Abolish The City

A couple of weeks ago, I discussed how the co-op model might change policing in the immediate wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. Since then, the US has seen over four weeks of consecutive protests, calls to de-fund and abolish police departments, the tearing down of racist symbols of the Confederacy. NASCAR has banned the use of the Confederate flag at its events and on its properties. Old racist brands like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are being discontinued and a majority of US residents now believe that the NFL owes Colin Kaepernick an apology. It is a fundamentally amazing time to be alive and seeing the “arc of history” actually bending towards justice right before our eyes.

It has been a little difficult to compose my thoughts with regards to these events. I definitely come from a privileged place having grown up in a wealthy, white suburb of Toledo, Ohio with its own k-12 school district and all of the other benefits of white privilege. The cooperative movement in the US also tends to be segregated and has not always been very good at engaging the values and principles of cooperation to decolonize and challenge systems of oppression. My ideas expressed here are mostly about my thinking through our structures and how to make systemic change, but I would never presume that I am correct, and always welcome the opportunity to learn.

In saying “abolish the city”, I am not striving for hyperbole. I really mean let’s get rid of our cities. The modern city is a social structure created and developed in the feudal Europe and then transitioned to capitalist engines and exported through European imperialism and cultural hegemony. These structures are not designed to support humans, they are designed to control people for the benefit of the few. The architecture even aims to minimize us as people while elevating institutions of power.

What would replace our cities? What would a more human community look like? Our cities should not exist to govern people but to administer to the needs of the people who live, work, and visit them. We need a completely new concept of community that combines a modern economy in a way to facilitates the best of human life in harmony with the ecosystem that supports human life.

There are many options and attempts to rethink cities and even larger communities. Rojava, Cooperation Jackson, for two and we can even looking back at how indigenous communities managed these lands before their sovereignty was usurped. Cooperation Jackson seeks to build a community and a new society. It imagines more than a few co-ops, but a society of worker cooperatives and other democratically managed enterprises combining the values and principles of cooperatives and Mondragón, and based on the Jaskson-Kush Plan. Cooperation Jackson has inspired similar efforts across the country.

Rojava is another example of one way that this could work. Rojava is a Kurdish autonomous region along the Turkish and Syrian border. It is focused on direct democracy and combines commune and cooperative models. As I understand it, to join the commune means contributing and participating in a cooperative that works to meet the needs of teh community. This keeps the workers providing services from exploitation by the larger community. I don’t know enough about Rojava to say this is a working model, but it has shown that the traditional Eurocentric concept of the “city” is not the only way.

One source is a very controversial thinker: Thomas Jefferson. The former US Senator Gary Hart provides an stimulating discussion in his book, Restoring the Republic, which is largely based on Jefferson’s concept for what a new democratic nation would look like. Jefferson, while authoring the Declaration of Independence was in France during the drafting of the Constitution and had little input into it. Jefferson, of course, was a slave owner and a hypocrite. In fact, he knew that he was a hypocrite. As Hart acknowledges, Jefferson could have only become “Jefferson” because of slavery. He lived his life on stolen land supported by stolen people. However, his words inspired the following generation to due what he could and would not attempt.

Jefferson actually coined the term “American” which so many non-US citizens despise. Unlike today, the word was not meant to be a synonym for the United States, it was to create a response to the aristocracies of Europe. Hart goes into the details of Jefferson’s ideas of creating a basic unit of community at 5,000 people with expectations that these would be largely autonomous entities that would interact with nearby communities to meet common needs. Jefferson’s concept quickly starts to look like a sociocratic governance chart or even like the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation. Jefferson saw the military then, as a collection of militias from each of the communities.

But that is enough about Jefferson, I just wanted to acknowledge that this isn’t a new idea. We can abolish our cities and replace them with small interconnected communities. There are modern examples and efforts that we can draw upon.

These communities could be solidarity cooperative societies in which different groups of the members of the community have equal representation in the functioning of the co-op, the services of the co-op for its members might include education, healthcare, transportation, mutual aid and security, housing, etc. It could be a type of intentional community or it could have independent businesses–it would depend on what the co-op members wanted. The solidarity cooperative societies could join federated cooperatives societies with representation equal for each member co-op (this would eliminate states as we know them) or remain independent.

All three of these examples (Rojava, Cooperation Jackson, and Jefferson’s townships) promote direct democracy and community democratic control and democratic operation of the community. The purpose of these communities are not to foster and protect private ownership, but to build a life-affirming and human-centric society based on solidarity, equality, equity, and democracy. The examples show that the model of governance that we use for our communities and economy are not the only way or even the preferred way for many people. We can build a better world based on people not wealth and profit.

On the Olympic peninsula here in Washington, many of the modern cities started as cooperative communes (again, co-ops have not been good on decolonization). I am now writing outside of my knowledge, but I understand that indigenous nations of North America and South America also managed alternatives to the top-down hierarchy and extractive nature of the European feudal-capitalist model.

I recognize that there are some problems to think about (mobility and the freedom of movement for one); however, what would a community look like where its success depends on people working together, engaging each other as equals, and replacing the profit motive with a drive for mutual aid, meeting common needs and aspirations. But our current system is broken and takes power away from the majority and gives it to a small group easily manipulated and controlled by special interests.

In Olympia, 52,000 people devolve all their power to 5 elected council members. What if Olympia became a federated co-op of 10 semi-autonomous solidarity cooperative societies with representatives using consent as a decision-making model or the New York City metro area a collection of 3,761 semi-autonomous solidarity co-ops each with the individual right and responsibility to manage their own affairs? What would cities look like if more than 1 out of 10,000 people actually had the power to make decisions?

It wouldn’t magically erase racism or other forms of societal oppression, but it would create a different way of living that values our humanity in each person. A core problem is the segregation of the United States territory since the arrival of slavery. Our neighborhoods and communities have been designed to separate us and without some means of accounting for that and making changes that don’t further attack or traumatize people, it will be difficult to break down these barriers. Because of this, though, segregation and some of the hard racist attitudes won’t simply disappear. Over time, natural movements of people would change the cultural foundations that have created the world that we live in today.

Workable? possibly with a well thought out structure and agreement between societies. Obviously, this isn’t a blueprint, but more of a concept. Possible? yes, but I wouldn’t pretend that this is more than a thought experiment; it would be exciting to see a demonstration project and it might require a lot if support (and maybe therapy). Would it change the way that we engage with each other? Absolutely, instead of farming out the work of governing and administration, people would be doing themselves with each other. To paraphrase Arizmendiarrieta, “each is responsible for all” or Robert Owens’s slogan “one for each and each for all”. Over time we could create a more human system of governance in which centers on the human being and acknowledges the core solidarity that every human should have with each other.

Abolishing the police ultimately requires us to change the culture and that requires us to re-think how we organize our lives as humans. The European city model is designed to create consumers who interact with other consumer and work to earn money to consume. A different approach could focus on people working together in a democratic community to meet their needs and common aspirations. It would be more work that just consuming in isolation from each other.

A month ago, I would not have conceived of ever seeing what I have seen happen over the last three weeks. This is a time for people to think big, not just practical. To paraphrase an old adage whatever is not impossible, no matter how improbable, is entirely practical.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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