Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What transition? Part 3: Renewing the vision (Installment #2: Making prosperity into a political issue)

2. Making prosperity into a political issue: Pluralism, dissensus, and "muddling through"

The currently dominant logic rests on the idea that capitalistic incentives, which channel the behaviors and decisions of major actors as well as of all but the poorest of us through a set of markets for goods, services, and financial assets (a maximally deregulated set of markets, hence a maximally globalized one) -- are the vector par excellence of collective prosperity. The latter is measured by real GDP per capita, i.e., the volume of monetary transactions during a given time period (usually a year), deflated by an aggregate price index to filter out objectionable inflation. (Objectionable, that is, to those who own financial assets and stand to lose from even moderate price hikes.) This is clearly a holistic, monolithic vision of prosperity: one single synthetic indicator, one single reference monetary unit (put into circulation in monopolistic fashion by commercial banks in accordance with private-profitability considerations), and one single criterion for the inclusion of a good or a service in collective wealth -- namely, the fact of having been the object of a market transaction, markets being the place where goods, services, and assets are exchanged ultimately according to the overarching principle of maximal net valuation of capital.

Of course, when I say it's a monolithic vision of prosperity, I am not thereby denying that there there is room for a certain degree of internal pluralism. Within our social democracies, capitalistic incentives and the way they generate income and wealth can accommodate a kind of "plural economy" that includes a public sector as well as a variety of non-profit, "third-sector" private actors. It's all a matter of channeling part of the capitalist profits -- which are the sole source of monetary irrigation of the system, since commercial banks only actually lend when they can be sure that some sufficient chunk of private profit can return to them in the form of principal plus interest -- into tax incomes (directly on private profits and indirectly on profit-derived wages) which are then redistributed in the form of public-sector wages and third-sector subsidies. So there is no question that capitalism currently supports a variety of non-capitalist endeavors. However, upstream from this redistribution of primary incomes, the way the system produces these primary incomes and the corresponding means of payment (and the way part of these incomes is immediately, year in and year out, raked back by the banking system in the form of interest) implies some pretty strong homogenizing constraints on what sort of economic activities and philosophies of life are actually feasible and viable.

The latitude for this private-capital, private-banking-money irrigated, "plural" economy to be a genuine vector of deep change is, in actual fact, strongly restricted. The third sector is completely dependent on tax incomes out of profits, and so is the public sector. One single currency is supposed to be the means of solving all ecological, economic, and social problems, so if you don't get your hands on some dollars or euros -- however far away they were created, and for whatever private-profit purpose -- you have no way of changing things even if you want to. This, of course, explains why so many "alternative" actors end up caught in the ambiguities of having to raise money with large corporations, private-capital foundations, and commercial banks... and why, in the wake of this bank-induced crisis of private capital, so many of those well-meaning "alternative" endeavors have simply had to close down, while we are all holding our breath waiting for corporations and banks to make money again so that we can hope to re-launch our alternative activities and commitments. It all hinges on one single criterion of prosperity: GDP has to be larger this year than last year, and the increase has to be substantial enough so that there's enough of a surplus left after interest has been paid on all outstanding debt -- that is, on all but 5 percent of the money in circulation. That's a pretty tall order and it doesn't seem to get filled these days. (As Tim Jackson has so rightly put it in Prosperity Without Growth, in a system where positive real growth is a structural necessity, when that growth stalls everyone suffers.)

Now one of the foremost priorities of the transition will be to maintain and significantly deepen and enlarge a genuinely plural economy. And that means that our democracies should allow for the fully-fledged coexistence of various -- capitalist as well as non-capitalist -- conceptions of how to produce, how to organize work, how to distribute incomes, how to obtain financing, how to save, and how to consume. This idea of coexistence is absolutely crucial: If I have learned one thing from reading Warren A. Johnson's work (and I have learned many other things, too), it's that the revolutionary idea of replacing industrial-financial capitalism wholesale with one single new, shiny, "post-capitalist" model is an absurdity. It just won't work, ever. The only thing we can really do is push the ethos underlying our self-proclaimed democratic ideals much further, and use the resources of the Greek words "demos" and "kratos" to deepen the functioning of our social democracies in ways that are, until today, unheard of.

