William Barnes and Nils Gilman
[A different version of this paper is published as “Green Social Democracy or Barbarism: Climate Change and the End of High Modernism,” in Craig Calhoun and Georgi Derluguian, eds., The Deepening Crisis: Governance Challenges and Neoliberalism, Volume 2 in the Social Science Research Council’s series Possible Futures, NYU Press, June 2011.]
As the present volume documents, the early 21st Century is a sea of icebergs, full of hazards, threats, and crises-in-the-making, whose obscured bulk we are just beginning to fully appreciate and map. Atmospheric carbon, accumulating out of sight for 200 years, is a mega-berg, one with the potential to sink modern civilization by itself. The exploding and enduring presence of climate destabilization, now inescapable, promises to exacerbate other crises and hazards, turning this mix into a thousand-year “perfect storm.” The long-term futures of societies all over the planet will be shaped in large part by their experiences of and responses to the destructive ramifications of climate change, especially as those ramifications intersect and interact with other burgeoning problems and crises. It is already too late to avoid a cascade of local and regional “natural” disasters in the medium term (i.e. by mid-century), and heroic near-term action will be required to drastically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions if a longer-term civilizational catastrophe of world historical proportions is to be avoided. This, in combination with the panoply of other system-threats and crises covered in this volume, is humanity’s playing field going forward – like it or not.
The message of this volume is that on this playing field, at present, those of us who see green social democracy as the only winning game plan are at a distinct disadvantage. Of course we already knew that, but this volume adds a new dimension to the problem. Our adversaries and competitors are not just those wedded to the official status quo – its official agents, champions, and beneficiaries – but also the protagonists of the deviant underside of that status quo: those amoral warlords, smugglers, guerrillas, and in general narrowly self-serving profit-seekers whose lack of scruples makes them better positioned to take short-term advantage of weaknesses and breakdowns of established systems, and who have no interest in seeing those systems replaced with a more generally beneficial alternative.
One must begin these sorts of discussions by emphasizing that some kind of transition to a more decentralized world is inevitable. As it becomes more and more difficult to remain blind to the handwriting on the wall, the sorts of adversaries and competitors discussed in this volume will continue to pursue their narrow self-interests, no matter what the collective costs. The key political question, then, is whether it is possible to organize any larger positive hegemony – what we refer to here as Green Social Democracy. Do we have the ability to accomplish enough politically, programmatically, and institutionally that we can not only coopt or neutralize the opposition of the defenders of the status quo, but also hold off the warlord entrepreneuers?
The consequences of failing to do so are high. As climate change and the end of cheap energy closes out the historical epoch of mass consumption, a failure to imagine and organize a positive alternative form of political economy will leave us with a choice between, on the one hand, fascistic regimes that are capable of enforcing a low-consumption life on the masses at gunpoint or, on the other hand, an utterly decentralized entrepreneurial warlordism – what one recent participant in a climate change wargame called, “the world depicted by Mad Max, only hotter, with no beaches, and perhaps with even more chaos.”
In sum, as traditional consumer-oriented regimes implode under the inevitable cascade of system failures, the real choice is whether we prefer to live in places that most proximately resemble the Green Social Democracy of a city-state like contemporary Portland, the Orwellian nightmare of contemporary Pyongyang, or the Hobbesian warlordism of contemporary Puntland.
The Nature of the Looming Catastrophe
Briefly: indefinite business-as-usual GHG emissions are likely to increase planetary temperatures by at least several degrees, perhaps even by as much as the planet warmed at the end of the last ice age.
Left unabated, GHG emissions and the consequent global warming will engender frequent extreme weather events producing extensive flooding in some areas and permanent drought in others, dramatically alter hydrologies on every continent, destroy the agricultural productivity of many of the world’s bread baskets. In the longer term, it will raise sea levels, destroying seaside cities that are home to hundreds of millions of people and the majority of today’s industrial infrastructure. All of this will lead to massive refugee flows, as large areas become incapable of supporting more than sparse human population. Nor will these effects arrive smoothly or incrementally, allowing societies clear projections and ample time to adapt; rather they will unfold as cascading acute crises, producing social and political breakdowns in weaker nation-states, if not everywhere. Scarcity-fueled interstate conflicts will be likely.Ultimately, if the alarms of those like James Lovelock are to be credited, the human carrying capacity of the planet will decline drastically. Short of global thermonuclear war, modern civilization has never faced a more dire existential threat.
