Phyles and the new communalism

An illustrated history of the biggest changes of our time: the globalization of the small and the reemergence of empowered communities.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, most people identified only with the real communities they were part of. An average European saw scarcely a hundred different faces in their whole life. The small, local, real community, with its barely-monetized agrarian economy, gave each person an identity that allowed him/her to understand who was who in the social system, and what role each one was playing in the production of everyone’s well-being. This is still the dominant identity in a good part of the rural world in developing countries.

But when the mercantile economy and the market, in larger settings, brought together production and consumption, a large part of the things people consumed no longer came from their immediate surroundings; the result of their labor could travel hundreds, even thousands of kilometers, and tens of thousands of people already lived in cities. The old, real identities no longer explained who they were for others, and what their work meant for them.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, there appeared the seeds of what, two centuries later, would become the great imaginary identity of the industrial world: the nation. The nation had the new dimension of the state and the market, and allowed each one to imagine him/herself as part of the joint effort that kept afloat the economy in which they and their own real community lived. The world of nations was the world of the Industrial Revolution, but also that of the ascent of large representative democracies and of nation-states. The world understood itself as a puzzle, as the sum of pieces, which were territories, states, and markets.

But towards the end of the 20th century, the breakdown of the Eastern bloc and the collapse of the USSR changed the map of the world. Western governments realized that the large companies that dominate their economies had symptoms that are alarmingly similar to those that led to the Soviet collapse. In an effort to alleviate these symptoms, which inevitably arise from from the oversized scale of capitalist corporations, they launched a series of initiatives to enlarge markets by reducing barriers to commerce. In 1993, the European Community became a European Union with the signature of the Maastricht Treaty, which consecrated market unity; in 1994, the free-trade agreement between the US, Mexico, and Canada was signed; and in 1995, the World Trade Organization was finally founded, after almost 42 years of delays and fruitless negotiations.


The greater freedom to purchase and sell anywhere in the world led big businesses to look for better and cheaper providers in developing nations.

Up until then, the key to Big Business had been integration — doing all the processes themselves — but little by little, value chains were broken: multinationals began to focus on design, technology and marketing, outsourcing production to smaller businesses scattered all over the world. In other words, “value chains started breaking up.”

But in the ’90s, Internet use started to spread massively. The global network of information and communication started to look more and more like a distributed network.

The appearance of low-cost airline companies, and the drop in travel costs in general, accentuated this tendency even more.

In just a few years, the social impact was tremendous. In 1999, the anti-globalization movement appeared, bringing together and coordinating activists via the the Internet and uniting thousands of protesters from the five continents in Seattle.

That same year, Ali was born, a portal of small industries that soon was used by 20 million businesses. It became the best-known face of Chinese internationalization, letting the world know about thousands of new, low-cost products, from electronic books to the vuvuzela.

The unity of globalization and networks allowed the “small” –both countries that until then were considered “underdeveloped,” and small enterprises– to play the global game at a whole new level, in many cases threatening what until then had been an overwhelming hegemony of multinationals and rich countries in the global marketplace. We went from globalization to “globalization of the small.”

But “globalization of the small” is not an exclusive phenomenon to the new emerging powers. In general, direct economy models prop up everywhere. It is the inevitable effect that the shift towards a world of distributed networks has on the market, where everyone can connect and trade with everyone else, wherever they are, without intermediaries.

But, what happens to identity in a world like this? How will it evolve? In the direct economy model, the market is global, and every product, every day, brings together work performed in different continents. So national identity starts suffering from the same problem that gave birth to it. It no longer provides a satisfactory explanation of what our work has to do with the welfare of our real community, a real community that also includes those transnational virtual communities we are part of, and which we care about more and more. In that sense, the nation became too small for us.

But, on the other hand, it also became too big. Because, in the end, what we really care for is the real community formed by our families, the places where we live, and the people that we share conversation and learning with on the Internet. Real people that the Internet, on the one hand, and the crisis of imagined identities on the other, have put at the center of the way we understand the world.

But, what’s the alternative? Everyone knows and is part of conversational communities on the Internet, and that can give us a good clue. There are three big differences between the networks born out of conversations on the Internet, and those that emerge as a consequence of living or working in the same place. The first one is a question of costs: the cost of leaving a virtual network is low, while that of leaving a city or a town is high.

