Time to ignite the power of translocal social movements

Civic Action,Inclusive Economy18 Sep 2018Flor Avelino

Countless social movements are currently simmering below the radar. They are locally rooted and globally connected in translocal networks, creating new practices and ideas for tackling economic, ecological and social challenges. However, they merely flicker in the shadows if they fail to address existing power structures. In this blog, I provide some ways to harvest the full potential of translocal social movements to challenge existing economic and political systems.

This summer has seen raging wildfires and some of the hottest days in recorded history. Our world seems to be on fire, both physically and politically. The good news is that there is also fire reflected in the passion with which people are taking action. While they may seem invisible or marginal to many, there are communities everywhere across the globe implementing social change in neighbourhoods, cities and rural areas. They are doing this through community energy initiatives, basic income experiments, cooperative banks, ecovillages, co-working spaces, digital fabrication workshops, sharing platforms, agriculture cooperatives, urban labs and much more. Rather than waiting for systems to change, these initiatives are creating new ways of doing, thinking and organizing, based on ecological and human values and by nurturing common goods and treasuring basic human rights and democracy.

Many of these initiatives are supported, promoted, connected and organized through social movements and international network organizations. There is, for instance, the Global Ecovillage Network (connecting hundreds of ecovillages across the world), Transition Towns (grassroots communities working on local resilience) and the International Co-operative Association. In the field of food and agro-ecology, there is the Seed Exchange Network (defending biodiversity and seed freedom), the Slow Food movement and La Via Campesina (a farmers’ movement to promote social justice). Focusing specifically on finance and economics, there is the European Federation of Ethical and Alternative Banks (FEBEA), Time Banks (reciprocal service exchange), the Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of the Social Solidarity Economy (RIPESS), Shareable and the Basic Income Earth Network. There are many more examples, such as the International Observatory for Participatory Democracy, the Impact Hub (social impact entrepreneurs), FABLABS (digital fabrication workshops), the DESIS-network (design for social innovation and sustainability), and the international Living Knowledge Network of science shops (for more information on these examples see here).

These networks share two important characteristics. First, they breed social innovation by changing social relations through new ways of doing, thinking and organizing. As such they are not just protesting against existing systems, but also creating and implementing alternatives. Second, they are locally rooted, while also being globally connected through translocal networks. These translocal networks can integrate the best of both the global and the local, connecting communities internationally and promoting global solidarity while also acknowledging and appreciating deep local identities and traditions. This combination of an innovative spirit and translocal connections is important to empower people to take collective action.

Yet, these movements merely flicker in the shadows if they fail to address existing power structures in the global economy. For each translocal network promoting alternative approaches, there are a dozen (inter)national formal and informal networks lobbying the political and commercial interests of existing conglomerates. Be it the fossil fuel industry, the housing market, central banks, agricultural monopolies or authoritarian political regimes, the power of these centralized public-private partnerships extends across all domains and regions. In this context it is not enough to empower people to choose alternative solutions. In order to transform existing systems, it is also necessary to challenge, alter and replace existing power structures. Or, in other words, it is necessary to ignite the countervailing power of translocal social movements to challenge existing economic systems, commercial interests and political ideologies.

One important condition for countervailing power is more mutual recognition and strategic collaboration between social movements. Initiatives are often forced to focus on their own strengths, choose their own battles, and fight over scarce resources in order to survive, instead of stressing their complementarities and collaborating. Some interesting network collaborations have already started exploring synergies and complementarities, such as ECOLISE, the European Network for Community-led Initiatives on Climate Change and Sustainability. We need to support more of these meta-networks and spaces for encounter and reflection, including constructive confrontation and debate.

Another condition for countervailing power is spreading alternative news stories. Alternative news stories are a pivotal driving force behind physical change: they serve to communicate and clarify why the world has to change, who has the power to do so and how this can be done. This is not just about storytelling, it is also about informing and directing physical action: how new houses are built, community-gardens are set-up, start-ups are born, better and fairer products are made, and so on. Different initiatives have different stories, ranging from lifestyle change and inner transformation, to changing economic models and redesigning products, political activism, and fundamental institutional change. These real life stories are essential to challenge the ‘there-is-no-alternative’ logic that dominates the mainstream media and political discourses.

This plea for more strategic collaboration and storytelling is not just a matter of social movements extending their networking or PR activities, or of convincing more journalists to pay better attention. Much more interesting is what you and I can do, even if we are not journalists or activists ourselves. What can we – as policymakers, critical intellectuals and engaged citizens – do to help ignite the countervailing power of translocal social movements?

Discover and support. We cannot know all the examples of social movements, but we can strive to discover which social movements are active in our own neighbourhoods and fields of work. Are any of the above mentioned networks active where you live or work? With the Internet, the answer is just a few clicks away. Whether we become an active member, give a donation, buy a product, or share their ideas, there are so many ways to support these movements.

Critically connect. When developing hubs or networks to connect people and ideas, we should work with existing networks and initiatives instead of creating unnecessary new versions. At the same time, be wary of initiatives that are entirely self-enhancing, for-profit and reluctant to share assets, benefits and power. Support initiatives in creating alternative platforms that offer similar services in a more inclusive manner (see for instance the movement of platform co-ops as alternatives to platform companies such as Uber or AirBnB).

Spread the news and tell the story. We can all challenge existing structures and ideologies by sharing encouraging news stories about what alternative movements are doing on the ground. Sign up to one of the many newsletters or social media channels of these social movements and share your favourite examples with friends and colleagues – not just via social media, but also in your presentations, bar talks and dinner conversations. More importantly, make sure to share these stories with the younger generation, in the classroom and at home.