A Government From Below

Political revolution is a process, not an event - and we can start it now by creating new institutions wherever we live and work.

Rousing calls for progressive reform can ring hollow in our era of biodiversity collapse and looming climate catastrophe. With ruling class control over the world economy and our nominally democratic governments seemingly impervious to popular will, many ordinary people feel powerless to address our problems through institutional channels. There is a growing sensibility that tinkering around the edges of a destructive, broken system cannot even meet basic human needs anymore, let alone stave off future crises. Another world must be possible.

Left-wing movements have begun to tap into this sense of political urgency, even invoking the language of “revolution.” In his 2016 presidential campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders called the American people to rise up in a “political revolution in this country involving millions…who are prepared to stand up and say, enough is enough.” If mobilized, he asserted that masses of ordinary people could replace oligarchy with genuine popular democracy.

While Sanders fought for social-democratic reforms like single-payer healthcare and paid parental leave, his platform revolved around this idea of taking government back from billionaire plutocrats. Through campaign finance reform, reigning in corporate lobbyists, and breaking up the big banks, he believed that everyday people could gain a real say in governance. Sanders understood that to implement the policy reforms working people need, we would first have to change the rules of the game, which had been so thoroughly rigged in favor of the rich and powerful.

The game, however, is rigged in a much deeper way than the legalized corruption of bought candidates and armies of lobbyists. Many countries, such as the UK, have far stricter campaign finance laws, yet also remain under the (perhaps somewhat weaker) grip of their respective ruling classes. A representative system concentrates decision-making power in a select class of political leadership, to which the wealthiest will always have the greatest access. Elected representatives may pass laws regardless of popular support, being subject only to the risk of losing reelection, which is not so great a risk when the industries backing them can provide comfortable jobs and retirements after their time in politics. Empowering a small group of decision-makers to govern society sets them apart as a political class with particular interests of their own and the authority to assert those interests against those of the wider public when in conflict. Democracy as “rule by the people” is not an accurate description of parliamentary systems.

It is never enough to simply “take the state” and wield it as a tool to reshape society, for the state is not a neutral institution to be held by one class or another. At a structural level, the state exists to enforce the will of a ruling elite, who make decisions for us. Even if we replace the most dreadful capitalist representatives with working-class socialists from parties of our own, we haven’t assured that the will of the public is governing society, for the public is not itself in power. Empowering ordinary people to have control over our collective future requires fundamentally transforming the way governance works.

A political revolution in America would accomplish precisely that.

Democracy is a system that places ordinary people in control over their common life: their housing, their workplaces, their neighborhoods, their transit, their food system—not mediated through an elite class of political partisans making decisions on their behalf, but directly. Institutional forms like referendums, face-to-face deliberation in local councils, and confederation beyond the local through recallable delegates are essential parts of a genuinely democratic politics. So is socialism, a democratic economy. Equal participation by all people first requires meeting everyone’s needs. Both poverty and a powerful wealthy class subvert democracy and must be overcome.

The world we must win is a free, democratic, and ecological society, in which an expansive commons is enjoyed and governed equally by all, in the interests of all humanity and the living world at large.  

Our visions of that future, however, cannot be divorced from the process by which they could realistically come about. Here, I will focus more on the transition, a movement strategy that could actually move us from A to B, rather than on utopian imaginings of what true democracy could be. Revolution, after all, is not what comes after, but the transformation, from one sort of society to another.

Organized communities can drive this transition through the development of grassroots institutions of participatory democracy. Local cooperative ecosystems—initially formed to meet basic needs neglected under the profit system—can carve out space from capitalism for new modes of production and exchange. Community residents organized into block associations and tenant unions can build power against landlords, developers, and other local exploiters. Through confederating local community institutions into a higher scale of political organization, we can pose a unified challenge to elite power. Such a movement simultaneously cultivates new forms of democratic self-determination as a systemic alternative to our present system, while leveraging popular power to transition to a new system beyond capitalism. As cooperative systems and the community councils that govern them build enough power to win important reforms—and even restructure local governance itself into a participatory democratic system—we can redirect public investment into community-driven initiatives for a democratic economy and create more space for them to grow and thrive. We should organize these institutions towards the ultimate aim of a transfer of power, such that the democracy we build from the ground up becomes the new system of governance for the liberated society.