This means, for instance, and quite significantly, scaling up the tired slogan of the "Green New Deal" and making it the basis for a deep overhaul of our income-redistribution model -- one that will allow citizens to make a true choice between different options. I'll get into the details of this in later posts. (This blog is becoming a landslide of sorts, isn't it? Oh well...) For now, let me just say that the broadening of choices is going to have to rely on a smooth transition from the mainstream economy towards a plurality of alternative economic forms, and that won't happen if we just dismantle or demolish the incumbent wealth-creation engine too soon. Transition is all about keeping industrial-financial capitalism alive and well as long as possible, letting it go green if it sniffs out new profit opportunities there, but using the proceeds of the resulting taxation of private profits to usher in a plurality of non-capitalist alternatives, grounded in heterogeneous conceptions of what prosperity means: cooperative economies, solidaristic community economies, ecovillage networks, "plenitude"-driven self-provision economies, intentional economies of various sorts, all endowed with their own legally sanctioned and legitimate criteria for what value creation means -- and, therefore, frequently at odds with the idea that to create wealth a firm, a community, or an intentional collective has to ultimately sell something in legal-tender dollars at a profit. That way, we might sustain a green-capitalist economy for a while and then gradually see it dwindle by itself as more radical alternatives become viable. (A great place to start reflecting on the variety of post-capitalist alternatives is J.K Gibson-Graham's remarkable book, A Postcapitalist Politics, published in 2006. It offers a radically pluralist political philosophy as well as an in-depth discussion of existing practices and some great taxonomies to put some order into a messy landscape of "alternatives.")

Such a deep, enacted pluralization of the debate on prosperity is no simple feat, to be sure. It carries requirements that go way beyond, say, the mere legal recognition of a variety of property regimes for firms or of a plurality of statutes for associations and collectives. All this we already have (admittedly, with differences across countries and continents), and it isn't working. Cooperatives are faltering, alternative collectives are gasping for air and cash, ecovillages survive on capitalist perfusion, i.e., some of their members have to go on working for their whole lives in mainstream organizations, or to go sell their produce to mainstream clients, just to get at the means of exchange that will make even the most basic purchases possible -- and those means of exchange are invariably those darn dollars and euros, without which you can't do anything at all. The fact is that we're simply used to the idea that non-capitalist alternatives need to be, at the end of the day, evaluated with capitalist criteria -- in particular, that it's only normal that they, too, should pay back standard bank loans and pay their taxes in legal tender. In the monolithic context where we live, this perception is normal, but we need to be aware that it's these powerful homogenizing constraints which imply what we're, in fact, observing: Non-mainstream alternatives frequently stay feeble and partial, they don't offer a whole lot of real livelihood possibilities, because they are strangled by mainstream bottom lines; and this means that these alternatives only get to occupy whatever niches have been left vacant by the dominant actors who control the issuance and circulation of the means of payment and who, for reasons of profitability, prefer to go and invest the bulk of their capital elsewhere.

What we need, in terms of vision, is the project of a truly free society -- one in which, to put it a bit bluntly, various socioeconomic projects are able to compete on an equal footing for the minds, hearts, and time of citizens. And this requires us to envision a new politics of prosperity: Several competing notions of prosperity, not necessarily mutually exclusive but certainly not reducible to one another, and not all reducible to some chunk of GDP, should be allowed effectively to co-inhabit our socioeconomic space -- I mean the mainstream, industrial-financial capitalist notion of prosperity as well as a variety of more or less radically non-mainstream ones. Therefore, each socioeconomic alternative should be endowed with the appropriate accounting, monetary, and legal tools that will make it possible for it to really unfold (rather than be stifled right away by ill-adapted bottom lines and evaluation criteria) and show all it's got, in terms of offering people opportunities for flourishing, prospering, and finding meaning in life. And citizens should effectively have the cognitive as well as financial means of choosing one such alternative, or (of course) of staying put within the mainstream if that's what they aspire to. (I'll come back to this in a later post, but let me just say immediately that it won't do to foster alternatives through selective subsidies, in the way we today foster associative ventures or the arts, effectively making them into the contemporary equivalent of the infamous Indian reservations. A much less conditional form of universal income support has to be introduced if the idea of enacted plurality is to work in a bottom-up, non-bureaucratic fashion.)

