Sky Dragon Speech
(Delivered by Kevin Mackay at McMaster University on Friday, November 21st)
I’d like to welcome everyone to this presentation
and discussion on practical models for radical change. That you’ve
taken valuable time on a Friday evening shows your genuine interest in
making this city, and this world, a better place. Although it isn’t
really my place to do so, I sincerely thank you for this. I hope to use
your time well…
Now, how to create real change is a big question, one which philosophers, religious leaders, political economists and organic intellectuals have long considered. In this evenings presentation, I hope to contribute usefully to this history of critical thought, and to introduce both a theory of change and a practical model for realizing this theory. This model is locally-based, yet holds the potential of being globally transformative. The model is directly democratic, egalitarian and ecologically sound, yet it is also a living model. It is not an idealized utopia, useful as such visions might be, rather it is a method for living our desired social and ecological reality right here, right now, and through this, for opening further spaces of sanity, compassion, and sustainability world-wide.
So, this is the task before me: to present a theory of radical change and to introduce a model, and a project, Sky Dragon, that are intended to make this theory a reality. In the first part of the talk I will briefly present an analysis of our current global predicament. Next, I will explore what qualities our desired society would have. Finally, I will present the idea of a “continuum of change” that can lead us to our social and ecological goals. In this continuum of change, the role of worker cooperatives, and the Sky Dragon project in particular, will be introduced.
The second part of the talk will focus on the cooperative movement today, providing an overview of the cooperative sector in Canada, and introducing successful models which have influenced the Sky Dragon project. Next, and most intensively, the Sky Dragon project itself will be presented – beginning with a brief history and moving into the current state of the project and the exciting prospects for its realization.
Section 1 – Theory of Change
Part 1 – Our current global dilemma
What is radicalism?
Before exploring the theory of a continuum of change, it would be useful to clarify one of the goals of this talk. When I mentioned what kind of change we were looking for, one of the descriptive words I used was “radical”. Now, like so many terms in the lexicon of critical theory, the meaning of radical needs clarification. Let me first state that by radical I don’t mean confrontational, destructive, violent, or vanguardist. Athough it may be legitimately argued that certain action of these types might be radical, it in no way establishes a correspondence between the aggressive or elitist nature of the actions, and their status as radical. In my usage, radical refers to two things:
For an example of a radical analysis, lets look at the issue of street youth and street crime – a recent concern in Hamilton. The problem is large gangs of homeless youth congregating downtown, selling drugs, getting into fights, and intimidating the people who work, live, and shop in the core. Now, a decidedly non-radical analysis of this situation defines the problem as presented. Street youth are a problem because they are gathering in public places and disrupting commerce in the core. They are derelict and should be either: at school, at home, or in jail. Such a problem definition then suggests certain solutions: increase the police presence, enforce panhandling laws, put surveillance cameras downtown. If this prescription sounds familiar its because it is, in fact, exactly what is being proposed to deal with the situation.
So, what would a radical analysis of this problem be? First off, it would look at why kids are congregating downtown. If they are homeless, then why aren’t there enough affordable homes in our community? If they are poor, then why aren’t there enough good-paying jobs or adequate social services for those who can’t find work or are incapable of working? If they are estranged from mainstream society, then why aren’t there youth centres where they can build their own community and accessible counseling services where they can work through their problems? If they are skipping school, then why are our schools not capable of supporting students with special learning needs? From this brief example, it is clear that radical analyses and solutions are generally more far-reaching than the usual “band-aid” solutions provided by a more mainstream, reformist perspective.
With these definitions in mind, radical actions can be viewed as successive reforms of current systems, yet such a process is not synonymous with a reformist agenda. In a programme of radical transformation, reforms are strategic, in the sense that they open up possibilities of further reform and build capacities for public empowerment, self-activity, and greater democratization. Reforms in this vein are also directed by a vision of radical transformation. The idea is not to “tinker” or “fix” the existing global system. The goal is complete, fundamental change.
At this point, one might reasonably ask: “What is it about our current situation which necessitates a complete overhaul? Why aren’t reform and “fixing” enough?
The state of the world today:
I’ll start our by making a strong statement, and it is this:
that the current world system is predicated on political and economic relationships that are leading, inexorably, to total ecological and social collapse.
Now, such a statement is in need of support. For organizational ease, I’ll divide the supporting evidence into two broad arguments: I’ll call them the sociological critique and the ecological critique. The sociological critique deals with the quality of human social, political and economic systems. What we see today is:
So, what has led us to this current predicament? What
aspects of the world system are perpetuating a scenario of multiple and
intensifying social and ecological crises?
