How Toronto's Community Gardens and Food Centres Can Challenge the Status Quo
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How Toronto’s Community Gardens and Food Centres Can Challenge the Status Quo

At Ryerson last week, an American sociologist talked about how to make change at the local level.

Erik Olin Wright is a former president of the American Sociological Association. Photo by Wayne Roberts.

Erik Olin Wright is a former president of the American Sociological Association. Photo by Wayne Roberts.

It’s time for utopians to get real, a leading American sociologist told 800 academics from around the world in a keynote address to the World Congress of Rural Sociology hosted by Ryerson University last week.

With his unruly hair and beyond-casual clothes, Erik Olin Wright looks the part of the woolly-headed academic.

But for the past 20 years, he’s used his perch at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to lecture social critics on the need to move from protest to alternatives and work up some “clear-headed and viable alternatives that take seriously the problem of practical design.”

Erik Olin Wright, who served as president of the American Sociological Association in 2012, believes realistic utopia is not a contradiction in terms, despite the fact that utopia comes from the ancient Greek for “nowhere.”

A realistic utopian, he says, goes beyond the old mantra of “be the change you want to see” and takes on the challenge to “create the change you want to see.”

For Wright, who spoke and took questions for over an hour during a keynote session of the world congress and later met a smaller group for 90 minutes of open questions and debate, his real utopia project is the key to unlocking the popular imagination to imagine that far-reaching alternatives are possible.

But to open up that possibility, the pivotal point is coming up with practical proposals that are both “desirable and viable.”

He presents a four-part formula.

First, set the ethical standards used to judge both today’s capitalism and tomorrow’s alternatives. In Wright’s mind, that means a society where all people can flourish because of core values favouring equality, democracy, and community.

Second, apply those standards to capitalist and utopian projects. Third, organize practical ways of implementing these ideals. Fourth, develop strategies to start the transformation.

The time and place to start with alternatives is here and now. The old lefty notion of waiting until the old order can be “smashed” and people can start anew has been proven wrong, he argues.

“There is no evidence we can build the world we want from the ashes of the old,” Wright says, referring to the line in “Solidarity Forever,” the anthem sung at thousands of protests. Authoritative statism is more likely to follow a ruptural change than emancipation, he warns.

So, where to begin?

Wright is looking for projects that practise what they preach while creating space to push for more—what he calls “emancipatory reforms.” They combine practical improvements and empowerment of everyday people and thereby go deeper than more commonplace Band-Aid-style “ameliorative reforms.”

His favourites from around the world include Quebec’s childcare programs, a 1960s experiment from Dauphin, Man., that tried out guaranteed annual income with great success for a few years, the Mondragon co-ops in Spain, and the participatory budgets of Porto Alegre, Brazil where thousands meet in stadiums to work out detailed priorities for city budgets.

Projects from Toronto don’t make Wright’s list of exemplary examples.

My own view is that Toronto has emancipatory reforms on exhibit every day at FoodShare, the Stop Community Food Centre, and a score of farmers’ markets and community gardens across the city.

They all address some form of food security problem that governments are generally ignoring.

FoodShare serves up healthy and delicious snacks at schools, Stop helps people living on low incomes learn to grow and cook their own low-cost meals, and farmers markets’ support small- and mid-scale farmers in getting a good price for their food, plus the additional margin from direct sales that keep them from going bankrupt.

Community gardens lead people down the garden path to learn food skills, while creating a safe and comfortable meeting space in the neighbourhood and, at the same time, building survival and flourishing skills among disadvantaged communities.

Wright sees projects such as these as playing a key role in eroding a capitalist system. In his view, there are two ways to look at the word “system.”

The circulatory or digestive system in the body works as a whole with each part playing a precise role. The whole system is entirely dependent on each part; a circulatory system doesn’t work without a heart, for example.

By contrast, an ecosystem, such as a pond or marsh, has many elements that work beautifully together—from fish that eat mosquitoes to weeds that camouflage frogs. But if one part is removed, the system will survive and maybe even find a way to improve on the old parts.

Capitalism is more like a marsh (some would say a swamp) than a circulatory system. So things can change—a library that shares cooking and gardening tools as well as books or a Wikipedia that shares quality information for free—and the space occupied by emancipatory reforms can be gradually expanded, while capitalism is slowly eroded, Wright argues.

He describes himself as a Marxist, which would be inaccurate in any corner of the world outside Madison, Wisconsin and Berkeley, California where he often lectures.

Wright’s speeches and articles don’t use telltale phrases such as “class struggle” or “proletariat.” The ethical foundation at the core of Wright’s formula for diagnosing and correcting capitalism would be scoffed at by Karl Marx for its utopian lack of analysis of scientifically objective laws of capitalism.

As Wright explains in an autobiographical essay in an anthology of writings called The Disobedient Generation, he adopted the Marxist self-designation to keep himself honest and edgy in the otherwise too comfortable world of academia.

To my mind, calling himself a realistic utopian would serve as well without causing label confusion.

Wright also calls himself “anthropocentric.” His short list of human flourishing needs that must be addressed does not include sustainability or “biophilic” psychological needs related to the human animal’s place in nature. Even Marx considered the relation between humans and nature to be fundamental.

But at a time when imagination about possible solutions and options are increasingly limited, Wright is fighting the good fight in favour of creating space for visionary but practical alternatives.

Some prominent social theorists think it’s enough to have optimism of the will to balance pessimism of the intellect, Wright told the Ryerson assembly. “I think we need to have optimism of the intellect.”