(This article was published by Communalism: A Social Ecology Journal, Issue #2 Spring/Summer 2010)
Many communities in New England have a tradition of town meeting, dating back to the American Revolution. In recent years, activists have brought campaigns to these institutions on a range of issues, including nuclear energy, climate policies, civil liberties, U.S. wars, and genetic engineering. What have been the strengths and weaknesses of this strategy? And what can communalists around the world learn from this form of local organizing?
Just as there is a difference between efforts aimed merely at reforming society and efforts that aim for revolutionary transformation, there is also a difference between speaking out against the abuses of the current social order and building the political power of people to uproot its pillars. The aim of communalists is not only to “give voice” to marginalized peoples, ideas and political alternatives, but also to build political institutions that directly empower people to define and adopt policies guiding public matters of everyday life.
Searching for ways to practice this kind of politics, I have devoted a substantial effort to a variety of campaigns that I collectively refer to as town meeting advocacy. A town meeting advocacy campaign is one in which a committed group of citizens within a town uses the town meeting process to make a non-binding political statement (called a resolution) regarding a substantive and controversial political issue. This form of activism is related to a form of local government only existing in certain parts of the U.S. However, examining the potentials and pitfalls of town meeting advocacy can help inform the ongoing efforts of communalists around the world to root our political struggle in municipal institutions.
New England Town Meetings
Town meeting advocacy plays out within the venue of town meeting government, which remains the official municipal governance structure for a large number of municipalities in New England – especially Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire. In Massachusetts, there are 302 municipalities governed by town meeting and in Vermont, there are 246. Town meeting is a face-to-face form of government that is potentially more open to public participation than federal and state representative bodies and city councils, which like the rest of the United States, are the typical governance structure for large cities in New England. The historical origins of town meeting lie in the forms of self-governance set up by early Puritan settlers in New England before the American Revolution.1
Vestiges of the remarkably directly democratic political practices of these early American towns are retained – albeit in an attenuated form – in many New England towns today. In most towns governed by town meeting, anyone who is registered to vote there can still freely attend the town meeting, speak on matters pertaining to the meeting’s agenda (called the ‘warrant’), and make proposals (called ‘articles’) to be debated and acted upon. The procedures to do these things are often relatively simple. Depending on the regulations of the specific town, putting an article on the warrant is often as simple as collecting a set number of petition signatures. Once a group forms with an intention to put a resolution article before the town, passage can be relatively easy if political sentiments in the town are sympathetic to the petitioner’s aims.
The use of town meeting to make statements of political opinion on a range of controversial issues dates back to pre-revolutionary times.2 During the 1980s, the anti-nuclear movement’s Nuclear Freeze Campaign used town meeting advocacy to promote its aim of ending nuclear weapons. In the early 2000s, there was a renewal of interest in some parts of New England using the town meeting advocacy strategy to mobilize opposition to genetically engineered crops, attacks against civil liberties,3 the military occupation of Iraq, federal inaction on the climate crisis, and the continued operation of nuclear power plants.
Campaigning against GE crops
My own experience working on these campaigns has included working with two different organizations seeking to raise awareness of the dangers of genetically engineered crops as a way of building an oppositional movement to their continued use and proliferation. GE crops are an ecological threat in part because they are designed to further necessitate the use of toxic chemicals in agriculture. The most common trait of commercialized GE crops is resistance to the herbicide, glyphosate, making the chemical and the GE seed two parts of a single package. A multiplicity of studies demonstrates the toxicity of numerous GE crops, and many studies showing the opposite have been exposed for their methodological flaws and ideological biases towards the biotechnology industry.4 Moreover, compelling science strongly suggests that the method of genetic engineering is inherently disruptive to the genetic function of plants.5 The global distribution of these crops poses serious ecological threats to the genetic integrity of biological organisms and health threats to human beings and animals. GE crops are also tied to the legal and political threats of global seed conglomerates, like Monsanto, that use their legal patent rights on the novel genetic alterations of these crops to sue farmers that do not sign the companies’ license agreements.6 Such suits have played an enormous role in expanding the power of these companies at the expense independent family farmers.
