Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Short- versus long-term radicalism: On mediation, timing, and the tactics of transition

The more radically-minded visitors to this blog may have experienced a sinking feeling while reading the previous post (dated June 25, 2011). Isn't the agenda set out there a massive retreat from the ambitious principles and goals offered in Parts 3 and 4? Well, I wouldn't call it a retreat, but it certainly is a step up in terms of realism -- and, therefore, a step down in terms of radicalism. The reason is simple: If we want to be serious about the ultimate transition we seek, we simply can't avoid putting into place what we might call mediations. The utopian often writes as if her vision could be implemented im-mediately -- a word that literally means "without mediation." Utopians usually neglect the inter-mediary steps through which we might wriggle out of the strictures of the status quo and start heading in a different direction -- a direction indeed oriented towards a utopian horizon -- since etymologically, ou-topos in Greek means "out of this place," or even "in no (known) place."

The art of mediation -- because an art it is -- consists of striking a careful balance between short- and long-term radicalism. Only very rarely, if ever, is a new set of radically new principles and/or practices implementable as such immediately. A change mechanism has to be found by which initial, very low-grade radicalism (perceived by most incumbent actors as nothing more than "innovation" or "new opportunities") will set in motion a sequence of changes leading, eventually, to high-grade radicalism in the long run. What is needed, therefore, is a gradual drift in principles and practices -- probably practices first, and principles later, when the initial new practices gain supporters -- and this means that, as I had announced in the very first welcoming post back on April 15, there will need to be several transitions rather than just one large one, so that the word "transitions" in the name of this blog is, indeed, aptly put in the plural. As a result, it's crucial to focus on the timing and sequencing of this long change process. Part 5 of this blog is, among other things, about how to conceptualize, spell out, and phase a three-step sequence:

1. Long-term goal: The continual operation, through free decisions by citizens, of a plural economy in which various modes of production, consumption, financing, working, etc. -- let's call them various "eco-logics" -- coexist within a world economy ruled by a socioeconomic constitution ensuring continual equality of opportunity, for each citizen, to move between eco-logics (without exorbitant systemic sanctions, although there might be associated costs) as his/her existential situation and worldview changes. This is, in essence, a genuinely free economy -- an economy peopled by reflective citizens who are able to determine for themselves which eco-logic they choose to submit to, and who are helped in that choice by a set of rules that ensure fluid circulation across eco-logics. The long-term goal is simply to have a (finally) just, durably sustainable, and humanly fruitful economy -- one in which only the truly unavoidable hardships of the human condition remain and can be shouldered without additional hardships coming from the economy.

2. Medium-term goal: The implementation of the framework conditions -- six of which I discussed in Part 4 -- that would ensure that this genuinely free, plural economy becomes a true possibility. Not, mind you, that it will immediately be put into place, since as we saw citizens will move at varying speeds depending on many parameters, with "pioneers" starting out first and later waves following them as the actual conditions for a coexistence of alternative eco-logics improve over time. The basic idea when creating the right framework conditions is that we thereby create a new "sustainability frontier" which -- similarly to the Western frontier in 19th-century North America (with apologies to native Americans for the analogy) -- can gradually fill up with people who, through a mixture of free choice and circumstantial pressure, decide to emigrate away from the increasingly unsustainable mainstream economy. The medium-term goal is to have in place the general conditions that will maximize the likelihood of the long-term goal of point (1) becoming reality -- without there ever being absolute certainty, as this would consist in violating citizens' basic freedom to choose.

3. Short-term goal: The "next step" -- which I have flippantly formulated as: "What do we do next Monday morning?" -- has to be such that system-maintaining changes in behavior can create small "cracks" through which enterprising citizens can (somewhat in the manner of small plant shoots in a cracked tarmac sidewalk, or of slight water infiltrations in a cracked concrete wall when the winter comes) set in motion a cumulative dynamics towards system-changing changes in behavior as well as in economic evaluation criteria. Let me give an example. Neither employers nor, for that matter, trade unions are going to support an Economic Transition Income (ETI) as long as prevailing employment and production conditions within the capitalist logic haven't changed sufficiently so that they realize that a truly plural economy will actually provide better business opportunities than the current mono-economic logic. Of course, radicals might claim that this perception could be generated in good part by the State creating specifically targeted taxes that would make most mono-economic activities less profitable for shareholders. But the question bounces back: Who, in the current economy, would support a government that would do this? Clearly, it would be a more expedient and convenient solution than citizens and intellectuals having to tediously "work on" mentalities in the corporate world -- but in actual fact, given the political economy of capitalist social democracy, even a radically modified tax scheme would require that corporate mentalities change. So there appears to be no actual choice, whether some of us like it or not: Unless a way is found to hook up the short-term pushes towards "cradle-to-cradle" production, "natural capitalism," sustainable Wall-Street investment, and employee participation in capitalist profits with the medium-term goals of an ETI, a World Transition Organization, a global de-growth compact, a new monetary system, an economic democracy, and a new political governance structure (all of which are necessary for the long-term transition towards a genuinely plural economy), we simply won't have a case. We may have a vision, we may have a good rallying call amongst radicals, but we still won't have a Next-Step case.

