The post-pandemic city beyond state and market: a thought experiment


Laura Basu

Jun, 2020

Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 utopian novel Ecotopia [1] depicts a world in which Oregon, Northern California and Washington State seceded from the United States 20 years previously to form their own society. Its economy is «steady state» with a 20-hour week, and worker-collectives lovingly creating products that are built to last in an atmosphere which blurs the boundary between work and leisure time. High-tech public transit connects networks of decentralized «mini cities» that are somewhere between urban and rural. Inhabitants live in collectives, with chosen families in accommodation that is modular, so that rooms can be added and removed according to how the kinship group changes over time. Its political system combines direct with representative democracy, with decision-making forming a lively part of daily and social life.

It’s a far cry from our current societies, where the triple crisis of climate catastrophe, the pandemic and the global civil unrest unleashed by the racist murder of George Floyd in the United States have led many to profoundly question our most fundamental social structures: capitalist markets and the nation-state. Questions are now openly being asked about whether capitalism is inherently hierarchical, imperialist and antithetical to the continuation of human life on planet earth. The abundance of mutual aid groups that have sprung up around the world, offering everything from grocery shopping to fund raising for emergency supplies to rides for key workers to fabricating equipment, to all manner of knowledge and skills sharing onlineorganized not as charity but solidarityshows what the roots of an alternative society might look like.

An article in the United Kingdom’s Spectator magazine frets that the 34,000 Brits that have recently donated a million pounds to Black Lives Matter United Kingdom are unwittingly endorsing an organization that «wants to dismantle capitalism,» thinks climate change is racist, wants to abolish prisons, wants to get rid of borders and wants to get rid of the police. I wonder if the author of that piece has ever considered that the 34,000 are not so unwitting, but actually might agree with those ideas.

Photo_ Jukka Kervinen_couple_ CC BY 4.0

If an increasing number of people are experiencing capitalist markets and nation-states as impediments to humanity flourishing on a finite planet, it is time that we think past these structures, beyond progressive calls for more constrained and humane versions of them. What would a society that was actually designed to deliver human freedom and flourishing within planetary boundaries look like? What would cities look like within them? Would cities even exist? With the help of fiction, theory and real-world examples, let’s embark on a thought experiment imagining a utopian post-pandemic citybeyond both state and market.

How would provisioning work?

In Ecotopia, inhabitants work a 20-hour week, and the economy is finely calibrated to approximate as closely as possible a steady state, with almost zero waste and all technology developed to maximize harmonious living with nature. Though Herman Daly’s Steady State Economics was published two years after Ecotopia, the novel was no doubt inspired by Daly’s earlier works and most likely also by the early work of Murray Bookchin, founder of social ecology. Indeed, Bookchin’s work, along with that of the ecofeminists that were beginning to publish at around the same time, is more visionary than Ecotopia, in which the alternative society is a bounded by national borders and does to an extent organize provisioning through markets for private profitthough ones that are quite different to what we are used to. In Bookchin’s vision, on the other hand, resourcesor what he calls «the means of life»are treated as commons governed by the principle of usufruct: everybody has access to them as long as they do not deplete or spoil them. The principle of «the irreducible minimum» means that everyone has the right to the means of life no matter what they contributean even more generous maxim than Karl Marx’s famous «from each according to his [sic] ability to each according to his need!»

Would cities even exist in such a vision? In Ecotopia, the line between urban and rural is blurred. New «mini cities» are disaggregated cities connected by high-tech, eco-friendly public transit, surrounded by farms serving the immediate community. Eco-feminist and Bookchin’s ideas suggest a back-to-the-land politics, with relatively self-sufficient communities producing their own food and collectively managing natural commons like forests or lakes. On the other hand, it is often argued that in many ways the metropolisand especially slumsare the most ecological way of organizing people. Squatter cities have maximum density and minimum energy and material use. People get around by foot, bicycle, rickshaw, or the universal shared taxi, and recycling is a way of life. However, even in the middle of the metropole, slums are blurring the boundaries between city and country. Residents raise pigs on third-floor roofs, grow vegetables in used bleach bottles hung from window sills, and keep chickens. [2] Sylvia Federici describes these squatters movements as «experiments in self-provisioning and the seeds of an alternative mode of production in the making… organizing their reproduction outside of state and market control.» Raul Zibechi suggests that urban land squats be considered as «a planet of the commons.» [3]

