Saturday, September 12, 2009

Conceptual Framework

In this post I depart from Making things in the physical world (mostly) and throw my hat into the fray of competing ideologies. (That's a dirty lie, I'm sort of an academic and live much of my life in the fray of competing ideologies.) I'm also proposing that Making doesn't have to be brand new fabrication. Working with and altering existing physical things, or ideas, is entirely valid.

For a long time, I have been searching for a conceptual framework which can support, characterize and show the interconnectedness of the great variety of activist work which I support. As a committed anti-fundamentalist I support a lot of activism I don't necessarily fully agree with. Activists who are interested in the same goals fight a lot about which particular goal is the most important and which tactics are the best to use toward that particular end. While that's a good and valid conversation, it often gets far too bitter for the severity of the disagreements. If we can't celebrate diversity of opinion and belief in our activism, how will we celebrate diversity of opinion and belief in the world we seek to create?

Hmmmm. I got a little sidetracked. Hope that's not too onerous.

My point is that I want a framework for what I have seen described simply as "the movement" since we can't seem to agree what movement it is, but we all generally agree with each other. (Unfortunately this is one of those you-either-get-it-or-you-don't things. It should be clear by the end of the post. If you still don't get it I'll try to explain, but you have to tell me you don't get it first.)

Thankfully my friend Michael Tank presented, at the last California Student Sustainability Coalition Conference, an idea that E3, a student group at UCLA which Tank helped found, is based on. (Image left.) This is an elegant framework which I highly admire. It's phrased to have a nice ring to it when you read it out loud. It presents two of the main directions in activism as complimentary, with a single point of immediate contact and direct linkages in other work. It presents a wide variety of activist work as interconnected and complimentary and can allow activists to see each other as engaged in different fronts of a common cause rather than as competing. That's really important so I'm going to say it twice.

This conceptual framework has the potential to help activists working on separate things to see each other as engaged in different fronts of a common cause rather than as comp
eting for support and attention.

As amazing as this framework is, I see real problems with some of it's specifics. Particularly "Economy" as a goal. While some of us in the movement know what we mean by "Economy" we're not using the actual meaning of that word. Almost universally, we mean something very different than what the word 'economy' has been historically used to describe.

The term emerged in the Late 15th Century which corresponds to a significant period of enclosure of the English countryside which, in turn, was the primary accumulation which initiated capitalism in England. From there it spread throughout Europe. The term economy was coined in order to describe the management systems developed around facilitating this primary accumulation and constructing the scarcity necessary to develop a working class. In its most basic form "economy" refers to choice under scarcity.

Ok. Lemme unpack that a little bit. "Primary Accumulation" is the transfer of thing of value which are not privately owned, but rather held as common property, into private ownership. This is the creating of the capital necessary for capitalism to function. The scarcity we all take for granted, that allows the engine of the modern economy to function by requiring that we participate, was initially constructed by depriving the peasant and land tenant classes of their rights to use the land and make a livelihood from it, thereby transforming those who were agriculturalists into a working class. That artificial scarcity is maintained today in things like food and resource distribution inequalities and inconsistencies. What's key here, is that that very scarcity is constructed by a system which only operates when things are scarce. It is entirely possible to have a system in which scarcity is not a primary factor. (I'm drawing much of this from a lecture by a people's historian named Iain Boal. He does not maintain a web presence, but this is an interview he gave that touches on many of these same points.)

What is crucial here for the conceptual framework above is that in makes a system which requires false scarcity a goal. The "Economy" is, in its truest sense, a linchpin of the project of Modernity and conglomerated capitalistic society which those of us in the movement are fighting against. I will go so far as to say that as long as the economy remains, as long as a system of choice under scarcity is how goods and services are transfered, we cannot win.

Therefore, "Economy" cannot be a goal of this movement. But, for those of us who mean by "economy" something different than what economy actually is, what word can we use? What is that goal, and how can it best be described? I suggest "Ample." Ample does not have the advantage of being both a noun and an adjective, but I would much rather live an ample life than an economical life. I would much rather live in an ample world than an economical world. And, "Ample" expresses a clear goal which I think we can agree upon. We want to end the constructed scarcity and provide ample lives for everyone. Not opulent, not frugal, ample.

Also, and this is a much more, to my mind, minor quip, "Regeneration" is not quite right. The word means to recreate what was once there. I think has come too perilously close to romanticizing the past and perhaps slipped a little. I am not aware of any time in the past when people have lead generally equitable, ample and ecological lives. (I am, for the moment, dismissing some primitivist philosophies as excessive romanticization based on in
sufficient information.) Instead of "Regeneration" I am in favor of "Reformation." I recognize that the term reform is thrown around in government and industry too much, but I refuse to let them take words away from my vocabulary! Reformation means, among other things, "a radical change for the better" (SOED6). That is, I believe, what we want. Reasonably few of us want to burn down all of society and try again from a romanticized hunter-gatherer past. We want to root out the evils we see as evils and promote the good we see as good. We don't want to cut something off and regenerate it, we want to take what we have and reform it, radically change it for the better.

And so, I humbly present my change of two words to the model above. I changed the form of the Equity and Ecology to Equitable and Ecological so that all three Reformation words could share the same ring to the word, as they did before. I particularly like this model, and I believe that my tweaks add to it.

Though, my tweaks are not perfect. As my friend Tank mentioned when I first proposed Ample as an alternative to Economy, it looses the E3 meme value that way. To Tank, as a community organizer and designer of memes which will hopefully take hold of the imaginations of large numbers of people, this is a serious loss. To me, saying what I mean more clearly is far worth while, but I certainly see Tank as having a valid point.

In either case, what this framework does is organize disparate arms of the movement into something resembling agreement and mutual interest.

This project is substantially different than the Making I've posted about here before. This is a Making of the mind and of ideas, which is wildly different but no less (nor, I hasten to add, more) valuable than the Making of the hands and of possessions.

1 comment:

  1. This kind of thinking I like very much. The use of "ample" in place of "economy" in the 2nd diagram is, to me, much more positive (in all senses of the word) about our future.

    I like playing with "re-" words and appreciate your criticism of regeneration. (Although I understand the history of that term in the "sustainability" context to refer to the capacity to regenerate as a critical response to the more static term "sustainability", which, I might add, can be understood in terms of historical context as predicated on an economic model.) My most recent favorite in this context is "reclamation" -- which I use to refer to the reclamation of time and space at the personal and community/small group level. Making is, of course, implicated here. But professionally I am researching "resilience" which I do believe is a better and more comprehensive articulation of what many of us mean by "sustainability." And I have no problem with romanticism or looking back to something that seems to have been better. I think it plays an important part of "truing": constant correction of direction in order to run as smoothly as may be.

    Anway, I want to know more about this "losing the E3 meme value." How, exactly?