially designed Home Assembly Halls, as well as new Household complexes. But at first we will have to make do with what already exists. The wealth of centuries is embedded in the existing architectural plant, a plant which reflects capitalist values, priorities, and social relations. It will take a long time to tear down and rebuild this physical world, rebuilding it to express the needs of a free people.

But when we do rebuild, the mark of our new civilization will be its assembly halls. Just as earlier worlds have been marked by the pyramids of ancient Egypt, the temples and theaters of ancient Greece, the castles and cathedrals of medieval Europe, and the banks and skyscrapers of modern capitalism, so the new social world of a cooperatively self-governing people will be known by its meeting halls. They will be its most distinguishing architectural feature. They will undoubtedly come in all shapes and sizes. Besides the large general assembly chambers for neighborhoods (Home Assemblies), there will need to be small caucus rooms in every project and every household for peer circle meetings, as well as project-wide and household-wide assembly rooms. A deliberating people will design, build, and equip excellent and beautiful spaces for deliberation.

To complete this sketch we would need to imagine at least two more arrangements, one for a typical small town, and another for a typical peasant village, two rapidly disappearing social entities (given the continuing, violent enclosures forced through by our corporate rulers). Peasant villages the world over, although under heavy attack and rapidly disappearing, nevertheless still possess a basis for community, with many communal traditions still in tact. These traditions are not always and everywhere relevant to creating a free, anarchistic society, but some of them are. Marx, after all, believed that Russia could skip capitalism and move directly to communism by building on the peasant commune. Small towns still exist too, in every country. Even in a highly urbanized country like the United States, there are still 20,000 towns with a population below 10,000, 15,000 of which are below 2500. There is no reason why these small towns couldn't switch to direct democracy right now if they wanted to.

It will be easier I think to transform small towns and peasant villages into our desired neighborhoods than suburbs or dense urban areas. But maybe not. Megalopolises and suburbia will surely wither away, decade by decade into the new civilization, as the countryside is repopulated with livable, cooperative, autonomous communities of free people. (Needless to say, the vast shantytowns of the neo-colonized world will be the first to go.)

A neighborhood is a very small place, relatively speaking. Although there may be many villages or small towns left in the world with populations as low as 2,000, they are rapidly disappearing. Most settled areas are much more densely populated. Consider a town of 90,000 for example, which is a very small town by today’s standards. An average Home Assembly size of 2,000 members means we will have 45 Home Assemblies in the town. A city of 600,000 will have 300 Home Assemblies. A city of 1,800,000 will have 900, a city of 9,000,000 will have 4500.

This shows us immediately the tremendous power of this strategy. For the people in a small town of 60,000 to reconstitute themselves into 30 deliberating bodies to take charge of their lives, resources, and neighborhoods is an unbelievably powerful revolutionary act. Just the mere act of assembling is revolutionary, without even considering all that these assemblies can do. Capitalists depend a lot on keeping us all isolated. Our assembling starts to destroy that isolation. It is an act that will be next to impossible to stop, an act that has the power to destroy capitalism, and an act that has the potential to build a new civilization.

This is the way to think of the revolution. It is a people re-assembling themselves (reordering, reconstituting, reorganizing themselves) into free associations at home, at work, and in the neighborhood. Capitalists will fight this. They may outlaw the meetings, bust them up by force, arrest those attending, or even murder the assemblers. But if we are determined they will not be able to block us from reconstituting ourselves into the kind of social world we want.
Basic Agreements of the Association

The basic social unit is the Home Assembly, as described above. For many purposes however these Home Assemblies will want to cooperate with other Home Assemblies. They will coalesce to accomplish certain objectives. In other words they will sometimes form larger associations. They will do this by treaty negotiations. They will negotiate agreements to govern all supra-neighborhood projects. Sometimes these agreements will involve just a few Home Assemblies, sometimes many. That is, agreements will encompass larger or smaller numbers of Home Assemblies, depending on the nature of the project. A telephone system will require a regional or even inter-regional pact. A local park may involve only three or four neighborhoods. The highway system will require regional agreements. A large manufacturing facility may involve 15 or 20 Home Assemblies. Similarly for hospitals, large research facilities, orchestras, and so forth. A considerable amount of the activity in the world at present is governed by such treaties and not by legislation (for example, the worldwide postal service among nations). Also, contracts between corporations are more in the nature of treaties (mutually agreed upon terms and conditions) rather than laws (although they are enforced by a nation’s laws). So we should not be frightened by this. The number of inter-neighborhood agreements the Home Assemblies will have to work out to regulate our common endeavors will be well within the range of complexity manageable by human intelligence. It probably won’t exceed a couple hundred agreements (not counting trade agreements, which may run into the thousands).

Beyond agreements governing particular projects there will need to be a general agreement about the nature of the association. Becoming a signature to this agreement or pact is what it means to join an “Association of Democratic Autonomous Neighborhoods.” There will need to be agreements about membership in neighborhoods, about the basic structures of the neighborhood itself (Households, Projects, Peer Circles, Home Assembly), about voting procedures within the assemblies, about territory and resources, about leaving the association, about not even joining the association, about aggression and defense, and so forth. (See the Appendix for a Draft General Agreement for such an association.)

Negotiating these treaties will involve a lot of work at first, less so later. Nevertheless, it will be an ongoing process. Procedures and facilities for negotiating will need to be established. These treaty negotiating procedures will probably not differ all that much from the way treaties are negotiated among states: delegates from each neighborhood will be sent to regional treaty drafting conferences, with the final ratification resting with the Home Assemblies. The main difference lies in the number of negotiating parties, a hundred and a half nations versus tens of thousands of neighborhoods.

Although this may seem cumbersome, there is no alternative if we want to govern our own lives. The alternative is to relinquish control into the hands of regional or inter-regional elites, thus voiding our determination to be autonomous, free peoples. Besides, it probably looks a lot worse than it will prove to be in reality.
Obstacles

Once we have in mind a clear notion of how we might want to live we can begin to see ways to bring this new world into being, and to see what obstacles have to be overcome.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle we face is the enormous capacity capitalists have acquired to shape and control what people think and how they see the world and events taking place in it. Radio, television, and movies are the greatest weapons ever to fall into the hands of any ruling class. Add to this all the other instruments of mass communication -- books, newspapers, magazines, newsletters, advertising, videos, computers; then add years and years of schooling, ruling class control of all major institutions, propaganda at work, the homogenization of culture, and the destruction of families, neighborhoods, and communities. Given all this it is hard to see how an autonomous, opposition consciousness could ever emerge, or survive the system’s attacks if it did emerge.

Nevertheless, capitalist control of consciousness and culture is not total. Opposition movements continue to be born even now. There are cracks in the empire through which the irrepressible creative subjectivity of human beings can find outlets. This is our main hope. The rapid creation of a worldwide Indymedia, in just a few years (dating from November 1999), is a spectacular manifestation of this hope. I'm sure there are many other ways that we can break the hold of ruling class thought, prove that we have not been totally brainwashed by the doublespeak of their media, and assert our own values and perceptions.

Another big obstacle we face is the labor market itself. We have to go to where the jobs are. This means that many of us are moving all the time. Many of our current neighbors will be gone in a couple of years (or we will be gone ourselves). Even if we managed to set up neighborhood assemblies, their members would be constantly turning over. Nevertheless, in every neighborhood, there are also many who manage to stay put and who could provide the needed continuity and stability.

Having to follow the jobs also results in a huge disjunction between where people live and where they work. The vast majority of people who live in urban or suburban areas, throughout the world, do not work in the neighborhoods where they live. They commute to jobs somewhere else. Even if this job is only half a mile away it most likely takes them out of the Home Assembly district (depending on population density of course). That is, even if a neighborhood succeeded in establishing a Home Assembly and even if workers in a neighborhood seized the factories and offices there, we would still be dealing with two sets of people. And many suburban neighborhoods do not even have factories and offices; thus suburbia itself is an obstacle, and will have to be dismantled or rebuilt. So how could a neighborhood-based Home Assembly become a decision-making unit governing the projects in that area? It would take decades, even if capitalism were destroyed, for people to get relocated into projects nearer home. This must of necessity be a gradual process. In order to avoid total chaos and disintegration, most people must go on working at the jobs they have and know. Otherwise we would all die. There would be no food, no transportation, no medical care, no electricity, no heat, no clothing. So it is quite clear that at least initially there cannot be an integrated neighborhood decision-making unit comprised of a gathering of Peer Circles from Projects and Households into a Home Assembly.

But this is not the whole story. There are still compelling reasons for sticking with the strategy. For one thing, even in a thoroughly reconstructed social world, there will be many inter-neighborhood projects which will be governed by pacts struck by several Home Assemblies rather than being controlled solely by a single Home Assembly. So some people will always be working away from the neighborhoods where they live. That is, some persons will attend their Home Assemblies as individuals who are members of Peer Circles from outside their neighborhood. Secondly, it is only by reconstituting ourselves into neighborhood, workplace, and household associations, despite the obstacles, that we can destroy capitalism and thus slowly start to undo the absurd work/home spatial patterns thrown up by this idiotic system.

Another huge obstacle to creating the envisioned Association of Autonomous Neighborhoods sketched above is the worldwide division of labor. Every little enterprise (office, workshop, clinic, classroom) gets supplies and equipment from all over. Light bulbs come from way off. Paper, pens, electricity, computers, furniture, medicines, machines come from way off. In the short run, no enterprise could continue to function if these networks of trade were disrupted. But at present this trade is corporate controlled. In recent decades, given transnational corporations and the further globalization of capital, the worldwide division of labor (and trade networks) has taken another expansive leap. It has suited capital’s purposes to decentralize production, scattering plants all over the world, all made possible by the new communication and information technology. It doesn’t have to be this way, of course, nor is this necessarily the best way to organize production. But this existing division of labor, induced and shaped by the imperatives of capital, certainly does constitute an obstacle to establishing democratic, autonomous communities of free people. It will take time to restructure the circulation of goods to reflect the principle of freedom rather than slavery.