Slums are not the only places where city-dwellers are using guerrilla commons to feed themselves. Amidst the «new scramble for Africa,» landless women have migrated to towns and, using direct action tactics, appropriate and farm vacant lots of public and private land along roadsides, rail lines and in parks. In Accra, commons-based urban gardens supply the city with up to 90% of its vegetables. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, «manioc is planted all over the city, while goats graze along a central boulevard that is considered the Champs Elysees of Kinshasa.» In southern Nigeria, crops are grown on some university campuses, and at some points in the year, cows can be seen pasturing on campus grass before being brought to market. Through taking back land and sharing skills and experience, these women are reclaiming, using the words of Fantu Cheru, «the self-reliance that was theirs until the advent of the modern nation state.» Federici writes, «Urban farmers are breaking down the separation between town and country and converting African cities into gardens.» [4] Perhaps, then, instead of limiting our thought experiment to cities, we should instead think in broader terms about a «post-pandemic community»which might combine the rural with the urban.

It is not just food that is being organized as commons. Commons of forests, fisheries, water, wildlife and other natural resources currently support two billion people for their everyday subsistence. In cities, repair shops, cultural centers, energy commons, swap shops, community currencies and time banks exist across the globe. In Athens, the autonomous neighborhood of Exarchia is home to squats and social centers that provide solidary housing, healthcare, social and cultural spaces and food to a highly diverse community of refugees, migrants and anarchists. However, far-right and neo-fascist groups have been connected with multiple arson attacks on the squats. The Syriza government evicted multiple squats and now the New Democracy government has laid siege to Exarchia, with inhabitants giving accounts of homes being raided, residents being taken to underground car parks and beaten, and children left without parents as they are arrested and imprisoned. A media propaganda campaign paints the squats as being dens of iniquity involved with heroin dealing. Exarchia offers a stark reminder that these experiments in autonomy will always be in a state of existential threat while they remain under capitalism. Through a newly energized international solidarity movement, they require fierce protection so the seeds of a new society can grow and flourish.

On what scale would it operate and how would it relate to other communities?

In Callenbach’s novel, the new state of Ecotopia is mostly self-sufficient and trades little with the rest of the world. Within state borders, communities, be they cities or some sort of urban-rural hybrid, are relatively small and self-contained but linked together. Conveniently, the region is agriculturally fertile and already boasted top universities, cutting edge science, conservation and other skills needed for its fair and eco-friendly society prior to secession. What is not mentioned is the context of the world economy in which the region built its wealth while part of the United States, from which it evidently continues to benefit. And within this fictional world, there is actually racial segregation, though its impetus comes from Black Ecotopians and there is supposed to be genuine equality (though the protagonist only seems to spend time in the White areas, among which there is even talk of a sort of genocidal «relocating» of the entire Black community to another region). Indigenous Americans, meanwhile, are discussed in nostalgic terms, as if they were only part of the nation’s past.

It is worth remembering that capitalism was built on colonialism, slavery and imperialism and that there continues to be a global hierarchy and international division of labor. The point is that, when building a «good» city, it is necessary to think about the context in which that city operates. Is the wealth being enjoyed there based on exploitation and domination in other parts of the world? Who exactly is benefitting from that wealth and where is it coming from? The Black Lives Matter protests, with their growing internationalism and mounting calls for reparations, are showing how important a global understanding of our local economies really is. To this end, and the case for open bordersor no bordersas well as land redistribution, are all gathering strength.

It’s a far cry from our current societies, where the triple crisis of climate catastrophe, the pandemic and the global civil unrest unleashed by the racist murder of George Floyd in the United States have led many to profoundly question our most fundamental social structures: capitalist markets and the nation-state.

But let us say that we are living in a post-capitalist, post-nation-state world. We can imagine a similar confederated network of communities but missing the borders of the state. Again, this is the vision of many anarchists and eco-feminists. In her «subsistence perspective,» Maria Mies envisions relatively small, decentralised communities, that are relatively self-sufficient in basic needs. Interestingly, while such concepts of relative local autarky trigger criticisms of nativism or isolationism, for Mies, a high degree of autarky is desirable precisely because of its potential to overcome the international division of labour. She writes, «only by consuming the things which we produce can we judge whether they are useful, meaningful and wholesome, whether they are necessary or superfluous. And only by producing what we consume can we know how much time is really necessary for the things we want to consume, what skills are necessary and what technology is necessary.» [5]

For Mies, a further consequence of such a reorganization would be the drastic reduction of «non-productive work,» in the sense that what David Graeber calls «bullshit jobs»jobs that have little social value and which even the people doing them don’t find worthwhilewould be eliminated. There would be no need for a state to decree a 20-hour week because an economy oriented to meeting needs within ecological boundaries, rather than private profit, and organized around the principles of usufruct and the irreducible minimum, would have no need for wasteful, destructive or extraneous work. It would also lead to a much more environmentally friendly society. If one community were not able to dump ecological «negative externalities» onto others, it would likely take better care of its own environment.

