Roundtable on 'The Problem of Action'
The US Senate has just approved a new tax bill that confirms what we already knew: we live in a new gilded age. Neoliberalism, now dangerously associated with oligarchy, autocracy, and fascism, is in a phase of hyper-acceleration.
So it is appropriate that Paul Raskin has asked us how we might nurture “a systemic change agent matched to the task of planetary transformation.” The needed agent “would assert power culturally, by shaping ideas and behavior; tactically, through actions that disrupt the status quo; and strategically, by building institutions for sustained political influence.” It would be a “systemic movement” with a shared identity guided by a shared project of transformation, core principles, and a politics of trust. It would be composed of global citizens attuned to the needed realization of the planetary phase of civilization.
Part 1: The Macro Level
The biggest problem, as I see it, in bringing into being this change agent is a conceptual deficiency in the progressive movement. I reread parts of Raskin’s Journey to Earthland when preparing to write this essay. In his vision for the future, he describes Earthland’s regions as Agoria, Ecodemia, and Arcadia. Ecodemia, “a neologism for economic democracy…has a collectivist ethos and a socialized political economy.” It gives “primacy [to] social ownership [and] echoes classical socialism.” Yet, “Ecodemia’s commitment to democracy, rights, and the environment bears little resemblance to the autocratic socialist experiments of the 20th century.”1
Ecodemia replaces the neoliberal organizing principles of today’s advanced industrial societies. Yet no powerful intellectual argument has been made for Ecodemia. Marxism is of some help, but it arose as a response to challenges of a different time. Then the issue was justice for labor; now it is that, but also the fate of the Earth community.
The present liberal-progressive vision speaks of equity on the assumption that there is an abundance of resources to bring everyone up to a high level, but to what level? Bruno Latour, in his Facing Gaia, criticizes liberals for being backward-looking, still reveling in their freedom from the bondage of the past.2 He says their vision of the future, one free from all restraints, natural and social, lacks realistic content. Environmentalists recognize the need for restraints, Latour observes, but lament their inability to communicate scientific facts that require restraints, not realizing what really limits their appeal is that they are calling for changes in everyone’s way of life (even though they have understated the magnitude of the changes required).
Clive Hamilton, in Defiant Earth, writes that liberals believe care for Earth arises from moral freedom, but now, in view of the Anthropocene, it must be understood as arising from moral obligation: “The new anthropocentric self does not float free like the modern subject, but is always woven into nature, a knot in the fabric of nature.”3 The cosmology of the Anthropocene must be based on the concept of agency that extends beyond humans to the freedom that is woven into nature itself. Nature is a “dynamic, self-organizing system, characterized by emergent properties.” Emergent properties “cannot be found in any individual element [of the Earth system] and evade all cause-and-effect explanations….The future always evades full predictability and inevitably holds surprises.” Humans in a unique way manifest the spontaneous creativity of nature. Their “creative powers embody the possibility that they be used to enhance the life-enriching potential of the Earth as well as to improve the human condition.”
It is in this context and cosmology that the organizing principles of Ecodemia must be conceived.
While I have long resisted naming “capitalism” as the problem (and haven’t we all, to an extent, agreed that the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the “end of history”?), I have very recently concluded that it is. Isabelle Stengers, in her work In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, writes differently about barbarism than Paul in Journey.4 For Stengers, the primary threat of barbarism comes from the logic of the capitalistic system. This is not because there are not good capitalists or that capitalism is not innovative, but because the logic of the system will always drive some capitalists to profit from anything, even the destruction of Earth’s life systems. Capitalism, she writes, “demands that we accept the ineluctable character of the sacrifices imposed by global economic competition.” Progress requires that the state yield to “cutting-edge” science and technology and the necessary risks of the entrepreneur, and allow only the market to judge the consequences. Stengers argues that the greatest barbarism would occur if capitalism were to conduct a “World War II mobilization to “save the Earth.” Then, believing that humans are the masters of their own fate, capitalists would call on a credulous public to unleash the full technological power of industry on Earth—an Earth now awakened, indifferent to their designs, and more than equal to their assault.
To avoid this, we need an understanding of democratic socialism for Ecodemia. The liberal post-World War II world order with all of its flaws, yet with its benefits of decades of peace, prosperity, and human development, is ending. There are those who propose a new order. As David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post, “China Has a Plan to Rule the World”—and it is not Ecodemia.5 Jubilant in its denial, the United States, the “indispensable” nation, is withdrawing from or forfeiting its leadership. The international order based on sovereign states has always had an anarchic aspect, but a new anarchy is at hand.
In 1947, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, and others brought the Mont Pèlerin Society (MPS) into being. Classical laissez-faire capitalism had failed. State planning was on the rise through communism, state efforts to reconstruct Europe, and the modern welfare state. The founders sought to uphold the principles of free markets, limited government, personal liberty, and rule of law. They opposed welfare state capitalism and socialist planning, yet they were aware that classical liberalism had failed. They felt they had to construct a new liberalism, a “neo-liberalism.”
Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe in The Road from Mont Pèlerin describe the MPS as a “thought collective.”6 It was a members-only debating society whose handpicked members came to number over 1,200 people. While they shared common perspectives, MPS was not doctrinaire. Members operated on a transdisciplinary basis to “debate the outlines of a future movement diverging from classical liberalism, without having to suffer the indignities of ridicule for their often blue-sky proposals.” The MPS itself was little publicized. The members spread their ideas through various think tanks, advocacy groups, and foundations, as well as in governmental and academic positions. They sought to influence an intellectual elite of journalists, teachers, church leaders, governmental officials, and others. While most commonly associated with their economic views, they applied themselves to political theory, philosophy, law, history, sociology, and other disciplines.
