Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 10, No. 11, November 2014
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Agency trumps structure:
Sustainable development, participatory democracy,
human rights and human agency

Janet Cherry

This article was originally published by the
ZNet Communications, 15 July 2009

A contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications.

Buzz Aldrin’s ‘Unified SpaceVision’ recommends that human beings unite across national boundaries (under the leadership of the USA, of course) to colonise other planets (starting with Mars) in our solar system. Klaatu, on the other hand (Klaatu is the alien portrayed by Keanu Reeves in the 2008 movie The day the earth stood still) considers intervention from outside the solar system as necessary to remove the destructive influence of human beings from planet earth in a last-ditch attempt to save this precious resource, one of few that can support complex life forms, before it is too late. Klaatu (or director Scott Derrickson) in my view is closer to the mark than Buzz: The problem is not the planet earth. The problem is one species, and that is us. If we want to have a place in the future, the solution must lie with us. If we don’t, well, the earth will adapt and carry on without us. Moreover, the solution is not a scientific one, but a social/political one. Our problem is not our knowledge of resources or our productivity; it is not lack of scientific innovation; it is not ignorance or lack of information. Our problem is our lack of social innovation, a lack of imagination in organizing ourselves to use resources wisely, and our failure to curtail the abuse of power by the few to obtain an unsustainable way of life for the ‘overconsumers’ in a divided human society.

The question is not what is needed, but how to achieve what is needed. Strategy, not description of the problem. A plan of action to attain a broad vision, not a detailed construction of an unattainable vision.  

My premise, as optimist, rationalist, humanist, and pragmatist, underlying this strategy, is the deep conviction that human beings have the potential to organize society in a way that is both sustainable and just. Sustainable and just: these two words entail and require everything that needs to be done. Sustainable entails changes in patterns of production, distribution and consumption. Justice involves first an end to warfare, and secondly a reorganizing of the global polity around the principles of participation and human rights. Economic, social and political solutions cannot be separated out; they must be tackled simultaneously – dare I say holistically?

This can only be done effectively on a global scale, through a ‘grand strategy’ as no grand strategy before; a strategy conceived and implemented by ordinary people who take control of the situation despite the cowardice of elites, the politicians and businessmen who are trapped in the inertia of privilege and self-interest. They will only respond to pressure from below, and only when it is too late, when time has run out. The implication of this is that we cannot afford to wait for a change of mind or heart from the elites: government and corporates cannot be trusted to take the necessary action, and cannot see beyond short-term self-interest. We must take back the power. Now.

The strategy has to be inclusive, inclusive first and foremost of the agendas of the following: the poor, the South; the unemployed; subsistence farmers; indigenous peoples; women and children. It must be premised on survival, the right to life, access to resources and fundamental freedoms. It will not succeed if it is an agenda of privilege. It has to be predicated on justice, economic justice and access to resources, and meeting the basic needs of all. It will not succeed if based on competition, ruthless or regulated; it is too late for competition; cooperation for survival is not an idealistic dream but an evolutionary necessity. The strategy entails radical behaviour changes, changes in patterns of production, consumption and distribution. Consumption – well, that is the easy part. We all control our own consumption, and can change our behaviour. Distribution is somewhat more difficult, but not insurmountable; we can change institutions of distribution on the principle of justice. Production is more tricky; ownership and control of the means of production by the few is something that can no longer go unchallenged. There are existing and past practices, as well as alternative conceptions, of institutions relating to resource regulation which can overcome a mere few hundred years of human history; one need only to go back to the Diggers’ concept expressed in song as "no man has any right to buy and sell the earth for private gain; all things in common, all people one". There is no doubt that radical change in all three spheres is essential for economic justice.  Such a strategy, moreover, both demands and relies on low-cost or free access to electronic communication, and on freedom of information. It entails the creation and expansion of alternative financial institutions; of self-sufficiency in food production at regional level, and regional markets for distribution of resources. It is a strategy that is collective, global, and antinationalist; premised not on blaming certain countries or governments, but of putting pressure on, and taking control of, all governments. It is premised on ordinary people on a global level taking control of those things that we can control, and asserting pressure to take control of those things that remain outside of our control.

