The Case for a "Jazz Revolution" Against Corporate Capitalism
Bottom up? Top down? Improvisation is the key to a middle way.
By Keith Harrington /

“Where are the leaders and what are their demands?”

If you switched on your TV during the Occupy protests in 2011, it wouldn’t take long to find some corporate news pundit scratching his or her head over these questions. Accustomed to a world of professional politicians and party platforms, the punditocracy found it inconceivable that such an ambitious movement could survive without spokespeople or a clear vision.

The polyphony of diverse voices in the New Economy Coalition already sounds damn good.

What the talking heads didn’t know was that they’d stumbled onto a theoretical debate that not only led to major tensions within Occupy itself, but has divided revolutionaries for more than a century. In fact, it is perhaps the big theoretical debate that today’s checkerboard revolutionaries—the creators of local economic institutions like worker-owned co-ops and land trusts who are the subjects of this series—must take seriously if their local solutions are to achieve global change.

A few anecdotes from Occupy illustrate the problem. Writing about his experience with Occupy Philadelphia, writer and n + 1 editor Nikil Saval recalled a debate in the general assembly—the encampment’s governing body—wherein a contingent of activists killed a proposal to send a rotating group of delegates to negotiate with city officials. “A sizeable portion of the GA,” he wrote, “sniffs vanguardism and proposes instead that the city come down to GA—an amendment so insane that I begin to doubt the capacity of my fellow assemblymen and women to govern themselves.”

Similar disputes played out at other encampments. Accounts from New York describe the demise of the Demands Working Group—a body formed specifically to answer questions about the movement’s goals—as the result of a sectarian split between the Occupiers who ran it and those who effectively ran the local general assembly. A denunciation of the “so-called Demands Working Group” still affixed to the Occupy website is a reminder of the rancor involved: “This group only represents themselves. While we encourage the participation of autonomous working groups, no single person or group has the authority to make demands on behalf of general assemblies around the world.”

What we see here aren’t just old internal squabbles; they’re the contours of a deep strategic disagreement about leadership and vision that has long kept revolutionary change-makers from finding their true collective power and direction.

I believe there is a way around this rift. And to find it, those change-makers will have to learn to “play jazz.”

A brief history of the problem

More on jazz in a minute. First, let’s take a look at how this rift opened up.

A good starting point is that word Saval used: “vanguardism.” It’s an idea that the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin popularized in his 1901 revolutionary pamphlet What Is to Be Done? Basically, Lenin and his Bolshevik cohorts argued that we couldn’t expect the masses to become effective revolutionaries spontaneously, all on their own. To achieve liberation they needed the guidance of a “vanguard party” comprised of an expert political leadership with a clear program.

Big Plan, of course, evokes Big Brother.

Not everyone was on board. The Bolsheviks’ Menshevik rivals, for instance, felt that if people were ever to enjoy a free, democratic, and equitable society, they’d have to build it themselves from the bottom up. From this point of view, intellectuals should move from the driver’s seat to the backseat and let the working class take the wheel.

This grassroots approach gained traction in the decades after World War II, as the horrors of “really existing socialism” unfolded in the USSR and China at the hands of vanguard parties. The disintegration of the communists’ utopian visions into authoritarian nightmares also cast widespread doubt upon the value of the revolutionary blueprint, roadmap or party program. By the 1960s and 1970s, the universal, the central, and the top-down had fallen from favor among many revolutionaries; while the contingent, the plural, and the bottom-up had become all the rage.

During the last 30-odd years, neoliberal globalization only reinforced these tendencies. If the totalitarianism of Stalin and Mao sought to iron all wrinkles and kinks out of the Soviet and Chinese sociopolitical fabric, the totalizing worldview of neoliberalism has sought to steamroll the entire globe in this respect. In the pursuit of corporate freedom, neoliberals have worked to erase all systems of human organization that don’t fit the logic of the capitalist marketplace.

Accordingly, many advocates for economic, political, and social justice are skeptical about anything that looks like top-down control. These opponents of corporate globalization have embraced a fiercely pluralist worldview bent on preserving local diversity and independence. This is a big reason why those Occupiers in New York were so strongly opposed to the objectives of the Demands Working Group. The conceptual closure that concrete demands represented felt to many like it might strangle the spontaneous, organic creativity of the movement, rather than help it grow.

From static blueprints to dynamic jazz riffs

Caution toward universalism and vanguardism has brought strategic benefits by helping to bring the importance of diversified, participatory experimentation to the fore. Indeed, such experimentation comprises the very core of the checkerboard strategy.

However, over-cautiousness presents several strategic problems. Writer Ethan Miller’s fascinating essay entitled “Solidarity Economy: Key Concepts and Issues,” which urges such a cautious approach, provides some good examples. (The solidarity economy, for those unfamiliar, refers to many of the same concepts as “the new economy,” so for my purposes here I’ll treat them as equivalents.)

