“Hope is rooted in men’s incompletion, from which they move out in constant search – a search which can be carried out only in communion with other men. Hopelessness is a form of silence, of denying the world and fleeting from it. The dehumanization resulting from an unjust order is not a cause for despair but for hope, leading to the incessant pursuit of the humanity denied by injustice. Hope, however, does not consist in crossing one’s arms and waiting. As long as I fight, I am moved by hope, and if I fight with hope, then I can wait.” (Freire 1970: 80).

Arguments pessimistic about change often reflect the upbringing and dominant culture perpetuated by the system to sustain its preservation. Culture influences human psychology and mentality and consequently the thinking about economic system. If one changes one part of the social organization such as the culture and human relations in the production system, the other elements will feel like a misfit and will be easier to change. We tend to forget that culture is something constantly evolving. We treat it as a natural law. Certainly, getting out of habits and mental framework is difficult but not impossible. Although creating an alternative culture requires effort, some effort is also put in maintaining the dominant culture. So the question is where to put the effort.

Culture and Change – Chicken or Egg?

Graeber and Wengrow in their article in Eurozine illustrate that the structural factors such as group size are less determinant of the relations between people than the culture. Egalitarian organization can also function in a large-scale group. Even the same group can apply different forms of governance as seasonal changes in tribes’ organization of work exemplify. Native Americans have adopted a different organization to mobilize during hunting period. In governance system oriented on maintaining stability, the institutions created to sustain production system may have interest in developing compatible culture and structure human relations. Peter Gray argues in the book “Free to Learn” that educational institutions were designed to maintain production based on hierarchy. School system socialized into hierarchical and slave mentality.

Systemic change proposals such as an unconditional basic income or other forms of luxury communism promise a step towards freeing people from fear and a new emotional and psychological functioning. However, there are certain drawbacks to this strategy. It puts too much stress on money and waiting for government to step in as the solution. This may further reflect the fetish of money that dominates our minds. The stress on rights and other abstract ideas makes a distance between us, our capacity to act, and the change that is striven for. Another option to achieve liberation from coercive work and other injustices imposed by the current system is addressing the culture and human relations that sustain this system. In a case study, I mention the need for a different culture and human relations to sustain a UBI. While monetary transfer contributes to the liberation from exploitative precarious employment, to sustain a UBI, a deeper change is required: a culture and mentality that eliminates the desire to exploit. If there is no adequate culture underlying the economic change, the practices from the previous system will be continued. For example, migrants not having the right to a UBI will be more in demand and a parallel labour market will be created.

Horizontal culture is shaped by everyday choices that for people raised in such a culture are an automatic way of structuring daily interactions. Some insights can be extrapolated from Jean Liedloff’s (1975) ethnographic study. When living with an indigenous tribe in Venezuela, she observed an absence of coercion to work there. Society waited until someone decides to work out of one’s own will by discovering this motivation in oneself. The way children are treated in this society helps them to develop the motivation to contribute to it. Their needs of touch and security are responded fully and therefore, personality disorders are prevented. According to her, human beings are naturally inclined to search for belonging and be a contributing part of a community. Liedloff gives several examples of social interactions that do not use force, pressure, or threats to achieve what is in the interest of the community.

Customs, skills, and attitudes for horizontalism

Past and present examples show us that a non-hierarchic culture can be cultivated and chosen intentionally. Peter Gray writes about practices of sustaining non-hierarchic culture in hunter-gatherer bands: punishing competitive behaviors and child rearing that was oriented on meeting children’s basic needs. Hunter-gatherer bands in South East Asia are an example of a large scale cultural work. These groups, living at the margins of the state (understood as a way of organizing human relations) knew how to prevent hierarchical relations from penetrating their interactions and undermining their project. James C. Scott argues that a population of about one hundred million people was living at the margin of state. Their lives were structured around the avoidance of incorporation into state structure and they were pursuing nomadic life and foraging mainly in the hills, which offered a rescue from the state. State representatives saw these people as a potential danger, stigmatizing them, because they constituted a possible tempting life outside of its structures (Scott 2009: 30). This form of living was attractive because of the autonomy and egalitarian social relations. The populations were also healthier than sedentary ones (ibid: 186). Three themes constitute hill ideology: equality, autonomy, and mobility. They would prefer flight rather than rebellion (ibid: 217-218). They developed practices that hinder the development of hierarchies and state power: refusal of history (which could serve as a base for claims about distinction and rank) and creating a culture in form of cautionary tales to warn would-be autocratic headman (the stories would suggest that he would be killed) (ibid: 276). They did not want to have a chief or a headman who could be used by a state.

Local and international initiatives of contemporary social movements, often in form of short-lived uprisings, experiment with governance principles, culture of a new type of democratic system, and human relations. Graeber describes the agenda of the alterglobalization movement in the following way (2009, p. 70): “This is a movement about reinventing democracy. It is not opposed to organization. It is about creating new forms of organization. It is not lacking in ideology. Those new forms of organization are its ideology. It is about creating and enacting horizontal networks instead of top-down structures like states, parties, or corporations; networks based on principles of decentralized, nonhierarchical consensus democracy. Ultimately, it [ . . . ] aspires to reinvent daily life as a whole.”

Another example of experimenting with a new culture can be found in autonomist movements in Argentina. Their new governance system was characterized by the following features: 1) horizontalidad: a form of direct decision making that rejects hierarchy and works as an ongoing process; 2) autogestion: a form of self-management with an implied form of horizontalidad; 3) concrete projects related to sustenance and survival; 4) territory – the use and occupation of physical and metaphorical space; 5) changing social relationships; 6) a politics and social relationships based on love and trust; 7) self-reflection; 8) autonomy: sometimes using the state, but at the same time, against and beyond the state (Sitrin 2012: 3f.).

Raising and becoming cooperative individuals

Graeber and Wengrow conclude that family can be a source of socializing into hierarchical way of thinking and structural violence such as gender inequalities. Furthermore, traumatic experiences within family can induce search and abuse of power as Alice Miller conceptualized in her books. Creating a free society would need to start within family and household.

Schools are well designed to supply compliant workers. Alternative pedagogy projects show that they may focus on raising cooperative individuals. In a French school, which is supported by movement Colibris (hammingbirds) and managed by Elisabeth Peloux, special classes are designated to teaching cooperation skills. There are three occasion to learn cooperative skills: 1) philosophy workshop where children learn how to express themselves and listen to each other; 2) “Living together” meeting where they discuss issues related to being in the group and talk about conflicts; and 3) Peace education where they learn self-awareness, dealing with emotions, and contact with nature. They also play cooperative games. In contrast to competitive games, the aim is to have good time together and win by accomplishing a task through cooperation. All children learn how to be a mediator and mediation is regularly practiced in case of a conflict.[1]


Book references

  • Freire, Paulo (1970): Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated from Portuguese manuscript by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York The Seabury Press.
  • Graeber, David (2009): Direct Action: An Ethnography. Edinburgh Oakland: AK Press
  • Gray, Peter (2013): Free to Learn. Basic Books
  • Liedloff, Jean (1975): The Continuum Concept. Da Capo Press; Reprint edition (January 22, 1986)
  • Miller, Alice (2002): For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 3rd edition (January 1, 1990)
  • Scott, James C. (2009): The Art of Not Being Governed : An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press.
  • Sitrin, Marina (2012): Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina. Zed Press, London

[1]     The examples were given during public talk by Elisabeth Peloux on 13th January 2018, in Strasbourg, France.

Photo by Hey Paul

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