A New Economic Vision That Mixes Together Occupy, Amish Culture, and Startups
It feels we are in a time of increasing cultural polarization, marked by the refugee crisis in Europe, the staunch divide of U.S. domestic politics, and the growing disenchantment of millennials with traditional institutions. Now, as we fall victim to the cultural bubbles we live in—the walled echo chambers of opinion that make up our social networks—we need to be able to bridge divides, to communicate across subcultures. Now, more than ever, we need to navigate the world with a certain “cultural promiscuity” and to think outside the silos of traditional disciplines, belief systems, and sectors.
In the same way we can splice a gene, cultures are also capable of becoming more hybrid.
As someone engaged in social change interventions around the world, I have been flirting with diverse subcultures for some time. I see reality through multidimensional lenses, from Marxist diagnosis and feminist provocation to self-organizing facilitation tools like the Art of Hosting and Dragon Dreaming. All play a role in the communities I serve and the projects I work on.
But this wasn’t always the case. With a background in anthropology, I was trained to approach communities and cultures not as traditions to be spliced and remixed, but as entities to be observed, respected, and preserved. Only recently, I’ve come to see culture as a dynamic and living organism, capable of being “hacked,” of being “mashed up” and remixed. In the same way we can splice a gene, cultures are also capable of becoming more hybrid; for example, elements of hacker culture can become implanted in local government.
Cultural hybridity is increasingly a feature of social change communities around the world, as best practices from cooperatives, social justice movements, environmental coalitions, and startup ecosystems become shared and reassembled in new contexts. The Workers Lab, for example, in Oakland, California, is working on getting traditional entrepreneurs to bring in social justice concerns to their startups. And digital platforms are beginning to see what they can learn from the ownership structures of cooperatives. But as much as this cultural promiscuity promises to accelerate social change outcomes, there are also real concerns around cultural appropriation and co-option.
When Mark Zuckerberg claims Facebook to be a “hacking organization,” hackers balk at the dilution of their counter-cultural agenda. When New York penthouses become the sites of shamanic ceremonies, or Burning Man festival-goers adorn Native headdresses, we feel the unease of a kind of “gringo shamanism.” And yet, diverse subcultures around the world have much to inform mainstream consciousness.
From the Amish, I’ve learned the power of digital detox, of thinking more intentionally about the role of technology in our lives, of the importance of collaborative enterprise as epitomized by a culture of barn-raising. Further, from the small-business owners in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, I’ve absorbed the spirit of hustle and improvisation (jeitinho) and grasped the true meaning of the solidarity economy that animates global eco-villages, intentional communities built on environmental stewardship. From freelancers in New Zealand, I’ve seen what happens when startup culture and Occupy culture combine to give rise to tools like Loomio, a software for decentralized decision-making. In hacker and activist collectives, I’ve been impressed by the presence of leaderless organization and the promise of a world without bosses.
Where do we turn for inspiring alternatives?
At a time when many around the world are experiencing a crisis of faith in traditional institutions, growing disconnection from nature and natural rhythms, anxiety and burnout, unprecedented wealth inequality, and a breakdown of social support systems, people are rejecting mass society and finding new ways to organize and be in community. Where do we turn for inspiring alternatives? What subcultures offer us insight and principles for new ways of organizing?
Like many, I’ve been pining for a localized sort of economy. Something based on a return to a “Jeffersonian ideal,” where the primary economy of agricultural production and basic needs is dominant, where citizens abandon their role as consumers and become producers. Where localized community production replaces our dependence on large corporations for goods and services. Where finance becomes a handmaiden, a means to serve the economy rather than an end in itself.
To ground these abstract longings, last year I visited POC21, a pop-up “eco-hacking” camp at a chateau outside Paris. At POC, I instantly felt the stirring of neo-tribalism. A community of more than a hundred makers, designers, and engineers was busy building prototypes of a fossil-free, zero-waste society. Outhouses, geodesic domes, campsites, and a 3-D printing lab were all constructed in the course of a few weeks. (Roaming wild boars lent a certain survivalist atmosphere.)
