Gus Speth> America the Possible> A Manifesto

America the Possible> A Manifesto

By Gus Speth   4 March 2012   Yes Magazine via Nation of Change   

“Americans are substituting growth and consumption for dealing with the real issues—for doing the things that would make us, and the country, better off.”

Eco­nomic growth may be the world’s sec­u­lar re­li­gion, but for much of the world it is a god that is fail­ing—un­der­per­form­ing for most of the world’s peo­ple and, for those in af­flu­ent so­ci­eties, now cre­at­ing more prob­lems than it is solv­ing. The never-end­ing drive to grow the over­all U.S. econ­omy un­der­mines fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties; it is lead­ing us to en­vi­ron­men­tal calamity; it fuels a ruth­less in­ter­na­tional search for en­ergy and other re­sources; it fails at gen­er­at­ing the needed jobs; and it rests on a man­u­fac­tured con­sumerism that is not meet­ing our deep­est human needs.

Amer­i­cans are sub­sti­tut­ing growth and con­sump­tion for deal­ing with the real is­sues—for doing the things that would make us, and the coun­try, bet­ter off. Psy­chol­o­gists have pointed out, for ex­am­ple, that while eco­nomic out­put per per­son in the United States has risen sharply in re­cent decades, there has been no in­crease in life sat­is­fac­tion, and lev­els of dis­trust and de­pres­sion have in­creased sub­stan­tially. We have en­tered the realm of what eco­log­i­cal econ­o­mist Her­man Daly calls “un­eco­nomic growth.” En­vi­ron­men­tally, we see a world in which growth has brought us to a sit­u­a­tion where more of the same will quite lit­er­ally ruin the planet. Po­lit­i­cally, the growth im­per­a­tive is a big part of how we the peo­ple are con­trolled: the ne­ces­sity for growth gives the real power to those who have the fi­nance and tech­nol­ogy to de­liver it.

It is up to us as cit­i­zens to in­ject val­ues of jus­tice, fair­ness, and sus­tain­abil­ity into this sys­tem, and gov­ern­ment is the pri­mary ve­hi­cle we have for ac­com­plish­ing this. Typ­i­cally, we at­tempt to do so by work­ing within the sys­tem to pro­mote needed re­forms. We work the media and other chan­nels to raise pub­lic aware­ness of our issue, and try to shift pub­lic un­der­stand­ing and dis­course in our favor. We lobby Con­gress, the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion, and gov­ern­ment agen­cies with well-crafted and sen­si­ble pro­pos­als. When nec­es­sary, we go to court. With mod­est re­sources, we de­vote what we can to the elec­toral process and to can­di­dates for pub­lic of­fice. And we hope some­how that light­ning will strike and events will move in our favor.

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But it is now abun­dantly clear that these re­formist ap­proaches are not suc­ceed­ing. The ti­tanic forces un­leashed by the Amer­i­can brand of cap­i­tal­ism are too pow­er­ful. The cease­less drive for prof­its, growth, and power and other sys­tem im­per­a­tives keep the prob­lem spigot fully open. Re­form rarely deals with the root causes—the un­der­ly­ing dri­vers. The forces that gave rise to these prob­lems in the first place con­tinue to war against progress. And our en­fee­bled po­lit­i­cal life, more and more in the hands of pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions and in­di­vid­u­als of great wealth, is no match for these forces.

Pur­su­ing re­form within the sys­tem can help, but what is now des­per­ately needed is trans­for­ma­tive change in the sys­tem it­self. To deal suc­cess­fully with all the chal­lenges Amer­ica now faces, we must there­fore com­ple­ment re­form with at least equal ef­forts aimed at trans­for­ma­tive change to cre­ate a new op­er­at­ing sys­tem that rou­tinely de­liv­ers good re­sults for peo­ple and planet.

At the core of this new op­er­at­ing sys­tem must be a sus­tain­ing econ­omy based on new eco­nomic think­ing and dri­ven for­ward by a new pol­i­tics. The pur­pose and goal of a sus­tain­ing econ­omy is to pro­vide broadly shared pros­per­ity that meets human needs while pre­serv­ing the earth’s eco­log­i­cal in­tegrity and re­silience—in short, a flour­ish­ing peo­ple and a flour­ish­ing na­ture. That is the par­a­digm shift we must now seek.

