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It’s hard to imagine any kind of utopian project in Puerto Rico—especially after a decade of mounting economic crisis and a savage series of austerity measures, and then of course the widespread devastation of and notably slow recovery from Hurricane Maria.

But that’s exactly what’s taking place on the island, according to a recent report by Naomi Klein in The Intercept.

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In fact, in the midst of the disaster, two radically different utopian visions are taking shape: one is a libertarian project of privatization and gated communities for newly minted cryptocurrency millionaires and billionaires; the other aims to create a decentralized form of sovereignty—of energy, food, and much else—for ordinary Puerto Ricans.

Neither vision is new; aspects of both were being articulated before the hurricane reduced much of the island to rubble. But they’ve taken on new urgency, in the midst of the collapse of the old model and the series of shocks—both economic and environmental—that have made contemporary Puerto Rico such a disaster zone.

In many ways, it’s a familiar story. We’ve seen this kind of battle of utopian visions in many cases of “disaster capitalism”: from Chile in the 1970s through post-Katrina New Orleans to the largest ever municipal bankruptcy in Detroit. Each created the possibility of criticizing the existing model and then radically remaking the economic and social landscape.

Puerto Rico is the latest site of this battle of fundamentally different utopian visions.

One such vision is sponsored by the administration of Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, backed by the Financial Oversight and Management Board (which consists of seven members appointed by the President of the United States and one ex-officio member designated by the Governor of Puerto Rico, created by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act of 2016). Even before Hurricane Maria hit the island, the goal was to cut back on and eventually privatize government services, especially the power grid and public school system, and attract wealthy individuals and create corporate tax havens with massive tax breaks to an island that is functionally bankrupt. The latest step in this plan was announced at Blockchain Unbound, a three-day “immersive” pitch earlier this month at San Juan’s ornate Condado Vanderbilt Hotel for blockchain and cryptocurrencies with a special focus on why Puerto Rico will “be the epicenter of this multitrillion-dollar market.”

Department of Economic Development and Commerce Secretary Manuel Laboy Rivera

used the conference to announce the creation of a new advisory council to attract blockchain businesses to the island. And he extolled the lifestyle bonuses that awaited attendees if they followed the self-described “Puertopians” who have already taken the plunge. As Laboy told The Intercept, for the 500 to 1,000 high-net-worth individuals who relocated since the tax holidays were introduced five years ago — many of them opting for gated communities with their own private schools — it’s all about “living in a tropical island, with great people, with great weather, with great piña coladas.” And why not? “You’re gonna be, like, in this endless vacation in a tropical place, where you’re actually working. That combination, I think, is very powerful.”

The various elements of the other, opposing utopian vision also preceded Maria. Casa Pueblo, a decades-old community and ecology center with deep roots in the Cordillera Central, is one source.

Already a community hub before the storm, the pink house rapidly transformed into a nerve center for self-organized relief efforts. It would be weeks before the Federal Emergency Management Agency or any other agency would arrive with significant aid, so people flocked to Casa Pueblo to collect food, water, tarps, and chainsaws — and draw on its priceless power supply to charge up their electronics. Most critically, Casa Pueblo became a kind of makeshift field hospital, its airy rooms crowded with elderly people who needed to plug in oxygen machines.

Thanks also to those solar panels, Casa Pueblo’s radio station was able to continue broadcasting, making it the community’s sole source of in- formation when downed power lines and cell towers had knocked out everything else. Twenty years after those panels were first installed, rooftop solar power didn’t look frivolous at all — in fact, it looked like the best hope for survival in a future sure to bring more Maria-sized weather shocks.

But there’s also the Segunda Unidad Botijas 1 farm school in Orocovis (where students learn and practice (“agro-ecological” farming), Organización Boricuá (a network of farmers who use traditional Puerto Rican methods), the Citizens Front for the Audit of the Debt (which in the year before Hurricane Maria called for an audit of the island’s debt), and now JunteGente (the People Together, which has begun drafting a people’s platform, one that will unite their various causes into a common vision for a radically transformed Puerto Rico).