As part of the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont, I worked with local activists in several towns in 2002 and 2003 to help them bring resolutions against agricultural genetic engineering to their town meetings – we called it The Town to Town Campaign on Genetic Engineering. The demands we made included: 1) mandatory labeling of all GE foods by manufacturers; 2) strict liability protection to strengthen farmers’ legal rights when dealing with biotechnology corporations; and 3) a moratorium on further growing of GE crops until independent scientific evidence proves them to be safe, and they can be demonstrated not to harm family farms.
In January 2006, I began working as an organizer for the Northeast Organic Farming Association/ Massachusetts Chapter, which had decided to adopt the model of organizing in Vermont where by 2005, 85 different towns and cities had passed resolutions against genetic engineering. For two consecutive years (2006 and 2007), I organized activists concerned about genetic engineering who were willing to speak publicly in favor of anti-GE resolutions at their town meetings. During those 2 years, I worked with people in 18 different towns – mostly in Western Massachusetts – that successfully passed resolutions opposing GE crops, bringing the total number of municipalities in Massachusetts that have taken such measures to 30.7
Democratic Yearnings in an Undemocratic Society
So what are the potentials and pitfalls of this organizing strategy? I believe we can begin to understand this through what I see as an uneven tension between yearning and reality that is inherent to town meeting advocacy campaigns. On the one hand, activists doing this work celebrate town meeting resolutions as the expression of participatory democracy, but, on the other hand, the town meetings have extremely limited powers on issues of importance for the everyday life of people in this region of the U.S.
In the first moment – that of yearning – town meeting government is a relatively accessible sphere of public discourse where it is possible for matters of local and global import to be debated, voted, and acted upon through a participatory process. Although town meetings have relatively little power and narrow jurisdictions, at their best, non-binding resolutions enable a form of speech and education that is unique for its ties to an actual governing institution. More importantly, political action of this kind highlights the civic and humanistic identities of a democratic citizenry, in a way that can countervail rampant and corrosive trends toward isolated consumer identities.
One cultural factor that nourishes this moment of democratic yearning, is that many people throughout New England still revere town meeting as a site for the democratic practice of regular people. Notwithstanding town meetings’ limited jurisdictions and oftentimes low levels of participation, town meeting advocacy has lent moral authority and institutional legitimacy to public dissent because of the generally favorable impressions people have of the institutional venue in which it is carried out.
In the second moment – that of the realities of our undemocratic society – town meeting advocacy can also be seen as a dead end for a radical agenda. Passing a town meeting resolution is regarded, with some justification, as institutionally irrelevant to the decision making processes that really determine crucial matters like war, civil liberties, food safety, and agricultural and energy policy. Indeed, the relative ease with which town meetings can express opinions on these matters is matched only by the ease with which these measures can be ignored by the state and corporations, where power in its present institutionalized form – not just its potential form – largely resides.
As governing institutions, town meetings primarily administer policies on taxes, education, land-use, and infrastructure that come from the centralized state. The political domination of the municipality by the state narrowly contains virtually every decision that that the former makes, no matter what articles local citizens put on their local warrant. A common argument I have heard people make against non-binding town meeting resolutions, for example, is that they distract from the immediate (and often perfunctory) business that town meeting is required to do by law.
That is also why town meeting advocacy takes place on the periphery of the town meeting itself. At least in recent history – town meeting advocacy campaigns are almost always initiated by social movement organizations, rather than by the many committees and boards of town meeting government which are more concerned with generating articles such as zoning changes and budgets. Although the structure of town meeting allows for internal town meeting advocacy, getting people engaged at their town meetings on specific issues on a large scale usually requires the coordination and support that only a state-wide organization or coalition can provide. One reason for this is that support for taking a stand on issues that challenge the State or corporations – or that simply addresses controversial matters outside of strictly local politics – is notably lacking within most local governments since they are not independent entities. Another reason is that statewide advocacy organizations may be the only available way to meet people’s need for support from others when doing political action. The need for statewide political organization on the basis of individual issues is a sign that town meeting resolutions express the political aims of those organizations more than the self-directed will of the town meeting itself.