Democratic socialists should embrace a pincer strategy of working-class power: from one end, fighting for democratic reforms through existing channels, wherever possible, to open up opportunities for grassroots institutions to be upscaled, and from the other, building the new world in the shell of the old, as radical democracy from below around which the whole of society can be restructured.

Revolution is often imagined as an event or a moment, as the final clash between the forces of progress and reaction, but this is a mistake. Though usually punctuated and catalyzed by such upheavals, revolution is a process, through which the basic structures of our society are transformed.

Political revolution means organizing the architecture of a new political system from the community level, brick by brick, into which the authority of the oligarchs can be dissolved by popular struggle. This is a transitional framework of dual power.

Dual Power

The Sanders campaign, the explosion of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) following Trump’s election, and the recent centennial of the Russian Revolution have all driven a wider interest in looking more closely at the events of 1917.

The Russian Revolution features prominently in collective memory of revolutionary movements, albeit often misremembered, and it is a wellspring of political possibility to help guide organizing for revolution in the U.S.

The story begins in 1905. When the tsar’s troops fired into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, killing hundreds, a fire was lit beneath the Russian Empire. “Bloody Sunday,” as this atrocity came to be known, set off a wave of strikes, peasant revolts, and soldier mutinies.

In Ivanovna-Voznesensk, a strike committee of textile workers reorganized itself as an elected body of the entire town’s workers. This institution was the first of the Russian revolutionary soviets, or councils. Similar democratic bodies of workers spread to cities and towns across Russia, building toward the general strike of October 1905, which forced Tsar Nicholas II to accept sweeping constitutional reforms, of freedom of speech and assembly and an elected parliament whose consent was required to pass laws.

This did not bring socialism or democracy to Russia, but it proved the political power of worker self-organization. Twelve years later, it would change the course of world history.

Following the overthrow of the tsar and the formation of an elected government in early 1917, there was a rapid expansion of soviets across Russia. The First Congress of Soviets was hosted in June, with over a thousand delegates representing hundreds of thousands of workers and soldiers from more than four hundred soviets from around the country. By October, there would be over nine hundred soviets.

This network of radically democratic, autonomous workers’ councils constituted a parallel institution of political authority in Russia, operating alongside the official parliamentary Provisional Government. As the soviets grew in strength, they began to contest with the Provisional Government for legitimacy. Soviet delegates were subject to direct recall by their constituents, and the councils were spaces of directly democratic deliberation by ordinary people. The Provisional Government, on the other hand, while elected, was a representative government, with political elites (mostly drawn from the wealthy and educated classes) making decisions on the country’s behalf. Such decisions, like refusing to withdraw from World War I, were often extremely unpopular.

The soviets wielded genuine popular power. They organized workers to assert control over industry and organized soldiers to assert control over the military. As the socialist organizer Vladimir Stankevich joked at the time, “The soviet could make the Provisional Government resign with a telephone call.” A week before the storming of the Winter Palace, the Petrograd Soviet took control of most regiments stationed in the city, thereby disarming the Provisional Government without firing a single shot. By building democratic legitimacy through the direct self-governance of the working class against the state, the soviets could exercise real power—the power to implement decisions in the streets—and bring about revolution: the complete transformation of society’s governing institutions.

Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and other socialists wrote of this bifurcation of authority between working-class institutions of grassroots democracy and the representative institutions of the bourgeois state, calling it “dual power.” The American libertarian socialist theorist Murray Bookchin developed the concept of dual power further, as form of transformative politics that we should actively seek to cultivate. He argued for a strategy of organizing directly democratic assemblies that could take popular control over and democratize city governments. Confederations of directly democratic local governments could then come into conflict with the nation-state, leading to the latter’s dissolution. Bookchin referred to this political strategy as “libertarian municipalism.”

The possibilities for dual power in the twenty-first century extend far beyond people’s assemblies, but Bookchin’s ideas about dual power as a transitional framework for the future remain essential for envisioning pathways to a political revolution in the U.S.