The technology and the ideas are out there already, in the public domain. We know what needs to be done. Those who are doing it already are working outside of the mainstream, on too small a scale, too dispersed. This strategy requires a united, co-ordinated global effort of millions, acting in concert from the grassroots, with a common vision but flexibility and creativity at local level. This entails a multi-tiered strategy. Not just a ‘small is beautiful’ approach, where personal and then collective but very localized initiatives change the way we live. These are important, and form the building blocks of a ‘grand strategy’ which involves – on the next tier – pressure on our local authorities; pressure from below for responsive local government, responsible use of resources and participatory planning processes. Taking control of our local resources. Taking control of all aspects of our lives – as we used to say we were doing in South Africa in the 1980s, at the height of ‘the struggle’. Now that we have representative democracy, we have lost that control. The next tier is the regional level – going beyond narrow national interests to share resources and markets on a regional level, building self-sufficiency, lessening dependence on IFIs, global markets and aid agencies. This involves pressure on our own governments – all of them, wherever they are, whatever their policies – to look beyond their narrow interests and adopt transnational strategies. A series of demands, at local, regional and international level: intersecting, reinforcing each other, never in conflict. Free clean water. Clean energy. Closure of coal power stations. Local, diverse and accessible food production and distribution. Closure of arms manufacturing. Jet travel replaced by virtual communication. End to private vehicle ownership and manufacture and replacement with affordable clean-powered vehicles for family/community use. Communal facilities. Free primary health care. Reducing the power of financial institutions through community exchange networks, grameen banking systems, savings clubs.

All these occurring within a flexible, de-centralised political economy; regulation by international/state institutions which set overall parameters/limits; within these parameters, locally controlled economies allowing for maximum participation and variation, including communal, cooperative, personal/family property and combinations, with tax incentives and redistribution determined by local authorities which are democratic and accountable. And finally, the target is the international institutions where the most powerful governments are represented. The focus by the ‘anti-globalisation movement’ on IFIs and on the G8 summits is not misplaced. The strategic question is: what are we demanding of them?

Living in South Africa, I am acutely aware of the development dilemma for middle-income and rapidly industrializing countries. China, India, Brazil….the development path being followed is a blind copy of the path followed by the now overconsuming affluent nations of the world. Staggering increases in carbon emissions, in consumption, and in alienated labour. Yet why do we need to repeat the mistakes of the past? It is not necessary to do so in order for millions of people to attain a better quality of life. Quite the opposite, in fact. This is where the assertion that human agency trumps structure is necessary to break from the locked-in models of neo-liberal economists and Marxists alike: there are no laws of motion driving social and economic development. Economics is not a physical science, but a social construct. The course of history is entirely in our hands. Not only is it possible to ‘skip this stage’, but it is absolutely necessary for the survival of our species.   

There are enormous difficulties foreseen in implementing such a strategy. We have not yet managed to do so in peaceful, relatively democratic societies. The difficulties are that much greater in those countries or societies where people are under governments at war, or where warlords are involved in struggles over resources, or where corrupt or authoritarian governments abuse citizen’s rights and steal their resources, or where foreign governments or companies deprive people of their livelihoods and steal their resources.  They are equally great in situations where people are living under occupation, where basic freedoms are curtailed, and where access to livelihoods and basic resources (water, land) are curtailed. As well as in those countries where rapid ‘development’ and integration into the global economy entails massive increases in consumption of fossil fuels, and dependence on low-cost labour which is denied basic rights….These problems mean that some energy must be maintained in the defensive fields of human rights and anti-war activism, providing support and protection to the vulnerable, the abused, the enslaved, the starving, the imprisoned, the refugees, and the victims of torture, wherever they are. But where possible, these necessary and defensive tactics should not be conducted in isolation, but should feed into, and draw from, the bigger global justice project.