The tension between yearning and reality is also a source of confusion and contention among those involved in town meeting advocacy campaigns. The primary aim of these campaigns is normally to petition state and federal governments with symbolic political demands, as was the case in both of the campaigns against genetic engineering in Vermont and Massachusetts. Many of the activists involved failed to distinguish between speaking out against genetic engineering, and doing something about the powerlessness of town meetings to stop the proliferation of GE crops. It impressed me, for example, how frequently new and inexperienced participants in the town meeting advocacy campaigns, would initially make the assumption that we were campaigning to directly ban the growing of GE crops in a town. I understood this common first reaction as an encouraging sign that people who understand the threats posed by GE crops are looking for concrete steps to stop them. Paradoxically, the campaigns were not prepared to make demands that could give town meetings legislative powers on such issues. The majority of anti-GMO organizations in our coalition, moreover, did not want to make such a demand based on the belief that the state was the rightful actor in containing the threat of GE crops. Those of us connected to the Institute for Social Ecology, on the other hand, viewed the state not only as captured by the biotech industry, but also as a main instigator of the modern biotechnology era.8 We were trying to open up the possibility of pushing for a local ban out of the understanding that we couldn’t wait for the state to do it for us, but we recognized that most of the communities we were working with were politically unprepared to successfully enforce and defend such a local decision.
Much like new recruits to town meeting advocacy campaigns against GE crops, many opponents of the resolutions incorrectly assumed that activists were promoting a local ban on GE crops. One indication that our dreams of enforceable GE-free zones developing all over our region would face an uphill struggle was when anti-GE allies sought to diffuse the disapproval of local opponents by arguing that a local resolution would only make a request to political representatives and would not have any concrete impact on farmers. This unwillingness of my own allies to take risks in exercising what little power they actually do have was circumscribed by their assumption that the state’s legislative process is the only legitimate and effective way to make change on the issue of genetic engineering. Instead of taking action to directly bring into being the world we want to live in, we were contenting ourselves with the utterance of requests for distant superiors to do it for us.
Pitfalls of Petitioning the State
Grassroots social movement organizations regularly petition higher – and increasingly out-of-reach – levels of government such as state and federal governments for change. Whether or not individuals in these movements believe in it, the notion that the state is susceptible to such petitioning is implicit in the strategy behind such efforts. One lesson that organizers are teaching to other activists in town meeting advocacy campaigns, insofar as they primarily focus on petitioning, is that although the state is failing on certain issues it can be reformed through pressure. The oftentimes crucially missing lesson from this organizing process is that there are deeply ingrained economic, ideological, and political reasons for why the state is not responding to people’s needs – and why political action by the people that is independent of the state is needed in order to address common problems.
By arguing that we are merely calling for change at “higher” levels of government “where the decisions really get made,” activists avoid important and contentious conflicts over who gets to make decisions and who doesn’t. A representative government, at best, promises to consider the desires of the people when candidates plan their next electoral campaign, but the system never promises substantial political empowerment for the people to have a direct say in policy. By arguing that critics should not oppose a new initiative because the proposed resolution will have no concrete impact on anybody, we become complicit in maintaining the political disempowerment to which we have become so woefully accustomed.
Although the Institute for Social Ecology galvanized the state-wide coalition that carried out the Town to Town-campaign in Vermont in 2002 and 2003, it was the only organization in the coalition that publicly argued that town meeting resolutions could mean something more than merely a request for legislation. Other coalition members – organizations working for environmental and consumer protections, and small farmer rights – approached these efforts primarily as a way to petition the Vermont State Legislature. They participated in the town meeting campaign only insofar as they saw it leading to statewide legislation in Vermont regulating GE crops. Thus, it was not surprising that the organizers who held this position would come to prioritize legislative advocacy and lobbying over grassroots organizing once the town meeting advocacy campaign was seen to have served its purpose of making community level political action open the debate at the state legislative level.
Following the approach of petitioning higher levels of government has achieved some partial successes. In Vermont, the advocacy of town meetings strengthened the position of coalition members who were working to enact statewide legislative changes. It was due in large part to the 85 towns in Vermont that passed resolutions against genetic engineering that in May 2006, the Vermont House and Senate passed unprecedented legislation permitting farmers to sue GE crop developers under private nuisance law. Supporters of the bill (including myself) were seeking to institute legal protections for farmers from companies like Monsanto that have sued farmers in some parts of the country for patent infringement when the companies’ patented genetically engineered DNA shows up in the fields of farmers who have not paid the licensing fee. We also sought economic protections for organic and non-GMO farmers. Farmers in Vermont who grew GE crops showed up in large numbers at the Vermont statehouse during key votes to voice their opposition to the bill. They said that Monsanto had told them that if the bill were to pass, Monsanto would stop selling GE crops to them. The Vermont governor eventually vetoed the bill. Then, left without a credible legislative strategy, the coalition that had formed four years beforehand around this campaign fell apart, leaving activists to join other causes.
