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AlterEcos, Questioned

By Sarah Plauborg, cand.comm., Roskilde University

The stated ambition of the AlterEcos project is to explore alternatives to currently dominant forms of economic organizing. Due to the financial crisis, it was urgent to imagine possibilities for change within the present economic order. However, since then yet another global crisis has emerged; the climate. What seems most urgent now is imagining alternative organizational practices that work towards more sustainable modes of production and less unequal distribution of resources. In other words; organizations that realize social and environmental responsibility.

 

Capitalism vs. Climate Crisis

Alternative organization theory is based on the assumption that the climate crisis is a result of capitalism. Capitalism has arguably increased the living standards and sparked growth in many parts of the world. However, this has come at a cost that now seems to surmount the benefits. The climate crisis is the result of human activities, the most detrimental of which relate directly to the capital-driven economy. In this sense, it is reasonable to suggest that capitalist means cannot be used to achieve sustainable ends – or, as Audre Lorde had it, that the tools of capitalism cannot be used to solve capitalism’s problems. This attitude, however, rests on the assumption that profit and sustainability are irreconcilable.

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More specifically, alternative organization theory proposes that organizations must adhere to the principles of autonomy, solidarity and responsibility and, further, that means and ends are indistinguishable. While it is acknowledged that the perfect alternative organization does not exist, it is maintained that each of the principles must be realized to some degree. In this sense, organizations must act in accordance with the ‘future society’ they envision; meaning, they must be prefigurative, as this concept is defined by Marianne Maeckelbergh (2014).

 

Is entomophagy an inherently alternative practice?

The climate crisis has led to a search for alternative food sources in order to feed the growing world population without completely draining the world’s resources. The practice of consuming insects, or entomophagy, has been promoted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as a way to meet the demands for increased food production and environmental preservation because producing insects for food and feed emits a significantly lower amount of greenhouse gases compared to most livestock. Moreover, rearing insects requires less land and water and as they are very rich in fat and protein, they are considered to be of high nutritional value. In essence, insects have been deemed the “future protein” which will have a positive effect not only on the environment but also on the global distribution of resources.

The Danish organization ENORM is innovative in the sense that it is one of the first organizations to produce insect-based food and feed in Denmark. Insects constitute a radical alternative to the food products that are established in Western societies today and producing/consuming them exhibits a clear implementation of the third principle of alternative organization; responsibility to the future.

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In my master’s thesis, Alternative Product, Alternative Organization?, I studied how ENORM constitutes itself communicatively in relation to the principles of alternative organization. The thesis shows that the founders of the organization have established an idealistic relationship to insects as a food product, considering it to be a future source of protein, the turn to which will save the planet. ENORM also practices responsibility by educating consumers about the benefits of entomophagy and insects as an alternative source of protein. The organization has acknowledged the cultural barrier towards entomophagy in Denmark which inhibits the immediate spread of this practice. This has led to the establishment of a B2B company, ENORM Biofactory; an insect farm which will rear black soldier fly larvae as raw material for the feed and food industry. In this sense, the organization has established a strong relation to the principle of responsibility, which is radically present within ENORM’s vision and mission.

Interestingly, ENORM does not organize in relation to the principles of autonomy and solidarity. In a true ‘survival of the fittest’-manner, ENORM mimics its surroundings by applying traditional forms of profit-driven organizing. However, ENORM does distinguish itself from dominant forms of organizing which do not consider sustainability to be profitable. Organizing in a traditional manner is a deliberate decision made by the founders and it is alternative because it is based on the principle of responsibility. In other words, ENORM does not align its means and ends; instead, the profit-driven structure is chosen as a means to effectively achieve sustainable ends. Profit is essentially juxtaposed with sustainability and, in this way, ENORM challenges the normative assumptions of alternative organization theory.

 

Questioning Alternative Organization theory

This empirical example poses questions as to the necessity of adhering to all three principles of alternative organization as necessary means of achieving sustainable ends. ENORM demonstrates that it is possible to realize societal and environmental responsibility without applying the organization-centric principles of autonomy and solidarity. Moreover, in contemporary times, what is more urgent; democratic economic practices or global sustainable development? Given the emergence of UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, it seems that a global consensus has already been reached, regarding the types of futures we need to imagine.