If communities were relatively small and self-contained, would not this mean they would be unable to solve large-scale problems or build major infrastructure? Prior to European colonization, people in the Taita Hills region of what is now Kenya created complex irrigation systems that lasted hundreds of years. The infrastructure was common property, with households responsible for the section closest to them. Various customs and social arrangements brought people together for major repairs, and determined how much water each household could take, and the sanctions that those who violated these practices would face from the rest of the community. When the British colonized the region, they set up their own irrigation system, geared to cash crop production. This system failed spectacularly during the drought of the 1960s and many locals returned to the former system to feed themselves. According to one ethnologist: «East African irrigation works seem to have been more extensive and better managed during the precolonial era.» [6]

Environmentalist Ashish Kothari puts forward an alternative framework for human development to the standard development model, called REDradical ecological democracy. We do not need to turn to the past or to an alternative reality to find initiatives that could be considered as operating within this framework. Again, RED combines the local with the translocal. Localization means that those living closest to a forest, sea, coast, farm or urban facility would have the most stake and the best knowledge to manage that resource (or at least they would, if it were not for centuries of policies de-educating communities about their own environments). Kotheri points to thousands of initiatives in India for decentralized water harvesting, biodiversity conservation, education, governance, food and materials production, energy generation, and waste management, both in villages and cities.

A necessary complement to localization, however, is what Kotheri calls «landscape and trans-boundary planning and governance»otherwise known as bio-regionalism or eco-regionalism. This means communities coming together to solve problems affecting entire land and sea-scapes. Although this type of organization is in fledgling state in IndiaKothari’s focusthe Arvari Sansad (Parliament) in Rajasthan brings 72 villages together, to manage a 400 square km river basin through inter-village coordination, making integrated programs for land, agriculture, water, wildlife, and development. In Maharashtra, a federation of Water User Associations has been handed over the management of the Waghad Irrigation Project, the first time a government project has been completely devolved to local people. For Kothari, central to making bio-regionalism work is rural communities having more say in how their resources are used, and city-dwellers becoming more aware of the impacts of their modes of living. As villages are revitalized through locally appropriate development initiatives, rural-to-urban migration might slow down and may even reverse, as has happened with certain villages in the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. [7]

Thinking beyond the nation-state, then, involves going both smaller and bigger, with small-scale communities the basic units of production, consumption, and daily life, but confederated in networks with other communities. Rather than this leading to parochialism, doing away with the borders of the nation-state could encourage the free flow of people, skills and ideas.

What would gender relations and family life look like?

The ruling «Survivalist Party» of Ecotopia is run by women, and women are supposed to be empowered in the novel, with full control over their bodies and with men sharing housework. However, Callenbach’s work still exhibits some of that 1970s chauvinism. Women, though athletic and «unadorned» «still seem… feminine,» while men, though sensitive, «still seem masculine.» At one point in the book, the main character is injured and admitted to hospital, and to illustrate the «holistic» approach of the health system, a female nurse gives him a hand job!

As well as making up an increasing proportion of the paid workforce (often paid less than men), women carry out 76% of reproductive laborthe work of reproducing life, through child rearing, care, cleaning, food and fuel provision. [8] Because they are the main providers of food and fuel, the United Nations estimates that 80% of those who have been displaced by climate change are women. On top of that, the family home can also be a dangerous and even deadly place for women, as one in three women suffer violence, usually by an intimate partner. The pandemic has intensified these problems and brought them further into the light.

It will not be possible to create a post-COVID-19 society without eliminating violence against women, queer, trans and non-binary people, and redressing the balance of reproductive work. On the subsistence perspective, Maria Mies writes, «The perspective of a relative autarkic economy based on non-exploitative relations to the ecology, other peoples, people within a region, on small, decentralized units of production and consumption is, for feminists, not broad enough if it does not start with a radical change of the sexual division of labor.»