One major problem comes into view when we consider what might happen during moments of revolutionary opportunity, which tend to appear suddenly and without much warning. Toward the start of his essay, Miller asserts that “we do not need to wait for a revolution … to construct and strengthen institutions and relationships of economic solidarity.”

He’s right; but what happens if a revolutionary moment does occur? What if another financial crisis coupled with climate chaos sparks an explosion of popular unrest that’s like Occupy on steroids? What if such unrest creates an unexpected political opening for innovative laws and institutions that will help local new economy solutions to flourish, and a chance to seriously tackle macro-level issues like climate change? Should checkerboard revolutionaries let their preference for incremental, open-ended process get in the way of opportunities for concrete, society-wide progress?

This is not just a theoretical concern. Revolutionary history shows the dangers of failing to have a widely shared vision for systemic change and a well-organized political movement to back it up. From 18th-century France to 21st-century Egypt, unplanned efforts to implement revolutionary alternatives in the midst of social turbulence allows time and space for reactionary forces—Napoleons and military juntas—to step in to the vacuum of power.

Avoiding this requires some degree of advanced planning. But this is where alarm bells go off for skeptics. Miller warns against the temptation to “build or to seek a blueprint, a Big Plan, for how ‘the economy’ should work.” Put in these terms, systems thinking does seem like a bad idea. After all, a blueprint sounds so static, so rigidly engineered, so authoritarian. And Big Plan, of course, evokes Big Brother.

But we don’t need to think of the process of envisioning a new economy in this static way. Instead, it’s better to think of it as something akin to playing jazz. When jazz artists improvise, they don’t follow the same score note by note. But they do have a common set of musical guidelines to work within—tempos, modes, phrasing, and so forth. If we think of system visioning like jazz, this means no one can say exactly what the song will sound like in advance, but it also requires us to establish and agree upon a general framework to ensure the result isn’t chaos, and that people don’t tune us out.

The guidelines start with common values like those articulated by Miller, including cooperation, democracy, ecological health, and pluralism. But to be useful in the political-economic world, we have to materialize values in the form of specific policy ideas, legal frameworks, and institutional models. Such proposals won’t specify the exact notes we’ll play, just the general guidelines. For example, we can call for constitutional guarantees for environmental sustainability (and even indicate what that might mean) without specifying the various ways in communities may choose to achieve sustainability. Starting from their common values, it is not only possible but likely that checkerboard revolutionaries could employ democratic processes to develop consensus around such macro-level policy and institutional proposals for a new economy.

The story of one promising new organization points the way toward how that might be accomplished.

Learning to play jazz with the New Economy Coalition

It’s a hot June day in Boston and more than 500 people have gathered under the lazy ceiling fans of the big gymnasium at Northeastern University to hear the closing keynote discussion with author and activist Gar Alperovitz. The audience is a who’s who of checkerboard revolutionaries from across North America and beyond. There are worker co-op leaders, food justice advocates, community reinvestment visionaries, and many more. A good cohort of the participants, including the moderator, Rachel Plattus, are veterans of the Occupy movement.

This is the 2014 CommonBound conference—the first plenary gathering of the New Economy Coalition. The participants may not know it yet, but they’ve come together to learn to play jazz.

From the stage, Alperovitz tells it straight about challenge they all face: “If you don’t want corporate capitalism and you don’t want state socialism, what do you want? … What does it look like when you actually put it together, that is functional and better than the most powerful advanced capitalist corporate system in the history of the world? Not just projects?”

No one in the room has an answer. But what really matters is that, for what might be the first time, so many checkerboard revolutionaries have come together specifically to look for it. No one in the room knows exactly how the transformational tune will sound, but they’ve already started to jam together—working on the riffs, modes, and tempos that will become the song of revolution. And the polyphony of their diverse voices already sounds damn good.

Since CommonBound, the Coalition’s ensemble has expanded to include more than 120 organizational players. A democratic member-council structure allows independent organizations to come together, build consensus around the big issues facing the movement, and decide on collective courses of action where needed. There is no central vanguardist authority deciding on the direction—no single composer.

But there is a collective understanding that the Coalition’s member organizations can and should learn how to harmonize around common themes—like the Points of Unity document they began to hone at the recent annual meeting. Such a values manifesto could, as suggested earlier, provide the basis for a broad set of macro-level policy and institutional proposals that members would advocate for during moments of revolutionary opportunity.

The Coalition’s board chair, Aaron Tanaka, contextualizes the work in this way: “Rising to the challenge of building a new economy demands that we fundamentally transform our political and economic systems—and that simply won’t happen without a massive popular uprising and a clear vision for a holistic alternative.”

That uprising, when it comes, will undoubtedly be as spontaneous as Occupy, as Chris Hedges and others have pointed out. But by the time the feet hit the streets, the legwork that organizations like NEC are doing now will ensure that our spontaneity flows like jazz toward the new system we want and doesn’t collapse into a confused cacophony.

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The Case for a "Jazz Revolution" Against Corporate Capitalism