And it gets worse – because climate change is intruding into a world fraught with other profound ecological and human problems. Quite apart from any direct impact of climate change, inequality within and between societies has been increasing over recent decades, as has material and existential insecurity among the billions of poor, particularly in the Global South, in the form of rising crime, social violence, and governmental weakness.
Additionally, the world is running out of cheap petroleum, clean fresh water, and many other resources, at the same time as population growth continues.
Moreover, no matter what we do going forward, increasing extreme-weather-related disasters – especially in coastal Asia, Central Africa, and the Caribbean – are already baked into the future as the result of GHG already emitted over the last 200 years. It is this world, not the world of the 1950s or 1960s, into which the effects of accelerating global warming are intruding ever more powerfully. If humanity fails to build up societal capacities for mitigation, emergency response, and remediation in advance of this on-coming cascade of disasters, then, as such accumulate toward the middle of this century, all of our attention and resources will get sucked up by short-term remediation efforts – with nothing left-over to address longer-term solutions.
To moderate the foregoing will require a profound remaking of contemporary industrial modernity. In brief, the vast majority of all industrial and mechanical processes that rely on hydrocarbons for fuel, or that produce substantial greenhouse gases as byproducts, will have to be either converted to clean/green technology or drastically curtailed – on a planet-wide basis. Unfortunately, barring a technological deus ex machina, it is highly unlikely that effective clean/green technological substitutes will be developed and deployed to replace current industrial processes within the time frame required to avoid catastrophe.
Absent such new technologies (and even with some modest development and deployment of such), the only choice will be to cut back on our aggregate industrial output. This in turn will necessitate far-reaching changes in energy-intensive, high waste, high pollution lifestyles – not just for a decade or two of “emergency,” but for all practical purposes permanently. In other words, irrevocably downshifting our production and consumption patterns is the only route open to us if we want to hold open a long-term future for our civilization.
Much has been written about what might and should be done economically and technologically to mitigate and cope with these looming climate change issues. What gets less attention, however, is the magnitude of the political requirements for addressing climate change.
In recent years, a steady accumulation of scientific evidence and opinion has generated a broad consensus among policymakers and informed publics that anthropogenic global warming is both real and a very serious long-term threat to human well being.6 This is good news. And yet that consensus has not converted to political action; attempts to create GHG abatement policies and protocols have stalled, and the political will to make necessary changes remains nonexistent. Absent a radical revision to the very conception of modern political legitimacy, such political will is unlikely to emerge. That’s not just bad; that’s a potential civilization killer.
Thus, a realistic review of the challenge of climate change, representing the leading edge of a whole series of systemic disruptions and crises, yields the following syllogism: a drastic reduction (aiming for 80 percent) in global GHG emissions in the mid-term (2050’s) is required in order to avoid civilization-killing climate change in the long-term. Such a reduction can only be accomplished by either wholesale conversion of the energy system to renewables, or by a massive reduction in total energy consumption (or some combination of the two).
Since wholesale conversion to renewables within the specified time-frame is, if not a near physical impossibility, an unimaginably monumental undertaking, the only feasible alternative is a gross reduction in total energy consumption, combined with as much conversion as we can get. And this in turn, must mean a radical reduction in aggregate production and consumption of most classes of material goods; it means not just smaller and fewer motorized vehicles, but less travel, less heating in winter, less cooling in summer, less light at night, less opulent housing, less electronic gadgetry, less meat…the list goes on. In sum, with regard to all forms of material production and consumption, serious emissions reduction boils down to just one word: LESS.