Perhaps, then, if alternative organization theory wishes to remain relevant, it will benefit from a more nuanced perception which does not attempt to establish blueprints of alternative organizations but is more attentive to the rationales that determine organizations’ means and ends. In this way, organizations, like ENORM, would be acknowledged as alternatives to the current dominant forms of organizing; alternatives that do not abandon capitalist means, but put them to better use.

Alternative organization theory emerged out of the economic crisis as a tool to imagine other possible ways of organizing economically. In this sense, the counterpoint to alternative organizations was considered capitalism because this was the dominant form of organizing. However, as this article points out, the world faces a new crisis. Today, organizations that do not value sustainability or practice the principle of responsibility are the dominant and destructive forms of organizing for which alternatives are most urgently needed. This is not to say that capitalist practices are not to blame for the destruction of the environment. Arguably, capitalism has “colonized” the world with a capitalocentric logic and has made both consumers and organizations blind to ongoing detrimental global effects through an uncritical race for profit and consumption. Alternative organization theory is effective in the sense that it aims at questioning dominant forms of organizing; it is essentially an effort at opening our eyes to these unsustainable organizational practices. In other words, if capitalism has “colonized the mind”, then alternative organization theory is an attempt to “decolonize it”.

This decolonization process is essentially a pursuit of a non-capitalocentric future, but it is relevant to point out that this does not mean that capitalist forms of organizing should be condemned. As Gibson-Graham (2006) suggests, a non-capitalocentric world should encompass a heterogenic organizational landscape in which capitalist and non-capitalist forms of organizing coexist. In this sense, the organizational form is not essential; what remains relevant, however, is the concept of prefiguration. In the case of ENORM, insects are a symbol as well as a means to a better world.

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AlterEcos, Imagined

By Christian De Cock, visiting professor to the AlterEcos project

Following on from Sine’s inaugural blog unpacking key AlterEcos concepts, I want to explore a particular way of imagining alternatives to currently dominant forms of economic organizing. I’m looking here to the ‘near-future science fiction’ of Kim Stanley Robinson, which concerns itself with events and modes of organizing in the coming decades and the next century. Donna Haraway recently referred to such science fiction as “a method of tracing, of following a thread in the dark”, creating “the pattern and assembly that solicits response.” Any serious attempt to describe our current historical moment in such a way as to open it up to alternatives, will tend toward near-future science fiction as it organizes our knowledge into plots that suggest how we can make changes in our present world.  Such alternative imaginings of the world inevitably have to touch on the challenge posed by the climate crisis because, as Amitav Ghosh put it, “to imagine other forms of human existence is exactly the challenge that is posed by the climate crisis: for if there is any one thing that global warming has made perfectly clear it is that to think about the world only as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide.” 

 

The catastrophic present 

Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy, published over the period 2004-2007, has very much the feel of an alternative history of the past decade. He sketches a world in which the ‘good guys’ suddenly find themselves in charge and take seriously the challenge of climate change. In this narrative Phil Chase, the most environmentally aware senator in the US, becomes US President and gives Science (in the form of the US National Science Foundation) a central place in political decision making, whilst enthusiastically embracing a true internationalist agenda. In the first book Robinson forcefully puts forward his view on our current socio-economic set-up:

It takes no great skill to decode the world system today. A tiny percentage of the population is immensely wealthy, some are well off, a lot are just getting by, a lot more are suffering.  We call it capitalism, but within it lies buried residual patterns of feudalism and older hierarchies, basic injustices framing the way we organize ourselves. Everybody lives in an imaginary relationship to this real situation; and that is our world. We walk with scales on our eyes, and only see what we think. And all the while on a sidewalk over the abyss (2004: 308).

In contrast to much of Climate-Fiction, the trilogy does not indulge in the aesthetics of catastrophe (although there are some memorable scenes of the great Washington flood and freeze). Robinson has an interest in catastrophe-as-event (the subtitles of the first two books are The Forecast is Catastrophic and Catastrophe is in the Air) but the real ‘catastrophe’, he seems to suggest, is actually the system we have created. Now is the moment of the storm:

The system cries: it’s not me! As if it could be anything else, given that human beings are doing it, and capitalism is the way human beings now organize themselves… The system claims…‘I’m the cure!’ And on it goes, and pretty soon we’re left with a devastated world  (2007: 377).