None of this means that we are to uncritically swallow the rhetoric in the management literature about all that's shiny and new and "revolutionary." Most of it isn't, and just serves to stop any medium-term, let alone long-term, change. Critically-minded citizens and scholars need to actively engage the political and business world in order to create genuine debates. My experience has been that this isn't at all easy -- and I suspect the inevitable difficulties linked to "telling the truth to power" while still depending on that power to effect the needed changes are what leads many radical citizens to despair and revert to angry and frustrated ideas loosely (and often lazily) connected to "revolutionary" rhetoric. I have been prone to such reactions myself when confronted with unyielding or closed-down businesspeople whose basic claim is that anything they hear needs to be done is already being done... so that the capitalistic bottom line is broadly sufficient -- even in the medium and long term -- and simply needs to be allowed to produce its beneficial "incentive" effects. As I wrote in the previous post, one of the main short-term shifts that need to be operated if we are going to build up a new social compact in the form of a Green New Deal is that our business schools start being serious about teaching genuinely alternative (although still system-maintaining) management, investment, marketing, etc. -- and this they will only do if there is pressure not only from students, but from the media and (surely a long shot) the business community itself. So it's down again to identifying the handfuls of "pioneers" who, while working inside the system, have the ability to act with low-grade radicalism now for the sake of high-grade radicalism later. Such businesspeople exist, but they need to be supported and also kept from slipping back into the status quo.

By the same token, none of what I say here disqualifies the more immediately radical downshifters portrayed by Juliet Schor or, perhaps more to the point, by survivalist or self-sufficiency-oriented thinkers such as John Michael Greer, Dmitry Orlov, or Sharon Astyk. (All these people's websites can be found here in the right sidebar.) Of course, at least Greer and Orlov argue that there is bound to be a "long descent" towards "collapse" which will, inevitably in their eyes, force all of us to scramble rather quickly for radically new solutions to old problems: How to get food, how to have heated shelter, how to cure basic disease, and so on. Astyk and, even more so, Schor display more confidence in a transition that might -- in the same fashion that Warren Johnson claims is necessary -- combine hands-on pioneers (Astyk is one herself; I urge you to read her fascinating Depletion and Abundance) and more hesitant latecomers in a gradual process of change in which current capitalism tries to invest in new "green" market niches, to create "green" business opportunities, and thereby generates the conditions for a more radical shift.

Clearly, the jury is out on who will, in the end, have been right about this. Perhaps my three-step process vastly underestimates the force of capitalism's resistance to being subverted from the inside -- certainly a claim that isn't devoid of plausibility. In which case, yes, there will only be irrelevant "next steps" that merely safeguard the system's status quo, or even a deepening of the system's bio-environmental externalities and anthropo-environmental internalities -- to the point where collapse will be the only re-equilibrating mechanism available, as Greer submits. While I do honor this view as a possibility that can't be brushed aside easily, I choose a different route here. The transitions that might lead us through a (3)⟶(2)⟶(1) sequence require a lot of critical vigilance, and they certainly aren't predictable in a deterministic fashion, but as a liberal and a democrat (in the European sense, though perhaps also in the US sense) I choose to bank on citizens' ability to embrace short-term steps for the sake of a radical long-term vision.

To act radically too early is often self-defeating. But to act non-radically in the short-term without a very clear view of the medium- and long-term radicalisms in whose name one might justify immediate compromises is just as bad. Like it or not -- and there are days when I, too, don't like it all that much -- short-term radicalism needs to be traded off against long-term radicalism. The whole art of mediation is never to lose the critical thrust of the long term, so as not to lose the raison d'ĂȘtre of one's short-term compromises and tactical alliances. The recent history of the labor movement and of trade-union involvement in the mere regulation (rather than subversion) of globalized capitalism shows that the task is far from straightforward. But perhaps today's progressives -- in the labor movement itself, but also the in the business world and in the sphere of political decision-making -- can regain some of the clout they have lost by focusing on the tough but exhilerating task of steering today's urgent eco-transitions, starting with a much-needed critical discussion about the Next-Step Economy in the name of the genuinely plural economy we need for the long run.

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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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