In one sense, by petitioning higher levels of government as institutions, Vermont town meetings spurred legislative debate and action that would not have otherwise occurred. Meanwhile, local town meeting governments transformed themselves into lively venues for discussing important issues that would otherwise be seen as outside of their purview – at least for a brief time. The experience was meaningful for its educational value – both about the specific issue of genetic engineering and about the function of local governance. In another sense, the choices of the majority of coalition members in the Vermont Town to Town-campaign to use town meeting advocacy primarily as a method to strengthen narrow strategies of petitioning the state helped stagnate their efforts: When the legislative effort fell apart, activists had not been taught through the organizing process how to act independently to attain their goals.
When the town meetings engaged in petitioning higher levels of government, they took on the function of intermediary between the people and their supposed political representatives – a function that was already satisfied by endless websites and e-mail lists with contact information for elected officials. Indeed, insofar as proponents viewed resolutions entirely within the framework of petitioning the state, a reasonable argument made by local critics of the resolution campaigns was that since town meetings are capable of managing their narrow purview with considerable democracy, they should not have to consider matters outside that purview, when petitioning can also be done in other ways.
Despite the limitations of the resolutions and the apparent reasonableness of certain procedural objections to them, there is a substantive difference between an individual letter and a town meeting resolution, which I think makes the latter worthwhile. A letter expresses only the resolve of an individual, whereas a resolution can involve the deliberations and debate of all the town meeting participants. Town meetings define a public sphere in the communities that have them, which is not reducible simply to the particular social, economic, and political interest groups that have influence in a community. Their resolutions are qualitatively different than, for instance, those of a membership organization rallying around a particular issue, because they have been adopted through a public process in which any registered voter in the town has a right to participate. Still, when faced with the criticism that town meeting advocacy campaigns push agendas that are peripheral to the governing institution itself, the best reply starts with acknowledging the actual limitations of the current strategy. The next step is to argue for transforming the strategy so that it integrates the aim of expanding the power and jurisdiction of local town governance so that symbolic advocacy statements have a way of becoming actual policies.
When the state is so irresponsible and unresponsive to popular demands, we are right to respond with the urgency of the causes we champion, and we are right to stress the need to act with whatever means are available and consistent with our principles. But if the strategy of those doing municipal political action is limited to getting more town meetings to debate more single-issue advisory resolutions, we will have missed an opportunity to open new spaces for the radical potentials of town meeting advocacy to be realized. We must find paths to the next logical step: opening up municipal governmental institutions in ways that enable new modes of political action through which people can exercise enlightened reason to solve the problems that we face. Through institutional venues such as this, there lie unexplored opportunities to undermine regressive state policies and to provide alternatives.
The Potentials of a Communalist Program
The transformation of town meeting advocacy to an effort for more radical change would begin by recognizing our common condition of substantial political disempowerment. We must not pretend that mechanisms for enacting change exist where, in fact, they do not. For instance, a campaign will fail if it simply tells town meeting members to vote to do things that they do not have the power to do yet. Once people are aware of their real disempowerment, if they are sufficiently unhappy with it, they can become prepared to claim a type of power that they have never even tasted before: The power to make binding decisions on public matters that affect everyday life. To actualize this vision, we need to identify existing mechanisms of power within town government that lie under-utilized, create them where they do not yet exist, and then exercise them to the maximum extent possible. The challenge for communalists in general, is to foster strategies of participation in local municipal institutions that expand their capacity to realize concrete changes on particular issues – thereby opening up those institutions as venues of struggle for more radical transformations of society.