Build and Fight

The Russian Revolution illustrates how the state can become powerless without popular support. The German-American political philosopher Hannah Arendt explained this dynamic by theorizing power as people acting in concert rather than command and control backed up by violence. The power of states is implemented through the support and obedience of their subjects. In Arendt’s framework, when states turn to violence to maintain control, it is indicative of their lack of power, being otherwise unable to direct the collective action of people. But even the resort to force can’t be sustained without some degree of popular support. “Where commands are no longer obeyed,” Arendt writes in her 1970 work On Violence, “the means of violence are of no use… Everything depends on the power behind the violence.” Soviet power undermined the state’s capacity for violence; revolutionaries organized soldiers into soviets, who simply refused to shoot or switched sides.

While not any sort of socialist, Arendt understood that power is about the capacity to direct collective action. That is a capacity that can be built, that can be organized by ordinary people into concrete institutions. A dual power strategy can develop through a great diversity of community institutions: labor unions, community councils, neighborhood assemblies, mutual aid networks, community land trusts, tenant unions, energy cooperatives, and more.

In this framework, such democratic institutions should be understood as modular. They can stand alone as individual projects, fine-tuned to address specific problems created by the current system’s failures, but they can also be organized into a network, as mutually reinforcing pieces of a broader strategy.

Within such a strategy, these kinds of institutions can serve four interrelated purposes.

First, they can meet immediate human needs. Local systems of mutual aid, rotating savings and credit associations, community gardens, time banks, community-owned solar energy installations, and housing cooperatives can fill in the gaps in the social safety net. Amid conditions of neoliberal isolation, creating community and human connection is also essential. By developing these practices into permanent institutions capable of delivering concrete benefits to community members over time, we can cultivate the seeds of a post-capitalist economy and limit the hold of the market over every aspect of our lives.

In providing for the needs of all in a given community, such institutions can bring more people into the movement, by freeing them from the day-to-day struggle for survival. A broader collective commitment to these institutions as a political project can also grow out of them being embedded in people’s everyday lives.

Second, they can channel collective action. Extracting concessions from the government and fighting back against bosses, landlords, and other capitalists requires the capacity for collection action. Labor unions, tenant unions, and community councils can channel popular mobilizations in a variety of ways. Greater social organization through these institutions makes our movements more powerful, even in conventional oppositional politics.

Third, they can erode the power of capitalist and state institutions by enabling people to withhold their support, by demonstrating new possibilities for democratic freedom and materially extricating us from dependency on capital. In what Gar Alperovitz has called a “checkerboard strategy,”ecosystems of cooperatives can carve out space from capitalism and incubate a new system to supplant it. A dual power of confederated councils actually contests with the “official government” for popular legitimacy. By fighting to expand systemic alternatives, we can steadily displace the capitalist mode of production, weaken the authority of the political class, and transform the public sphere into genuine democracy.

Fourth, taken together, they can form the new world in the shell of the old, as the governing institutions of the future liberated society. A revolutionary transfer of authority to popular organs of radical democracy requires the preexistence of such participatory institutions, not a faith that they would simply be conjured into being out of a general strike, insurrection, or some other mass retraction of popular support. This is not merely prefigurative politics—demonstrating through how we organize that a different way of doing things is possible—but also a politics of preformation, quite literally building the governing structures of the system that will come after. We cannot wait until “after the revolution” for that.

Community Institutions in Action

This basic trajectory of community institutions—from meeting basic needs, to channeling popular power, to eroding their capitalist equivalents, to becoming the institutional containers of genuine democracy—can apply across multiple sites of life.

Socialist politics, especially in the Marxist tradition, has long been focused primarily on the workplace. It is a site of exploitation, and of common cause among the exploited, but also a site of their power. Through collective action and withholding their labor, ordinary workers can bring capitalism to a halt. Production, however, is not the only site of capitalist exploitation, nor is it the only site of powerful resistance.

Many working-class movements have organized around issues like housing, transit, and pollution. Gentrification and displacement are defining features of the political terrain in many cities. In some places, like Barcelona, a turn towards class conflict in the places we live instead of just the places we work has been labeled “municipalism.”

With this in mind, the labor movement should be conceptualized as a central pillar of the struggle for socialism and democracy, but not equated with the struggle itself.

So what does it look like when working-class people build dual power across these different sites of struggle?