The second is a question of choices: on the Internet, we form networks with those who we identify with through meaningul conversation; however, it’s hard to choose neighbors and workmates in the community where we were born.

The third has to do with distance: conversations on the Internet are delimited by the languages we use, not by where the participants are. When virtual communities are formed, they share an identity of their own based on the conversations, context, and knowledge that they develop. How could we not feel that virtual communities are liberating? We don’t remain in them because we feel have to, or because the cost of leaving them scares us; we form them with those we find interesting — their passports don’t matter. What we say and contribute is all that counts.

However, virtual communities and identities have a large “but,” even if we compare them with the old, national “imagined identities.” By being based on conversations between people that don’t share an economy, it’s difficult for them to be “complete” identities, capable of explaining the relationship between who we are in the community, what we do for it, and the results of our work. And that… is important for an identity.

But that doesn’t happen in the world of the direct economy. The movement started in the 90?s, in a relatively small world. An ever growing number of software developers, used as they were to meeting up and collaborating through a network, began to set up businesses beased on communities, maintaining their transnationality, and even deciding not to have a central headquarters. This is how businesses that are famous today, like MySQL, 37 signals, or Monty Program, were born.

Programming, consulting, digital publishing, graphic design, and in general all the services that can be commercialized directly via the the Internet, were the natural point of departure for these very first experiments in transnational communities that form a direct economy. Today, we are witnessing the birth of a whole sector of the industrial direct economy, but also networks globally linked through productivity, from ecovillages to the first transnational cooperatives.

Being used to equality in conversation and working in a network as peers, these transnational communities naturally tend to implement frameworks of economic democracy, from cooperativism to networks of freelancers.

The result is an empowered, transnational real community with businesses organized according to the principle of economic democracy. The phyle.

That’s why phyles go far beyond the classic models born in the virtual world. Since the nineties, the phyle has been the trend in many communities of different types, from millions of African Sufi Murides, to conservative Christian movements like the Focolare Movement, to ecovillages, co-living, or the rebirth of the kibbutz. Community empowerment with democratic economies and transnational approaches are the key to a new communitarianism.

Why? In large part, because traditional socially cohesive models were based on the centrality of the state or of large corporations. They are centralized models that made us depend on a single power for the basic sustenance of social cohesion.

But we must not forget that the whole story we’ve told is, for the world of big corporations, a true crisis of scales. In the 80s, neoliberal policies (securitization, financialization, social spending cuts) represented the first response from the state in favor of the business behemoths. The ’90s bet on a model of globalization that, as we have seen, ended up turning against large-scale intstitutions with the globalization of the small. Financial deregulation and speculative financial models would provide the final touch in the first decade of the new century… and the result was an unprecedented crisis, in which the State and businesses shed the “ballast” of social cohesion.

Social costs have been and will continue to be enormous, generating unheard-of increases in social and regional inequality.

That’s why community and cooperative models are returning, models based on democratic criteria, which take full advantage of the experience of the transition for building institutions that aim for a P2P mode of production

…but also — and this is why phyles are so important in the debate — starting from a transnational logic that goes beyond solidarity and local development models.

Because, the truth is that the sign of our times is not that we are inmersed in a battle between an old world (of nations and alrge corporations), and a new world (communal and transnational at the same time), but rather, that we are facing the decomposition of the old world. That is why the vacuums of social cohesion are immediately filled, on a transnational scale, by violent, criminal organizations, from global gangs to drug cartels, or Al Qaeda.

This is how the whole “new communalism,” from P2P talks to debates about the FLOK Society, including the new North American cooperativism, mutualism, or the ecological economy movement, represent an attempt to contribute non-universalist global solutions that are not based on imagined and abstract identities, but on real communities, through the development of communal economies capable of sustaining well-being in a network. Resistance by the old powers to the globalization of the small and the vibrant freedom of distributed networks, has left us a dramatic panorama of globalized decomposition. But, despite all the reasons for pessimism, there is hope in the reemergence of real human community and the crisis of universalism, opposing postmodernism to decomposition. They are more than good news: they are the foundation of a new world, and certainly, of an assortment of worthwhile futures.


Translation by Steve Herrick.

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