How a small, dedicated group of people can transform the world—really
by Jay Walljasper
Social change is not something easily diagrammed on a chart. Sweeping transformations that rearrange the workings of an entire culture begin imperceptibly, quietly but steadily entering people’s minds until one day it seems the ideas were there all along. Even in our age of instantaneous information—when a scrap of information can zoom around the globe in mere seconds, people’s world views still evolve quite gradually.
Learning from the Right
This is exactly how the paradigm of corporate power came to rule the world. First articulated in large part by an obscure circle of Austrian economists, it surfaced in the United States during the 1950s as a curious political sideshow promoted by figures such as novelist Ayn Rand and her protégé Alan Greenspan.
The notion of the market as the bedrock of all social policy entered mainstream debate during the Goldwater campaign in 1964, which appeared to mark both its debut and its demise. Despite Republicans’ spectacular defeat in elections that fall—which extended from the White House all the way to local races—small bands of pro-market partisans refused to accept the unpopularity of their theories. Instead, they boldly launched a new movement that would eventually turn American life upside down.
Bankrolled by wealthy backers who understood that modern politics is a battle of ideas, market champions shed their image as fusty reactionaries swimming against the tide of progress and gradually refashioned themselves as visionaries charting a bold course for the future.
Their ranks swelled throughout the late 1970s as an unlikely combination of libertarian dreamers, big-business opportunists, and anxious defenders of traditional values signed up for the cause. The successive elections of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Ronald Reagan in the United States, and François Mitterrand in France confirmed market fundamentalists’ global ascendancy. Thatcher and Reagan, each in her and his own distinct way, became effective advocates for the idea that the market should be the chief organizing principle of human endeavor. Mitterrand, on the other hand, was a dedicated socialist but soon discovered that the growing influence of international capital rendered him powerless to carry out promises of his 1981 election campaign. This was final confirmation that we had entered a new age of corporate domination.
Ever since then, our world has been shaped by these forces. Alan Greenspan became the most influential economic policy maker in recent history during eighteen years as chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. And the market paradigm is now seen by many — a lot of whom did not begin as right-wingers — as an indisputable truth on the same level as the Ten Commandments or the laws of physics.
Today, it feels as though everything is for sale to the highest bidder—from the names of sports stadiums to DNA sequences that make human life possible. Since the 1980s, reform movements of the left and center successfully resisted certain extreme elements of the radical right agenda, but many Americans still believe a free-market blueprint for the future is inevitable. Progress, once viewed as the gradual expansion of social equity and opportunity, is now widely viewed as the continual expansion of economic privatization and unchecked corporate power.
Introducing the Commons Paradigm
There are emerging signs that market fundamentalism has passed its peak as the defining idea of our era. In the United States, the first glimmer of hope was when the Bush administration’s plan to partially privatize Social Security funds in the stock market gained little traction in Congress and public opinion. Painful financial upheavals around the globe revealed the glaring weaknesses of the current economic model for all to see, leaving some market true believers scrambling to embrace new policies. Yet old ideologies don’t quietly fade, especially when they enjoy sizable support in the corporate world. We’ve seen a fierce backlash against Barack Obama’s admittedly modest departures from rigid market thinking.
At the same time, a group of activists, thinkers, and concerned citizens around the world who are rallying support for the idea of a commons-based society. At this point, they’re a scrappy bunch—many with backgrounds in various social movements, community causes, and Internet initiatives—not so different from the dedicated market advocates of the 1950s, except in where they place their hopes. These commoners, as they call themselves, see possibilities for large numbers of people of diverse ideological stripes coming together to chart a new, more cooperative direction for modern society.
The volatile political mood of our era bears some resemblance to the late 1970s when liberalism was losing its footing and conservative policy makers refashioned their old political rhetoric, based on social exclusion and apologies for capitalism, into a shiny new philosophy: “the market.” Pre- viously the thrust of right-wing thought had been focused on what they were against (civil rights, labor unions, social programs, et cetera), but by claiming the market as their mission, they were able to emphasize instead what they were for. The success of that rebranding has led to many of the problems we now grapple with today.
A New Political Dawn?
In the same way, commons-based thinking could eventually shift the balance of politics in the United States and the world. Yet unlike market fundamentalism, the commons is not just old wine in new bottles; it marks a substantive new dimension in political and social thinking.
