- Experimenting with institutions
The word ‘institution’ tends to attract at best a conditional appreciation and at worst a complete aversion. The aversion is usually triggered by some form of exposure to institutional violence through bureaucracy or enforcement of undesirable norms; while a conditional appreciation usually stems from a general welcoming of [End Page 99] institutional safety nets combined with an awareness of their potentially oppressive downsides. In their Kilburn Manifesto contribution ‘States of Imagination’, Janet Newman and John Clarke describe a similar relationship between people and the state: the state is both loathed and desired under current political conditions, since it has the capacity to function both as a tool of neoliberal policies and as a ‘bulwark’ against them.1 As more and more institutions of the welfare state, including the National Health Service, are being dismantled, the question of what kinds of institutions we actually want has become more urgent. Do we want to protect the institutions we already have, which we need but feel ambiguous about, or are there better alternatives?
At present, increasingly large sections of the populations of Europe and North America are seeing a withdrawal of institutional support in the areas of healthcare, social security and education. The cuts in social services have been so severe -causing displacement, hunger and death - that many have been speaking of a ‘war on citizens’ or ‘citizen sacrifice’.2 To counteract the current measures, people in a number of different countries have started to set up their own alternative ‘institutions’ to produce more equitable access to basic provision such as housing, healthcare, education. Examples include the Greek social hospitals (see Lazaros Karaliotas in this roundtable), the Rolling Jubilee debtors network and Detroit Water Brigade in the USA, and informal refugee camps in various countries. These projects could be described as ‘experimental’, ‘informal’ or ‘parallel’ institutions.
Such institutions are, of course, not a new phenomenon. They emerge whenever vital institutions are failing or perceived as failing. Due to their greater vulnerability, it is usually the poorer sections of the population that are forced to bring these institutions into existence. At present, they are commonly associated with the ‘permanent austerity’ of the Global South, where they tend to be theorised as ‘informal institutions’. In the Global North, they tend to appear as ‘experimental’ or ‘parallel’ institutions - depending on the level of paranoia that is associated with them: ‘experimental institutions’ are generally more welcomed (and funded) than ‘parallel institutions’, which are more often than not the product of urgency and frequently seen as a threat to the state. Parallel institutions also have negative associations because of the notorious ‘parallel institutions’ of extreme right-wing groups such as the National Socialists, BNP or Golden Dawn, which are explicitly intended to displace existing forms of governance. They are also associated with [End Page 100] terror organisations or mafias, where they may have started off with benevolent or protective aims.3
Although they can be poorly run, usually because of lack of funds or time, many such institutions have been outperforming state and NGO-run alternatives, though on a much lower budget and with less experience, and at the same time developing new systems of institutional governance. Better known examples include the informal institutions in Latin America in the 1990s, after externally imposed ‘structural reforms’ left countries with large sections of disenfranchised populations; and various African American experiments, including the Black Hospital Movement, the Black Panther institutions, and a number of longstanding co-operatives.4 Because of their potential for subversion, their relations with the state encompass a spectrum from violent opposition to a celebratory inclusion of ‘institutional innovation’ (not necessarily in proportion to their threat or innovation level).
The reaction of ferocity or euphoria with which some of these initiatives have been met prompts the following questions: what possibilities and imaginaries do and can these ‘institutions’ represent? What outcomes would they enable at the end of a trajectory free of opposition? And what are the effects of a continual encounter with state violence?
And there is also the question about why we call such efforts ‘institutions’. Would ‘social movement’, ‘informal organisation’ or ‘civic experiment’ not do? What do institutions do differently...