I’m generally very taken with Ian Welsh’s work, particularly two recent posts, A New Ideology and How to Create a Viable Ideology. He then continued with 44 Explicit Points on Creating a Better World. And I hate to say it, but the last piece was no where near as well thought out as the preceding pieces.
It can be extremely useful to throw out a bunch of ideas as a forcing device: you offer up best guesses and are explicit about that. The purpose is not to create agreement on them, but simply to advance thinking, perhaps get a closer approximation of where answers might lie, and also expose area where further investigation and thinking is needed.
But that isn’t what Welsh seemed to be doing. What troubled me about his latest piece was its combination of confidence (as opposed to modesty and soliciting reactions and input) in combination with it having internal contractions and a lack of precision of language. But perhaps the biggest shortcoming was trying to finesse the question of governance.
I’m not saying I have any answers to the Big Hard Problems of the day. But I think it’s important for us to keep trying to ask the right questions. That’s a necessary, though far from sufficient, condition for us to have any hope of pulling out of our collective nosedive we are in.
My personal belief is that we are at the confluence of extremely difficult societal challenges. One is that we are at the end of an economic paradigm (this is something I discuss longer form in ECONNED): that a model based on shared prosperity and wage growth changed in the 1980s to one favoring capital and using asset bubbles and consumer borrowings to mask wage stagnation. That has led to an oversized, predatory banking system, and unresolved problem of excessive private sector leverage and destabilizing levels of international capital flows. That alone is monstrously difficult to resolve.
But this economic breakdown is taking place alongside a crisis of overpopulation which is leading to a rapid degradation of the environment, increasingly desperate energy development strategies, and radical and probably dangerous approaches to food production. It took World War II to resolve the political dislocation that came out of our last global financial crisis, so our record on managing big banking problems alone isn’t so hot. It’s hard to see how to navigate through this higher-stakes complex of problems, particularly since much of the business elite has decided to use the perturbations to advance their agenda of a counterrevolution, to at least roll back New Deal style social guarantees and better yet, bourgeois democracy if they can. So political and societal effort is being diverted to that set of struggles, pulling attention away from the pressing ecological issues and the lesser but still pressing problem of the role of banks and financial markets.
So with that background, I’m really troubled by statements like Welsh’s second of his 44 points:
We know much of what must be done. We know we need to do it. We have not done it. That suggests this is not a “practical” problem.
Huh? There’s perilous societal consensus on many issues, save perhaps on things related to restoring the fallen state of the middle class (for instance, that jobs are the biggest economic problem, that large majorities consistently favor preserving Social Security and Medicare as is, and would rather cut the military budget and/or raise taxes rather than reduce benefits).
Let’s look at just one monster problem facing us: energy. Despite a scientific consensus that human activity is a large contributor to global warming (even the Bush Administration formally supported this view), there’s not a consensus in the US as to what (if anything) to do about it, particularly since the view of China and some other important developing economies is that they have the right to emit carbon in order to improve the living standards of their citizens. And to the extent people in the US talk about needing to tackle the problem of climate change, they tend to focus on pleasant, “don’t ask me to change my lifestyle much” solutions like green energy. Folks, if the IPCC projections are remotely correct, we need to go into radical energy conservation mode NOW. The timetable for commercializing and implementing green energy on a large enough scale basis is too long to rely on it as the primary solution.
Do you hear anyone discussing that in a serious way? And the irony is that that in many cases it won’t be as painful to make cuts as it sounds. For instance, BP in 1997 decided to lower its carbon emissions below the 1990 level by 2010. It achieved the goal in 3 years rather than 13 at a cost of $20 million. Oh, and it happened to save $650 million. With that sort of calculus, you’d think that every big corporation would be on the emissions-reduction bandwagon.
Oh, and back to an en passant observation: is anyone willing to talk candidly about overpopulation? The only solutions appear to be indirect, like cutting social safety nets to get perceived-to-be unproductive old people to die faster. That’s also insufficient to deal with the underlying problem of how unsustainably large the human population is now, and close to nothing is being done to curb or reverse growth (and the related economic challenges, even if we were to face them head-on, that people who are not working age are perceived to costly in economic terms, when that suggests both our metrics and our approaches are sorely wanting).
So I challenge Welsh to produce a list of what he thinks “must be done” in concrete enough terms to guide action. Another wee problem is even if you make generalizations that people can agree on, consensus often breaks down when you start to put forward particular proposals as to how to get there (that’s the one legitimate reason that politicians make 50,000 foot promises, anything more specific would seldom get broad-based approval). For instance, let’s say we were to miraculously get consensus on the need for more radical approaches for energy conservation. How do we get there? Aggressively tax energy but provide tax breaks and credits for the poor? Ration? (we did that in the oil crisis via every other day access to gas stations). Do more to discourage driving and the use of automobiles generally?
And how about Welsh’s statement 6:
Any new social structure must throw off surplus that people can live on, and that surplus must not be able to be bought up by the old system, which will seek to do so. The ban against selling out/being bought out must be irrational and ideological. Rational people sell out.
