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In looking towards a more utopian society, we might consider the African philosophy of ubuntu, as well ...
2021-02-23 09:00:00

A Cooperative Utopia
Ubuntu and Contributionism

A Cooperative Utopia

Yet again, I am starting to write this essay. I’ve lost count of how many times I write the opening paragraph, delete it, and then start over and delete it again. Though I am not writing about myself, I feel this might be more personal than anything I’ve written for a while.

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I’ve always loved writers that are critical of reality; I value books, films and plays that are shocking, unsettling or thought provoking. For as long as I remember, I found dystopias enlightening. What’s more, they are constantly being updated – and they do come true. The number of times I’ve heard that we live in the universe of The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, and – if we’re ‘lucky’ – Brave New World... Suddenly, I am afraid that the authors and books that attempted to rouse and warn us have been reduced to a grim distraction, rather than inspiration for change.

And yet, as I notice more and more dystopian elements in my life and in the lives of others, I begin to wonder: don’t we need a utopia instead? I am touched by the ideas of William Morris (about whom I recently wrote) – his dreams of an egalitarian world, collaboration and coexistence with nature. Yet the greatest of naysayers among contemporary authors, Michel Houellebecq, writes that if all people were like William Morris, his model of society would not be utopian at all.

Utopias do not get a lot of good press and so, naturally, pessimism enjoys a much more consistent bibliography. Personally, I am rather mistrustful of anyone who offers solutions to all existing problems. I am often troubled by the aesthetics of utopia – either in terms of language or visual naivety. Nonetheless, I feel that pessimism has brought us to the brink. Perhaps it is worth cautiously exploring different utopias in order to expand our field of thought, as a kind of stretching, fine-tuning into an attempt at constructive action? The year 2020, among other things, has shown us vast swathes of selflessness, kindness and solidarity, as well as the true meaning of co-ops and collective enterprises. When conveying a message into the world – whether it’s a book, film, TV series or an article – we are, to some extent, responsible for its implications. I cannot help but wonder: how do I find the balance between making my missives productive and inspiring, but free of naivety?

Ubuntu

Nelson Mandela, when asked about the definition of the term ubuntu, replied: “In the old days, when I was young, a traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food; entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but it will have various aspects.” Among them: respect, willingness to help, sharing, community, trust, selflessness. Ubuntu is an African concept – an ethical system in which relationships between people and reciprocity are of particular importance. What makes us human are other people: “I am who I am because of who we all are.” At Mandela’s funeral in 2013, Barack Obama said: “There is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.”

A quite charismatic and nice 60-year-old from South Africa, Michael Tellinger, the founder of the Ubuntu Liberation Movement, also uses this term. He is a pharmacist by education, and someone who wants to change the world for the better by trade. He tried his hand at politics, but the movement he founded did not gain particular popularity. He writes books and has a YouTube channel where he publishes videos discussing the concept of contributionism, the idea that “one small town can change the world”. Tellinger also pursues a kind of mystical archaeology. His socio-economic diagnoses also include references to conspiracy theories (“hidden knowledge”), which is why I would have struggled to endure his ideas some time ago. But by the end of 2020, I had heeded his idea of contributionism.

One small town

I am watching a video from April 2020, which Tellinger calls his key presentation. In the introduction, he points out that the idea of “one small city” has never been as relevant as during a pandemic that exposes and highlights economic inequalities; a time when so many are worried about whether they’ll manage to survive at all. In short, he envisions a co-op formed by the inhabitants of a small town. Thanks to their talents and goodwill, it begins to function and starts making a profit. Thanks to a domino effect, more cooperatives are created and soon enough we are all living in a world devoid of hostile competition, a world that values our individual abilities and allows us to develop. This idea arouses my sympathy and curiosity. Yet I am cautious. Tellinger claims to be able to treat most (or even all) diseases; he also claims knowledge of renewable and green energy generators, thanks to which the community of ‘one small town’ wouldn’t have to pay for energy.