A commons-based society holds considerable appeal for progressives after a long period in which the bulk of their political work has been in reaction to initiatives from the right. Activists across many social movements, now aware that an expansive political agenda will succeed better than narrow identity politics and single-issue crusades, are starting to experiment with the language and ideas of the commons. This line of thinking also makes sense to some traditional conservatives who regret the wanton destruction of our social and environmental assets carried out in the name of a free-market revolution. In the truest sense of the word, the commons is a conservative as well as progressive virtue because it aims to conserve and nurture all those things necessary for sustaining a healthy society.
Growing numbers of citizens—including many who never before questioned the status quo—now seem willing to explore new ideas that once would have seemed radical. Millions of Americans are now making shifts in their personal lives such as buying organic foods, using alternative medicine, collaborating online, and searching for something beyond consumerism that offers a sense of meaning in their lives. They may not yet be sprinkling their conversations with the word commons, but they are looking for changes in their lives.
Now is the time to introduce a decisive shift in worldview. People everywhere are yearning for a world that is safer, saner, more sustainable and satisfying. There’s a rising sense of possibility that even with our daunting economic and environmental problems, there are opportunities to make some fundamental improvements. Everyone deserves decent health care. The health of the planet should take precedence over the profits of a few. Clean water, adequate food, education, access to information, and economic opportunity ought to be available to all people. In other words, a commons-based society. Let’s transform that hope into constructive action.
I stumbled on a book a long time ago at a used book store with the title, "The Quest for Utopia," by Glen Negley and J. Max Patrick, copyright 1952. The subtitle was "An Anthology of Imaginary Societies." It is basically a collection of wrtings by nineteenth century utopists describing societies which they believe might exist some time in the future. A lot of these descriptions are fanciful and based on notions which, in my opinion, are pretty far-fetched like the notion that all human beings are basically good people and that they will all behave properly given the right conditions. I don't believe that any society predicated on the fact that good behavior will somehow be universally achieved is realistic.
Other utopias, however, are not only realistic but contain germs of ideas which could be manifested in reality. Some of these ideas have in fact already been implemented. Such a one is "The Future Commonwealth" by Albert Chavannes (1836-1903), a Swiss immigrant to the US. Chavannes became a successful businessman and devoted his last years to writing. In 1894 he established a lumber company in Knoxville, Tennessee of which his grandson became owner. The grandson, Edward Chavannes, also became Mayor of Knoxville. Albert wrote "The Future Commonwealth" in 1892. What is interesting about this tract is not that it is an all encompassing description of a society which could be implemented in toto, but that it contains many good ideas which could be implemented in any society and some that have already been implemented in certain societies.
Chavannes was in the tradition of the English utilitarians and believed that whatever promoted the general welfare would also promote personal happiness. Contrast this with the current prevailing notion in the US today that whatever promotes individual freedom promotes the general welfare - just the opposite. Chavannes writes, "We consider the distribution of products the most important question, and that its correct solution offers the best prospect of increasing human happiness. The rich have more than they can enjoy, while the poor have less. We made our new Commonwealth the great Capitalist, and thus prevented the undue accumulation of wealth in private hands.
"There is the whole secret of it. Cooperation on a large scale, not practised by a few, for the advantage of a few, as it exists among you, but carried by the Commonwealth, for the advantage of the whole population, for the rich as well as for the poor, for the women as well as for the men."
Chavannes goes on to say that his utopia is not "simply a Socialistic settlement, where the state controls everything" and is not antithetical to the "free and independent citizens " of the US. He reassures the reader that his utopia has not abridged personal freedom.
"We ... have entrusted the Commonwealth with the accumulation and use of a portion of our capital for the benefit of the people, while you only entrust your government with the spending of such capital as you raise by unequal taxation, or by borrowing from the wealthy class, thus increasing the burdens of the producers by compelling them to pay interest on the money your government spends."
Here Chavannes has put his finger on the difference between the US model and the models of many other countries of the world. The US government is run on debt or taxation instead of on the principle of capital generation and accumulation. Other countries such as Norway, for example, have Sovereign Wealth Funds which generate capital which is then distributed to the people in the form of old age pensions. Norway's government takes 50% of the monies derived from its natural resources, oil, for example, and uses it on behalf of its citizens to offset taxes and to supply social benefits such as social security. The US gives away its natural resources to private corporations which then accrue all the profits for themselves. The US then has to borrow money from other nations' Sovereign Wealth Funds and has become the world's largest debtor nation. The only way the US can pay its own way is to raise taxes which it has an aversion to doing. So while other countries accumulate wealth which not only provides for social programs but is also used to offset taxes, the US neither accumulates wealth as a nation nor raises taxes thereby going increasingly into debt.