This means that prosperity has to become a political issue, rather than merely a technical one. And in this process of becoming a political issue, the notion(s) and practice(s) of prosperity need(s) to be become part of a twofold dynamic which John Michael Greer, taking his cue in part from Ewa Ziarek and Warren A. Johnson, has identified as "dissensus" and "muddling."

In the age of democracy (at least as an officially proclaimed ideal, if not as a realized ethos), conscious evolution cannot be decreed. There can be no such thing as forced conscious evolution. You can bring a horse to the water, but you can't force him to drink... What is required is a broad latitude for citizens to experiment with different ways of life. Such a latitude is, in fact, one of the pillars of the ethos of modernity. The political vision that guides the transition therefore needs to be one which affirms (not just rhetorically, but in action) the positive value of plurality and diversity when it comes to organizing individual economic options and collective economic projects. In a sense, the ecological principle of biodiversity needs to be translated, socially and economically, into what I will call a principle of econo-diversity: There is value, in a free society, in the fair coexistence of varied and mutually limiting, but not mutually destructive, visions of economic prosperity. Sure enough, no economic project -- be it mainstream or alternative -- can ever unfold without regard for the viability of other projects (this, too, is a fact of life in a pluralistic society). Competition between economic visions will be fierce at times in an "econo-diverse" society, but that's precisely the idea: We need it to be fair competition, and hence we need to give each vision the largest possible chances of attracting citizens on its own terms. (I developed an analogous argument for fair competition between economic theories in a free society, in my book Critical Political Economy, Routledge, 2008. In this blog the emphasis is less on pre-given economic theories and more on evolving economic visions, linked to ways of life which are self-creating and self-transforming as they are being experienced in real time.)

In this context, John Michael Greer calls for what he calls, after Ewa Ziarek (in her book An Ethics of Dissensus), a culture of "dissensus." In the face of major uncertainty as to future scenarios (how damaging climate change will be and how soon, and how steep the decline in non-renewable energy sources might turn out) and as to the practical solutions that will emerge over time (which economic practices, which types of communities and organizations, which sorts of tools, etc.), Greer believes that "encouraging people to pursue conflicting and even diametrically opposed options increases the chance that someone will happen on an answer that works. Dissensus is not simply the vacuum left by a lack of consensus. It has its own methods, values and style, and its results differ in kind from those of consensus or other methods of decision-making such as majority rule." (John Michael Greer, The Ecotechnic Future, p. 96, © 2008, New Society Publishers) A genuine democracy will accept that dissensus between its citizens reaches all the way down to the overall economic projects they adhere to and seek to enact in real time, on a real 1:1 scale. This is not what today's post-WWII, capitalist social democracies do -- they allow for a lot of verbal and intellectual disagreement, but not for very much enacted plurality based on real-time dissensus. (Indeed, both third-sector private actors and public officials are forced, by the way they are being subsidized and financed, to de facto share the vision of prosperity enacted on an everyday basis by the capitalist and for-profit private sector.)

Directly connected to the notion of dissensus is another key concept -- that of "muddling." Here Greer's idea, inspired by Warren A. Johnson, is that "the basic strategy of muddling has much to recommend it" because, basically,

"no one knows what an ecotechnic civilization would look like. (...) What we do know is that certain things are not working now and need to be changed; and that certain things that still work may not work for long, so that having replacements handy is probably wise. In a situation of this sort, betting everything on one grandiose plan for the future is a poor bet. A wiser approach would encourage many different responses to the situation. In the same way, piecemeal responses that focus on narrowly defined dimensions of the crisis and can be implemented on a small scale before moving to a larger one may be more useful than grand attempts to change everything at once. Thus embracing an adaptive approach to the situation, and then simply to adapt, may get us further than any plan at all. Solvitur ambulando is an old Latin phrase that still gets a little literary use in English these days. Taken literally, it means, 'it is solved by walking.' A more idiomatic translation might be, 'you'll find the answer as you go.' An adaptive approach to the crisis of industrial society could well take this as a watchword."
(John Michael Greer, The Ecotechnic Future, pp. 93-94, © 2008, New Society Publishers)