The journey towards a free and non-exploitative society must start with women’s autonomy over their bodies, sexuality and lives. The violence towards women on which patriarchy is based must end, as would state control over women’s fertility. Ecologists often point to the perils of overpopulation, sometimes ignoring the evidence that, when women have a choice, they choose to have fewer babies: «true women’s liberation will be the cheapest and most efficient method of restoring the balance between population growth and food production.»

Secondly, men would have to share reproductive workchildcare, housework, care of the sick and elderly, relationship and emotional work and so on. Despite the groundbreaking work of the 1970s «wages for housework» campaign of a fellow eco-feminist, for Mies, this work could not be paid: «It would have to be free work for the community. But each man, each woman, and also children, would have to share this most important work. Nobody, particularly no man, should be able to buy himself free from this work in the production of immediate life.» Crucially, for Mies, the drive towards ending violence towards women and sharing reproductive work should come from mennot for paternalistic reasons but to restore to themselves a sense of wholeness, dignity and respect: «Only by doing this life-producing and life-preserving work themselves will they be able to develop a concept of work which transcends the exploitative capitalist patriarchal concept.»

Thinking beyond the nation-state, then, involves going both smaller and bigger, with small-scale communities the basic units of production, consumption, and daily life, but confederated in networks with other communities. Rather than this leading to parochialism, doing away with the borders of the nation-state could encourage the free flow of people, skills and ideas.

As the authors of Feminism for the 99% point out, the unique feat of capitalism was to separate the public from the private, delegate the private to women and banish it to the home. Without the unpaid and invisible domestic, care and emotional work of women, the capitalist economy would not be able to run. There are, therefore, rising calls to bring reproductive work out of the private sphere of the home and socialize it. Demands for a feminist Green New Deal, care revolution or a universal care income are taking up this call, to break down the gendered barriers between the public and private sphere.

In moments of struggle, revolution and resistance, reproductive work is indeed brought into the social realm, from Standing Rock to the movement of the squares. In the Oaxaca Commune of 2006, women created collective reproductive activities on the barricades as a means of sustaining the protests and resisting the gender domination of home life:

The barricades were places where the people of Oaxaca slept, cooked and shared food, had sex, shared news, and came together at the end of the day. Resources such as food, water, gasoline and medical supplies were re-appropriated and redistributed, and in the same way, reproductive labor was re-appropriated from the specialized sphere of the home and became the underscoring way to reimagine social life and collective bonds. [9]

The women of the Landless People’s Movement of Brazil, once their communities had won the right to maintain the land they had occupied, insisted that the new houses be built to form one compound so that they could communalize the housework, together with men as they had during the struggle, and be ready to run to each other’s support when abused by men. For Federici, this «commoning» of the means of reproduction «is the primary mechanism by which a collective interest and mutual bonds are created. It is also the first line of resistance to a life of enslavement and the condition for the construction of autonomous spaces, undermining from within the hold that capitalism has on our lives.»

Perhaps, instead of Ecotopia, another U.S. utopian novel from the 1970s should be our model when it comes to gender and the family: Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. Here, not only the sexual division of labor is undermined, but so are gender and sex themselves. Women and men are often indistinguishable and instead of gendered pronouns, the pronoun pershort for personis used for everyone. Children are not born biologicallyinstead they are «grown» in birthing pods, and do not share genetic material with parents. There are usually three parents who commit to raising a child together until it comes of age, and those you choose to raise a child with are not necessarily those with whom you have sexual relationships. Men are able to take hormones so that they can breastfeed. People live communally and there is much more community involvement in child rearing and intergenerational care and mixing.

This brings to mind Shulamith Firestone’s radical feminist The Dialectic of Sex, in which she advocates both collective living and child rearing and artificial reproduction (along with «cybernetic communism»). Sophie Lewis’ recent Full Surrogacy Now takes the concept of surrogacyunder capitalism a highly exploitative practiceand applies it to a post-capitalism paradigm in which children no longer «belong» to their biological parents but are the responsibility of all. Overcoming the constraints of sex, gender and the biological family is not about imposing one family structure on everyone or eliminating the identities which we may hold dear, but creating societies that are flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of different identities, family forms and kinship structures, supported by economic and political structures that allow these bonds to flourish.

What kind of political system would it have?