I be­lieve this par­a­digm shift in the na­ture and op­er­a­tion of Amer­ica’s po­lit­i­cal econ­omy can be best ap­proached through a se­ries of in­ter­act­ing, mu­tu­ally re­in­forc­ing trans­for­ma­tions—trans­for­ma­tions that at­tack and un­der­mine the key mo­ti­va­tional struc­tures of the cur­rent sys­tem, trans­for­ma­tions that re­place these old struc­tures with new arrange­ments needed for a sus­tain­ing econ­omy and a suc­cess­ful democ­racy. 

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The fol­low­ing trans­for­ma­tions hold the key to mov­ing to a new po­lit­i­cal econ­omy. Con­sider each as a tran­si­tion from today to to­mor­row. Eco­nomic growth: from growth fetish to post-growth so­ci­ety, from mere GDP growth to growth in human wel­fare and de­mo­c­ra­t­i­cally de­ter­mined pri­or­i­ties.

  • The mar­ket: from near lais­sez-faire to pow­er­ful mar­ket gov­er­nance in the pub­lic in­ter­est.

  • The cor­po­ra­tion: from share­holder pri­macy to stake­holder pri­macy, from one own­er­ship and mo­ti­va­tion model to new busi­ness mod­els and the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of cap­i­tal.

  • Money and fi­nance: from Wall Street to Main Street, from money cre­ated through bank debt to money cre­ated by gov­ern­ment.

  • So­cial con­di­tions: from eco­nomic in­se­cu­rity to se­cu­rity, from vast in­equities to fun­da­men­tal fair­ness.
 In­di­ca­tors: from GDP (“grossly dis­torted pic­ture”) to ac­cu­rate mea­sures of so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal health and qual­ity of life.

  • Con­sumerism: from con­sumerism and af­fluenza to suf­fi­ciency and mind­ful con­sump­tion, from more to enough.

  • Com­mu­ni­ties: from run­away en­ter­prise and throw­away com­mu­ni­ties to vital local economies, from so­cial root­less­ness to root­ed­ness and sol­i­dar­ity.

  • Dom­i­nant cul­tural val­ues: from hav­ing to being, from get­ting to giv­ing, from richer to bet­ter, from sep­a­rate to con­nected, from apart from na­ture to part of na­ture, from tran­scen­dent to in­ter­de­pen­dent, from today to to­mor­row.

  • Pol­i­tics: from weak democ­racy to strong, from creep­ing cor­po­ra­toc­racy and plu­toc­racy to true pop­u­lar sov­er­eignty.

  • For­eign pol­icy and the mil­i­tary: from Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism to Amer­ica as a nor­mal na­tion, from hard power to soft, from mil­i­tary prowess to real se­cu­rity.

We know that sys­temic, trans­for­ma­tive change along these di­men­sions will re­quire a great strug­gle, and it will not come quickly. The new val­ues, pri­or­i­ties, poli­cies, and in­sti­tu­tions that would con­sti­tute a new po­lit­i­cal econ­omy ca­pa­ble of reg­u­larly de­liv­er­ing good re­sults are not at hand and won’t be for many years. The truth is we are still in the de­sign stage of build­ing a new op­er­at­ing sys­tem. That sys­tem won’t be yes­ter­day’s so­cial­ism, by the way, but it won’t be today’s Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism either.It fol­lows that ef­fec­tively ad­dress­ing the many se­ri­ous chal­lenges Amer­ica faces will take a lot more time than we would like.

Mean­while, Amer­ica’s de­cline will per­sist—“de­cline” here not re­fer­ring to los­ing world power rel­a­tive to China and other coun­tries, but to de­cline in human and nat­ural con­di­tions. That is a very de­press­ing con­clu­sion, but we must face it. More im­por­tantly, we must use it as a frame­work for un­der­stand­ing what we must now do. In­deed, there can be a very bright light at the end of this gloomy tun­nel. There is the great gift of plau­si­ble hope that we can find our way for­ward.

