Disaster capitalism: Perhaps you’ve heard of it. You’ve certainly lived with it. Well described by author and activist Naomi Klein, it’s the scenario in which big banks and corporate businesses profit off crises like earthquakes, bankruptcies, and war, taking advantage of people and places in trouble to enact policies that allow them to amass more power and wealth.
What’s gotten far less press, at least until now, is what I’m calling “survival socialism”: the plethora of alternatives that emerge as people under pressure conjure solutions to their own troubles in ways that aim to deliver not profit as much as social value—better services, cheaper prices, more social cohesion, a greater ownership share in production, a more vibrant democracy, a healthier environment.
Across the world, such practices and policies vary, from land trusts and community gardens to local-first contracting and public takeovers of private utilities. The Transnational Institute, a progressive Amsterdam-based think tank, reports that more than 800 cities in 42 countries have recently taken over crucial utilities: water in Grenoble, France; energy in Boulder, Colorado; community health clinics in Delhi, India. Big cities and small towns are doing it, but some of the most exciting efforts are happening in some of the most obscure places, where the need and the neglect have been the greatest.
Until now, most of these experiments have been small-scale and local, bubbling up from the grass roots in solitary bursts, with little coordination and few high-profile champions. But some of them might soon go mainstream, if a pair of Labour Party politicians—themselves fairly obscure until recently—form the next government in the United Kingdom. While the ruling prime minister, Theresa May, has until May 2022 to call an election, the recent series of high-level resignations from her Conservative-led government could well hasten its collapse.
Whether that day comes sooner or later, the Labour Party has been preparing. On May 19, Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s leader, and John McDonnell, shadow chancellor of the Exchequer and Labour’s top economic minister, welcomed attendees to this year’s State of the Economy Conference at Imperial College in London. The gathering—part of a series that began in 2016—took place just a few weeks after local elections in which the Labour Party had held steady, picking up a few new members while losing others. Weathered parliamentarians and newly elected councillors mingled with popular alt-economists, Occupy Wall Street graduates, and even Selma James, the 89-year-old guru of the Wages for Housework movement.