Systemic Alternatives — on What they are and on Why they Matter

Activist-scholar Ashish Kothari, visited Helsinki 28.2–1.3 as a guest of the Development Days Conference 2019 of the Finnish Society for Development Research. Among other he gave a talk on Systemic Alternatives during a civil society event organised together with the department of Development studies of Helsinki University and the Siemenpuu foundation at Helsinki University’s Tiedekulma (Think Corner) on 28.2, and a keynote during the Development Days conference itself on 1.3, which I had the pleasure of attending as a panelist following his talk and as a commentator following his keynote. As a so-called practitioner in terms of my involvements with Helsinki Timebank and Oma Maa food cooperative, I thanked Ashish for the developing of a process as the Global Tapestry of Alternatives initiative which importantly gives visibility to systemic alternatives, as also FundAction wants to do.

Ashish in his talks talked on development as violence, on the growth paradigm as cancer and on how our lively-hoods have been turned into deadly-hoods. Alternatives then need to be alternatives to the structures that create inequalities and a concentration of power — structural alternatives. Whilst alternatives can then be grouped according to different of course possibly overlapping spheres of radical democracy, ecological resilience, economic democracy, culture and knowledge, and social justice — central and core to it all are Values. Through Vikalp Sangam, the alternatives India process, Ashish and comrades have produced a wonderful booklet reflecting on the values and principles of systemic alternatives. Their now initiated Global Tapestry of Alternatives process then is wanting to map alternatives which wants to facilitate learning across the world, and with this contribute to a greater political mass for resistance.

Systemic change agency : in the hands of people

Following up and commenting on Ashish’s talk, I brought to the forefront that whilst we talk today increasingly about the need for systemic change in light of major concerns around climate change and biodiversity, what feels often to be lacking is the acknowledgement that this systemic change, this change in society, is to be rooted in those systemic alternatives Ashish brought to the forefront, i.e in peoples hands on processes concerning their daily needs. That this in fact is where systemic change agency lays. It is also through the engaging in these processes that it feels we come to understand what our demands are, that we start to (want to) build democracy differently and with this build power differently. Even if this is not all, even if we need big (national and global level) policy, this feels to be core.

This then brings to the forefront as we have discussed on idfferent occasions at the farm of our Oma Maa food coop, as also with Helsinki Timebank, that the things we often refer to as being the big players in the climate debate — food, energy, and lets add currency, politics — they can be tools for systemic change makers, IF in the hands of people. In other words, when they become a commons and when there is thus commoning around them. So when currency is a commons, the community of users gets to set the rules as an answer to the question What is encouraged and facilitated through a currency? We can come to see currency then as a pedagogical tool for commoning. With our Helsinki Timebank we at the time had a very vivid discussion time around our ABC of principles.

With regards to food, as our Oma Maa farmer Jukka Lassila puts it so well: ”Food is a core societal thing. Food is first of all what joins all of us. And in whose hands the control of our food system is, including of course water, in those hands the control of society lies. In other words, people can more govern their own lives, if food (the food system) is in their control. In that sense, all efforts done to get food back under the control of people is very important for the development of society, and only by addressing this, we can change our society into being more just and fair.“

As also Ashish raised in his talk — these systemic alternatives are not necessarily perfect solutions. Actually, the commoning around them is very hard. As we all engaged in such processes will have come to experience, there is nothing harder than the ‘blood, sweat and tears’ of the commoning around our commons. But I also have come to realise we should not be seeing this as the problem, but as that what this is all about. If we think of the rise and appeal of extreme right ideas, another issues recurrently mentioned during last weeks events, perhaps at least a part of this is also related to the little space for commoning in our societies.

Where are the alternatives and how the change?

If the WSF in 2001 put out its slogan as being Another World is Possible, the World Social Forum of Transformative economies spring 2020 Barcelona puts it as Another World already exists. For sure this is related to Solidarity economy (SE) envisioning which as a methodology puts to the forefront that if we put on right lenses we can see around us so many (layers of) economic activity which have fundamentally other values then (monetary) profit making at its core.

If we then want to imagine change, the SE lenses also propose that by through the increased linking up of those actors, and through the new forms of cooperation which develop out of this, we can be growing space for another economy from the bottom up. An empowering yet also challenging narrative for change.

How then with the State? was a question raised during both events. I myself commented to be inspired by how commons activist and writer Silke Helfrich has spoken of this as being a process of ‘going beyond state and market, whilst this need not mean without state and market’. This points to a process of transformation which is a valid envisioning I feel certainly for alternatives in places where still somewhat of a wellfare state is standing — to engage through the systemic alternatives with the public sphere in an effort not to privatise, but commonify the public sphere. As Ashish also commented to that, this might nevertheless still come to point to the doing away with the notion of state, and a state’s often extractivist underpinnings.

North — South systemic alternatives : united and connected

I also raised the point that whilst we know there are tremendous global inequalities, less talked about is that there is actually a coming together between actors in global North and South not only in empathy or in a quest for justice, but actually, despite very different conditions, in very similar forms of organising tackling inequalities. One way to describe the commonality would be to say that these can be seen as struggles for the right to be seeing things as commons, and as such for the right to be commoning around them.

Our endeavours about souvereignty in issues as food, energy, currency are also then profoundly related. Only by us in the North engaging in systemic change, the building of systemic alternatives, there is the possibility for the global south to come to the same, to souvereignty. As a comrade Niklas Toivakainen was answered and wrote about (in Finnish) when he asked farmers in India what to do faced with so much hardship, and amidst the wave of suicides, they told him straight and clear : Grow your own food. There lies hope in the coming together of these forces as ofcourse happens throughout alliances, and the confederation of alternative building worldwide as is also hoped to be supported by an initiative as the Global Tapestry of Alternative.

Systemic change empowering knowledge creation : the doing

I ended my commentary to Ashish keynote talk at in Helsinki Tieteiden talo, House of science and Letters with a note on knowledge production. If there is a recognition of the roots of systemic change lying in the building by people of systemic alternatives we are importantly putting the spotlight on the Doing. This doing in such processes as our timebank, as our food cooperative importantly takes the form of experimental and pedagogicial non-expert driven co-learning processes, and importantly we must come to the recognition, support and space for these processes.

I fundamentallsee this also as a core role and contribution of FundAction. Through the developing of our process of co-learning by a community of activists around the issue of systemic change, it gives space to processes of people constructing together according to their values, bu no preset (funders) agenda. Through its Renew grant round which is explicitly wanting to support the development of systemic alternatives itself — it breaks through the frequently experienced phenomena that in practice it is easier to get space and acknowledgement for the research on the doings, then it is for the doing of the doings itself. And as ‘a doer’ I can only hope FundAction will be able to continue on those tracks.

The above were but some own co-learned reflections with regards to how some of the dots are connected regarding change and the notion of systemic alternatives. Perhaps FA members will be of another opinion or have yet another way of approaching the issue. A warm welcome to any comments and different envisioning!


This article was written by Ruby van der Wekken, member of the Facilitation Group of FundAction.