Much of the post-election analysis has focused on strategic fixes–what should have been done. But what can Trump’s win tell us about more fundamental theories of politics? In what way does the failure of an alliance based on labor, environmentalists and civil rights activists give us clues about our basic social power concepts?
Those three categories are fairly clear voting blocks (consider, for example, the very different constituencies that the AFL-CIO, Sierra Club, and Black Lives Matter represent), but they are also broad theory categories. Marxist theory predicts that working class voters will struggle to find a way to understand and represent their interests; environmentalists interrogate Western views of “dominion over nature”; and race theorists confront the structures of white supremacy. None of these theoretical projects occurred in a vacuum and there has been lots of good intersectional work across all three. But when it comes to praxis, history has lots of examples where these movements were pitted against each other or were incompatible from the start. Think of the 1930s labor strikes when black scabs were brought in to break all-white unions; the 1970s white activists who abandoned civil rights to start “Earth First”; and the 1980s loggers who found themselves pitted against the spotted owl.
We are, admittedly, painting these complicated and old social movements with a very broad brush but there are critical moments today when these basic incompatibilities have resulted in direct and immediate consequences. When Hillary Clinton said she would “put coal miners … out of work” it was not a misstep, it was an honest (if inadvertent) admission of our failure to articulate a fundamental political theory; to paint a coherent vision from the contradictory pallet of blue collar labor, green environmentalists and black and brown rights advocates.
An attempt to create exactly that vision is at the core of Teknokultura’s new special issue on “generative justice”. Generative justice is defined as “the circulation of unalienated value, under control of those who generate it”. The idea came out of a six year NSF grant that brought together community organizers with humanities, science and engineering scholars in locations ranging from rural west Africa to New York’s inner cities. As we looked over the best outcomes—a DIY condom vending machine, math lessons using fractals in cornrow braiding, solar ink production for local weavers—a common pattern began to emerge. In every case that counted as success—where the underserved communities we worked with were able to access or build something that improved their material conditions—there was a very direct connection between labor and its rewards, or, what Marx would have called “unalienated value.” But our successes (and our many failures) did not center on labor value alone: there was also a lot of value that non-human allies in nature were producing, and a third category that was more about “expression”: unalienated sexuality, free speech, spirituality and the like. Unlike Marx’s ideal in which value was extracted and centralized before redistribution, these forms of value remained in unalienated form and circulated in a commons. It was a kind of justice from the bottom-up: if those who generate value stay in control, they can share the fruits of their physical, ecological, and expressive activities in a kind of gift economy of reciprocity and commons-based production.
Many of these successes were innovations rather than inventions. Condom vending machines have existed for a long time, but with a bit of help from computer-aided design and rapid prototyping, we ended up with a DIY machine that can be made using tools and parts commonly available in West Africa. Rather than requiring mass production in a high tech factory, this would keep the financial value in the community of use, and also help sustain local artisanal groups and traditions. Back in the US we made a similar move using simulations of African American cornrow hairstyles for math and computing education. In contrast to the vending machine’s focus on keeping labor value local, circulating these “heritage algorithms” was about the expressive value of black cultural tradition, which made for less alienating STEM lessons in inner city classrooms. Some of those students have started to create 3D printed versions of their work (image above), and two of the hairstylists have offered to display them in their shops to see if this can bring in more customers, and our engineering students are working on a switch to recycled plastic. AI and robotics is generally about replacing workers and deskilling jobs, but a generative approach to STEM can use these technologies to amplify the abilities of artisanal labor, expand access to cultural expression and improve ecological sustainability.
How does all that apply to Trump’s election and destructive mismatch between labor, environment and civil rights? One of the Democrats’ greatest errors was promising that lost manufacturing jobs would be replaced by skilled labor in the tech sector or renewable energy in some soon-to-be-realized shiny future. None of the latinos laid off from Texas oil fields, white equipment installers without jobs in Indiana, or black auto workers replaced by the most recent wave of automation could see how this was going to get them a job next week. At best, it’s a promise that their children might get that education, but those sorts of promises have been broken more times than kept.
Generative justice, in contrast, gets at the fundamental issue at stake: unalienated labor means being in charge of the production process and seeing it directly benefit those around you. Building a political campaign with generative justice in mind actually has precedence. There are lots of real-world models for the sorts of value circulation that we call generative justice, but they are rarely gathered together under a coherent social analysis. Take for example the workers’ council movement in Czechoslovakia prior to the Soviet invasion of 1968. There were councils in 120 enterprises, for a total of about 800,000 employees–almost 1/6th of the national workforce who had a say in how labor was paced, managed and even what products were produced. These organizations ran much like a modern capitalist corporations but management and executive positions were democratically selected by and amongst workers. Each enterprise was independent, but interrelated, often inviting workers to sit as external members on hiring committees.
Such an arrangement does not neatly fit into state-controlled communism or capitalism. It derives worker protections, product quality standards, and other social welfare concerns from contracts and agreements between democratic bodies, not from government bureaucracies. Workers’ councils, like all practices that illustrate the generative justice concept —open source software, indigenous gift economies, commons-based land management, and so on— are best understood as lying on an axis which runs orthogonal to the conventional right/left political spectrum of state-protected capitalist or communist politics.
The same holds for the other two categories, unalienated ecological value and unalienated expressive value. Once you catch the fundamental concept of generative justice then any scheme for extraction becomes suspect, whether private enterprise, state bureaucracy, or other institutional domination. Trump’s scheme to help oil companies alienate value from nature runs in parallel to his plans to help homophobic institutions like the American Family Association alienate citizens from their own spiritual, sexual and cultural identities. But the record for protecting labor, the environment and civil rights is no better for socialist bureaucracies than it is for market economies. And “mixed” economies like the People’s Republic of China are no recipe for justice either.
So what does work in driving social structures closer to the ideal of generative justice? One of the common themes that shows up in the Teknokultura special issue is the importance of grassroots organizations that combined a social agenda with activities of “making”. Unlike political movements that aim for changes through policy or legislation, these groups make democratic action a part of mixing labor and raw resources into finished artifacts. To be clear generative justice is not only about making things, but some of its best illustrations are found in cases where unalienated value circulation is a deliberate expression of both politics and physical production.
Take for example open source software, maker spaces and other DIY-oriented sharing collectives. As several articles in the issue note, there are plenty of great generative justice exemplars in that category, ranging from Liberating Ourselves Locally (a “people-of-color-led, gender-diverse, queer and trans inclusive hacker/maker space in East Oakland”) to vast international enterprises like MakerHealth that allows nurses and others to create their own health care innovations. But none of these collectives happened through some kind of Adam Smith style “invisible hand” of self-interested competition. Rather they are all examples of a kind of hybrid between old fashioned grassroots organizing and new technologies of sharing (code, blue prints etc. shared via creative commons, github, instructables and other platforms).
Imagine, then, a political platform based not on asking “how will American workers compete against those in Asia” or “how will we defeat the coal lobby” but rather “how will value be returned to all workers? How will the ecological value created by non-humans be returned to them, sustaining their soil, water, air and biodiversity? And how will the shy, ineluctable aspects of our being–spiritual or atheist, gay or straight, artist or logician–be similarly circulated to nurture communities of our choosing?” We hope readers will take a look at the special issue and join this conversation.
Ron Eglash received his B.S. in Cybernetics, his M.S. in Systems Engineering, and his PhD in History of Consciousness, all from the University of California. His work includes the book African Fractals, and the online Culturally Situated Design Tools suite. He is currently a Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer.