Thursday, April 21, 2011

What transition? Part 3: Renewing the vision (Installment #3: Re-thinking the ethics of equal opportunity)

Just in case you're wondering: (1) no, I'm not actually writing up each of these posts from scratch; they are somewhat expanded and re-cast from a paper I gave at an international meeting on "Ecological and Economic Transition" in Paris, on April 13-15, 2011; and (2) no, you won't need to keep up with one post per day forever; I know you have a life, too (and if you've chosen to devote a small portion of it to reading this blog, I'm grateful); I just want to initially put up a number of entries in close sequence, and this makes it look as if all I will ever do with my workday from now on is blog and blog; actually, I'm taking advantage of the fact that my students are currently on Easter break to get this site started. It's bound to slow down at some point, and won't you just be glad it does? Okay, but for the time being, back to the treadmill. Where was I?... Oh yes.


3. Equality of opportunity, the fundamental right to experiment, and a genuine "plural economy"

If we are going to push for a new politics of prosperity, clearly we need to fundamentally renew the meaning we give today to democracy. For many decades, and certainly ever since the advent of the postwar welfare states, one of the official functions of the State has been to optimize (through decisions ranging from the municipal level to the national and, increasingly, the European and the world level, depending on the issue at hand) its citizens' insertion into the cogs and wheels of the capitalist economic machine. We saw in an earlier post that these capitalist cogs and wheels currently include public as well as third-sector employment, through the twofold "lock" constituted by our generalized dependence on (a) private-profit-financed wages and (b) the private-monopoly circulation of money. Together, these two dependencies mean that, regardless of what sector we are working in (if we have a job at all), the only reason why we are getting any money at all is that somewhere on the planet, some private firm -- and, most likely, a capitalistically driven one -- has made the profits which enticed banks to create debt-money in the first place.

We saw that despite this lock-in, capitalist social democracy does allow for a certain range of life choices. In fact, it's important to emphasize that it allows for much more choice than most traditional societies of the past or present. The range of "small" choices is huge: There are so many products to put on the market for private profit, so many services to perform in order to find a niche where financial surplus can be generated, so many strategies to think up so as to survive the competition, so many "market failures" to mend with non-market activities -- public services or associative, nonprofit endeavors -- that most of us simply don't realize how much our daily creativity, dynamism, allegedly out-of-the-box thinking, and originality are actually piggy-backing more or less invisibly on the rock-hard reality of capital-driven money creation and profit generation. I'm not saying this to make anyone feel bad -- in fact, my own activity right now as an academic using a Google blog template to diffuse "alternative" ideas is just as compromised with this lock-in as is anybody else's. I'm saying it because it means that monolithic bottom lines (ones whose evaluation criteria are sometimes quite unrelated to the very meaning of our activities) de facto rule the day. The question is, Do we agree they should? Or might we not come to the conclusion that this limited variety of choices, or rather this great variety of choices within a limited spectrum, isn't compatible with the democratic ideal, after all?

I think we do need to come to that conclusion. A genuine plural economy -- one whose inner plurality does not hang only on capitalistic bottom lines and private-profit structuring mechanisms -- can only emerge from our own life choices if, as citizens of self-declared democracies, we appeal to the ethos which our public institutions so proudly boast. Here is how we might address our political and economic elites: "We, the people who are in search of a meaningful human life and who realize that part of that meaning flows from the way we work, produce, spend, save, consume, and invest -- we, the people of this country/ region/ town that officially prides itself on being democratic, demand that this industrial-financial capitalism in which we are living bestow upon us the right to experiment with ways of life that may be non-industrial and even non-capitalist. We see this as a fundamental human right. If the incumbent economic and political institutions, as well as the legal rules, of this industrial-financial capitalism in which we are living deny us the real and full possibility of conducting such experiments in a viable and sustainable manner, we will interpret this as a deep discrimination, a blatant violation of the notion of equality of opportunity that is rightly seen as one of the pillars of our democracy."

This demand can be traced back to the threefold de-legitimation of the pro-growth consensus suggested by Ivan Illich already back in the mid-70s, in his famous book Tools for Conviviality:

"[The] political choice of a frugal society remains a pious dream unless it can be shown that it is not only necessary but also possible: (1) to define concrete procedures by which more people are enlightened about the nature of our present crisis and will come to understand that limits are necessary and a convivial life style desirable; (2) to bring the largest number of people into the now suppressed organizations which claim their right to a frugal life style and keep them satisfied and therefore committed to convivial life; and (3) to discover and revalue the political or legal tools that are accepted within a society and learn how to use them to establish and protect convivial life where it emerges. Such procedures may sound idealistic at the present moment. This is not proof that they cannot become effective as the present crisis deepens." (Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality, p. 101, © 1973, Marion Boyars)

All three of Illich's points require a pretty fundamental overhaul of what we believe the Sate should be doing for us. The State's -- and, in general, the various public authorities' -- main task should be to secure for all citizens an equal opportunity of access to a realized and effective, non-growth-obsessed, frugal, or convivial existence, lived on a 1:1 scale in real time and on real ground. Not as an obligation, mind you, but as an ever-open possibility. This is what democracy should be used for today, and not just as a tool to slavishly steer the mechanisms of a growth-oriented, growth-dictating capitalism which blinds people to many of the deeper existential potentials they carry inside them -- potentials that go unexperienced because of a lack of opportunities for actual economic and social experimentation. Lying at the base of the need for a transition today is the pluralistic exigency of an egalitarianism of real-life economic experimentation. This is a necessity if we, the people, are to honor the modern ethos of "econo-diversity" -- and this, as we will see starting with the next post, implies certain framework conditions which citizens have to elicit from their elected officials and unelected economic elites by devising the bottom-up processes that are most likely to lead to the right top-down decisions.

So there is clearly a libertarian flavor to my vision here. I think libertarianism, understood in the right way -- which essentially means non-right-wing libertarianism -- is a major resource for progressives. I have always been struck by how right-wing libertarians are deeply correct when they emphasize that a free society is one where initiatives emerge from the bottom up, made possible by a constitution and legal and social rules which liberate people's creativity and inspiration, and how they then blow it by equating freedom and creativity with the latitudes offered by the capitalist, private-profit accumulation system. Much worse than the right-wing libertarian thinkers (such as Hayek or, more recently, Nozick) are the neoconservative pundits and their political partners, who systematically collapse the free society, the market economy, and the logic of capitalism into one big, indistinct blob. In fact, I strongly believe in equating the free society with a society where the framework conditions are "just right" for initiatives to emerge that we think go in the "right" direction. But that also means that the content of "right" is up for grabs in a pluralistic democracy and can't possibly be preempted by the rightness criteria of industrial-financial capitalism and its cognate "democracy." And therefore, I vehemently reject equating the free society with today's capitalist social democracy. Demanding a fundamental re-casting of the notion of equality of opportunity is a crucial part of that effort to disentangle the free society from its misleading ideological doppelgangers.

What I did come away with from having pondered libertarian thought at some length is the idea that it's socioeconomic experimentation on a real-world, real-time scale, carried out under conditions of non-reciprocally destructive coexistence, which alone will make it possible for reasonable citizens (whatever their persuasion, be it capitalist or non-capitalist) to opt for this or that way of economic life. The crucial aspect of this broadened equality-of-opportunity concept is that citizens ought to be given the enforceable entitlement -- i.e., the real freedom -- to freely choose not just some intra-capitalist life style (e.g., becoming a marketing agent rather than a bank director, or creating one's own capitalist software company instead of working for Google) but to choose between an intra-capitalist way of life and an extra-capitalist one (e.g., moving to an ecovillage and exchanging goods and services within a network of user of mutual-credit currency, instead of staying in the hyper-competitive agrochemicals company with whose salary one can consume all one's fill). And, very crucially, if equality of opportunity is to be more than just a word, this latter choice -- between a capitalist and a non-capitalist way of living, working, and doing business -- should be accessible to citizens without there being excessive or disproportionate costs for them, both in terms of massive income loss (although they may well, in some cases, be content with less purchasing power if this buys them a qualitatively better life) and in terms of a loss of basic rights (such as health care, social security, free education for their kids, a pension, etc.). To the extent that such large and often prohibitive costs do exist in today's system, citizens who would like to experiment with a different life are the victims of a form of systemic sanction, and the principle of equality of opportunity is breached in a blatant fashion.