To implement such a strategy is not to create a new NGO or another local, regional or global movement. The movements exist: from the World Social Forum, to international and regional labour organizations, women’s networks, environmental and development networks, economic justice and fair trade networks, and NGOs working at a global level on environmental issues, survival of indigenous peoples, human rights and war resistance. The justice of one cause does not detract from the justice of another cause: this is often stated, and is as true as it ever was. But the time has come to go beyond this approach, each working in her/his own sphere of interest; the justice of one cause should complement the justice of the others, and these complementarities happens at the level of strategy.

Awareness of the struggles in countries such as Guinea, the DRC and Nigeria – to mention just a few – makes it apparent that the struggles for democracy, accountable government, fair trade, an end to the destruction of forests and endangered species, sustainable livelihoods for the poor, empowerment for women, protection of the resources of indigenous peoples, affordable food, sharing of the benefits of scarce resources, and protection of children – are all essentially and inherently complementary struggles. In Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, Lebanon and Iran it is the same: access to water, economic self-sufficiency, control of local resources cannot be separated from an end to warfare, political rights, human rights and social justice.

What would such a strategy entail? A global coalition, to obtain the cooperation and coordination of existing networks. Not to create a new movement, a splinter off an existing movement, or a faction of a political tendency. To go beyond class interests and national interests. To leave aside narrow and doctrinal differences, and find the essential point of common interest. To construct a broad vision around this common interest, and a strategy that can be implemented to achieve this vision. Such a strategy would involve regional strategy teams, to identify a series of campaigns. From local level – to withdraw from existing institutions and practices, to establish alternative institutions, to take control of existing institutions where possible. To target local governments, to participate, plan, demand and pressure them to adopt different practices. At regional level, to share resources, end wars, create cooperative trade agreements, fair labour practices, close mining and weapons manufacturing down, and take control of resources – water, minerals, oil. And at international level, to create alternative institutions of regulation, finance, fair trade, distribution of commodities. Such a multi-tiered strategy allows for maximum flexibility, creativity and control from the bottom, with agreement on a minimum programme of demands and action at the top level. Tactics to be used in such a series of campaigns would be drawn from the arsenal of tried and tested methods used by social movements the world over: the withholding of ordinary people’s labour, time, money and participation in the institutions that are unresponsive to the movement’s demands. The creation of alternative institutions, and the contribution of ordinary people’s time and energy to making these institutions work. All that is needed is to link these tactics into an effective series of campaigns targeted at specific objectives; an incremental series of campaigns whereby people realize their power and take it back. And change the way in which society is organized.

It’s not necessary here to repeat what many specialists in various fields have come to understand. I am drawing on notions of strong democracy, participatory development, fair trade, sustainable energy, human rights, economic justice, socialism and strategic nonviolence.* What is needed is a vision; a movement; consistency in holding to that vision; co-ordination across sectoral and geographic boundaries; consistency in strategy; creativity in finding on-the-ground solutions; pressure in shifting governments and international agencies in the necessary direction. And, finally, a sense of urgency. Because time really is running out.
* My inspiration comes from the following, among others:

Peter Ackerman (human agency and nonviolent strategy)
Benjamin Barber (strong democracy)
Robert Chambers (participatory development)
Alan Durning (sustainable development)
Paulo Freire (liberation from oppression)
Susan George (food production and distribution)
Andre Gorz (ecology and politics)
James Hansen (climate change and sustainable energy)
Margaret Legum (new economics and alternative financial institutions)
Arundhati Roy (sustainable development and power)
Amartya Sen (economic justice)
Richard Worthington (sustainable energy in Southern Africa)


Janet Cherry is a human rights activist, trainer and academic. She was born in Cape Town in 1961. She is currently a senior lecturer at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, in the Department of Development Studies. She is also a trainer for the Centre for Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) based in Belgrade, Serbia. She has been involved in research for, among others, the Human Sciences Research Council (Democracy and Governance Programme), the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the International Centre on Human Rights Policy. She has a PhD in political sociology from Rhodes University. Her main areas of research are human rights, democratic participation, social history, gender and development. She has a history of human rights and development activism, including involvement in the Anti-War Coalition, the End Conscription Campaign, Amnesty International, the Black Sash, IDASA, NUSAS, the UDF and the ANC.

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