Robinson has a go at the logic of neo-classical economics which seems to ensnare us all, coming up with some memorable phrases such as “Economics is incorrigible. They call it the dismal science but actually it’s the happy religion” (2005:89), and “Free market economics is a plan – it plans to give over all decisions to the blind hand of the market. But the blind hand never picks up the check. And, you know – it’s blind…” (2007: 509).

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The serious point Robinson is trying to make is that our current socio-economic set-up simply cannot provide mechanisms for dealing effectively with the challenges of climate chaos: “If the Earth were to suffer a catastrophic extinction event over the next ten years… American business would continue to focus on its quarterly profit and loss” (2004: 109). Furthermore, the plethora of information and sheer amount of organizations involved in dealing with climate change has in itself become a source of paralysis, Robinson proffers:

So much was happening at any one time that any description of the situation had some truth in it, from ‘desperate crisis, extinction event totally ignored’ to ‘minor problems robustly dealt with’. It was therefore necessary to forge on in ignorance of the whole situation (2005: 94).

This brings him to the crux of the organizational predicament, which he repeats over and over again throughout the novels (e.g. 2005: 137, 253; 2007: 105): “This is the real problem: we know but we can’t act”! He also describes this as “a kind of vertigo in time, a loss of balance in one’s sense of movement into the future” (2007: 343). A character in the novel thus wonders whether we have “lost touch with reality, gone mad as a collective” (2005:32; also 2007: 216). Monbiot echoed this imaginative deadlock when commenting on the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s latest report: “This is a catastrophe we are capable of foreseeing but incapable of imagining. It’s a catastrophe we are singularly ill-equipped to prevent”. It is precisely on this re-awakening of our imagination that Robinson pins our hope for survival without giving it any actual content. What could we do, he wonders, if we weren’t trapped in our current institutions and imaginaries?

I think for a while we forgot what was possible. Our way of life damaged our ability to imagine anything different. Maybe we are rarely good at imagining that things could be different. Maybe that’s what we mean when we talk about the Enlightenment. For a while there we understood that the ultimate source of power is the imagination… We are going to have to imagine our way out of this one (2007: 507, 509).

Robinson wonders throughout these books what futures are still possible given the conditions of the present, but ultimately fails to come up with an answer. Every time protagonists want to make a change they quickly discover that any given feature entertains a multi­tude of unexpected yet constitutive links with all the other features in the system. All that is ‘achievable’ are some spectacular but probably futile geo-engineering projects, like sinking millions of tons of salt to restart the Gulfstream. Toward the end of the final novel the ‘climate catastrophe’ almost entirely disappears from the narrative and the individual protagonists find some personal resolutions and happiness in a strange temporary and fragile return to ‘normality’. Yet, this imaginative failure of the trilogy – i.e. a change in individual features of our current reality that could make a real difference – perhaps provided Robinson with the motivation to write his latest novel.

 

Imagining alternative futures

In New York 2140, Robinson presents us with the consequences of our imaginative failure. The picture he paints (and which is beautifully rendered on the front cover of the book) reminds us of Maurice Blanchot’s famous reflection: “The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact.” By 2140 New York has had to face a 50-foot rise in sea level; yet despite being half-drowned it is still a functioning megalopolis: “Lower Manhattan lies flooded below them like a super-Venice, majestic, watery, superb. Their town” (p. 6).  This is a world where Capitalism has successfully adapted to the challenges of climate change, but also one of an accelerated immiserating of vast swathes of the population (only an American perspective is offered): “Am I saying that the floods… were actually good for capitalism? Yes, I am” (p.118):

All people needed to do to deal with it was to buckle down in their traces and accept the idea of austerity, meaning more poverty for the poor, and accept a police state with lots of free speech and freaky lifestyles velvet-gloving the iron fist, and hey presto! On we go with the show! Humans are so tough! (p.141).

Whilst the Science in the City trilogy from the noughties was about the relation of politics and science with climate change, Robinson’s latest offering is very much about financial capitalism and its societal effects in a climate changed world, and this time round he is determined to develop in some detail an alternative mode of economic organizing. As he suggested in a recent interview: “Extreme climate change is being caused in part by capitalist economics, so we have to change the latter to be able to deal with the former. New York 2140 will tell the story of the first steps we might take in that direction.”