Tom Friedman thinks Democracy is becoming a hindrance.
The media is wringing it’s hands over the political climate. It’s always sunny when Democrats get their way. The forecast is for stormy weather. All this opposition and people in the street, it’s not a good thing.
Tom Friedman was on Meet the Press today with Tom Brokaw and David Brooks. He thinks we’d be better off if we were more like the Chinese government.
Brokaw: Tom, are we at a kind of turning point in America in terms of being able to make this a functioning country again or are we dysfunctional?
Friedman: This is what worries me that I’ve been saying for a while there is only one thing worse than one party autocracy, the Chinese form of government, and that’s one party democracy. In china if the leadership can get around to an enlightened decision, it can order it from the top down. Here, when you have one party democracy, one party ruling, basically and the other party basically saying “no”, every solution is suboptimal. When your chief competitor can produce optimal and you can only produce suboptimal! Because what happens whether it’s health care or the energy bill, votes 1 through 50 cost a lot; votes 50 to 59 cost you a fortune and 60, his name is Ben Nelson. By the time you made those compromises you wind up with the description out of the health care bill, which is this Rube Goldberg contraption, I hope it passes but I can’t tell you I think it’s optimal.
It’s so much easier to get things done when there’s no opposition, no one to say “no”. Of course to achieve that you have to round up and imprison or kill dissidents and impose censorship. As long as something optimal comes out of it once in awhile, say universal health care, it’s well worth it or so the thinking goes in some circles. History is well acquainted with optimal solutions from unopposed governments.
So even Tom Friedman, the arch proponent of globalism, thinks the Chinese model is winning out over the American model, and he didn't even mention the fact that China has a Sovereign Wealth Fund that is accumulating monies as the American government pays interest on its debt owed largely to China.
Chavannes had the difference between the "socialist" economies of western Europe and the laissez-faire capitalism of the US pegged. On the one hand the socialist governments are in the business of accumulating monies which can then offset both taxes and social programs. On the other the US government is in the business of beggaring itself because it gives away profitable revenue sources to private interests.
Chavannes goes on:
"Whatever costs money to maintain, as the streets and the parks, the police and the fire departmen, etc., is placed in the hands of the government, and the people are taxed for its support, while those enterprises which offer oppoprtunities to make money, as the supply of light and water, the life and fire insurance companies, are allowed to fall into the hands of corporations and individuals. We are so far Socialists as to keep in the possession of the people many valuable privileges which you give away to men who use them for private benefit."
Chavannes goes on to outline the various profitable enterprises that the government controls , but makes clear that there is still plenty of room for private enterprise to flourish. The point here is that not only is the government well funded in order to provide the things that private enterprise won't like maintaining and improving infrastructure, but does so without taxing the people so low taxes, improved infrastructure and social benefits go hand in hand.
Chavannes also makes a major point about apprenticeship programs in his utopia which is a subject we will go into on a future post.
I have blogged before about employee shift bidding which has been used by hospitals to schedule shifts for nurses. This gives the nurses some choice over their preferred shifts and pay levels. Employees would usually be able to get a higher pay rate for working less desirable shifts such as the graveyard shift. Employees who want the more desirable shifts would usually have to work for less. From the hospital's viewpoint, they can choose the nurse with the lowest bid for any particular shift thus minimizing their total budget.
What I am proposing here is a cooperative shift choice arrangement which would be appropriate for a worker's cooperative such as the Mondragon Corporation in Spain. In this situation the goal would not be to minimize total workers' pay as it would be in a for profit corporation. The overall budget for worker/owners would be set by some procedure such as negotiations between management and labor. Then subject to the overall constraint, workers would input their preferences as to shift choice and pay level. A computer program (or algorithm) would then seek to maximize worker satisfaction within the overall budgetary constraint. A detailed paper, "Algorithm for Employment Cooperative Shift Choice," can be found here.
This process goes beyond shift bidding or mere first come, first served scheduling. In addition to shift choices and pay levels, other parameters could be taken into account such as job location and work assignment assuming that the employee is qualified for more than one kind of work. More flexible time commitments than fixed shifts could also be considered. There is no reason why an employee couldn't work a certain number of hours on a particular day in a time slot of his or her own preference and a different number on another day in a different time slot as long as the need for employee coverage of shifts was met. This might be considered a secondary constraint.