So, Puerto Rico is now the home of two radically different utopian visions—one that promises a playground for the super-rich, the other a new model of self-management for the majority of the island’s population.

But there are two problems confronting the second, more popular vision. First, it requires a level of political participation of the population “that has a lot of other things on its plate right now.” Thinking big and scrambling just to survive in the midst of disaster are often difficult to articulate and sustain simultaneously.

The other problem is time—the difference between “the speed of movements and the speed of capital.” As Klein explains,

Capital is fast. Unencumbered by democratic norms, the governor and the fiscal control board can whip up their plan to radically downsize and auction off the territory in a matter of weeks — even faster, in fact, because their plans were fully developed during the debt crisis. All they had to do was dust them off and repackage them as hurricane relief, then release their fiats. Hedge fund managers and crypto-traders can similarly decide to relocate and build their “Puertopia” on a whim, with no one to consult but their accountants and lawyers.

Clearly, the libertarian utopian project clearly has time—and the power of capital and government, in Puerto Rico and on the mainland—on its side. But that doesn’t mean it will win. It can be imposed by decree but it still requires popular consent.

Arguably, the power of that consent is more closely aligned with the

dream of a society with far deeper commitments and engagement — with each other, within communities, and with the natural systems whose health is a prerequisite for any kind of safe future.

The future of Puertopia will be the outcome of the battle between two radically different visions of utopia for the island and its people.

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Much has been made of the rise of populism in recent years and the threat it poses to liberal democracy.

My view is that liberal critics of populism, standing on their heads, get it wrong. If made to stand on their feet, they’d have to admit that populism actually represents the failure of liberal democracy.

Populism has experienced a resurgence of late—in Hungary, Britain, France, Turkey, the United States, and elsewhere—especially the form of populism variously characterized as right-wing, nationalist, or authoritarian. It has attracted increasing support and achieved notable political victories within the institutions and procedures of liberal democracy.

The problem is that liberal democracy has failed to confront, much less solve, the problems that have led to the rise of populism in the first place.

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Consider, for example, the history of populism in the United States. The three notable periods—in the late nineteenth century (with the rise of the People’s Party, which was also known as the Populist Party), the first Great Depression (around such figures as Father Charles Coughlin and Huey P. Long), and then during the second Great Depression (starting with the Tea Party and culminating in the election of Donald Trump)—all coincided with obscene levels of inequality and severe economic crises that decimated American workers and other classes (including farmers and small businesses) across the country.

Populism has been one of the principal responses to the complex and shifting layers of discontent and resentment that the ideas and policies of the leading political parties, economic elites, and mainstream intellectuals within American democracy first created and then failed to respond to. As I explained last November,

The paradox of the 2016 presidential race is that both major party candidates claim (or at least are identified by those in the media with) support of portions of the U.S. working-class and yet neither campaign offers anything in the way of concrete policies or strategies that actually respond to the real issues and problems faced by the members of the working-class. . .

It’s no wonder, then, that over the course of the past year and a half American workers have rejected establishment politics—as offered by both Democrats and Republicans—and voted in large numbers for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. They’re simply fed up with an economic system that has been rigged to benefit only a small group at the top and frustrated by a set of political candidates (not to mention economists and economic pundits) who pronounce fundamental change to be undesirable and unrealistic. Better to stay the course, so the elites preach, and eventually trickledown economics will work.

A different response was, of course, possible in all three circumstances. Instead of populism, marginalized classes in the United States might have been persuaded by and coalesced into a movement with utopian impulses—an association, organization, or political party that combines a critique of the existing order, including the elites that defend it, with an agenda that seeks to radically transform economic and social institutions in a progressive direction.**

As I see it, both right-wing populism and left-wing utopian movements see the existing system as “rigged” against the vast majority of people and level an indictment against “elites” that both benefit from and defend the existing system. Both responses therefore represent a failure of liberal democracy.

But the two reactions are not at all similar, even when both attempt to represent the grievances of workers and other classes that have been left behind.