The framework of a maximum, minimum, and transitional program provides a way to think through the potentials that lie in the town meeting advocacy campaigns that have begun in New England. As a revolutionary political theory and practice, Communalism seeks to build a program through these three phases that achieves concrete political objectives that genuinely improve people’s everyday lives while opening up even wider horizons of social transformation9. This framework is a way of thinking beyond the narrow political options that are most easily presented to activists: Advocacy for reforms that lack a plan for deeper social change, and moral protest against the outrages that surround us. This is a framework that seeks to stimulate the revolutionary imagination so that movements may one day be able to organize to transform the fundamental structures of our existing society. I would argue that key to what distinguishes Communalism, is that the specific kinds of action undertaken by a communalist movement flow out of a logic that starts with a maximum vision.10
A maximum vision concerns what kind of world we ought to live in. For politics to be grounded in an ethical framework rather than grounded in the immediate reality before us, the question of how our society, its institutions, and its practices should be comes before the question of what is already possible. What makes a maximum vision more than an abstraction are the concrete minimum and transitional programs for bringing that vision, or at least aspects of it, into reality. Minimum demands mobilize people around questions of immediate concern in ways that make it possible for them to imagine and fight for transitional demands. Transitional demands, as they are realized, create new kinds of institutions in society that contest the power of state and corporate entities. A transitional program puts into place the new structures that enable revolutionary transformation to occur. Without a maximum vision that expands people’s imagination beyond the dreary reality before us, a minimum program will likely wander into mere reform of the existing social order.
A maximum vision that would deepen the meaning of municipal advocacy against GE, for instance, would involve a reciprocal food economy. Instead of a faceless market controlled by heartless corporations that drive down commodity prices for their own private profit, communities would directly and reliably support agricultural labor and value farming for its contributions to ecological and human health rather than merely for its “efficiency.” Moreover, the food economy would be structured to assure that the needs of members of a community (as well as troubled communities elsewhere) would be met in a way respectful of people’s dignity. Such a maximum demand stated in the realm of food would beg the question of why not make the rest of the economy a reciprocal one as well – a world in which the production and distribution of goods is done, not for profit, but for the benefit of all and for the healthy longevity of the ecosystems we depend upon.
A minimum program’s aims are short-term, readily achievable, and generally won within the existing mechanisms of political power. It must be stated that the political struggle in town meeting advocacy has generally not been part of a revolutionary program. Resolutions can be important achievements when connected to broader demands, but they are largely educational and symbolic and not about reclaiming political power. What distinguishes an initiative as part of a minimum program is that it takes back some measure of power by which policies are actually determined and enacted, even though such demands would appear as reforms and not as an immediate break with the entire social order.
On the issue of genetic engineering, in the context of New England, an example of a minimum program would be, for example, to mandate that on all land that is owned by the town for farmland conservation, the use of GE crops would be prohibited. Another demand would be to ensure provision of GE-free lunches to kids at public institutions such as the local schools. Such demands could easily be paired with efforts to get schools to change their menu away from the cheap highly-processed foods offered in most public school lunch programs towards fresh and healthier foods that have been grown locally. Such a decision would affirm the right and duty of the town meeting to make ethical decisions about matters that affect public life. Minimum demands do not have to immediately create structural change in order to achieve their purpose, but they do have to be consistent with a future in which structural changes are achieved, and they have to mark a meaningful improvement in people’s lives. In these two examples, for instance, the focus is on local public institutions in which regular citizens at town meeting ostensibly already have the power to change the priorities.
Such is not the case with private landowners carrying on legal activities such as planting GE crops. As I argued above, there is no potential for movement development by explaining to concerned farmers who currently plant GE crops that the non-binding nature of these resolutions will not immediately affect them. But as part of a minimum program, we can imagine a process of community discussion that seeks out the involvement of the farmers themselves, in which a variety of measures could be taken by municipal movements to carry out their determination to eliminate GE crops from their environs. Through a process of directly democratic deliberation, communities would begin to consider a range of specific economic factors affecting farms including development pressures and commodity prices. Assuming that the preservation of arable land is important in itself, communities would need to consider the realities of how farm enterprises can be economically viable. They would also have to consider technical questions such as how to maintain a functioning farm economy with ecological practices that do not involve GE crops or toxic chemicals. Movements could press for local governing institutions to create new departments of ecological agriculture that would be charged with administrative activities aimed at facilitating practical and ecological alternatives to GE crops and chemical agriculture.