In this pe­riod of de­cline, the im­per­a­tives we face as cit­i­zens are three­fold: to slow and then halt the de­scent, min­i­miz­ing human suf­fer­ing and plan­e­tary dam­age along the way and pre­vent­ing a col­lapse, the emer­gence of a fortress world, or any of the other dark sce­nar­ios plot­ted for us in sci­ence fic­tion and in­creas­ingly in se­ri­ous analy­sis; to min­i­mize the time at the bot­tom and start the climb up­ward to­ward a new op­er­at­ing sys­tem; and to com­plete, in­habit, and flour­ish in the di­ver­sity of al­ter­na­tive so­cial arrange­ments, each far su­pe­rior to ones we will have left be­hind.

But if we are fail­ing at mod­est, in­cre­men­tal re­form, how can we hope to achieve deeper, trans­for­ma­tive change? The de­cline now oc­cur­ring will pro­gres­sively dele­git­imize the cur­rent order. Who wants an op­er­at­ing sys­tem that is ca­pa­ble of gen­er­at­ing and per­pet­u­at­ing such suf­fer­ing and de­struc­tion? One good thing about the de­cline of today’s po­lit­i­cal econ­omy is that it opens the door to some­thing much bet­ter.

Peo­ple will even­tu­ally rise up, raise a loud shout, and de­mand major changes. This is al­ready hap­pen­ing with some peo­ple in some places. It will grow to be­come a na­tional and global move­ment for trans­for­ma­tion, de­mand­ing a bet­ter world.

As the old sys­tem en­ters its death throes, we are al­ready see­ing the pro­lif­er­a­tion of in­no­v­a­tive mod­els of “local liv­ing” economies, sus­tain­able com­mu­ni­ties, and tran­si­tion towns, as well as in­no­v­a­tive busi­ness mod­els, in­clud­ing so­cial en­ter­prises and for-ben­e­fit and worker-owned busi­nesses that pri­or­i­tize com­mu­nity and en­vi­ron­ment over profit and growth. Ini­tia­tives that may seem small or local can be starter wedges that lead to larger changes. These ini­tia­tives pro­vide in­spi­ra­tional mod­els for how things might work in a new po­lit­i­cal econ­omy de­voted to sus­tain­ing human and nat­ural com­mu­ni­ties. Such ini­tia­tives are grow­ing rapidly in Amer­ica.

While the strug­gle to build a new sys­tem goes for­ward, we must do every­thing we can to make the old sys­tem per­form. For ex­am­ple, if we do not act now on cli­mate change, both na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally, the con­se­quences will be­come so se­vere that the dark vi­sions of those pre­dict­ing calamity will be­come all too real. The sit­u­a­tion we face in re­gard to cli­mate dis­rup­tion is al­ready very grave. Should we fail to act now on the cli­mate front, the world will likely be­come so nasty and brutish that the pos­si­bil­ity of re­birth, of achiev­ing some­thing new and beau­ti­ful, will sim­ply van­ish, and we will be left with noth­ing but the bur­den of cli­mate chaos and so­ci­eties’ end­less re­sponses to it. Cop­ing with the wreck­age of a plan­e­tary civ­i­liza­tion run amok would be a full-time job. On this issue and oth­ers, then, re­form and trans­form are not al­ter­na­tives but com­ple­men­tary and mu­tu­ally re­in­forc­ing strate­gies.

Im­por­tant here is a “the­ory of change.” The the­ory adopts the view that peo­ple act out of both fear and love—to avoid dis­as­ter and to re­al­ize a dream or pos­i­tive vi­sion. The the­ory af­firms the cen­tral­ity of hope and hope’s vic­tory over de­spair. It lo­cates the plau­si­bil­ity of hope in knowl­edge—know­ing that many peo­ple will even­tu­ally rise up and fight for the things that they love; know­ing that his­tory’s con­stant is change, in­clud­ing deep, sys­temic change; and know­ing that we un­der­stand enough to begin the jour­ney, to strike out in the right di­rec­tions, even if the jour­ney’s end is a place we have never been.

