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Book Review: bolo'bolo: a utopian perspective

Submission deadline: 1 December 2017

What if our civilization were to collapse five years from now? What if money were to become superfluous, and supermarkets obsolete? 

bolo’bolo  may be one answer. This anticapitalist utopia invites us to rethink our existing reality, and to picture ourselves living in an alternate society based on self-sufficiency and decentralization. Lively and provocative, its theoretical limits are more than made up for by the work’s boundless creativity. The vivid journey into bolo’bolo leaves us reeling with a heightened sense of possibility.

Book review SASI_bolo'bolo

Writing in 1983 under the pseudonym p.m., Swiss-German author and activist Hans Widmer is faced with the discouragement of anticapitalist movements. The optimism and energy of the 1970s has given way to disillusionment and defeat, as most alternative communities dissolve and the neo-liberal era rolls in. By publishing a utopia, complete with maps, diagrams and even a full-blown dictionary, Hans Widmer hopes to rekindle his peers’ political creativity and give them new terms to think with – “ibus” and “bolos” instead of people and communities, “fenos” and “dalas” instead of trade contracts and governments. 

The result is a richly detailed description of a society embodying many long-debated ecological and alternative models, like urban agriculture, self-determination or the gift economy. While the ideas aren’t new, what is novel is the way Hans Widmer brings them to life. In bolo’bolo, there is no central authority, and very few laws. The whole social structure stems from its base unit, the “bolo”: a community of about 500 people who live together as self-sufficiently as possible. The number 500 is big enough so as to ensure basic food production and healthcare, and small enough so as to organize life informally without resorting to centralized authority and delegation. Inside this base community, inhabitants can satisfy their basic needs.

Once the existence of the “bolo” is posited, everything is possible. One example is the coexistence of a gift economy, two-way trade contracts and markets. Inside the bolo, inhabitants know each other well enough and see each other often enough to gift one another with tailor-made goods and services. Between two bolos, as each bolo has the means to survive on its own and is on equal footing with the other, trade contracts can be established on fair and just terms. What can’t be found inside the bolo or between two bolos is exchanged in markets, using money. Since most needs are already met at a smaller scale, markets remain an occasional tool and don’t extend to all aspects of life as they do today. 

In the same reversal of priorities, the inhabitants of bolos prefer to eat their locally grown food, and complete it from time to time with spices brought from abroad by travellers. They need less transportation and thus use less energy, but still build a few airplanes in case of emergencies. They adopt sustainable habits in all aspects of life without constraint of law or authority.

Could such a society exist for real? What I struggled with personally while analyzing bolo’bolo was that for all the detailed descriptions and well-argued justifications, Hans Widmer did not intend bolo’bolo to be realistic. The author argues that reality is just a term coined to describe an established, conventional version of what is possible – and to discourage any attempt to achieve something different. From his point of view, being realistic is a form of surrender to capitalist ideology. 

In consequence, it is difficult to analyze bolo’bolo from a “realistic” standpoint, comparing it with past and present models of self-sufficient communities. Doing so would go against the author’s purpose and intent. bolo’bolo is resolutely turned towards the future, and towards another world of possibilities. 

As the need to reinvent our socio-economic models becomes increasingly urgent, this sense of possibility is a welcome boost. From person-focused issues, like work-life balance or the role of markets in human relationships, to structural concerns, like international trade networks or corporate governance, bolo’bolo galvanizes us to dare think differently.

This book review was written by Prunelle Bonnard graduated from HEC Paris in 2017, in the Master in Sustainability and Social Innovation for the class “Histoire de la Critique du Capitalisme”.

The full version in French is available

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