The camp was a hodgepodge of economic visions: citizens owning the means of production (Marx); a commitment to open intellectual property and commons ownership (opensource); and a redeployment of scientific knowledge to solve challenges of humanity (Buckminster Fuller). POC was the fantasy of every post-apocalyptic “prepper” and climate change activist, that odd convergence of the extreme left and right that worships the DIY spirit.
Symbolically, POC21 was a return to some of these ideals. But it was ephemeral and temporary. Leaving the camp, many of us hungered to bring back to our urban lives practices for intentional living and working. We became enthusiastic about helping to catalog and document the practices of emergent forms of community around the world.
The rise of freelancer cooperatives, the transition from startup sharing platforms (AirBnb, Uber, TaskRabbit) to cooperative platforms, all necessitate greater levels of community design. From my experience, whether setting up a peer-to-peer philosophy community (Wisdom Hackers) or running an Alcoholics Anonymous-like support group for social intrapreneurs (League of Intrapreneurs), the methods of traditional, institutional approaches to organizing are obsolete. Peer-to-peer enterprise requires greater self-governance—not industrial, command-and-control systems of management.
Ultimately, to reimagine production, we have a variety of models to choose from.
But the temptation to shed “factory culture” and run communities organically and informally can lead to what feminist Jo Freeman termed “the tyranny of structurelessness.” In informal communities, individual personalities and politics can become dominant in the absence of explicit rules and structures. As a result, in the words of Freeman, such “informal structures have no obligation to be responsible to the group at large.”
What I also learned at POC was that nonprofits, businesses, communities, and movements that serve the world with a commitment to decentralizing power and information not only have to think about the openness of their intellectual property, but also about the openness of their decision-making and their network. In other words, how do you make opensource culture more transferable to a greater diversity of people beyond what is largely White male geek culture?
POC was still an incredible petri dish for rapidly prototyping emergent culture. It made a zero-waste society feel that much closer. Information was free and open. Children were collectively taken care of. Tasks of cooking, cleaning, and night guard duty were shared. The conditions of the camp met basic needs, and projects were rapidly accelerated. But during my time at the camp, there was a tension within the group: How could we overcome the factory spirit built into the prototyping mission of the camp? We didn’t just want to prototype projects but also to foster community and create a new type of society.
Leaving POC, I became extra sensitive to factory dynamics. Back in Berlin I started looking at entrepreneurial ecosystems and startup hubs as residuals of industrial capitalism, instead of communities for collective gathering, wisdom, and shared enterprise. If markets and industrial production have become separated from society and community, the task now seems to be figuring out how to envelop production within community. This is not dissimilar from how cottage industries used to function in the early 19th century, when production of goods took place in homes and small workshops. Localizing production in community might lead to a certain sacrifice of market efficiency, but would also offer greater flexibility and enhanced quality of life, and would strengthen social ties and community resilience.
Ultimately, to reimagine production, we have a variety of models to choose from. Culture is no longer contingent on particular ethnographic contexts. Rather, practices from indigenous peoples, protest movements, entrepreneurial startup hubs, intentional communities, and even religious traditions require remixing by emergent forms of community around the world. While this remixing might feel like a consumerist “pick and choose” approach, it’s also one of the quickest pathways I’ve identified for accelerating social change and building more resilient local economies and communities. Designing community around cultural hybridity gives us a much broader diversity from which to organize ourselves and foster a greater sense of belonging for very different types of people.
This article has been inspired by recent conversations with Alanna Krause, Mix Irving, Daniel Karpantschof, Chris Chavez, Manuela Yamada, Antonin Leonard, Tomas de Lara, Pedro Jardim, Taina Moreno, Tristan Copley-Smith, Andrea Bauer, Derek Razo, Chelsea Robinson, and many other colleagues in Brazil, the U.S., and Europe too numerous to name.