According to Warren A. Johnson, one of the virtues of our democracies is that, despite the fact that the political elite is being deeply co-opted by the economic elite (and and is also happily co-opting the latter), they allow for about as much sluggishness and inefficiency as might be needed to avoid ideological hold-ups and one-sided solutions. (He may have been rendered a bit less optimistic by the Bush years, where crony capitalism and pseudo-messianic grandeur were reigning supreme, but his general point seems quite valid.) Here is how Johnson puts it:

"To the spokesman for specific industries, regions, labor unions, conservation groups, minorities, and radicals of all colors, the issues are clear. But to the politician surveying the scene, it is not clear at all. The genius of our political system is that it provides an arena for the controlled conflict of competing values and ideas. It permits the resolution of conflicts without civil war. (...) ... the process of muddling through is a gutsy, down-to-earth process full of inefficiencies and inconsistencies. It takes an inordinate amount of time to take modest incremental steps forward, and significant bold steps are clearly not in the cards. The process can be a lot of fun for those who enjoy it and do not take themselves seriously -- the politician who loves to talk to people, the lobbyist who thrives on finding ways to gain access to the influential, or the activist who enjoys organizing people. It keeps this country [the U.S.A.] pretty close to the middle of the road, while still permitting slow, faltering adjustments to change."
(Warren A. Johnson, Muddling Toward Frugality, pp. 115-117 passim, © 2010, Easton Studio Press)

Now of course, we shouldn't overdo it. Muddling-through is a good bulwark against crazy visionaries and revolutionary zealots, and it certainly makes it somewhat more likely (all the more so in contexts where coalition governments make most decisions very cumbersome and slow) that more of a plurality of projects and visions of prosperity might one day be honored. However, when muddling-through slips towards lack of transparency, corruption, or oligarchy, things might actually look bad for economic plurality -- and this is what occurred, for instance, under the Bush administration and is occurring, in a sense, under the Sarkozy government in France. Muddling isn't a guarantee that the monolithic, GDP-oriented view of prosperity gets dethroned. It's a necessary condition, but certainly not a sufficient one. In fact, its necessity itself has to be qualified by an important aspect which I already highlighted in the previous post: In order to effectively organize a "pluri-economic" society, we certainly will need certain particular, top-down, across-the-board framework conditions to be put in place. The framework conditions we will need in order to get a genuine transition off the ground are not quite the same as the "mono-economic" conditions ruling today's capitalist social democracies.

Ultimately, there's no way around the fact that we don't need just any old kind of muddling-through; we need transition-oriented muddling-through, and this means that the mechanisms of both parliamentary and participatory democracy have to be monitored and scrutinized by transition-oriented citizens' organizations. So in the end, it all comes down to how we are going to generate sufficient awareness of the requirements of transition in the population at large -- and that, regardless of how much one might be attracted to bottom-up perspectives, is a top-down issue just as much as a bottom-up one... But lo and behold, the distinction is rendered moot by the fact that, in a genuine democracy (that is, in a society where citizens can reflect on, argue for, and directly or indirectly express judgment on, measures and changes without a privileged class having the de jure capacity to overrule them), the top-down decisions instigating changes in framework conditions are bound to flow from bottom-up activism! Bottom-up processes don't exclude advocacy of top-down decisions -- the actors involved simply want to ensure that the top-down decisions that are made will end up catering in the right way to the aspirations and visions voiced through the bottom-up processes.

So at the end of the day, the name of the game isn't bottom-up versus top-down, but which combination of the two, subject to what rules of deliberation and to what values to be promoted, will bring about a genuine transition. And if you think "genuine" is an open-ended word in that context -- well, you're perfectly right. That's the whole point: solvitur ambulando. Unsatisfactory to the fiery radical, weak and self-defeating to the staunch realist, but absolutely necessary for a plurality of visions of prosperity to compete for citizens' minds and hearts not just as dogmatic answers, but as deep-searching questions: What future do we want? What, in the end, is the purpose of work? Why consume, and why not more, and why not less? What's enough? What is money, and why shouldn't there be several currencies? -- to list but a few.

Creative Commons License
This post from the "Eco-Transitions" blog by Christian Arnsperger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

No comments:

Post a Comment