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Not ‘more!’ Not ‘enough!’ We want BETTER!!
Mike Treder   Jun 1, 2009   Ethical Technology  

Over the next two or three decades, our world will change dramatically and in many different ways: we should expect political, economic, social, technological, and environmental uplifts and quite possibly revolutions. Understanding where we’ve come from, where we might go—and what our choices could be—is a first step toward taking active control over our lives and the world in which we live.

If you are among those who would like to think seriously, discuss, and possibly contribute to an emerging and evolving new order that is resilient, just, and sustainable, I have a short reading list for you—and then some of my own thoughts.

Your assigned reading consists of a series of short essays published at The Nation‘s web site, under the heading: Reimagining Socialism. So far a total of 17 interesting, stimulating, occasionally contradictory and sometimes contentious pieces can be found there.

It’s not strictly necessary to read all of them, of course, although they are quite short (just a few paragraphs each), so you can do a cursory skimming in only a few minutes. But I would definitely encourage reading them carefully and thinking about what they suggest to you and what your response might be.

Now let me share with you a few excerpts from some of the “Reimagining Socialism” essays that I found most provocative.

From Immanuel Wallerstein:

There seem to me to be two occasions, which require two plans for the world left, and in particular for the US left. The first occasion is in the short run. The world is in a deep depression, which will only get worse for at least the next one or two years. The immediate short run is what concerns most people who are facing joblessness, seriously lowered income and in many cases homelessness. If left movements have no plan for this short run, they cannot connect in any meaningful way with most people.

The second occasion is the structural crisis of capitalism as a world system, which is facing, in my opinion, its certain demise in the next twenty to forty years. This is the middle run. And if the left has no plan for this middle run, what replaces capitalism as a world system will be something worse, probably far worse, than the terrible system in which we have been living for the past five centuries.

Doing nothing, or waiting for someone else to do something, or assuming that everything will work out for the best, are all bad ideas. Change will come, and it’s far from certain that the change will be benign. We are obliged to become involved in making the change we want to happen.

Lisa Duggan expands on this point:

Out of this crisis of global capitalism, something new will emerge: new vocabularies, new organizations, new politics. But the direction of change is as yet unknown. New forms of authoritarian oligarchy, transformed modes of participatory democracy, resurgent xenophobic nationalisms—all of these seem possible as responses to a dramatic economic downturn. On the democratic left, we need to do two things: first, be political scavengers, by which I mean gather together the already existing, promising forms of egalitarian cooperative thinking, working and living; and second, make things up.

As others in this forum have pointed out, if the left is to lead the way out of this morass, we must pay attention to a number of crucial issues and developments: the social movements and new, radical social democratic governments in Latin America; the collective thinking and organizing at the World Social Forum; the fruits of direct democracy reflected in local activities including cooperative farming within the United States; and the emerging regional alternative power centers that might produce a multilateral rather than imperial global political economy. All of these models are useful for practical utopian thinking and planning. I would like to add local radical queer, feminist and sexually dissident organizations to the list.

If we are to build a new world out of the ashes of the old, we need to imagine and organize otherwise in the most expansive and inclusive ways. The leftist habit of ignoring those on the manufactured political, social or cultural margins stands in the way of making something new happen, something worth living for—for all of us.

Here at the IEET, we could not agree more that progressivism—and technoprogressivism—must include and embrace not only economic or political justice, but also social justice, speaking out and making cause for the equality of every group. A world of peace, freedom, justice, solidarity, opportunity and abundance cannot be successful if it is not for all.

The next piece I want to look at, from John Bellamy Foster, raises a troubling question:

We are living in a new historical moment. Today’s threefold crisis of capitalism—viewed in terms of economy, ecology and empire—is potentially the worst in history, not excluding the 1930s and ‘40s. The current economic downturn already compares in many ways with the Great Depression, and the bottom has not yet been reached. The ecological catastrophe is the most serious that humanity has experienced, threatening the mass extinction of species and human civilization. The struggle over empire, with US hegemony waning but far from gone at present, points to the danger of more frequent and larger wars. . .

Today the prospect of a revolt from below in the United States, which could well gain momentum within several years under conditions of deep economic stagnation, promises new space for a radical/socialist movement. Such a movement could start by demanding the institution of Roosevelt’s 1944 Economic Bill of Rights, and go on to pursue socialist and ecological policies in the direction of equality, community and sustainability. Even the slightest tremor of such a social earthquake in the United States, the center of a world empire, would, like Seattle in 1999, be heard around the world, helping to inspire a greater planetary struggle.