The principles of direct democracy, subsidiarity and confederation are favored by Radical Ecological Democracy as well as many anarchists and feminists. In Woman on the Edge of Time, decisions are made collectively at local councils. For larger-scale issues, a delegate is sent to a region-wide council and so on, in a nested manner. Through intense discussion, delegates strive to reach consensus. Where this is impossible, a vote is taken. To achieve reconciliation, it is custom for the winning community to host a great feast with the losing community as its honored guests.

Again, though, we do not have to look to fiction for examples of direct democracy in action. A well-known large-scale example is the Autonomous Authority of North and East Syriaaka Rojavanow under existential threat from ongoing Turkish invasion since Trump announced the United States was withdrawing from the area in October 2019.

After decades of fighting for an independent state, the Kurdish movement led by the imprisoned Abdullah Öcalan now rejects the nation-state as the locus of sovereignty, viewing the state as inextricably bound up with environmental destruction, repression and patriarchy. The fundamental political level in Rojava is that of the commune or neighborhood, comprising up to 200 households. People come together at regular meetings where decisions relating to daily life are made. Communes include committees working on different issues like peace and justice, economy, safety, education, women, youth and social services. Each commune is autonomous, but they are linked to one another through a confederal structure. The next level is the local assembly, composed of representatives of the commune, and then municipal councils, composed of representatives of local assemblies. Power is ultimately located at the grassroots level, with the «higher» units accountable to the «lower» ones.

Photo_ Eneas De Troya_ Oaxaca artisans_ Mezcal_ CC BY 4.0

Women’s liberation is at the heart of Rojava’s struggle for a free society. The autonomous Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) were at the forefront of the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the region. The new constitution or «social contract» produced in 2014 declares men and women equal under the law and «mandates public institutions to work towards the elimination of gender discrimination.» All elected bodies must be made up of at least 40% women, and a woman must co-chair all public institutions. Only women have the right to elect the female co-chair while the male co-chair is elected by everyone. Women are chief political negotiators on behalf of their region, and there are grassroots women’s communes, assemblies, co-operatives and academies.

And again, thinking about local communities as the locus of sovereignty doesn’t have to mean parochialism and isolation. On the contrary, going beyond the nation-state can mean removing borders to the free flow of people and ideas. Democratic confederacy in Rojava includes not only Kurds but Arabs, Christians, Turkmen, Chechens, Armenians, Syriacs, Assyrians and others.

This experiment in democracy is in grave danger from the onslaught by Turkey, which has used the language of ethnic cleansing and is deliberately targeting women. In the face of both the invasion and the COVID-19 pandemic, Rojava’s revolutionary system is holding up remarkably well, using its grassroots structures to meet the basic and economic needs of its people during lockdown while facing shelling and drone attacks, while Turkey has cut off water supplies, increasing the risk of infection through the region’s many refugee camps. Women’s Houses or Mala Jin are continuing to fight for women in the face of systematic sexual assault, torture and murder. However, because it is not a nation-state and not recognized by the international community, The United Nations and the World Health Organization refuse to provide direct support. [10]

Once again, the story of Rojava is a stark reminder that within capitalisma continually expanding world system driven by private profit and mediated through competing nation-statestrue experiments in democracy will always exist in a state of peril. And it is another reminder of the need for internationalism, solidarity and mutual aid that the Black Lives Matter protests have ignited anew for all of those trying to build something better.

[1]  Thanks to Andrés Lomeña for his comments about Ecotopia at Octagon 2019 that reminded me of that novel, which I first read as part of the Cardiff-based project Utopias Salon.

[2]  Brand, S. (2010, December 31). How slums can save the planet. Prospect Magazine.

[3]  Federici, S. (2019a). Commons against and beyond Capitalism. In G. Caffentzis (Ed.), Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons. PM Press.

[4]  Federici, S. (2019b). Women’s Struggles for Land in Africa and the Reconstruction of the Commons. In Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons. PM Press.

[5]  Mies, M. (1986). Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour. Zed Books.

[6]  Gelderloos, P. (2017). Anarchy Works. Active Distribution.

[7]  Kothari, A. (2014, April 22). 10 Principles of Radical Ecological Democracy. Films For Action.

[8]  Othim, C., & Saalbrink , R. (2019, October 1). It’s time to tax for gender justice. OpenDemocracy.

[9]  O’Brien, M. (2019, October 15). Communizing Care. Pinko.

[10]  Dirik, D. (2020, June 23). Unbowed. New Internationalist.