In general a society or entities within a society which give individuals as much choice as possible over their work/pay schedules would tend to maximize employee and worker satisfaction. I have called this preferensism. It is based on utilitarianism which seeks to maximizes societal satisfaction or happiness. Recently, there has been much interest in basing a society on Gross National Happiness rather than GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Consumer choice can also be taken into account in terms of what is produced or stocked. Computerized consumer choice is already widely available, but there is no direct link between consumer choice and what is produced. "Just-in-time" production scheduling tends to make production a function of consumer choice, but consumers are generally "pushed" into consuming by advertising rather than producers being pushed by consumers so that only that which is really needed gets produced.
When I first read about gross national happiness in one of those unusual/weird news columns, I thought the idea of a country measuring happiness of its citizens was a complete joke. That was then, but a few weeks ago I changed my mind after visiting the landlocked country of Bhutan. It was then that I was introduced to the concept, and I don’t think it is much of a joke anymore.
The fourth king introduced the idea of gross national happiness in 1972. At that time, Bhutan was an absolute monarchy. Later, the king abdicated in favor of his son and voluntarily made his country a constitutional monarchy – no bloodshed, no coups, just a peaceful transition to democracy.
The king was a very forward-looking man, and based on the principle of gross national happiness, true development of human society takes place when material and spiritual advancement complement and reinforce each other. The king believed that every change must be developed and evaluated to ensure that it will lead to happiness, not just development, and that it is important to harmonize economic progress with the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of the people.
Bhutan takes modernization quite seriously and did not legalize television until this new century. However, they are not backward in any way when it comes to very modern hotels, Internet and filmmaking projects for students. They have moved from a closed kingdom to a modern country in very short order by what they call the four pillars of gross national happiness.
In her book, “Facts about Bhutan,” Lily Wangchhuk explains the four pillars. Equitable and sustainable socioeconomic development includes making sure that any development does not ruin the environment and that service delivery such as health and education is also based on equality so that all sections of society get equal delivery. The second pillar is preservation and promotion of culture, which includes strengthening the family and community, tolerance and cooperation, altruism, compassion and dignity, which they believe impact a low crime rate. It also includes the preservation of the culture, which includes centuries-old practices and rituals. The third pillar is conservation of the environment and is based on the Buddhist philosophy that human beings and nature are inseparable from each other. They believe that nature is a partner in existence and might have been one’s parents, friends, etc., in one’s timeless existence. It is one of the top three countries in the world that has more than one-fourth of its land as a protected area. The fourth pillar is good governance which means real involvement on a local level for all levels of government. They have decentralized choices and have created block committees to plan and oversee development. Neither central committees here nor even the national Congress makes all the decisions.
Bhutan could be a case study in any graduate school of government. It doesn’t just talk about gross national happiness, it measures it. Only 3.7 percent of its population reports being unhappy and it measures its happiness with other countries on something that is known as the “Happy Planet Index,” a product of a think-tank created to improve quality of life and to offer innovative solutions to national and international problems. It was created as part of “The Other Economic Summit,” which formed to address issues such as international debt which was not addressed at the G-20 and G-7 summits. According to the ranking of the Happy Planet Index, Bhutan ranks in the top 10 nations worldwide and is the happiest nation in South Asia.
What I noticed when I was in Bhutan is that everyone feels they have a stake in their country and the wellbeing of others and not in the way of big-brother communism. It is genuine, and people believe that they impact the daily lives of others. It is subtle but is reflected in all aspects of citizens’ lives. Imagine if we suddenly made laws in this country that were the results of concern for people’s happiness. Imagine how the “debate” in the Senate would have changed on Saturday night with that perspective.
Bhutan is not a country that is interested in just reaping the happiness for itself; it’s interested in spreading it throughout the globe. This week there is a conference in Brazil, its fifth International Conference on Gross National Happiness with topics such as holistic management of people and the financial crises as well as economic democracy. Bhutan aims to take its concept to the world and will attempt to get other governments to pay attention to what can make citizens happy in the long haul. I just wish that our Congress had spent the weekend at the conference instead of talking at each other in the Senate on health care; it would have been more fruitful.
The economy of the US is based on consumerism. 70% of GDP is due to American consumption. Meanwhile, a billion or more people in the world are starving and don't have access to clean water. What is wrong with this picture? If the human race were rational, it would seem that the first order of business would be to see to it that everyone in the world was at least adequately fed and had clean water. Instead there is a lopsided distribution of goods and services with the first world gluttonously hogging much more than its fair share. And for what? So they can die prematurely from obesity?
