Civil Rights icon Ella Baker speaks at a news conference in 1968. Baker came up in the movement as a builder of parallel institutions. (AP Photo/Jack Harris)
Across the United States, people are developing old and new strategies to step outside an extractive, unjust economy and build new forms of community wealth. They are building the components of a “new economy”—a vision of a system that is restorative to people, place and planet. (See Gar Alperovitz’s essay, “How to Democratize the US Economy”.)
As new economy advocates gather resources and ideas to construct parallel institutions, they are turning for inspiration to many earlier social movements. To take two prominent twentieth-century examples, Ella Baker and Gandhi both attempted to throw off oppressive structures while creating a just and viable society to displace the old.
Ella Baker is remembered as a driving force behind many of the major events of the civil rights movement, a fierce advocate for social justice who led by enabling others to lead. What few know is that she came up in the movement as a builder of parallel institutions—businesses, schools, consumer cooperatives and political organizations whose white-controlled counterparts closed their doors to people of color. Baker believed that infusing participatory democracy into all spheres of life was the road to liberation.
Gandhi, too, was committed to the construction of parallel institutions. The “constructive program,” a critical component of satyagraha (nonviolent civil resistance), involved “building a new society in the shell of the old.” Gandhi sought economic self-reliance for Indian people through homespun clothing and handmade salt, and through cooperative community efforts to educate, win workers’ rights and restore a clean and healthy environment—all of which required transcendence of caste and religious tension.
The legacy of these earlier campaigns continues to animate today’s social movements. People are building the new economy whenever they participate in cooperatives, credit unions, community-development financial institutions, sharing and barter networks, community land trusts, community-supported agriculture, alternative schools, free/libre/open source (FLO) software and many other parallel institutions.
In Boulder, Colorado, residents are organizing for municipal control of their energy company to reduce carbon emissions through community-owned renewable energy. In Greensboro, North Carolina, efforts are under way to institute participatory budgeting and launch a cooperative grocery store. In the Rockaways in New York, worker-owned businesses are growing out of the pain and loss of Hurricane Sandy, offering an opportunity to rebuild stronger and more resilient than before the storm.
At the national level, a group called the New Economy Coalition is convening those engaged in these efforts to take collective action and build a shared story about the society we can create together. On October 12–18, dozens of coalition members and allied organizations are shining a spotlight on the movement to build a just and sustainable economy in a nationwide campaign called New Economy Week. Over the next several years, the goal is to initiate a national conversation on the need for deep changes to our economic and political systems—and to raise the profile of grassroots efforts that are using these strategies to build collective power and healthy communities.
Ultimately, the success of these efforts depends on the extent to which parallel institutions and the people who build them can generate power and resources in service of today’s social movements. Participatory structures that build intellectual, financial and social capital ought to nourish and invigorate all contemporary struggles for liberation. That includes struggles to resist the concentrated power of huge corporations, which perpetuates and exacerbates poverty, inequality, racism and ecological destruction. If we can learn from Ella Baker and Gandhi, if we can resist the beneficiaries of a broken system while simultaneously building a new one, if we can participate in institutions that value people, places and the planet over boundless profit, we can usher in a new economy.