Such a new socialist movement should dispense forever with capitalism’s endless irrational pursuit of “More!” and focus instead on “Enough!”

Replacing a call for “More!” with a cry of “Enough!” seems like a counterproductive, backward step to me. On its face, in fact, the slogan “Enough!” is anything but progressive. It suggests calling a halt, stopping where we are, and even regressing.

I know, of course, that Foster and others like him don’t mean to say that we already have ‘enough’ equality or ‘enough’ prosperity. What they want, I think, is to replace the capitalist drive for endless growth and expansion with something more static and sustainable. But I’m of the opinion that the primary driving force behind our continual quest for more is human nature, not capitalism itself. Capitalism can and does encourage such trends and eagerly advertises their benefits, but it does not cause them in the first place.

Bill McKibben, author of Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, writes in his essay:

A few weeks after taking office, Steven Chu, Obama’s Nobel Prize-winning energy secretary, gave his first interview, with the Los Angeles Times. The reporter asked him about climate change. “I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen,” he said, describing the computer models that showed the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada would melt ever faster in the years ahead. Should that happen, he said, “We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.” And he added, “I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going” either.

McKibben continues:

We will have to focus on essentials, like food and energy, far harder than in the past. I think we’ll need to find our livelihoods more locally, reducing the inherent vulnerabilities that go with a heavily globalized economy. At the moment less than 1 percent of America works on the farm—that’s a number that must rise. . .

In fact, the only way to endure the transition will be with a renewed sense of community. The real poison of the past few decades has been the hyper-individualism that we’ve let dominate our political life—the idea that everything works best if we think not a whit about the common interest. In the end, that has damaged our society, our climate and our private lives.

Certainly it’s true that “hyper-individualism” has damaged our lives, our societies, and, most urgently, our climate. But once again, the answer, it seems to me, is not a retreat to the farm. Rather, we must take advantage of our human intelligence, creativity, and adaptability to imagine, design, and construct a better world than today’s. Our call should not be ‘more!’ and not ‘enough!’ but BETTER!

We want better food production, better housing, better energy generation, better environmentalist efforts, better health, better longevity, better choices, better communication, better lives, and better achievable dreams.

We can build a society that moves beyond the errors of the past, that avoids the excesses and extremes of capitalism and authoritarianism, that fulfills the dreams of freedom, peace, security, and prosperity for all. This will require, however, a renewed commitment to scientific research, education, and technological innovation. It will mean believing not only in the value of the human as a noble animal, but in our uniquely powerful minds and their great potential for bettering the lives we’ve inherited.

Thinking is good. Learning is good. Science is good. Progress is good. They have brought us far, and we must not now renounce our greatest strengths in the vain hope of some retro-pastoralist semi-mystical olde worlde.

Looking and moving forward means envisioning an inspirational post-capitalist future, as Kim Stanley Robinson did in this article. It means retaining an optimistic belief in the power of people working together toward a common goal with shared benefits. It means overcoming the cynicism and despair that arise from past failures and misunderstandings.

In her essay for The Nation, Joanne Landy says:

The main barrier to persuading people of the appeal of a socialist alternative is the antidemocratic and repressive model of the communist countries. Russia, China, and other bureaucratic communist societies claimed to be socialist. People understandably looked at them and said, “If that’s socialism, no thank you!” So if any new socialist movement is to be morally and politically credible, it must be absolutely clear on its commitment to democracy and human rights. And it’s not just a question of credibility: without freedom of expression and organization, democratic socialist economic planning is an impossibility.

Precisely. As a technoprogressive, I am an advocate for democratic socialism: a mixed economy alongside a representative government.* We must not let those who oppose this kind of progress succeed in giving us labels or attributes that don’t rightly apply.

And finally, from George A. Papandreou, a few words about the need for transparency and accountability:

Many of the measures taken in both the United States and Europe to bail out failed banks and shore up ailing industries seem designed to perpetuate a global financial system that is both politically corrupt and morally bankrupt. Fixated on saving the banks, governments are paying little attention to the people who are losing their homes and jobs, their savings and their pensions, as a result of financial decisions beyond their control. The failure of governments to enforce effective regulation of the corporate giants and banking elites has undermined the integrity of our democracies. No wonder taxpayers feel outraged: they’ve inherited trillions of dollars of bad debt, while bankers walk away with millions of dollars of personal wealth.