A minimum program should also illustrate the state’s failure to live up to its promise of protecting the public – a function that is incipient but unfulfilled in a symbolic resolution’s demand for policy changes. For instance, the case must be made explicitly that the reason why a community would consider banning GE foods from the meals it serves its children is not simply because of some whimsical preference of the community, but rather because the federal government is so controlled by the biotechnology industry that it has failed to protect the public from a truly dangerous technology. Having large numbers of people visibly demanding local control over such matters, even of a minimum sort, would create a greater sense of political pressure on the state than would polite petitioning, if those demands were recognizably fueled by popular anger at the state for failing to protect public health and safety.
The true depth of the state’s failure is not implicit in a measure that merely calls on the state to reform itself, but becomes apparent when expectations of political freedom are raised beyond the dead ends of cynicism and resignation. People must first come to believe that they have the right to self-govern; then the tension between their aspirations and what is allowed to them within the existing system can begin to illustrate the need to transcend the state. Raising expectations involves people being willing to make their town governments do things they do not normally do – like stepping outside municipal governments’ primarily administrative function to enacting bylaws or ordinances that reflect the community’s ever widening desire for political freedom. In a minimum program, it is possible to creatively work within the established parameters of town meeting government so that boundaries of power are being challenged even as the existing law is being followed. The crucial goal of this stage of organizing is to open up a space in which the citizenry of a municipality can consider and openly debate specific measures that begin to address concrete problems facing their community. These small steps toward saner community policies, moreover, can provide a training ground in which people practice an enlightened public life: one that seeks out the betterment of the common good.
In the longer run, stopping the spread of GE crops (and war, governmental corruption, rampant pollution, etc.) would be best served by structural changes leading to greater empowerment of directly democratic municipal governments. A transitional program is one that could bring about the changes in political structure needed for an ecological and socially just society. Such changes would be made at the expense of the power of the state.11 The crucial structural change needed is to empower municipal governments and to substantially re-distribute that power within the town in a directly democratic way. To imagine what a transitional program could look like with respect to GE Crops, towns could organize themselves to be GE-free zones by enacting and enforcing bylaws prohibiting the use of GE crops in the town.
One town in Maine has earnestly attempted to do this. In March of 2006, the citizens of Montville voted to amend their town plan to prohibit growing of GE crops. This was the first such municipal action to carry the force of law in any New England town, and it has yet to be tried more widely in New England. There is, however, one recent example in Barnstead, NH where the town made it illegal for corporations to privatize the town’s water supply and nullified the rights of corporate personhood.12 Although the citizens of Montville were just doing what made sense to them after having considered competing arguments at town meeting, and although they did not think of their actions as a “transitional program,” their decision and follow-through demonstrates one way a political struggle could be waged. It also demonstrates that at least in some parts of the United States, there are places where people believe in their own right of self-governance. Following many other states, lawmakers in Maine are already trying to enact preemption legislation that would prevent towns from legally enacting such laws.13 We have yet to see what grassroots movements will do to protect and win back the right of self-governance in the face of these assaults.
A transitional program, fully developed, is not tied singly to any one single issue. Rather it is tied to a programmatic set of actions designed to take power away from the state and vest that power in new free institutions. As a part of a transitional program, we can imagine the flourishing of new kinds of institutions at the local level that coordinate some of the complex features of a local agricultural economy including the use of land, the provision of agricultural equipment, the sharing of seeds, the distribution of soil amendments, the management of organic wastes flows, and the training of people to work with the soil. Such institutions concerned with food would be accountable to the community as a whole. Like some already existing cooperatives, they’d be a countervailing force to the profit imperatives of the corporations that fulfill many of the functions of our food economy. Unlike most existing cooperatives, institutions like this would consciously integrate their activities into a broader process of revolutionary transformation and struggle.
Transcending Liberal Community Organizing
Town meeting advocacy efforts have not yet been able to effectively mobilize much support for a revolutionary political program, but they have pointed attention to local municipal institutions where such programs could be tested. The story of town meeting advocacy shows that narrowing the scope of municipal activism to petitioning the state misses an opportunity to organize people in ways that prepare them for self-governance in directly democratic municipal institutions. Once a town meeting’s instrumental purpose of affecting the internal machinations of statecraft is achieved, the people who once ran the local committees of the town meeting advocacy campaign are demobilized from community organizing and remobilized as political actors that are intelligible to politicians: lobbyists, interest groups, and disaggregated individual voters. When the re-organized campaign sees its chances of legislative victory dim, it loses a reason to persist, because people can’t see how continued participation would lead to realizing any of the goals that first thrust them into action.