Ahem, I consider myself rational and I continue to make myself very unpopular with people who could pay me nice speaking fees or shell out consulting fees that in one day equal I make in a month of blogging. But I prefer having control over my life and not telling lies to make a living, and I happen to like writing. I’m not very good at lying anyhow, so I’m severely disadvantaged from a competitive standpoint in the selling out market. Maybe my stupid strategy is completely rational given my skills and personal quirks (also being lousy at selling, and most “selling out” strategies require decent marketing ability). A lot of people do things that are not financially maximizing because they value things besides money (pretty much any professional artist falls in this category, power law payoffs assure only a very few at the top get rich, yet many continue to be professional artists even though they make little or struggle because they really enjoy their work).
And contrast Welsh’s number 7:
The forms of the old world must be gotten rid of, and must be seen as anathema. You cannot save the world and keep American style suburbia as it is now. You cannot change the world so people are happy and healthy and prosperous and keep wage labor as your primary method of distributing surplus value to the commons.
with his number 25:
A regular rate of return of 5% is reasonable. A world in which you have to make 15% or 30%+ to be viable is a world in which most businesses are not viable, and in which millions sit idle with nothing to do because there is nothing to do that can make those sort of returns.
Um, if you want to get rid of the world as we know it, why does a return calculation persist in the new order? And even if it does, how exactly do you determine it? This was a huge issue in the days of regulated utilities (I won’t bore you with that discussion, but even in pretty simple businesses with stable customer bases and established technologies, you’d have trouble getting the accounting and incentives right).
Russell Brand’s unscripted remarks in his BBC interview seem closer to the spirit of what Welsh says he wants:
I think a socialist egalitarian system based on the massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations, and massive responsibility for energy companies and any companies exploiting the environment. I think they should be ta– I think the very concept of profit should be hugely reduced. David Cameron says profit isn’t a dirty word; I say profit is a filthy word. Because wherever there is profit there is also deficit. And this system currently doesn’t address these ideas.
And what about this, point 32:
You cannot have large standing armies and keep liberty. Period.
versus his number 35:
We are going to require a transnational body with armed forces to enforce environmental controls.
I’m at a loss as to how to reconcile those, particularly with another point I flagged as key from his post on developing a new ideology:
If you want a society, then, which is prosperous and egalitarian, with the proceeds of increased production going to everyone and not just a few, you must have an internal structure of power which gives ordinary people quite a bit, makes concentration of power in private hands difficult, makes the government unable to use too much power against its own citizenry while (and this is the important bit) still being able to defend itself externally, and able to resist internal putsches. Egalitarian societies which cannot defend themselves get overwhelmed by hierarchical societies which are better at violence.
Even Japan, which is an island and has been a de facto military protectorate of the US since 1945, still has a “self defense force” of over 200,000.
I could make more micro-level comments about the Welsh piece, but to me, the one he most needs to come to grips with is governance. There’s a lot of “we” in this piece and it’s not clear who that “we” is. I like to use the royal “we” from time to time, yet I have no interest in auditioning for the role of benevolent dictator (which actually is a very good model for running things if you could reliably get the right sort of person to take the job. Unfortunately, history shows that doesn’t seem to happen all that often). From the Greeks onward, the question of how to provide for the stewardship of society to produce stability, decent outcomes for ordinary people and limiting corruption in the ruling classes has vexed philosophers and thinkers. How to do that NOW is in my mind the essential question and we need to address this issue squarely yet again.
America’s system of checks and balances has broken down as industrial and technology revolutions have overwhelmed it (both produce industries with scale factors of various sorts that produce enough powerful and disproportionately wealthy concerns as to be able to destabilize democracy. The fatal assault has actually not been via the ballot box but via a well-funded “law and economics” movement that began in the 1970s and with surprising speed has produced a very business friendly judiciary that has gutted a lot of case law and even legislation that used to protect ordinary citizens).
The fact that the political and economic system in advanced economies being reengineered before our eyes to serve the interests of a tiny group of super-rich and a technically skilled elite is the fuel for more and more calls for fundamental changes in social arrangements, with US reactions ranging from Tea Party obstructionism to Occupy to the recent outbreak of the “r” word, revolution. It’s also the driver of impulses for what some have called neo-primitivism, from partial relocalization efforts (the “locavore” food movement) to more radical versions. Democracy does not scale well, and the neo-primitivist movement seems at least in part born out of a desire to make smaller, more accountable governance units more powerful. Switzerland would seem to be the model for this sort of re-localization, since the bulk of taxes are collected and spent on the cantonal level, allowing it to operate in significant respects like a direct democracy.
One book anyone interested in this line of thought needs to read is Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. It focuses on the social arrangements on a moon colonized by humans that has managed to implement an extremely egalitarian, non-commerically oriented society (“proprietarian” is a term of extreme disapproval). Le Guin shows how it still has petty power-mongeres who do damage in their sphere of influence and has stagnated in some respects. But this regime is also held in place by necessity: it’s simply hard to survive on this particular moon, so cooperation is also an imperative for survival. And because the moon is isolated, and useful to the colonized planet around which it rotates (which by contrast is lush, hedonistic, and highly stratified socially; the lunar colony mines a critical material and the planet-dwellers are happy to let the materially-deprived moon-dwellers do that dirty work), they don’t need to defend themselves, and so haven’t cultivate Welsh’s “good at violence” skills. Le Guin does not offer any answers, but reading her book may help in the effort to keep asking better questions.