What these immune functions were keeping in check was the pathological qualities of global capitalism – its tendency to destroy ecological and life systems. What McMurty argues about today’s world-spanning capitalist economy, is that it has become cancerous, has achieved a level of self-replication and mutation that is quantitatively different from previous levels, and which possesses the same destructive potentials for our earthly body as a medically-defined cancer does for an individual human body.
As such, the entire Western model of development, production and consumption is the problem. This analysis is bourne out by the political, economic and environmental crises that beset most modern states. However, class is only one of the systems of dominance that serves to perpetuate global crises. What must be emphasized is that political power and resources are also divided along national, racial, and gender lines. The former colonial nations, known variously as: “first world”, “developed”, “industrialized”, “core”, “Western”, or “Northern”, are net exploiters of the remaining countries, alternately labeled “developing”, “peripheral”, “third world”, or “Southern.” Across all societies, white people on average are wealthier than people of colour, while a disproportionate number of those living in desperate poverty world-wide are women and children.
In order to stop this “mad machine” of capitalist globalization and its cancerous spread, the control centre must be transformed. We in Canada, in “the belly of the lap-dog of the beast”, are uniquely situated to contribute to this transformative movement. We inhabit the system directly responsible for the dire global predicament. If we don’t change our ways of producing, consuming and living in developed countries, then no strategy for change in the developing world can be effective.
How do we change North American society?
The project of social change begins with two key elements: a fully-envisioned goal and a model for attaining this goal, including transitional social forms and detailed mechanisms of transformation. Of course it needs to be stated that both means and ends, while needing articulation, are also fluid constructs, constantly changing through complex feedback processes. In this sense, any viable program for change must reflect the current moment in all its contradictions. It must be opportunistic, yet always with opportunism grounded in ideals of direct democracy, egalitarianism, and ecological sustainability.
What kind of world do we want?
The Sky Dragon Project and the theory which informs it emerged in response to the question that I introduced at the start of the talk: How do we go about creating the world we would all like to see? At this point, I should sketch a “working version” of this desired society. It would be a place where:
The program of change
Canada and the U.S. are complex hegemonic states in which social control is maintained through a mixture of value consensus, political manipulation, information control, a lack of viable and visible alternatives, and state coercion (the use of economic and physical violence). There are real class structures and class conflicts in North America, yet there are also genuinely progressive features which, when looked at collectively, trace the legacy of popular struggles throughout the history of the New World. There is unprecedented freedom and wealth, coupled with unprecedented disparities between those who enjoy these benefits and those who do not. The ravages of state-subsidized monopoly capitalism are acute, the media serves the ideological interests of the elite, yet there is also much freedom for progressive groups to maneuver. In this climate, radical transformation remains a very real possibility.
Follwing Antonio Gramsci’s notion of the war of position, change in North America will not occur through revolution, but through evolution - a strategy of mobilization that works collectively on multiple fronts to raise awareness, build coalitions, and transform institutions and systems of governance. This strategy must be based on an understanding of the full range of social stratification, involving gender, class, race, sexuality, age, and religion. The growing global justice movement reflects the beginnings of such an understanding and it needs to be clearly stated that the theory and model being presented here can only be understood within the context of this much larger movement. I don’t have time to go into the diverse and exciting initiatives that make up this movement – many of which the people in this room are both well aware of, and deeply involved in. What I will attempt to do though, is to sketch a broad outline of this movement, to suggest how its advancement can be viewed in terms of a continuum of change, and finally, how worker cooperatives and the Sky Dragon project fit along this continuum. Don’t worry …. I’m getting to the point….
This struggle towards a new global citizenship, and a new society, unfolds on several dialectically linked levels: personal empowerment, affinity-group organizing, institutional transformation and political transformation. Personal empowerment describes individual shifts in consciousness, education, identity formation and moral/spiritual cultivation. Affinity group organizing describes grass-roots activity, in which consensus decision-making skills are learned, personal cultivation is collectively facilitated, and collective identities/structures are formed. Institutional transformation describes the creation of local economic networks and the local provision of services (food, shelter, recreation, education, transportation, etc.). Finally, political transformation describes the progressive democratization of systems of governance at municipal, regional, national, and international levels, both through non-partisan structural change and through party politics.
On the level of personal empowerment, people need to be educated and supported in practices which cultivate self-knowledge, moral development, discipline, and creativity. Central to this level of transformation are the creative arts (dance, visual art, music, theatre), the meditative arts (yoga, meditation, martial arts), other means of mind/body cultivation, and all manner of education, including traditional academic knowledge, mechanical/technological skills, and social skills (conflict resolution, anger-management, pedagogy, group-facilitation). This level is often overlooked by structuralists on the left (The Scientific Marxists, Althusser, etc.) who pay insufficient attention to the individual capacities needed to make democracy work. However, there are examples of the transformational impact of articulated human creativity and potential: feminist identity politics, the Situationists of May, ‘68, the counter-culture of 1960’s North America, and today’s neopagan, “New Age”, and youth anarchist cultures. Current models include home and alternative schooling, wellness centres, free schools, teach-ins, and interfaith resource centres.
