The US Social Forum and Money: Building a Transformative National Movement

More than 15,000 social movement organizers assembled in Detroit this June for the US Social Forum. Even more so than its predecessor, three years ago in Atlanta, this forum resembled a political convention-like gathering. Yet, this was a gathering with a different type of unity paradigm than one would associate with any related left conventions or party-building meetings. The proceedings featured over 40 People’s Movement Assemblies (PMA), each hammering out political platforms along with an intensive week of networking in which thousands of people developed regional and national ties among like-minded organizations. The forum participants engaged in about 1,400 organizing workshops, dozens of political actions and cultural events and large plenary sessions.

The gathering was notable for a great diversity of organizers; not only was there an extensive age, race and gender mix, but there were also as many people from community organizing and social justice traditions as from left, socialist and anarchist traditions. Beyond the demographics of the forum, these organizers came together because of their desire to forge a new unity form and movement-building strategy.

The US Social Forum (USSF) is a polycentric or pluralistic national and international unity convergence based in social movements. It is intimately connected to the World Social Forum. It is, in the words of its organizers, “the next most important step in our struggle to build a powerful multiracial, multisectoral, inter-generational, diverse, inclusive, internationalist movement that transforms this country and changes history.”

Despite such evocative language, a dichotomy stands out in relation to the challenge of building this movement. On the one hand, the desire for building national unity is ubiquitously expressed at the very place, the national gathering space, where all too little of it has developed into a sustained organizational form. On the other hand, while substantial organizational forms are sustained in the multitudinous local places where social movements organize, little in the way of a national unity formation has emerged.

Constructing Criteria for Movement Building – Localism

Nevertheless, major dimensions of the unity relationships at the recent Detroit Social Forum indicate new possibilities for national movement building. To conceive of these potentials, I will frame the national movement-building question via a more locally, rather than nationally, focused starting point.

As an example, one of the main unity standpoints of the forum is articulated by the thematic slogan that another world is possible. This standpoint supports existing locally focused social movements. How is this so? On the one hand, the World Social Forum asserts opposition to capital in its founding Charter of Principles. This Charter also guides USSF organizing. On the other hand, the call for another world does not offer any specific alternative to capitalism, such as socialism. Instead, it offers a more abstract organizing vision of another world generally stated. This vision supports an infinitely expansive amount of struggles against oppression.

That such an agglomeration of struggles might present an unwieldy basis to develop a powerful national organizational formation can be witnessed by the fact that the moment the Detroit gathering finished this June, the organizational entity of the USSF, receded as a national force.

Even if it had not receded, what could a national staff and organization do to build a single national movement with an almost endless amount of struggles to uphold? If the 40-plus, platform-like documents that came out of the USSF’s PMA were taken as their movement-building starting point for example, how would a national organization equally transform the hundreds of causes articulated in those documents into an effective national force? If one were to expand the development of PMA around the country(1) moreover, it might enhance the sense of unity, but it would also add to the potential miasma of political struggles to which to attend.

This is to say, that social-movement organizations take up the call for another world with a passion because it empowers them to feel equally honored in their local struggles as part of a national and global unity formation. Any strategy that might advance national movement-building capabilities would, therefore, need to build up this local polycentric organizing basis.

Constructing Criteria for Movement Building – Pluralism

The oft-used social movement phrase, horizontal equality, indicates that social movement organizers and groups equally value each other in relation to their perceived different struggles against oppression. A key part of this unity ethos is embodied in the pluralist belief that no social movement organizer should assert that any oppression is more important than any other oppression. Yet, another dimension of this unity standpoint is that social movement groups should refrain from openly critiquing each other.

To move away from this no-critique solidarity practice and to openly critique a given group or struggle, for example, would be to disrespect not just one group, but the entire basis of this unity relationship. The same would hold true if one group asserted that its area of focus was more important than other areas of social movement oppression fighting.

One of the movement-building strategies proposed in the National Planning Council’s workshops on the future of the forum called on the forum to focus on particular issues and develop a candidate targeting strategy, not unlike what Tea Party organizers do. Such a strategy moves many social-movement organizations away from what they are doing and advocating locally. Hence, it would be felt by many as dishonoring the equal veracity of every local struggle. It would also undermine the ability of many social-movement organizations to advocate solutions they already advocate and know are right for their communities.

Strategy Points

Some conclusions can be drawn from this analysis.

First, since what exists now in the localities is limited in terms of unity-building practices, national movement-building strategies would need to offer local ways to substantially expand social movement organizing, not just in a few localities, but in every possible locality.