All too often, so-called "marginal" actors in the economy are relegated into a secondary status because they are simply not recognized as playing an important social role -- that of being at the forefront of multifarious, creative, difficult, sometimes even hazardous real-life experimentation. The fact is that one of their basic human rights, which is to apply their own evaluation criteria and their own brand of bottom line in a viable everyday life, is simply not respected. Warren A. Johnson has insisted heavily on this pioneering role played by apparently outcast or "losing" populations within our system:

"The frequently heard criticism that says these people are 'dropouts,' and that they do not contribute their skills and energies to solving society's problems, is totally wrong. They are doing a task that is essential for our future, developing new skills and ways of living that will provide models for others as necessity pushes more of us in that direction. Nothing could be more important. The pioneers are opening up new economic territory where subsequent settlers can join them. (...) Any alternatives that might evolve, whatever their form or function, will make a major contribution to the economy and to the choices available to people. If their numbers were to increase substantially, it is possible that the shortfall in jobs [in the mainstream economy] could be reduced, greatly easing the adjustments to [macroeconomic] scarcity. But whatever their numbers, successful communities will be valuable additions to the range of models available to others in the future. New communities may have to struggle for a long time before getting firmly established, but this should not be held against them; it is characteristic of the muddling process." (Warren A. Johnson, Muddling Toward Frugality, pp. 149-150 and p. 153, © 2010, Easton Studio Press)

Full equality of opportunity never has meant that anyone could do whatever he or she chooses without facing any of the limitations linked with the fact that there are other models being experimented in parallel. Full equality of opportunity requires, rather, that each citizen be endowed with the maximally possible economic means, as well as the necessary social and legal resources, in order to be able to experiment his or her values and to promote the corresponding evaluative and normative criteria in a viable everyday life. This basic fairness requirement is not fulfilled when one's most basic economic and social rights (unemployment support, health care, education, or pension) hinge on one's sole willingness to participate in the range of life experiences offered by today's globalized industrial-financial capitalism. "Marginal" people de facto suffer what amounts to systemic sanctions, due to the way our social democracies calibrate (a) the juridical attribution of rights and (b) the modes of redistribution of capitalist primary wealth.

A genuine transition -- one that would be carried out democratically and that would be based on transparent, open, public deliberation so as to expose the existing power imbalances -- should aim to discredit (through rational argument and impartial analysis) the "monopolization" of primary-wealth creation by those actors who are following a capitalistic logic. A genuine transition should rely on an extended and deepened principle of equality of opportunity to question the link which has come to be established, over a century and a half of hegemonic capitalism and after numerous decades of social democracy, between socioeconomic rights and citizens' participation (whether direct or indirect) in the dominant system. Sure enough, merely to affirm an extended equality-of-opportunity principle is vastly insufficient -- but I deem it utterly necessary as a philosophical and political wedge to be driven between the sphere of socioeconomic rights and the sphere of economic wealth creation. That's why re-casting equality of opportunity is a crucial component of the new vision I am proposing.


This wraps up Part 3 of this long series -- something for which, surely, you are grateful. In Part 4, which will also come in several installments, I will go into more detail about (some of) the main framework conditions which bottom-up citizens' movements should advocate with their top-down decision-makers. This will allow us to have an idea of the overall transition project and of the horizon towards which I think it should be oriented. In Part 5, which perhaps (but just perhaps...) might be a bit shorter, I will then start getting back to today's realities and ask myself to what extent the Next-Step Economy -- the only one we can construct, given the economy and the political system we have now -- can be oriented towards this horizon while remaining the inevitably messy, ambiguous, sluggish, and error-prone "muddling-through" process that it is.

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

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