In our neighborhoods, people can organize community councils to address immediate local problems and fight for the community’s interests. By forming alliances between directly democratic community councils around a city, organized working-class neighborhoods can become a real power base to challenge the city government. Over time, they can leverage that power to transform the structure of municipal authority, dissolving the powers of largely unaccountable leaders into organs of participatory democracy.

In housing, renters can organize tenant unions to fight against abuses by their landlords. They may organize beyond their building to secure stronger protections for renters. In many cities and towns around the world, such organizations of tenants and squatters have also seized buildings through occupations and turned them into democratic housing cooperatives. Especially if they’ve built citywide political power, tenant unions have the potential to take direct ownership of their apartments and create social housing outside the market. We should not limit ourselves to the autonomous management of a few buildings, however. Such organizations are bodies of local democratic decision-making, and, like community councils, can be building blocks of a new radically democratic political system organized from the ground up.

In the workplace, this is typically carried forward through unions. Labor organizing in the syndicalist tradition traces this same dual power trajectory. Workers organize to meet their immediate interests, and they build union power through successful campaigns to improve working conditions. The union isn’t just a vehicle for winning a bigger piece of the pie, however. Syndicalists understand unions as the vehicle for actually achieving democratic workers’ control over the means of production, as the governing institution in the liberated society that owns and operates the workplace. Businesses can become cooperatives through transitioning them (as with a buyout by its workers), or more confrontationally, through expulsion of management and occupation of the workplace.

A similar trajectory of revolutionary organizing can be carried over into energy production, education, the food system, and so much more. By creating spaces of real democracy in the world as it is, we can steadily transform the most basic institutions that structure our society. And as always, the power of ordinary people to move to the next step of democratic revolution is dependent on the extent to which they have scaled up mass organization, through confederation.

We should be serious about progressive gains through conventional electoral politics as well, to open up space for our grassroots initiatives to scale up and thrive, and to halt efforts by the right-wing to choke them off. A hostile state poses far greater challenges than a sympathetic social-democratic one. Where this kind of politics has failed in the past, it was almost always due to state repression.

A Revolutionary Legacy

The basic components of this strategy for revolution are tried and tested, throughout history and around the world. The people of Paris seized the city and brought it under directly democratic popular control in the Paris Commune. During the Spanish civil war, anarchist workers and peasants reorganized Catalonian society around communal production and decision-making, managed by unions they had organized over decades. In occupied Palestine, a confederation of village and neighborhood councils mobilized all of Palestinian society into a massive revolt that shook the occupation on its very foundations, in the First Intifada. As NAFTA was implemented in 1994, Mayan people in Chiapas launched a rebellion against the Mexican government, and have since governed an autonomous territory through a confederal system of village councils. And since the early 2000s, Kurdish revolutionaries in Turkey and Syria have organized confederations of community councils, which launched into international headlines with the formation of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (a.ka. Rojava) out of the vacuum of the Syrian Civil War, in a feminist and ecological revolution for the direct-democratic management of society amid tyranny and fascism.

There have been quieter steps toward revolution as well. In the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, one of the key strongholds of the old Italian Communist Party, a combination of effective policy and mass working-class organization created a vibrant cooperative ecosystem that still accounts for nearly a third of the region’s economic output. Cooperation Jackson has similarly begun to cultivate a cooperative local economy, alongside people’s assemblies as an institutional form of democratic power outside the city government. As Cooperation Jackson organizers write in their book Jackson Rising,

We are not looking to establish an alternative economic practice that is a quaint little infrastructure that exists in the margins of the mainstream economy. Our aim ought to be the development of a counterhegemonic, liberating economic and social infrastructure whose aim is the liquidation of the predatory, exploitative and alienating economic system that is making the lives of the dispossessed a living hell.

All around the world, squatters have repeatedly refashioned housing complexes as democratic cooperatives, and workers have directly seized means of production through factory occupations. Rarely have such organizing projects reached revolutionary scales, but should Americans work towards such a restructuring of our whole society, we would not be alone.

A Speculative Scenario

What, then, would such a revolution look like in America?  I will only offer a speculative exploration of the possible.

In working-class neighborhoods around the country, socialist organizers form block associations and community councils. In one city, these community groups organize neighborhood clean-up days and push the city government to deal with the trash dumped on city-owned lots by shameless outsiders. They form a neighborhood watch to chase off illegal dumpers and monitor police. On empty lots, they plant community gardens and design community parks. The next year, forty neighbors pack a meeting with the county to demand that their community council be given ownership of the lots under their care.