Second, these strategies would need to deepen the ways social movement groups and organizers connect to each other in their pluralistic unity practices (e.g., so that they could continue to assert that no struggle against oppression is better than any other). Hence, they would not only need to support and connect what social movement groups already do and advocate. They would need to deepen this process by empowering a sense of expansive community building/rebuilding.

Third, rather than building this pluralistic movement just by engaging yet more struggles, social movements would need to develop similar strategies that, nevertheless, engage and substantially expand what they already do and advocate, as well as what else they decide to take on.

Pluralistic Movement-Building Strategies and Money

Such strategic possibilities could be realized through the application of particular solidarity economy practices. Among the most promising strategies that have local yet also widespread community applicability are those associated with alternative local currencies, mutual crediting exchange systems, time banking, peer-to-peer sharing processes, along with other collectively developed free and gifting forms of producing, sharing and giving. As they are now developing, they indicate how social movements are overcoming one of their great barriers to sustained base building, namely, lack of money.

Yet, what is broached in the development of these local systems is not just a question of money and exchange relationships. What is broached foregrounds the question of national state power. And in relation to this, these strategies raise issues of what money is and who has the right to produce it. What is broached in the development of these systems, moreover, challenges the right of the nation state to hold predominant power of economics, money and property over any community.

Alternative Currencies, Crediting Systems, Sharing and Gifting

Alternative local exchange systems, local currencies, time- and labor-based mutual credit systems are being produced in intensive community-building and life-saving ways in hundreds of localities in the United States and thousands of communities around the world. In some cases, the social-movement-based Solidarity Networks have engaged these alternatives in relation to worker-positive projects.

In other cases, the exchange of labor and services for local currencies, labor time notes or other exchange systems have seen home building construction projects engaged, food provided, childcare given, and thousands of other essential life needs reciprocally provided for, sometimes in league with the use of the national currency. Community and service organizations have used such reciprocal exchange agreement systems to enable volunteers to take up enduring forms of work within exchanging organizations, to the point that these organizations end up with a more survivable base of remunerated service givers than the government money allotments currently allow. Youth courts in Washington, DC, have developed alternative service for youth such that instead of going to jail they choose community projects that pay them with alternative exchange allotments. These practices have enabled youth to build up self-respect and mutually reciprocal relationships in working to help others, getting paid for it, while being able to exercise their purchasing power in exchange for food, clothing, movies and other goods.

Peer-to-peer sharing and gifting projects, free labor and free goods practices are proliferating in communities and on the net (open source and free software as well as peer-to-peer networks and freecycling projects represent part of this) and in collective gift giving and anti-authoritarian projects (Food not Bombs free food provision programs are now a mainstay in hundreds of cities, and squatter and housing occupations continue to grow in numbers throughout the land).

Strategic Possibilities With Alternative Currency, Exchange and Sharing Practices

Each of these processes has compatible and differing qualities. All of them have potential to expand. The gifting, communal, free food, products and empty building occupation strategies for example, counter environmental waste and degradation. If expanded, they would have a major positive global environmental impact.

The development of mutual crediting systems, alternative local currencies and hybrids of the two, pose already operative systematic community interventions into capitalistically colonized money and market systems. And in relation to the way they work within and as an alternative to single national money systems, they simultaneously enhance family economies, gray market economies, urban farm economies, and so forth.

These alter monetary and exchange expanding processes move community people toward greater control over their own basic and surplus labor. This represents a move to sever some of the alienating, coercive and cooperative relationships of living under mainline conditions of the capitalistically colonized money system and the neoliberal state and party elite supported “work or starve” economic system. In local social movement hands for example, a focus on transforming disintegrating industrial belt communities could tap into alternative exchange/funding possibilities for developing major community worker and environmental industrial conversions.

Pluralistic Money Strategies and Community/National Movement Building

One reason why such exchange strategies could substantially expand pluralistic movement-building processes is that they do not present yet another single issue or sectoral struggle to take up. Like national money forms, local exchange crediting systems, time banks and local currencies facilitate the mutually reciprocal types of giving and taking/supplying and demanding/sharing and receiving actions that the participating parties desire. They are not the same thing as the substance of the exchange, but rather facilitate or empower it. Hence, these strategies do not represent the same thing as a single issue or sectoral struggle against oppression. Instead, they can substantially expand these struggles by providing reciprocal exchange bases to support them. In doing this they could advance the unity ethos that no single struggle against oppression is more important than any other struggle against oppression.