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The book is divided into eight parts and most of the titles read like an ironic take on an economics primer: ‘The tyranny of sunk costs’; ‘expert overconfidence’; ‘liquidity trap’; ‘expensive or priceless?’; ‘escalation of commitment’, ‘the comedy of the commons’. Each of these parts is subdivided into chapters, which see the story developing from the perspective of one of the protagonists.  In a clever textual move, Robinson also introduces a character called ‘a/the citizen’ who exists in a metafictional relationship with the rest of the text, thus allowing him to weave a thinly fictionalised socio-political analysis throughout all eight parts (often harking back to the events and (in)actions of the global financial crisis of 2008). At times, the drowned city of New York seems only a stage set, albeit a spectacular one, to provide an analysis of late capitalism and to explore alternative financial ideas.

Robinson explicitly acknowledges the influence of scholars who are active in the Critical Finance Studies (CFS) community: Dick Bryan, Robert Meister, and the late Randy Martin. There is something deeply satisfying about theoretical ideas developed in our wider academic community being put to work by an accomplished novelist in an intricate plot that tries to conceive of our socio-economic totality in new ways, building a ‘small world machine’, as it were. The ‘revolution’, if we can call it that, takes up the latter half of part seven and most of part eight. Of course, it is difficult to do justice to the concatenation of events that take up the last 100 pages of the novel within the confines of this blog, but a few glimpses might tempt potential readers to explore for themselves this alternative future when and where people suddenly effect their solidarity as a political force: “We pretend that democracy is real, and that will make it real (p.527)”:

Strategic defaulting. Class-action suits. Mass rallies. Staying home from work. Staying out of private transport systems. Refusing consumer consumption beyond the necessities. Withdrawing deposits. Denouncing all forms of rent-seeking. Ignoring mass media. Withholding scheduled payments. Fiscal noncompliance. Loud public complaining…. So in the summer of 2142 people started doing all these things. The actors were many, as there was no cohesion or agreement on either means or ends… There was a powerful sense of some underwater current in the global civilization now pulling it out into an unknown sea. History was happening. When that happens you can feel it (p.531-532).

In a way, New York 2140 can be conceived of as a positive response to Ghosh’s accusation that “the climate crisis casts a much smaller shadow on literary fiction than it does on the world.” Robinson’s great achievement is the seamless weaving together of theories and concepts, some of which we aim to explore further in the AlterEcos project (including recent work on non-human actors), into an imaginative plot that offers a genuine affirmative alternative future history. It is therefore only appropriate to have Robinson have the last word in a paragraph where the narrator looks back, somewhat nostalgically, to the events of 2042:

… Nor was it due to any other single individual. Remember ease of representation. It’s always more than what you see, bigger than what you know. That said, people in this era did do it. Individuals make history, but it’s also a collective thing, a wave that people ride in their time, a wave made of individual actions. So ultimately history is another particle/wave duality that no one can parse or understand. Moving on from this brief excursion into political philosophy before the profundity grows too deep, what remains to be said is this: things happened. History happened. It does not stop happening. Seemingly frozen moments are transient, they break up like the spring ice, and then change occurs. So: individuals, groups, civilization, and the planet itself all did these things, in actor networks of all kinds… there was no guarantee of permanence to anything they did, and the pushback was ferocious as always, because people are crazy and history never ends, and good is accomplished against the immense black-hole gravity of greed and fear. Every moment is a wicked struggle of political forces (p.604).

AlterEcos, Unpacked

The AlterEcos project sets out to explore alternatives to currently dominant forms of economic organizing. What, you may wonder, does all this mean? In this inaugural contribution to the AlterEcos blog, we will unpack the elements of the project one by one, beginning with economic organizing.

What is economic organizing?

Economic organizing may refer, variously, to the organization of the economy or a mode of organizing that is economic in nature. The first of these two meanings is, perhaps, the most straightforward as it refers to the structure and functionality of the economy as a system and addresses such issues as: How do societies organize the exchange of goods and services? How are things and ideas valued and priced? In short, how does the economy work?