There are, it seems to me, two key differences between right-wing populist and left-wing utopian movements. First, they approach the matter of alliance and opposition quite differently. Utopian movements identify a basic conflict between the people and an elite or establishment, and then challenge the claims to universality of those on top in order to form a different universality, a set of changes that will create a new humanity and realm of freedom for everyone, including the existing elites. As John Judis explains, right-wing populists exhibit a radically different approach. They

champion the people against an elite that they accuse of favouring a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants. Rightwing populism is triadic: it looks upward, but also down upon an out group.

The second major difference is that right-wing populists look backward, conjuring up and then offering a return to a time that is conceived to be better. For Trump, that time is the 1950s, when a much larger share of workers was employed in manufacturing, American industry successfully competed against businesses in other countries, and Wall Street played a much smaller role in the U.S. economy.***

That time was, of course, exceptional—in terms of both U.S. and world history. And it’s a vision that conveniently forgets about many other aspects of that lost time, such as worker exploitation, Jim Crow racism, and widespread patriarchy inside and outside households.

Instead of looking backward, left-wing utopian movements look forward—criticizing the existing order but also understanding that it creates some of the economic and social conditions for a better, more just society.

Liberal critics of populism understand neither their own role in producing the circumstances within which populism emerged nor the senses of injustice—especially class injustice—that fuel populism’s gathering strength.

The Left should be able to do better, both in analyzing the rise of populism as a failure of liberal democracy and in offering a utopian alternative to the status quo. But for that, it will have to look beyond the idea that populism alone represents a threat to liberal democracy.

If liberal democracy is under threat it is because of its own failures.

 

*The chart illustrating the wealth shares of the top ten percent and top one percent is from Richard Sutch, “The One Percent across Two Centuries: A Replication of Thomas Piketty’s Data on the Concentration of Wealth in the United States,” Social Science History 41 (Winter 2017): 587-613.

**Such a movement did in fact gather strength during the first Great Depression, the Thunder from the Left, which is precisely what led to the second New Deal in 1935 (after the 1934 midterm elections and before Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 reelection campaign).

***Joshua Zeitz argues that the Populists of the late nineteenth century also looked backward and that the parallels between then and now are striking:

Ordinary citizens chafed at growing economic inequality and identified powerful interests—railroads, banks, financial speculators—that seemed to control the levers of power. Many came to believe that the two major political parties, despite certain differences, were fundamentally in the pockets of the same interests and equally unresponsive to popular concerns.

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According to the Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, loneliness represents a growing health epidemic in the United States.

We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.

As it turns out, loneliness is associated with a reduction in lifespan and a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. It also inhibits people’s ability to think creatively and work productively.

Murthy also notes that people spend more waking hours at work than they do with their families. So, he suggests that “the workplace is one of the most important places to cultivate social connections” and that employers should follow a series of steps (from evaluating the current state of connections in their workplaces to creating opportunities to learn about their colleagues’ personal lives) in order to create “an environment that embraces the unique identities and experiences of employees inside and outside the workplace.”

The one thing Murthy doesn’t suggest is giving employees more of a say in their workplaces. He takes it as a given that there is a small group of employers, who hire workers and decide how work will be done, and a much larger group of employees, who follow the diktats of their employers (although he does acknowledge that perhaps half of CEOs report feeling lonely in their roles).

Therefore, Murthy doesn’t even consider the possibility that workers might want to play a decisionmaking role in the places where they spend the majority of their waking hours—and that making decisions as a community or collectivity, instead of just working for someone else, might play a significant role in reducing loneliness on the job and in the wider society.

We already knew a great deal about the perilous condition of the American working-class and the terrible condition of the American workplace. Now we know that American workers are facing an epidemic of social estrangement and individual loneliness.

It’s about time, then, that we rethink the way corporations are structured and allow workers to play in role in deciding—equally and democratically—how workplaces are organized and how corporations manage their operations.

That one change in the economy would have enormous implications, by improving the condition of the working-class, their workplaces, and the degree of loneliness.

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