The conditions and inputs necessary to the maintenance of modernity’s “normal” levels of system function are, in a word, history. This paper attempts to move away from the wishful thinking that so often infuses and clouds climate change debates (and the debates about the other issues discussed in this volume) and instead proposes conceptually imaginable moves toward a realistic alternative. Rather than join the unrealism of the political hopes and technological utopianism of most environmentalists, we instead find promise in a different direction—one based on the possibility of retrieving, reformulating, and reinstating a once-prominent alternative form of “capitalist” political economy—early industrial “producerist republicanism”—as a constituent element of a forward-looking Green Social Democracy.
The Political Problem of “Less”: Why an Economics of Decline Is So Hard to Imagine
There is another active school of thought, distinct from Green Social Democracy, that recognizes the inevitability of the decline and breakdown of existing systems, and the disappearance of abundance, under the stresses and strains of multiple crises, in the context of permanent climate destabilization. New Age radical environmentalists accept the imperative of the human race as a whole making do with dramatically lower levels of materialism. But their hope of enacting that imperative depends upon the availability and effectiveness of a fix even more demanding than that relied upon by mainstream liberal environmentalists (who see the rapid development and deployment of advanced green technology –“ecological modernization” – as a silver bullet
): a virtual spiritual revolution leading to an enlightened humanity voluntarily giving up modern materialism (not just luxury) as a practice or an aspiration. These radicals see such spiritual revolution as opposed primarily simply by the ignorant and the terminally greedy and selfish of the world – with the latter’s hold over the thinking of the former (presumed to be the majority) seen as contingent and ultimately tenuous. In our view, this perspective greatly underestimates the character and scale of the opposition to the proposed “revolution” and the difficulty of the educational and political tasks at hand. Left out of the picture entirely is the fact that, as things stand, warlord entrepreneurs and their ilk are much better positioned and prepared to benefit from system crisis and breakdown than are New Age environmentalists.
The optimism of the New-Age environmentalists is based on the conviction that the shift to a radically less materialistic, less narcissistic culture is, in the end, wholly to the good, because of the superior value of the expected spiritual outcome over the present materialistic lifeworld. The spiritual revolution is a winner because more and more people will come to appreciate this human truth. But this is optimistic in the extreme. The reality is that, even were it successful on its own terms (a major unknown), such a transition away from materialism would come as a painful shock to the vast majority of today’s non-poor, most of whom have dedicated their lives to the accumulation of wealth and rising standards of living. The result would be, paradoxically, an existential crisis and more spiritually impoverished lives. For those whose existing level of materialism is well below real affluence, radically scaling back material consumption as part of a program to save the planet would be akin to getting a gangrenous leg amputated — there’s nothing inspiring or ennobling about it, even if it’s better than the alternative.
Continuing the metaphor, our problem is that most of the time, gangrene actually feels good – and a variety of powerful forces assure us that indeed the infection is not dangerous and we therefore should enjoy it while it lasts (here “legitimate” economic actors and deviant entrepreneurs are in full partnership). So how can people be convinced to accept amputation before it’s too late? It would be one thing if entire populations could leap from where they are straight into a fully-formed world of universal rights, reliable public goods, and rich social capital. That would be the equivalent of immediately being fitted with a state-of-the-art prosthetic. But of course the world does not work that way – not least because of the shared vested interests of “legitimate” economic actors and deviant entrepreneurs in precluding it from doing so.
Realistically, the difficulty of making “less” work politically can hardly be over-stated. Less is something that present-day political classes literally do not know how to think about, much less how to sell to mass publics raised on “more.” Just look what happened to Jimmy Carter when he made a modest gesture in that direction—his sensible cardigans are still a political laughingstock, and not just on the Right. What would it take for politicians to champion, and publics to accept, levels of consumption well below those to which we have either become accustomed or been taught to long for? Not “less” in the form of a one-time cut to material goods and energy consumption, but a steadily diminishing less, as the necessary changes are phased in over the course of a generation—less, then less, then even less, until, if we are lucky, we reach some kind of a safe plateau as clean/green technology matures and population growth ceases planet-wide.