The second meaning, while somewhat more elusive, is at least as relevant. Moving beyond notions of the economy as a separate part of society, or sub-system with its own functionality, economic organizing may also refer to the ways in which the economy organizes society as a whole. That is, the logic of the economy may be said to infiltrate and impact all aspects of life, infusing everything we do with a certain order or form.

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The AlterEcos project initially focuses on the financial sector and, hence, economic organizing in the first of the two senses presented here. However, we seek to understand the organization of the economy in order to be able to trace how this organizational form traverses the porous boundaries between economy and society and makes its mark on all walks of life.

 

What are the currently dominant forms of economic organizing?

Economic organizing, then, is an order or logic that may begin within ‘the economy’ understood as a separate domain of the social world, but tends to travel into other  domains – creating a political economy, a social economy, a cultural economy and so on. In all these instances the original relationship between the adjective (political, social, cultural) and the noun (economy) has somehow been reversed so that it is no longer the economy that is political, social, cultural, but these various spheres of life that are becoming economical or economized – organized along the same lines and following the same logics as the economy itself. The economy, we might say, is an order or a mode of ordering that tends to overtake that with which it comes into contact rather than vice versa. But what, then, are these lines and logics; what are the currently dominant forms of economic organizing?

First, we should note that this is, in part, what AlterEcos sets out to explore, wherefore we can only offer some preliminary answers here. Second, the form of the question is significant; as it speaks of forms in the plural and denotes their temporality and potential malleability by inquiring into the currently dominant. Although we may speak of the economy in rather static and stable terms, as a certain order, this order is not as given and fixed as it may appear. Or put differently: there is nothing natural about the economy; it is a thoroughly social construction – and, as such, it is always susceptible to change.

Speaking in the broadest possible terms, the capitalist growth imperative seems to be at the root of economic organizing in the 21st century. Even so, this principle takes different forms – there are varieties of capitalism that all deserve careful attention. More specifically, capitalism currently seems to be moving further and further away from its material base towards the production and circulation of immaterial assets. This turn to the derivative, to value creation in and through speculation, can generally be labelled financialization. Not only is the world economy increasingly financialized, so is everyday life.

Therefore, AlterEcos begins with an enquiry into the organizational logics of the financial sector; they offer an important entry point to understanding the economic organizing of social life.

 

What are the alternatives?

Basically, the alternative is anything that is not dominant, not part of the mainstream, not business as usual. As George Cheney notes, however, we need to define the alternative in positive terms if we are to recognize it as anything but an antithesis to the current system. If alternatives are to be implemented, they must, at a minimum, be fleshed out.

In manifesto form, alternative (economic) organizations must hold to three foundational principles: individual autonomy, collective solidarity, and responsibility to the future. Alternative organizations, then, have identifiable ends; they work towards more sustainable modes of production, less unequal distribution of resources, more social inclusio
n at the workplace, etc. However, they also organize themselves in particular ways – and point to new ways of organizing the economy: for instance, co-created, co-operative, shared. Ultimately, they could even question the seemingly inviolable capitalist founding
principle of growth. Maybe a different order, another world, is possible?

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How does one explore alternative forms of economic organizing?

Coca-Cola once ran an advertising campaign called  ‘Small world machines’, which aimed at bringing Indians and Pakistanis together through the global brand’s vending machines. In the AlterEcos project we have appropriated and repurposed the notion of ‘small world machines’ – ours are not ‘big’ (as in mainstream) machines for making the world smaller, but ‘small’ (as in alternative) machines that may make a world of change.

Thus, we begin by identifying specific alternatives to currently dominant forms of economic organizing that may not seem revolutionary in and of themselves, but could be catalysts for larger change. In doing so, we follow Donald MacKenzie’s dictum that theories are engines, not cameras; if economic theories are co-productive of the currently dominant forms of economic organizing, then organizational theories may help foster the development of alternatives. Thus, we do not merely aim to identify and observe alternative forms of economic organizing, but also to evaluate their viability and desirability, and we seek to promote the ones that offer realistic potentials for positive change. By combining these ‘small machines’, we hope to be able to construct a ‘small world’ – or, with a nod to Fredric Jameson, a small-scale model on which the lines of flight from currently dominant forms of economic organizing can more clearly be read.