The assumption that the only meaningful change is that which goes through the official order of the state is the pitfall of liberal ideology to which town meeting advocacy, as I have seen it practiced, has mostly succumbed. Transcending the limitations of this organizing model depends in large part on imagination to think beyond the terms of liberal statecraft. Indeed, it takes imagination to entertain the possibility that dedicated municipal organizing could transform local governing institutions, which primarily administer state policy, into the very instruments by which political struggle can be waged against the state.
To transcend the liberal ideology that has so circumscribed our community organizing, it is not sufficient to replace it with a radical utopian ideology or to simply underscore the necessity of doing so. Still, the work of envisioning a maximum vision that dramatically contrasts with our realities is an indispensable guidepost for how our political work proceeds, and we desperately need organizing strategies that can fundamentally challenge capital and the state. But for such visions and strategic outlooks to meaningfully affect how people live right now, the organizer must identify those aspects of already existing reality that can be broadened to reveal new openings for struggle. The challenge for organizers is to truthfully examine the context in which we work, and to craft minimum demands and programs that address meaningful and concrete problems of everyday life in ways that expand people’s horizons for yet more substantive forms of freedom. An aspect of this context is the feeling of real powerlessness, and that feeling must be addressed directly. A minimum program is important partly for it’s ability to achieve gains in ways that reveal to the protagonists of struggle what real power – embedded in an ethics of non-hierarchy – tastes like.
It is very important to attempt what, in the idiom of modern pragmatism, is practical (i.e., possible), because we are interested in action in large part for its immediate results. But it is yet more important to adopt a political program that is capable of identifying minimum steps that once achieved, make doable what our smothered minds may not yet be able to imagine.
1 Murray Bookchin, The Third Revolution: Popular Movements in the Revolutionary Era, (New York: Cassell 1996), p.151.
2 Ibid., p.152.
3 One of the most galvanizing events in recent U.S. history for town meeting advocacy to protect civil liberties was the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, a massive piece of legislation passed shortly after September 11, 2001. The law abrogated nearly all of the constitutional rights enumerated in the U.S. Bill of Rights in the name of protecting the country from terrorism. Hundreds of nonbinding resolutions all over the United States were passed at the local level, calling
for restoration of constitutional rights.
4 Jeffrey Smith, Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, (Fairfield, IA: YesBooks 2007).
5 Allison Wilson et al., Genome Scrambling – Myth or Reality: Transformation-Induced Mutations in Transgenic Crop Plants (Brighton, UK: EcoNexus, 2004), http://www.econexus.info/pdf/ENx-Genome-Scrambling-Summary.pdf.
6 Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers, (Washington, DC: Center for Food Safety 2007), http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/Monsantovsusfarmersreport.cfm.
7 Ben Grosscup, Mass Movement: Genetic Engineering becomes question of Democracy at Massachusetts Town Meetings, (Cambridge, MA: Gene Watch, 2007).
8 For a discussion of how the U.S. government invested massively in biotechnology during the 1970s as a strategy for opening new markets to U.S. corporations, see Chaia Heller, “McDonald’s, MTV and Monsanto: Resisting Biotechnology in the Age of Informational Capital,” In Redesigning Life?, Brian Tokar ed., (New York: Zed Books, 2001).
9 Eirik Eiglad, “Libertarian Municipalism and the Radical Program,” Communalism, Issue 7, October 2005, http://www.communalism.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=184:libertarian-municipalism-and-the-radical-program&catid=84:movement&Itemid=2.
10 For an excellent discussion of how the politics of social ecology flow dialectically out of a logic, see Chaia Heller, “Illustrative Opposition: Drawing the Revolutionary out of the Ecological” in Ecology of Everyday Life: Re-thinking the
Desire for Nature, (Black Rose Books: Montreal, 1999), pp.149-171.
11 Eirik Eiglad, “Bases for Communalist Programs,” Communalism, Issue 6, March 2003.
12 For the ordinance see http://www.celdf.org/BarnsteadAntiCorporateWaterWithdrawal/tabid/132/Default.aspx.
13 For more info on this national trend, see http://environmentalcommons.org/seedlawbackgrounder.html.