For rich democracies, the prospect of such systemic change is politically intransigent. What elected politician can hope to sell diminishment to a population that for generations has been taught to consider a rising standard of living a birthright and has internalized the myth that “each generation does better than its parents” (where “better” means more material consumption)? From the eighteenth century on, Western visions of progress and national development have treated ever-increasing material abundance as table stakes in any definition of political or societal success. Modern and modernizing governments (of whatever ideological stripe, from Teddy Roosevelt and Lenin, through Thatcher and Gorbachev, down to the present American and Chinese leaderships) have staked their claims to legitimacy on the premise and promise of delivering MORE.
With a few frightening exceptions such as Kim’s North Korea or Pol Pot’s Cambodia, all governments of the postwar period have promised “a rising standard of living” to most if not all of their people. Social compromises and political hegemonies have been brokered on the assumption that continually increasing economic productivity would neutralize distributional conflict.
To get a sense for how profoundly politics will have to change in order to fit an age of diminishment, consider how the U.S. Republican Party was able to use the word “rationing” as political kryptonite in the 2009-10 debate over healthcare. Here was a case in which private insurers are already imposing rationing, and the government was not planning to impose any additional rationing, and still the charge was politically poisonous.
Now imagine the government trying to actually impose rationing, and of a stringent sort, across every aspect of material production and consumption, in exchange for an uncertain outcome—amounting at best only to a reduction of secular trends from catastrophic to difficult. American conservatives are, in this respect, relatively clear-eyed about the political-economic implications of serious climate change mitigation efforts. That they respond by denying the climate science itself, and depicting environmentalism as nothing but a Trojan horse for authoritarian statism, should not distract us from the fundamental political truth they are putting their finger on— namely that any serious effort to restrain greenhouse gases must mean a full-scale assault on what they (and many others) mean by “the American way of life”; in other words, a dismantling of a way of life defined, to quote modernization theorist Walt Rostow’s famous phrase, in terms of, “the age of high mass consumption.”
As difficult as it may be to imagine American or European or Japanese publics accepting “less” rather than “more” as their national mantra, it is even harder to imagine the emergent middle classes of the Global South willingly leaving the promised land of consumerism just at the moment when they have finally begun to arrive in numbers. Even in authoritarian systems such as China and Russia, elites seek to employ their wider populations in carbon-intensive modernizing national projects, and coercion by itself does not work to keep those populations dutifully on-task; some degree of social contract, some substantial payoff, must be offered and at least partially honored. A decline in China’s astounding growth rate is often cited as the single factor most likely to destabilize the political system of the world’s most populous country.
Ultimately, it is impossible to predict what environmental or political events could galvanize political elites and the wider public to break this intellectual and political deadlock. The environmental changes associated with GHG emissions (as typical of major system shocks in general) are likely to be non-linear, and the political reactions to any climate-related disasters are unpredictable, thus piling one radical uncertainty on top of another. Two things, however, are clear: the first is that decisive political leadership, rooted in a fundamentally different conception of the economy, will be required in order to take the necessary steps; and the second is that denying the magnitude of the necessary economic and cultural change makes the emergence of such political leadership all but impossible. In this latter respect, it must be said that even the most politically hard-headed portions of the contemporary environmental movement are still not admitting the magnitude of the required industrial changes and the consequent political challenges.
An Alternative Modernity?
The climate-changed and multiple-crisis-ridden world that is coming spells the breakdown of modernity as we have known it. What will follow? Other contributors to this book have noted the power that “deviant actors” can amass in crisis and post-crisis environments. But the kinds of deviant actors they are referring to have two great advantages over the kind of progressive political agents we might personally prefer. First, warlord entrepreneurs and their ilk are on the path of least resistance – they go with the grain of the dominant materialism rather than against it. They encourage and profit from greedy, short-sighted consumerism; they do not challenge people to rise above such. In a perverse paraphrase of the old “Police” song, in a world that’s running down, they make the best (for themselves) of what’s still around.