In this respect, these processes are not just about creating money or facilitating the processes of building a national movement. They are also about community building. And as this type of community building engages social movements’ desire to build a new world, it is community building where the transformational political possibilities are not limited by the particular exchange projects now in existence. This hints at reasons why such strategies can help to significantly expand movement and community (re)building, be they focused on developing eco-industrial projects in abandoned rust belt factories or urban farms based in all manner of free, cooperative and exchange relationships.

Finally, these strategies can build community and solidarity without needing everyone to partake in them. This is to say, that some people would support these exchange community-building strategies while not wanting and/or not feeling the need to engage in them. This by no means precludes their participation in these community-building processes.

If such local exchange processes were produced through extensive community organizing, it is also the case that other solidarity economy practices like participatory budgeting could serve as co-equal complements. Along with the actuality of facilitating expanded exchange, community money and control over surplus labor, such budgeting processes could empower mass based networks of community members to meet in their districts, homes and social spaces. They could empower these networks not only to demand that local governments provide the moral, institutional and legal resources to support/protect these efforts. They could empower the community networks and residents to deliberate and take responsibility for understanding it is their budget, as a whole and in its parts, and it is their responsibility to decide what they want to do with collective forms of their community money and labor.

Expanding Base-Building Alliances: Consequences and Possibilities

These exchange systems are not generally viewed as evocative of left, right or any other political axis.(2) In no small part because of this political dynamic, if such currencies, exchange and sharing processes were developed en masse, neoliberal state and party elites and large corporate capitalists would intervene. Planted firmly in cooperative, nonviolent practice, however, these movement-building processes would render forms of opposition all the more difficult, yet potentially formidable.

Related to this point is that this strategy offers alliance-building potential between social movements and revolutionary groups in the US (building, for example, on connections that are already developing via the forum). Revolutionary groups have the disciplinary orientation to help community alliances expand upon or initiate these systems on fairly extensive local scales. Since trust building is paramount in every facet of these endeavors, if revolutionary organizations took some initiative to engage social movement groups (and vice versa), the constructive role they could play could outweigh some social movement concerns about revolutionary groups’ sectarian recruitment designs, heavy-handed insistence on prioritizing oppressions (e.g., through vertical democracy) and lack of organizational transparency.

People as the Basis of Money’s Value: Money as Internally Oppressive

In order for such strategies to be widely taken up, the national money form would need to be understood as internally oppressive. This is to say that social movements have not as much asserted that money is just as social, and beyond this, just as psychological a phenomenon as racism, sexism, homophobia, animal oppression and the degradation of the earth, to name a few areas of struggle. Recognizing this also encourages one to think about how money might be internally and socially privileging and changeable as such.

To do this, social movements might need to more assiduously explore the belief that the value of money resides in people and their open-ended activity and not in inorganic objects. Similarly, there would need to be more exploration of the converse point that one of the forces mystifying the understanding that money value and money trust is based in people, are the reigning economic doctrines and state ideologies that preponderantly assert the very opposite, namely that money itself stores value.

Conclusion

As I watch worldwide capitalist economic and neoliberal social-political crises mount, and as I see protests growing from Greece to Spain to Washington, DC, I take solace in the mounting fervor. Simultaneously, I lament the fact that, in the face of a profound crisis of money and who controls it, protesters have not focused on the problem of the capitalist colonization of money and the complicity of neoliberal state and party elites therein. This situation continues despite the fact that massive US state money giveaways to banks, insurance companies, automakers and mortgage behemoths continue to be taken from the pocketbooks of millions of homeowners who have lost or will lose their homes along with millions of workers who have lost their jobs. Protesters’ demands for the state and the wealthy to ameliorate these crises (e.g., to socialize the state or “pay up” to those in need), while laudable, shirk from the fact that the power to do something transformative is in their own hands, their communities and their minds. This is not to lament that the state of movement building and the creation of communities of alternative money and exchange processes are not yet the creative domain of social movement unity discussions. As in Detroit, where social movements have dealt with corporate capitalist destruction by building social-movement projects that vibrantly show how another world can emerge, is it not the case for others in and beyond the social-movement organizations that we have nothing to lose but our pocket-booked beliefs?

Footnotes:

1. Guerrero, Leon and Wiesner, Cindy, “The US Social Forum 2010,” Left Turn, October, 01, 2009.
2. See http://www.equaldollars.org/index.shtml, http://www.newvillage.net/Journal/issue2.html and http://www.smallisbeautiful.org/local_currencies/retired_in-planning.htm.