In the meantime, the existing trade networks will have to be maintained and worked with. But who will maintain them? And how? Obviously you can’t overthrow the corporate world but somehow maintain its division of labor. Which leads us to an important insight: residential patterns and divisions of labor cannot be overthrown; they have to be replaced. (This is true also for capitalist property relations and capitalist institutions of decision making.) I have no doubt that Home Assemblies and self-managed Projects will be able to eventually build up extensive networks of interchange to replace the existing corporate-controlled ones.

Speaking of capitalist property relations, they have traditionally been seen as the greatest single obstacle to achieving communism. The fact that the capitalists “own” the land and factories, and that this “ownership” is inscribed in law, upheld by the courts, and enforced by the police, this fact is what has led anti-capitalist forces to focus primarily on the state in their efforts to abolish these property relations. This strategy proved ineffective, through nearly a century of trials. In any case, any attempt to establish autonomous neighborhoods, with cooperatively run households and projects, would run smack up against capitalist property relations, and they would have to be overcome.

The military might of the capitalist ruling class is of course an obvious obstacle to the establishment of democratic, autonomous neighborhoods. Their ability and willingness to simply murder us, if they choose to, to protect their profits, is very daunting indeed. Nevertheless, although this firepower is overwhelming, it is not invincible. We can defeat it. I hope I am beginning to show how in this essay.

We must never forget however that we are at war, and have been for five hundred years. We are involved in class warfare. This defines our situation historically and sets limits to what we can do. It would be nice to think of peace, for example, but this is out of the question. It is excluded as an option by historical conditions. Peace can be achieved only by destroying capitalism.

The casualties from this war, on our side, long ago reached astronomical sums. It is estimated that thirty million people perished during the first century of the capitalist invasion of the Americas, including millions of Africans who were worked to death as slaves. Thousands of peasants died in the great revolts in France and Germany in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During the enclosures movement in England and during the first wave of industrialization, hundreds of thousands of people died needlessly. African slaves died by the millions (an estimated fifteen million) during the Atlantic crossing. Hundreds of poor people were hanged in London in the early nineteenth century to enforce the new property laws. During the Paris uprising of 1871, thirty thousand communards were slaughtered. Twenty million were lost in Stalin’s Gulag, and millions more perished during the 1930s when the Soviet state expropriated the land and forced the collectivization of agriculture, an event historically comparable to the enclosures in England (and thus the Bolsheviks destroyed one of the greatest peasant revolutions of all time). Thousands of militants were murdered by the German police during the near revolution in Germany and Austria in 1919. Thousands of workers and peasants were killed during the Spanish Civil War. Hitler killed 10 million people in the camps (including six million Jews in the gas chambers). An estimated 200,000 labor leaders, activists, and citizens have been murdered in Guatemala since the CIA engineered coup in 1954. Thousands were lost in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Half-a-million communists were massacred in Indonesia in 1975. Millions of Vietnamese were killed by French and American capitalists during decades of colonialism and war. And how many were killed during British capital’s subjugation of India, and during capitalist Europe’s colonization of Asia and Africa?

A major weapon of capitalists has always been to simply murder those who are threatening their rule. Thousands were killed by the contras and death squads in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Thousands were murdered in Chile by Pinochet during his counter-revolution, after the assassination of Allende. Speaking of assassinations – Patrice Lumumba, Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci (died in prison), Ricardo Flores Magon (died in prison), Che Guevara, Gustav Landauer, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Hampton, George Jackson, the Chicago anarchists, Amilcar Cabral, Steve Biko, Karl Liebnicht, Nat Turner, and thousands more. Thousands are being murdered every year now in Colombia. Thousands die every year in the workplace in the United States alone. Eighty thousand die needlessly in hospitals every year in the United States due to malpractice and negligence. Fifty thousand die every year in automobile accidents in the US, deaths directly due to deliberate capitalist decisions to scuttle mass transit in favor of an economy based on oil, roads, and cars (unsafe cars to boot). Thousands have died in mines since capitalism began. Millions of people are dying right now, every year, from famines directly attributable to capitalists, and from diseases easily prevented but for capitalists. Nearly all poverty-related deaths are because of capitalists. We cannot begin to estimate the stunted, wasted, and shortened lives caused by capitalists. Not to even mention the millions of us who have died fighting their stupid little world wars, and their equally stupid colonial wars. (This enumeration is very far from being complete.)

Capitalists (generically speaking) are not merely thieves. They are murderers. Their theft and murder is on a scale never seen before in history, a scale so vast it boggles the mind. Capitalists make Alexander, Caesar, Genghis, and Attila look like boy scouts. This is a terrible enemy we face.

I can just hear the cries of protest now that we cannot blame all this on capitalists, Hitler’s holocaust as well as Stalin’s Gulag, racial murders as well as famines. I can and I do, and if this were another book than it is, I could present reasoned arguments and evidence to back up this claim.




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