Second, these entrepreneurs seek to take advantage of systemic failures and breakdowns in order to further narrow and limited agendas. They have little interest in contributing to repair, regeneration, and improvement of larger systems, at least not beyond the trade and finance networks they utilize. They prefer that larger systems remain weak, incapable of monitoring or confronting the entrepreneurs’ own operations, and amenable to covert manipulation through bribery and intimidation. Thus in crisis environments, warlord entrepreneurs have distinct operational advantages over actors with broader “public-minded” agendas and ambitions, both existing authoritiescommitted to stabilization and reproduction of existing systems, and “radicals” and “humanitarians” who seek system transformation in the name of a just and viable future for their grandchildren and humanity at large. Warlord entrepreneurs can focus their attention, their muscle, their human capital, and their resources much more narrowly, and be more forceful and persistent in their targeted involvements. Unlike us, they do not need to inspire idealistic commitment from far-flung cadre and mass bases in order to leverage limited material resources in the mounting of broad campaigns that neither return any direct pecuniary profit to the central leadership nor motivate cadre with the prospect of quick enrichment. In the climate-changed world that is coming, ultimately, only those ready to live by the principle, “apres moi, le deluge” will be able to maintain such advantageous freedom of maneuver.
It is true, as the editor of this volume has said, that particularly successful warlord entrepreneurs may “become large and invested enough to seek to stabilize their position and consolidate their gains. In this condition, they shift from entrepreneur/exploitation mode to service provider/maintenance mode, in which they become subject to implicit and explicit agreements with their customers/subjects/constituents for continued support. Thus over time, they begin to assume the role of the state itself.”
This is still happening, and will continue to happen, on a localized level, but comprehensive extension over larger territories will become increasingly rare. In the climate-changed and multiple-crisis-ridden world that is coming, larger projects will become difficult or impossible without idealistically inspired, committed cadre and mass bases. It will be increasingly difficult to make the shift from local dominance to larger system-consolidation, except by committing to, and sacrificing more immediate interests to, some new social democratic vision or some quasi-fascist vision. In short, transcending Puntland without becoming Pyongyang will require becoming a lot more like Portland, and a lot less like Houston.
Avoiding both the Puntland and Pyongyang scenarios requires developing an alternative political economy that can survive and cope in the face of the new world that is coming. While large-scale governmental institutions will be very important on certain crucial dimensions in any Green Social Democratic version of the climate-changed world that is coming, in most ways, that world, whatever version eventuates, will necessarily be much more decentralized than the current world. What would such a political economy look like, and how might we get there from where we are now? What resources exist that might make possible the building of Green Social Democracy under such difficult conditions? While it is not true that we are close to having – at least in the lab – the clean/green technology we need, and all that is lacking is the will to fund full development and deployment, it is true that around the planet there are many people, groups, and communities that know and practice (at least in bits and pieces) something like the techniques, methodologies, and policies needed to step back from high-carbon materialism. The state of Kerala in India, with a population of over thirty million, is a striking relatively large-scale example.
There are also many lessons, models, and toolkits to be picked-up from communities and organizations around the world. What we do not have is an example of a national society adopting such practices anywhere near comprehensively – or even trying to move decisively in that direction. This is particularly true of the largest societies. As things stand, the voracious, high-ecological-footprint urban sectors of the largest societies will drag the rest of the world down into oblivion with them, no matter how Green the rest of the world becomes.
For national societies to move toward institutionalizing appropriate practices and technologies, existing institutions must be reoriented and reconfigured so as to enable, coordinate, and manage appropriate investments, and both institutional personnel and the population at large must buy into the program with some dedication. This will require a profound switching of gears, a radical intellectual and political reorientation that in turn demands a basic retooling of the entire stock of human capital of the social sciences, the professions, organizational management, and public administration.