“Rescue socialism” won’t work if it doesn’t go beyond quick-fix measures. The challenge for progressive politicians is to guide our citizens from despair to hope. We can only restore confidence if we create more democratic institutions that better reflect and respond to the realities of the 21st century. Solving this financial crisis is not a matter for technocrats. It is a fundamentally political issue. We need better governance, not just better financial regulation. This is not just about redistributing wealth—it’s about taking responsibility. Socialism is perfectly placed to fill this leadership vacuum, because we can provide an effective antidote to the excesses of globalization.

Again, I urge you to read all the essays that are part of Reimagining Socialism: A Nation Forum. Then tell us what you think.


* NOTE: Some, but not all, of those associated with the IEET are democratic socialists, but as an organization we do not have a particular political affiliation beyond the broad category of technoprogressivism.

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.



COMMENTS

Mike,

The question is not what ‘ism’ to support, what but works.  For several years I ripped through one crazy idea after another, and (as perhaps you know) was a fanatical Libertarianism for a while (before I realized that this was bat-shit crazy too).

I’ve seen many many ideas on economics (most crazy, as I mentioned), but eventually I noticed one or two that kept recurring. One or two stood out, and these few ideas may be indicating a way forward….

(1)  Guaranteed Minimum Income: Great idea, but for a long time I never saw how it could work… I always thought it was just pie-in-the-sky socialism and giving people money for nothing.

(2)  Georgism : This was the first new big idea that made me realize that there were genuine alternatives to both capaitalism and socialism.  The Georgists believe that all natural resources should be socialized (land, minerals etc) and the market should only deal with other goods and services which are not natural resources.  Like (1), a radical idea,  but on its own I never saw how it could fly.

But look at the combination of (1) and (2), and wow!  (One day my brain finally made the link).

By socializing natural resources, a way is found to pay for (1), people pay rents for natural resources like land and materials, and this wealth can then be redistributed as the MGI;  The big clue for me was Alaska… there’s a big tax on oil profits there, and every-one gets a cheque.  It works very well, and proves that the combo of (1) and (2) can work.  Further, the MGI would then not be ‘money for nothing’, since everyone is in effect an ‘investor’ in the socialized natural resources, and has a definite stake in what happens.

Ideas (1) and (2) on their own are not original, and can’t work on their own, but combine them and you really do get something genuinely new that can work.  It’s not socialism, it’s not capitalism.  It’s not a ‘mixed economy’.  I think it’s something truely new. To quote Douglas Adams ‘it’s good , it’s right, and no one need get nailed to anything’.  😉

“Here at the IEET, we could not agree more that progressivism:and technoprogressivism:must include and embrace not only economic or political justice, but also social justice, speaking out and making cause for the equality of every group.”

... even the anti-progressivists.

One key thing sticks out for me. How can any society be just if each individual in it does not have a voice?  Direct Democracy is that voice. With Direct Democracy each person is endowed with the greatest power in the land. The power to make and shape laws. There are no income barriers, no age, no gender, no ethnic group. Direct Democracy is literally power to the people for the people and by the people.  NI4D is the first step to Direct Democracy. You can find more about it at http://ni4d.us/

Open Source must be the mode of production by which our better technologies are produced. Most urgently, we must break open the genetic information which as been stolen from the commons via patents, and then move on to other technologies, creating coalitions along the way of all those who don’t benefit from the artificial scarcities.

As another supporter of Direct Democracy, I encourage investigating http://ni4d.us/ as has Draciron Smith in a previous post.

Are we going to sit and wait for the next president to make our move? Why, which other politician besides Obama can claim to be a Democratic Socialist?
http://nalert.blogspot.com/2008/02/obamas-socialist-relationships.html (The site has a negative slant, but it leads to the correct sources.)

Please do check out the National Initiative for Democracy http://ni4d.us
See what Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Norman Soloman, Ralph Nader and others have said about it.  Also check out how it reforms the current money game in politics nationally and at the CA ballot level, too. 

Who will get the money out of politics and make the voting systems accountable?  The people will! Because as George Washington said… The people suffer the policy not their representatives.  So we need the National Initiative to bring in citizens as our 4th check in our system of checks and balances.

Lynne,

You took the words out of my mouth.  I am somewhat like the writer of this piece, I have searched high and low for something that might work and they all seem to assume that the old paradigm of a small group of in-control leaders are going to do what is best for ‘The People’. 

The system that evolved in this American great experiment is just about to the point where if ‘The People’ in their innate power to know what is in their own interest do not start to assert it we will continue to vacillate between two power groups who by their own nature cannot ever not do what is in their own interest, and usually not in the best interest of ‘The People’. 

The founding fathers were clear, it is up to the people to perfect their own governance.  http://www.ni4d.us is for me the only thing I see that can break into the monstrosity we have created.

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