Grassroots, affinity-group organizing
On the grass-roots level, neighbourhood associations, activist groups, community service organizations - all of these are needed to build individual capacities for democracy and to create the local power structures that will eventually form the base of federated systems of governance. This level of transformation is being effectively advanced by today’s social movements. Current models include reading circles, artist collectives, rave crews, and activist affinity groups at universities, in unions, in faith communities, and in larger communities. The “power from below” these groups generate is crucial, yet it remains limited to the extent that institutions of civil society and the economy persist in their present form. As Piven and Cloward demonstrated in their study Poor People’s Movements, grass-roots struggles have a miserable track-record at transforming institutions to which they have no access.
The importance of institutional transformation is also apparent when examining “top-down” political strategies. We are all well aware of the effective tools which the economic elite have to ward off progressive changes. Capital flight, currency devaluation, the restrictive laws of international financial and trade organizations, media control - these things make it difficult for radical change to occur through purely electoral victories. Even a popularly-elected “people’s party” would see their policy options severely limited in today’s political and economic climate (the current dilemmas of Lula in Brazil and Chavez in Venezuela are illustrative). This necessitates institutional changes in order to counter the ability of free-flowing capital (the unelected senate) to undermine legislated reforms.
In my analysis, institutional transformation requires progressive organizations to enter into largely “uncharted waters” - as local providers of services normally delivered by the market. Progressives must create institutions that supply basic human needs: food, shelter, recreation. They must also provide institutions that educate, disseminate progressive ideas, and create social spaces in which democratic skills can be nourished. A way to move forward in this task is through the vehicle of non-profit corporations and worker cooperatives. These have the benefit of being able to work legally within the current capitalist system while possessing characteristics that are fundamentally subversive to it.
Non-profits and cooperatives are obviously not new. As much research has shown, there has been an explosive proliferation of non-governmental organizations over the past few decades. These organizations – a strong component of civil society, have already institutionalized alternative forms of social service provision and also serve as important checks to corporate and government power. However, these organizations are largely dependent on government funding and are generally either contracted by governments to provide public services or else supported by governments and/or membership in the role of issue-advocates or development agencies. What these organizations seldom do is to enter into the market and compete with commercial interests. By way of example, how many non-profit or cooperative housing developments, restaurants, transportation companies, manufacturing operations, retail outlets, grocery stores, movie theatres or bars are there?
The non-profit institutions referred to in this document would exist to create sustainable economies and sustainable lifestyles, not to extend, supplant or “hollow out” government services. In essence, what I am proposing is diametrically opposed to the neoliberal trend of marketizing the public and non-profit sectors. What we need to do is launch a counter-offensive into the market – to reclaim the economic terrain as a medium for communitarian and ecological values and practices.
Many of North America’s problems stem from an
economy controlled by massive corporate interests dominated by the profit
motive. In this current configuration, citizens are largely situated as
“consumers” that have no idea how their products of consumption
are made (at what social and environmental cost), and that have no control
over their production. The mass production of goods is environmentally
destructive, degrading of human dignity, and based on fundamental economic
inequality. It is a profound fallacy that we can effect lasting change
through other sectors (civil society, the state), without also transforming
the economic practices that lie at the root of our problems. Without democracy
in the workplace, there can be no true democracy in society as a whole.
Without ecological balance within our methods of production and patterns
of consumption, we cannot live sustainably.
The Sky Dragon Model
Sky Dragon is a model of community development designed to create local economic and social networks that are self-sustaining (need not rely on government largesse) and publicly controlled (but again, not government-controlled). In a somewhat oversimplified way, the model can be described as a network consisting of two kinds of nodes - generators and service providers. Generator nodes are best run as non-profit corporations or worker cooperatives, and serve the function of providing alternative products and services at market prices. These products and services would be highly integral in their manufacture, using environmentally sound process, local suppliers, high-quality employment standards (good wage, benefits, worker input, unionized), and would benefit economically from these characteristics (as they supply the growing demand for ethically produced goods). Essentially, they would exist to expand and capitalize on the market for alternative products and services and would generate a surplus of capital.
Being non-profits, the generator nodes would not privatize their surplus capital, but would instead put it into community or project funds. These funds would then be used to activate different service-provider nodes within the community. These nodes might be food cooperatives, housing cooperatives, or a number of worker cooperatives (cottage industries, artists collectives, media centers, community health clinics, day-cares, dry-cleaners, etc…). They are distinguished from the generator nodes in that their goal is to provide employment or beneficial community services (and often both) in the most accessible, integral, responsible manner possible. As organizations, they would operate on a break-even principle - striving for self-sustainability, yet not generating surplus capital. Of course, there would be nodes that combine both generator and service-provider aspects, and the inaugural project we are starting here in Hamilton, Sky Dragon Centre, is a fair blend of the two.