One third of Americans are overweight or obese. This is the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. While they die of malnutrition and disease in Africa, they die of meganutrition, supersized nutrition and disease in America. Americans are not only overconsumers; they are stupid consumers. If they were intelligent consumers, they would not consume excess calories. They would get off their butts and excercise, and they would organize in such a way as to offshore the extra calories, not their jobs.
This is why private enterprise doesn't work. Because it is only interested in profits, it doesn't see to it that goods, services and even calories are rationally distributed in the world. And that's to the detriment not only of the people who have too little but also to the detriment of the people who have too much. There's no reason why, once a technology is well developed, it can't be distributed throughout the world to bring its benefits to all people in the world. The only thing preventing this is the profit motive and the sheepishness of governments to interfere with private enterprise. For instance, the basic principles of how to obtain clean water and sanitation have been well known for centuries. Yet private companies want to capitalize on clean water by privatizing water systems throughout the world. Instead if governments just did the job in behalf of all their people, not just the ones who could pay, disease would be reduced.
Inequality is one of the biggest threats to peace in the world. The fact that there is a minority of haves and a majority of have nots contributes to tension and war among the world's peoples. Instead of the haves fighting the have nots in asymetrical wars - asymetrical because the haves have advanced weaponry and the have nots have improvised explosive devices - the advanced world would be better off sharing their resources and knowledge with the have nots. Reduction of inequality will make the world a more peaceful place. The only difference between terrorists and warmongers is that the terrorists are poor and hence have weapons-of-poverty while the warmongers of the advanced nations have all the weaponry money can buy.
The US needs to back off from worshipping the profit motive and devoting itself to the military-industrial complex, pouring money into war and weaponry, and to start redistributing its knowledge and resources to the rest of the world. It's not only the right thing to do; it will bring about more fruitful results. There is overconsumption in American life leading to death, and there is underconsumption in the poorest parts of the world leading to death.
War mongers and profiteers are literally sucking the life blood out of American society turning the US itself into a nation of haves and have nots. Capitalism is devouring itself while it is intent on devouring the rest of the world. The only problem is that the US is running out of natural resources so it must import them from the rest of the world, but the rest of the world is starting to realize that they can charge the US big bucks for these resources. It just doesn't have to give them away. Therefore, the US needs to become more self-sufficient at the same time that it needs to divulge its technology at the level of human needs to the rest of the world. Production of clean water and development of sanitation systems is not rocket science. It is infrastructure and infrastructure development is best undertaken by governments not private enterprise.
The US needs to discourage the rampant greed that now runs the country and results in banks hiring lobbyists - six for every Congressperson - to influence government to develop policies in the interest of banks. And its all for the purpose of making huge sums of money for some people in the right positions who contribute nothing in terms of production of real goods and services much less in terms of rationalizing the distribution of water, sanitation, food and medicines in the world. 'We are all in this together' applies to the whole world not just to arbitrarily drawn nation states on a map. National borders are artificial contrivances. The technology to develop a good and decent lifestyle for all the world's peoples has been known for some time. The systems for putting it in place have been held up by greed - wanting to profit off of basic goods and services - and lack of organizational smarts. The human race has been dumb in coming up with methods of organization that are beneficial to human well-being and selfishness accounts for the rest.
A post consumerist society would lay the emphasis on creating a basic, healthy decent way of life for all human beings. From this basic level of well being people could spread out to add the icing to the cake. What is necessary for a basic level of well being is well known: clean water, adequate sanitation, education, health care, decent housing, wholesome food. Those who aren't in a position to provide these things for themselves should be provided for. Those who are in a position to provide more than a basic level of well being for themselves should be free to do so, but this shouldn't be carried to the level where people can gluttonously overprovide for themselves to the detriment of their well being. Those who can afford to eat a zillion calories a day aren't doing any good for themselves. It's in their own best interest if someone steps in and takes away the spoon even if it's the government. Overconsumption just like underconsumption leads to ill health. It's not irrational for governments to step in and say 'Hey, you guys are eating (consuming) too much. You would be better off if you ate (consumed ) less and gave the excess to those guys over there who don't have enough.' Greed and overconsumption kill just as lack of ambition and underconsumption kill.
Free people, who aren't wise enough to limit their consumption and share with people who don't have enough, don't deserve to be free. They're not only killing others; they're killing themselves.