So, is there some way to gather the lessons, stores of knowledge, toolkits, and green practices that are accumulating around the world and synthesize them into a set of models which majorities everywhere might be persuaded to choose among, adopt, and enact (including the exercise of the use of force, as necessary, against both the ostrich-like status-quo incumbents and the self-serving deviant actors)? As we have laid out above, existing environmental movements aren’t going to get that job done, given their unwillingness to take on either the massed political opposition or the hegemonic culture of materialistic modernity. What is needed then, is a larger narrative with the potential to legitimize radical departure from the status quo to wider audiences, including renunciation of aspirations to affluence and the moral ostracism of those who insist on indulgence in material luxury. Neither radical environmentalism nor centrist ecological modernization policy-discourse is providing the larger narrative we need to challenge and replace the hegemonic orthodoxy of neo-liberal modernization theory and, “the American way of life.”
The twentieth century’s leading sources of broad transformative vision and narrative, the Marxist and socialist traditions, are largely unhelpful in this regard, given that they always expected to take over and build on the material abundance and technological wizardry of advanced capitalism. In most mainstream versions of socialism, capitalist consumerism was cast not as ecologically unsustainable, but rather as the penultimate form of economic modernity, one revolution short of the end game. In the finalized form, the entire population was to enjoy a version of the affluence formerly limited to the wealthy, as well as “higher” values. Even those who saw the early years of the “transition to socialism” as occurring in the context of spartan Third World revolution assumed that the revolution would fulfill itself in a socialism of mass abundance. That a life of higher values might be constructed in the face of not the temporary but the permanent absence of mass affluence was not contemplated in these traditions, at least not in their twentieth century versions.
We propose looking to a different historical tradition, namely, the petty bourgeois political culture of North Atlantic capitalism’s early and mid industrial eras. This tradition did not call for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, but rather argued for a more modest and cautious (in a sense more “conservative”), more egalitarian and democratic, more decentralized “producerist” capitalism. A twenty-first century producerist capitalism would seek to recast this democratic tradition, but in the context of vigorously and comprehensively Green economics. Elaboration of such a vision and practice of robust community-centric self-empowerment could perhaps serve as a basis for a viable alternative to going down with the ship of modernity as it breaks up or to taking to the lifeboats captained by warlord entrepreneurs.
Many countries can look back to elements of their own early-modern experiences for instances of something analogous to producerist republicanism. In Russia, they might look back to Bukharin and the New Economic Program years; in China, it would be the World War II cooperatives and the “Yenan Way” born out of that experience; for India, it would involve looking to how the Kerala of the last 50 years has built on Gandhi’s movement. But the history of conflicts within the development of capitalism in the United States is particularly instructive in this regard.
From the American revolution through the 1930s, the United States had a rich history of democratic radicalism and populism among skilled craftsmen, artisans, family farmers, and lower middle class business people, professionals, and intellectuals, reaching upward into the middle classes and downward into the working classes. These traditions have often been denigrated by both Marxists and liberals as anti-industrial and anti-modernist, and as prone to anti-Semitism, racism, and anti-intellectualism. But such judgments homogenize a highly variegated history and set of movements.
What these movements and traditions had in common was the demand that self-managed, self-enhancing work and political citizenship be valorized and protected from the depredations of federalist aristocracy, the slave power, the robber barons, the trusts, Wall Street, and corporate capitalism. Most of the leaders and cadre of most of these movements and organizations, including many of the agrarian Populists, were neither wholly modernist nor wholly anti-modernist. These were not enemies of commerce and industry per se. Many were professionals and teachers, amateur inventors, interested in science; they participated vigorously and rationally in the public spheres and civil societies of their days – indeed, they were among the most important authors of the expanding public spheres of their days. By the later nineteenth century, a substantial proportion of leaders and cadre of these movements were female, pioneers of female civic activism, who went on to be key leaders and cadre of the elaborate Progressive civil society of the early 20th century.
The social protection these movements sought included public construction and ownership of major infrastructure, and government regulation of corporate capital, finance, and the factory system. They wanted to promote and support widespread small production, linked together in a “cooperative commonwealth” through large-scale producer coops and vigorous political organization. Political and social identities were rooted in such cooperative and communal arrangements of production and community self-management, rather than in privatised, individualistic practices of consumption.