Community members experiment with new ways of meeting one another’s needs. They gather tools and building materials for a tool library. Some of the older women pool their savings into a rotating credit association to help each other through tough times. The community council eventually takes over the project, and the fund increases tenfold.

A few streets down, tenants form a union to halt illegal and disruptive renovations to their building. Organizers with the neighborhood’s tenant unions and community councils work together to host their first full neighborhood assembly, where community members decide to fight a planned luxury development and launch a council of rotating delegates from their organizations.

Neighborhood-wide, they launch a time bank and raise money for a community kitchen. One evening per month, they close off residential streets for a block party. Their neighborhood confederation incorporates a community land trust and becomes an official partner with the city to take over vacant publicly owned property. The district’s city councilperson begins to quietly attend their monthly assemblies.

They set to work on abandoned buildings, refashioning them as cooperative housing and meeting spaces. Neighbors earn hours through the time bank by spending weekends contributing to renovation projects, and the tool library has grown into a network of local branches. After a well-publicized blockade to stop the eviction of a community of squatters, the county reluctantly grants the community land trust control of the building. Experienced organizers host open trainings for people active in their community council on how to expand participation by their neighbors. Reading groups and political education programs pop up out of community meeting spaces, their schedules posted to neighborhood bulletins.

The following spring, a controversial school closure leads the neighborhood confederation to call a public meeting. Over a thousand residents show up, where public officials are lambasted for an hour and agree to keep the school open.

With crowdfunding and a grant from a local community foundation, the neighborhood confederation purchases its first array of solar panels. They fuse with the local cooperative development fund that gives low-interest, non-extractive loans to workers to start co-ops, creating a new model of democratic economic planning and development. Other community members form a labor solidarity center to picket abusive workplaces and combat wage theft.

A municipal assembly is called, with delegates of similar organizations from every neighborhood in the city, adding another layer of confederation to the project of radical democracy. This powerful organization wins sweeping reforms for city governance. Participatory budgeting initiatives are set up for each city council district, placing citizens in the driver’s seat of spending priorities. Participation is opened to the young people, convicted felons, and undocumented residents barred from voting by state law.

Unique iterations of this form in cities around the country: In Detroit, Michigan, a confederation of block clubs; in the Bronx, a militant borough-wide tenants union; in Portland, OR, a restructuring of the city’s neighborhood associations into confederal direct democracy; in Jackson, Mississippi, a system of people’s assemblies; across New England, a re-empowering of town meetings. Through such municipal institutions, working people fight back as a united counter-power against the might of the landlord class, the developer class, the employer class, and the political elite, for a city for all its people.

Revolutionary organizers from such projects around the country create networks to seed new initiatives of community democracy in every town and city in America. They compile their experiences into toolkits for any person to start a council with their own neighbors, a union with their own co-workers. The mass organizations of democratic communities form intermunicipal confederations themselves, statewide, regionally, and nationally.

Years onward, a citizen’s democracy platform put forth by Detroit’s confederation of block clubs ushers a slate of candidates into the city council and the mayor’s office. The energy, water, and internet utilities are municipalized; sweeping environmental protections are implemented; a municipal public bank is formed. Federal funds for a job guarantee are used directly by the councils themselves. A convention for the drafting of a new city charter is called, with delegates from every block club, tenant union, and labor union local. Within a year, they have restructured the city as a participatory democracy, with policy debated in each local council before decisions are carried upwards by recallable delegates.

The Detroit Commune is declared. A few months later, it is joined by the Olympia Commune, the Jackson Commune, the Oakland Commune. Revolutionary municipal governments join in a transnational network for the coordination of radical democracy across state lines and national borders. They win a majority in some state legislatures and fail in others, laying the groundwork for a new constitutional convention.

Government From Below

Through organizing democracy wherever we work and live, we open possibilities for transforming the wider world around us, to be more human, more just, more ecological, more free. This must be at the center of any political project declaring itself to be a revolution.

This process would amount to a fundamental restructuring of the public sphere, from a state—instrument of coercive violence under the control of a ruling class—into a democratic commons, a government from below.