In little over thirty years, with the advent of Reaganism and Thatcherism, the founders of MPS succeeded, though It is arguable whether later developments, such as the Washington Consensus, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Property, or the new US Senate tax bill, reflect the intended new liberalism, or whether they represent a move backward toward classical laissez-faire capitalism.
Be that as it may, our concern in GTI is not neoliberalism alone. Rather, we, sharing the same kinds of deep concerns that the founders of MPS had, have come together out of concern for the failure of neoliberalism, classical laissez-faire capitalism, and, also, classical socialism. A neo-democratic socialism is needed, but not even that…a neo-eco-democratic socialism is needed and this, like MPS’s neoliberalism, involves many disciplines.
So on the macro-level, to bring into being the needed systemic change agent, I believe there is a need for a thought collective for Earthland (also known as “ecological civilization”) to develop a neo-eco-democratic socialism. This thought collective would operate in a way that would be analogous to the way the MPS worked to develop neoliberalism. It would be embedded in or significantly related to GTI. This neo-eco-democratic socialism would need to be grounded in the Anthropocene and this would have major implications for each of “neo,” “eco,” “democratic,” and “socialism”—“ecodemic socialism” for short. Ecodemic socialism would not be so much rights-based as responsibilities-and-obligations-based, and not so much individual-based as communal-based.
It may be that in thirty years’ time (hopefully sooner), this thought collective could achieve similar results as MPS. I don’t see how the systemic agent needed can arise without it.
Part 2: The Micro Level
In the responses to Raskin's essay, a few have taken on how to organize a global movement, but more have written about the inability to do top-down organizing given the multitude and complexity of the issues to be addressed and the diversity of people and societies involved. One respondent issued a warning about vanguard movements, and another about the limits of cosmopolitanism as contrasted with communitarianism.
I’m interested in the latter warning as I have just finished Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land about Tea Party supporters in Louisiana.7 Hochschild’s book brought me into contact with people who have lived in only one place and have lifetime jobs in Dairy Queens, stocking grocery store shelves, and driving delivery trucks. They would be “communitarians” not “cosmopolitans” if communitarian were used to mean parochial and protectionist, though there are more positive meanings of communitarian.
Does the future belong to the cosmopolitans and not communitarians as might be suggested in Journey? We have entered the planetary phase of civilization, but is it a “global” civilization calling for “global” citizens?
Bruno Latour in Facing Gaia deconstructs the “globe.”8 On the one hand, it is a burden that humans, like Atlas, must bear and somehow have the ability to do so. On the other, it is like a table globe, something we can hold in our hands and control. In the latter sense, the globe implies total and complete knowledge is possible, when in truth, Latour asserts, no one can “think globally.” “The figure of the Globe authorizes a premature leap to a higher level by confusing the figures of connection with that of totality.” The globe gives us a “view from nowhere.” We can see this, can’t we, when we observe the activities of global corporations? But Latour says this view from nowhere also applies to many other modes of modern thought that contemplate the universal, including universal solutions.
Regarding the Anthropocene, Latour says, the Anthropocene is not a reconciliation of humans and nature; rather, it is that everywhere in what we used to call nature, we find the anthropos. This is understood, but then a leap is made that there is some anthropos that acts collectively, is a moral agent, and is morally culpable. Here the anthropos becomes the human species, when in truth there is no unitary anthropos capable of acting or of bearing this guilt.
The globe would be better understood as a vast 25,000 mile expanse of people, plants, animals, and geological, atmospheric, and hydrological realities of great diversity interacting with each other. Latour says the globe has to be composed by becoming sensitive to these interactions at billions of locations, just as we have come to understand the weather (composed the weather) by monitoring at countless locations. The self-regulation of “Gaia” developed by James Lovelock, Latour observes, has been misunderstood as some transcendent organizing mechanism, when in truth it is multiple actors connected through loops engaged in reciprocal co-evolution.
What is needed now, Latour says, is “the relocalization of the Globe, [a] move from the Globe to the quasi-feedback loops that tirelessly design it in a way that is broader and denser each time.” It is the disruption of this set of feedback loops that is bringing about, in Lovelock’s words, the “revenge of Gaia.”
In thinking about the needed systemic change agent, it may help if we step back from the idea of a movement of “global” citizens, to an idea of a movement of sensitive and responsive people working at multiple levels in many places of the world responding to Gaia’s quasi-feedback loops. This movement is not unitary, cannot be organized, and is already in being. Its global impact is and will be an emergent phenomenon.
The role of the members of GTI in relation to this vast movement is to be a leaven. We are all already engaged in parts of it. We take what we learn from these dialogues into our own actions. As for GTI as an organization, it could expand its education and outreach role. Educational programs and films could be developed around Journey. And as I discussed in Part 1, a thought collective on neo-eco-democratic socialism could provide needed conceptual understanding for the movement.
I will close by returning to the idea of the politics of trust. We must trust that this vast movement will be the needed systemic change agent, and we must do our best to make it so.
1. Paul Raskin, Journey to Earthland: The Great Transition to Planetary Civilization (Boston: Tellus Institute, 2016), http://www.greattransition.org/publication/journey-to-earthland.
2. Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2017).
3. Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2017).
4. Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Current Barbarism, trans. Andrew Goffey (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015).
5. David Ignatius, “China Has a Plan to Rule the World,” Washington Post, November 28, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/china-has-a-plan-to-rule-the-world/2017/11/28/214299aa-d472-11e7-a986-d0a9770d9a3e_story.html.
6. Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).
7. Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: New Press, 2016).
8. Latour, Facing Gaia .