The the­ory em­braces the sem­i­nal role of crises in wak­ing us from the slum­ber of rou­tine and in shin­ing the spot­light on the fail­ings of the cur­rent order of things. It puts great stock in trans­for­ma­tive lead­er­ship that can point be­yond the cri­sis to some­thing bet­ter. The the­ory adopts the view that sys­temic change must be both bot­tom-up and top-down—dri­ven by com­mu­ni­ties, busi­nesses, and cit­i­zens de­cid­ing on their own to build the fu­ture lo­cally as well as to de­velop the po­lit­i­cal mus­cle to adopt sys­tem-chang­ing poli­cies at the na­tional and in­ter­na­tional lev­els. And it sees a pow­er­ful cit­i­zens’ move­ment as a nec­es­sary spur to ac­tion at all lev­els.

So imag­ine: As con­di­tions in our coun­try con­tinue to de­cline across a wide front, or at best fes­ter as they are, ever-larger num­bers of Amer­i­cans lose faith in the cur­rent sys­tem and its abil­ity to de­liver on the val­ues it pro­claims. The sys­tem steadily loses sup­port, lead­ing to a cri­sis of le­git­i­macy. Mean­while, tra­di­tional crises, both in the econ­omy and in the en­vi­ron­ment, grow more nu­mer­ous and fear­some. In re­sponse, pro­gres­sives of all stripes co­a­lesce, find their voice and their strength, and pi­o­neer the de­vel­op­ment of a pow­er­ful set of new ideas and pol­icy pro­pos­als con­firm­ing that the path to a bet­ter world does in­deed exist. Demon­stra­tions and protests mul­ti­ply, and a pow­er­ful move­ment for prodemoc­racy re­form and trans­for­ma­tive change is born.

At the local level, peo­ple and groups plant the seeds of change through a host of in­no­v­a­tive ini­tia­tives that pro­vide in­spi­ra­tional mod­els of how things might work in a new po­lit­i­cal econ­omy de­voted to sus­tain­ing human and nat­ural com­mu­ni­ties. Sens­ing the di­rec­tion in which things are mov­ing, our wiser and more re­spon­si­ble lead­ers, po­lit­i­cal and oth­er­wise, rise to the oc­ca­sion, sup­port the grow­ing move­ment for change, and frame a com­pelling story or nar­ra­tive that makes sense of it all and pro­vides a pos­i­tive vi­sion of a bet­ter Amer­ica. It is a mo­ment of de­mo­c­ra­tic pos­si­bil­ity.

In the end it all comes down to the Amer­i­can peo­ple and the strong pos­si­bil­ity that we still have it in us to use our free­dom and our democ­racy in pow­er­ful ways to cre­ate some­thing fine, a re­born Amer­ica, for our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. We can re­al­ize a new Amer­i­can Dream if enough of us join to­gether in the fight for it. This new dream en­vi­sions an Amer­ica where the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness is sought not in more get­ting and spend­ing, but in the growth of human sol­i­dar­ity, real democ­racy, and de­vo­tion to the pub­lic good; where the av­er­age Amer­i­can is em­pow­ered to achieve his or her human po­ten­tial; where the ben­e­fits of eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity are widely and eq­ui­tably shared; where the en­vi­ron­ment is sus­tained for cur­rent and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions; and where the virtues of sim­ple liv­ing, com­mu­nity self-re­liance, good fel­low­ship, and re­spect for na­ture pre­dom­i­nate.

These Amer­i­can tra­di­tions may not pre­vail today, but they are not dead. They await us, and in­deed they are today being awak­ened across this great land. New ways of liv­ing and work­ing, shar­ing and car­ing are emerg­ing across Amer­ica. They beckon us with a new Amer­i­can Dream, one re­built from the best of the old, draw­ing on the best of who we were and are and can be.

ABOUT GUS SPETH  James Gustave Speth teaches at Vermont Law School. He is the author of  The Bridge at the Edge of the World. This article from the March/April 2012 issue of Orion, the first of a two-part series, is based on his forthcoming book from Yale University Press, America the Possible: Roadmap to a New Economy.

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