Recognizing and revivifying this political tradition provides an Archimedean point from which to critique the pop-modernization-theory view of economic viability and societal success that has become hegemonic over the past seventy-five years. Recapturing the energies and hopes of this lost political assemblage, before it was defeated and coopted, allows us to more clearly see the assumptions and limitations of the orthodox, growth-centered vision of modernity that has led us to the brink of global ecological catastrophe. From the Civil War to World War II, neither economic theory nor popular political folklore insisted that modernity came as an integrated package, a package whose central components include the unlimited pursuit of on-going industrial revolution incarnated in gigantic, ravenous factories; the transformation of the mass of the population into “personnel” within complex, hierarchical organizations; and the elaboration and institutionalization of a culture of material consumerism and high-tech entertainment. Arriving at a hegemonic culture that takes these developments for granted as central to modernity has not been simply the product of the natural progress of efficiency, science, and rationality; rather, a particular pattern of contingent political victories and defeats has played a major role. This pattern need not be accepted as irreversible.
We now need to revive aspects of the popular political culture of petty bourgeois civic republicanism that valued community, solidarity, moral economy, meaningful work, self-management, and democratic citizenship over economistic individualism, material affluence, and private consumerism. Note we are not saying that any of the earlier incarnations of producer republicanism could have been fully victorious in its time, nor are we saying that any could be or should be reincarnated whole now. Recovery must include critically-minded up-dating and reformulation in the light of the lessons of the past seventy-five years. In particular, we need to spike that retrieved heritage with a major dose of cosmopolitanism regarding race, gender, and sexuality,while giving up the vision of an eventual metamorphosis into a socialism of abundance. Such a project is surely not without intellectual rewards, and, as a leading historian of American Progressivism and petty bourgeois radicalism has said,
Nor are such utopias unattainable. … Charles Sabel, Michael Piore, and Jonathan Zeitlin have created something of a school of political economy that has demonstrated the economic viability of small-scale production within flourishing, democratic economic networks. Historically, Sabel and Zeitlin reconstruct and rehabilitate a craft-based alternative to mass production, an alternative that had impressively strong roots in various cities and regions throughout the nineteenth-century transatlantic world. Flexibility and constant innovation in specialized production formed the foundation for a labor process that revolved around skilled workers. …with owners and workers often attaining a solidarity difficult for us to imagine as part of business relations. And despite the many defeats this small-scale alternative met at the hands of both capitalist and social democratic advocates of a mass-production economy, it did not disappear but merely went underground, showing a remarkable resurgence since the 1970s. Especially strong in western Europe, “flexible specialization,” or “small firm networks,” provide a contemporary living model of what Michael Albert has aptly characterized as “Capitalism against Capitalism.”
The ray of hope that we hold out is that our imagined Green Social Democracy, underpinned and legitimized by producerist republicanism, will ground itself in an acceptance of the limits imposed by the fecundity of the local environment, rather than a Promethean ethos of constant overcoming of those limits. As such, it would encourage localized sourcing, localized production, and localized consumption. It would focus on the conversion of public infrastructure to low-carbon, clean energy as quickly as possible. It would provide universal access to such infrastructure, while making private use of centrally-generated power and water quite expensive above a very modest minimum allotment. Tax and regulatory policies would focus on environmental impact and resource management. Governments, educational systems, and civil society would prioritize training, equipping and enabling the population to be low-carbon “producers” of useful goods and services (especially the “human services”), and informed, environmentally-conscious, responsible citizens, within local communities, organizations, and enterprises. In other words, it would be something like the comprehensive elaboration of a green version of the “social economy” model that has worked on the local level in Quebec and other places, and the “transition town” model that seems to be taking off in England.
There will be so much work to be done in conversion, reclamation, emergency response, human services, community development, and so on, that this will be a full-employment economy, for the most part very locally-focused. Moreover, such a political economy – emphasizing the development of high levels of environmentally conscious human and social capital, largely situated in small privately-or-coop-owned production units and community-based human services, supported and coordinated (but not centrally-planned or directed) by environmentally-informed larger public institutions – would enable cutting GHG emissions and render societies more resilient and adaptive in the face of climate change. It is plausible that people whose lives are rich in social capital, educational opportunity, interesting work, and citizenship rights and responsibilities will be more amenable to being weaned-off materialistic addictions/enthusiasms, or not to develop strong versions in the first place.