Sky Dragon Centre
Essentially, this model of development entails setting up a first generator node in a community. The multi-use community centre is a good starting place because it is less risky (due to multiple streams of revenue generation and an “eco-systemic” structure in which each stream feeds the others), and because it provides an important service to the community - a place where people can cultivate their individual capacities and where progressive groups can meet, build community, and offer public education services. From the community centre and subsequent generators, capital is raised to start out cooperative ventures. In this way, a local network of community/worker-owned businesses and institutions is created.
It should also be stressed that this emerging network would work closely with already existing integral businesses and non-governmental organizations (labour unions, social service organizations). The resulting local network begins to shift economic control from the hands of multinationals to the hands of community members, eventually addressing issues of local food security, shelter provision, and provision of basic services. In this way, global systems of corporate governance can be undermined from the ground up, and the ability of hostile governments to destabilize democratic reforms at the level of electoral politics is similarly undermined.
This model of institutional transformation, when coupled with grass-roots organizing, makes possible the third level of state transformation. In the interests of space and time, I will not go into detail about this final stage, except to say that it focuses primarily on transforming the terrain of electoral politics as opposed to organizing a party to contest it. Included are models of proportional representation, direct representative accountability and recallability, publicly funded and managed campaigning and contribution rules, and strict conflict of interest rules for elected representatives. The goal of these transformations would be to create a national political structure that is as directly democratic as possible.
Of course, all four levels of transformation - personal, grass-roots, institutional, and political - are iterative, with each supporting and drawing support from the other. The specific role of the institutions mentioned in this paper, the nodes of community service provision, are to develop sustainable economies, help focus and fund grassroots initiatives, support efforts at political transformation and create “de-hegemonized” spaces in which people can learn about and practice alternative ways of thinking/being. Through providing community based capital streams, these institutions will also have more freedom to support overt political goals than do government funded institutions, including most NGOs. This is an important aspect, as non-political NGOs providing services that should be fully publicly funded risk playing accomplice to the service downloading tendencies of neoliberal governments. The networks suggested in this paper must walk a fine line between taking responsibility for our own social and economic welfare, and encouraging government to sustain and expand its role in the same areas.
Part 2 The Co-op Movement and the Sky Dragon Project
As I mentioned in the earlier section – non-profits and cooperatives are not new. Even worker cooperatives, although relatively rare, have been around for decades. I’d like to begin the second part of the talk by describing the cooperative sector in Canada – what kinds of cooperatives are operating right now and to what extent cooperatives are present in our economy. Then I’ll proceed to detail Three cooperative ventures – two in Canada, one in Europe - that provide examples of the cooperative nodes and generator systems discussed in the Sky Dragon model.
The Canadian Cooperative Sector
Worker co-ops are cooperative enterprises that are owned and democratically controlled by the employees. Each member pays a membership fee or purchases a membership share, and has one vote regardless of how much money they have invested in the co-op. The co-op's assets are collectively owned and surplus earnings are allocated to the workers according to policies established by the co-op, often in proportion to hours worked by members and with limited return on shares.
Examples of worker coops:
The Big Carrot (Generator Node Model)
Mondragon, Winnipeg (Service Provider Node Model)
Mondragón Corporación Cooperativa, Spain (Cooperative Generating System Model)
In its scope, level of success and comprehensiveness, Mondragón Corporación Cooperativa is the model that directly inspires the Sky Dragon model and project. Essentially, what we hope to do through Sky Dragon is to establish a Mondragon-style cooperative generating system that is worker-owned and operated, ecologically sound, and economically successful.
Although our inagural project is similar to the Big
Carrot in Toronto, our goals are more in line with Mondragon, who’s
model appears closest to the kind of profound economic transformation
needed to radically alter and one day replace global capitalism.
The state of the Sky Dragon project
The Sky Dragon project recently received a $5,000 development grant from the Canadian Worker Cooperative Federation in order to incorporate. We hope to be fully incorporated by early January.
We are pursuing funding from several sources, including foundations, the federal government, and the community.
Our community fund-raising initiative involves selling equity bonds in the Sky Dragon project. This is an important aspect of our capitalization strategy, as we want to encourage community ownership of the project.
We are looking at buildings suitable to house the centre. There are many to choose from in the downtown core.
We have established partnerships with several other progressive community organizations, including:
Social Planning and Research Council
THANKS FOR YOUR SUPPORT!!!
The Board of Sky Dragon is:
Kevin MacKay, MA, Director
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© 2006 Sky Dragon Centre