Michael Tellinger. Source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Michael Tellinger. Source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The electricity generator is at the heart of the idea for a new system that everyone would benefit from – community members and investors alike. Controlled access to energy, says Tellinger, is one of the tools (alongside money and the media) that allows us to control, divide and conquer people. In his vision, the electricity generator – built with the money of a community or an investor – would ensure an endless flow of funds. These funds would be used to pay experts working on innovation, investment, and so on. All that is needed is a mayor who’d decide to implement this plan. The mayor would invite experts from specific fields, who would help unearth the true potential of the town (tourism, health centres, art, technology, etc.) and develop it. The labour force would be made up of volunteers – members of the community.

Tellinger is well aware that not all residents would want to become volunteers. He believes that it’d be enough if 10% of the population committed to three hours per week (so that they wouldn’t have to shoulder any risk or give up their existing jobs). He emphasizes the role of passion and talent – they often go untapped, because our work is rarely our dream job. Tellinger sees great capital in the enthusiasm and energy associated with doing what we love. (I admit, I like this part of his theory, and yet my inner sceptic asks whether everyone really has something they actually love doing?) Tellinger also highlights the role of experts who would manage the work of the co-ops. They’re meant to be great authorities, because the point isn’t about “picking up a group of people who will plant carrots together.” Projects initiated in this way would belong to the community and the investor (one third of the outcomes would be allocated directly to the needs of the community, one third to the investor, and one third to the town.)

One factor attracting investors would be the lack of hostile competition. Tellinger believes three hours of volunteer work once a week, coordinated by experts, would be enough to generate large profits. Active members of the community would have access to all goods and services generated by the community. Thus, they would have more money and fewer reasons to spend it. Tellinger believes that in this way he would prove that money as a concept is useless, and what we need is talent, skills, compassion and kindness. Just like in the Indian prophecy: “Only when the last tree has been cut down, the last fish been caught, and the last stream poisoned, will we realize we cannot eat money.”

No conflicts, no opposition

Tellinger defends the idea of utopia; he believes that we shouldn’t be scared of it. He considers his own concept innovative, also because it proposes an inclusive system that welcomes all and does not exclude anyone.

Perhaps the disappointments he suffered in trying his hand at politics have contributed to the fact that he considers conflict and opposition as inadequate, antiquated. Taking advantage of the existing system, we should build a new one, rather that waste energy on fighting it. According to Tellinger, it is important that we shouldn’t try to build communities without money. Money is such a powerful force that it can destroy those who want to rebel against it, and it can only be beaten with money. Like a mantra, he repeats that instruments of enslavement (money, greediness, business and corporate structures, investors, desire for profits) must be used as the tools of liberation. A radical halt to the system has never been successful – it can only work by gradually transitioning towards new structures. It’s also not about forcing someone to participate, but rather creating something so appealing that it attracts everyone. In addition to economic success, the main incentive is a sense of fulfilment, doing meaningful work, satisfaction. “We need to change the way people think, interact with each other, see their future and how they work together,” adds Tellinger.

Due to my limited knowledge of economics, I cannot judge this idea; I can only consider it as a humanities project. Because I have so many doubts, it took me a long time to write this text – and I felt that I had to appear in it, rather than just present Tellinger’s project. I long for a sensible utopia, yet simultaneously, I fear a failed utopia. Critical thinking has always seemed to save me from deception, and I hope it still does. At the same time – and here I agree with Tellinger – I have the impression that most of us are so traumatized by the existing system that we cannot even imagine functioning in another. It seems to me that exploring different utopias, even if they are preposterous or nonsensical, can flex our thinking muscles. As the cracks are beginning to show in the existing order, this might just bring us a little closer to the idea of what a new way of life might look like.

 

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel

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Agnieszka Drotkiewicz

is a writer. She has published several novels (“Paris London Dachau”, “Dla mnie to samo”, “Teraz”, “Nieszpory”) and collected interviews (two conducted along with Anna Dziewit: “Głośniej! Rozmowy z pisarkami” and “Teoria trutnia i inne”; and two by herself: “Jeszcze dzisiaj nie usiadłam” and “Piano rysuje sufit”). Agnieszka also published “Dusza światowa” – an extended interview with Dorota Masłowska. Together with Ewa Kuryluk, she wrote a book in the form of a conversation (“Manhattan i Mała Wenecja”), for which they received the Warsaw Literary Premiere Award.