Why It May Work
This brings us back to the question of whether or not there is any realistic prospect of overcoming the political obstacles that we have argued are so formidable as to render the programs of both radical and mainstream environmentalists unrealistic. Why should our suggested political project fare any better? Why should a new Green Social Democracy, struggling to establish itself under the most difficult circumstances imaginable, do better in remaking failing systems than warlord entrepreneurs and neo-fascists do in exploiting system breakdown? Is it at all realistic to think we might create a path whereby we find ourselves with modest Portlands out-numbering Puntlands and Pyongyangs?
Hope arises from two fundamental and interactive facts: First, none of the political economies and political cultures of our world are monolithic or completely controlled by those wedded to the status quo, but rather shot through with tensions, ambiguities, contradictions, even in societies (such as the United States) where dominant groups have been quite successful in legitimating themselves and institutionalizing their hegemony. This addresses the question of how such a Green Social Democracy could come about. In the modern world, middle classes and “publics” are highly variegated, both within and across societies, and full of ambivalence. As system failures and breakdowns accumulate in the climate-changed and crisis-ridden world that is coming, along with ever-more credible warnings of worse to come, the existing high-modernist narrative will become less and less convincing and its hegemony harder and harder to sustain. Second, the necessary political culture is still there, deep in the American grain, never quite eliminated despite the best efforts of the promoters of the hyper-materialistic, high modernist version of the “American way of life.” Elements of producerist republican political culture are in fact being asserted in current public debate, including in right-wing constituencies, whose knee-jerk opposition to environmentalism may be amenable to neutralization by a green producerist republicanism that invokes new versions of familiar old values.
How would such “white hat” communities fair against the most pernicious forms of strong man warlordism outlined in other sections of this volume? In our (highly unlikely) best case scenario, larger Green Socialist Democracy regimes and alliances would form, exercising substantial police, paramilitary, defense capacity. In a more likely second-best scenario, something like Hanseatic Leagues and coalitions of such, with the capacity to mobilize local and regional defense forces for campaigns, and capacity for some on-going police coordination. The combination of robust local defense forces and localized economies would hopefully be enough to offset the worst elements of warlord competition.
We recognize that realization of our hopes on any grand (i.e., sufficient) scale is unlikely, but the foregoing is the best strategy we can think of, and in any case, as Mike Davis says, “either we fight for ‘impossible’ solutions…or become ourselves complicit in a de facto triage of humanity” and “‘a moral failure on a scale unparalleled in history.’”
Unlike much radical green
thinking, our analysis is not predicated on semi-religious or New Age hopes for a spiritual revolution, but, rather is firmly rooted in class and social analysis. We know that, in order to succeed at a global scale, a broad cross-class coalition, must become convinced that continuing commitment to high-modernist affluence makes one complicit in a civilizational and human catastrophe of unfathonable proportions. Is it possible for the global middle and lower middle classes, and their existing stocks of human capital and social capital, in the most advanced societies and the largest societies in particular, to metamorphosize into being part of the solution instead of part of the problem? The human potential is there, but is it realizable within the current political conjuncture and available time-frame? It may well be that we cannot retool (technologically, institutionally, culturally, psychologically) fast enough, given the momentum and inertia of the old ways and the power of those who blindly insist on carrying those old ways forward. We cannot know, but what we can say is that it looks like the next couple decades will be our last chance to build the political and human-capital base that might make the required conversion possible.
Even short of this ultimate global political goal, we believe that promoting the sort of producerist republican political economy outlined here is worth pursuing locally. Such a shift will increase local social and political resilience in the face of oncoming climate-change induced catastrophes, and hold open the possibility that here and there we will end up closer to Portland than to Puntland or Pyongyang, and able to hold off the warlords and the fascists (at least if they have already bitten off as much as they can afford to try to chew before getting to us) – thus preserving decent models for the future.