36. Transition path

Ch 36

Key elements of a transition path

The main aim of this book is to describe “a new place to stand”.  So the first four Parts of the book, about where we are now, how we got here, and where we should be, are the essence of the book.

In writing the book, I have been able to give myself a much firmer “new place to stand”, and to start work on where I want to go from here.  I’ve got very clear on the need to do it with others, and on the fact that there IS an enemy out there which needs to defeated – it is the “market society”, along with its underpinning ideology, social Darwinism.  This struggle might include turning the weapons of the market society back against it, but it does not “include” the market society.  In that sense, we are NOT “all in this together”.

Markets may very well be an acceptable instrument for the economic sphere, within a new ideology of thrift and equalised distribution, but they must be the servants of society, not its master.

So Part Five gives my thoughts on how to go down the path to our new society.  There are many people out there who are far further down this path than I am, and I have a lot of learning to do from them, so my thoughts are somewhat tentative.  But here goes.

Three fronts for immediate action

There are two very large risks associated with the radical changes we need.  The first is the existential threat of not making them fast enough, and condemning ourselves to an unliveable Earth.  If I have done nothing else in this book, I hope I have raised your sense of urgency about the need to do more, and fast.

The current track being taken by the powerful to reduce human impact on climate change is neither fast enough nor broad enough in scope to do anything better than delay the inevitable.

It is clear that we need to increase the speed of actions on climate change, to build on such momentum as has been created, and reinforced most recently by the Pope and to a lesser extent by new Chinese and American commitments to more action.

So an essential early step on a transition path is to do anything we can do to build this momentum.  Keep the political pressure on for faster action, do anything possible to pull the rug out from under fossil fuels, radically reduce or stop our use of them, pull any investments out from any institution supporting them, shift to use of other forms of power.  As consumers, we can have a very large impact, and that impact has to do to the fossil fuel industry what was done to the mechanical watch and acetate-based film industries – largely destroy it.

Petroleum has a lot of socially productive uses, and other fossil fuels may also have them, but burning them as fuel is not one of them.  And if we stop this fast, we may create some space and time to move on to other parts of the problem.

But eliminating fossil fuels without addressing the impact on the poor countries would be a social and humanitarian disaster.  This is the core issue being addressed by the “climate justice” movement.  Violence and forced migration would accelerate, poverty would increase, and the gaps between the rich and the poor countries would widen.

So a linked essential early step is to push by whatever means possible to increase the transfer of income, wealth and resources to the poorer countries.  Debt relief would be a really good place to start, taking financial pressure off the poorer countries.  The “Jubilee 2000” debt relief campaign had positive effects, leading to the cancellation of perhaps $100 billion in poorer country debt[i], but its gains have not been consolidated, and the Global Financial Crisis had substantial negative effects on the debt of poorer countries.  An interesting take on the cost of cancelling the debt of the poorest countries is given by WorldCentric.org:

“Cancelling the [$286 billion of] debts of all 52 Jubilee 2000 countries would only cost one penny a day for each person in the industrialized world for 20 years.”

But debt relief alone would not be enough.  More funds for investment and development are also needed.  Yes, much of it will be misused or misappropriated in the short term (just as it is in the wealthy countries).  But some agencies are now getting increasingly effective in targeting support or transfers of wealth or services to where they are really needed.  And the underlying principle they consistently use is that the nature of aid should largely be determined by its recipients, not by the donors.

Cleaner and more distributed forms of energy, intermediate technologies, cheaper communications, universal education, more rights to land use – these are the sorts of things we need to work on making more available.

A serious problem underlying this is that progressives are a humane bunch.  They put a lot of effort into trying to ameliorate suffering, into picking up the pieces caused by poverty and violence, and by their impacts of malnutrition, disease and injury, and forced migration.

And these problems are getting so bad that they are even being noticed by the conservatives.  Who are, by and large, misinterpreting them.  Migration to the United States from Mexico is seen as people (mostly bad people, if you believe Donald Trump) trying for a better life in the US, but of course the conservatives are blind to the fact that these are often acts of despair, caused by the US’s thefts from the poor world and its refusal to share the new wealth it is creating on anything like an equitable basis.

The immediate point is that too much of the effort of progressives is going into acting as ambulances at the bottom of the cliff.  And there is no easy solution to this.  The economic logic of investment in prevention is impeccable – that money invested in clean energy and water, habitable housing, and education will repay itself manifold downstream, as long as realisation of the investment is not prevented by war or other social turbulence.

But the humanitarian logic of trying to ease suffering when you see it is also impeccable.  How could anyone but a remote calculating machine choose to spend a dollar on a book for one child rather than to save another child who is starving or diseased from immediate death?  And such great institutions as the Red Cross and Médécins sans Frontières (whatever failings they might have) are literally ambulances at the bottom of these cliffs.

The best solution is to spend not one but two dollars.  To massively increase the transfers of income and wealth to the poor countries so opportunities are created to BOTH alleviate current suffering and ALSO invest for the future.   And to do this not on the basis of “charitable aid”, but as part of a systematic process of restitution of past wrongs, and redistribution of income and wealth on the basis of world-wide egalitarianism.

And if we need a selfish reason for doing this, let’s remember that it will help people stay where their roots are, rather than feeling forced to come to the more affluent world to have a chance for a reasonable life.  And this in turn would take pressure off domestic spending on reducing inequality.

So, as I said above, a second very early step on the transition path is to raise the pressure to increase levels and quality of foreign aid, including public investment in longer term solutions, from the affluent world.  I say “public” investment, but this includes private investment of a genuinely beneficial nature, as opposed to private investment as a front for later exploitation (Raj Patel is excellent on “there is no such thing as a free lunch” – the cheap or free offers by large corporations designed to lock poor societies into proprietary services[ii]).

And this brings us to the third early step we need to take, which is an enabler of the second, which in turn is an enabler of the first.  We need to reverse the tax and banking changes of the last thirty years.

As George Lakoff and Donella Meadows[iii] both say in their own ways, tax cuts were a strategic initiative with multiple effects.  These included hollowing out government sectors (except defence), reduction of support for the poor, and, of course, more money for the wealthy to buy Chinese vases.

There is nothing irreversible about the current low taxes in many countries.  The cries of the private sector and the wealthy that they will reduce profits, or force firms offshore, are the cries of wolves in sheeps’ clothing.  They have to be ignored.  The Scandinavian countries offer good counter-examples to their propaganda, of high tax, high equality, high affluence societies.

And there is now some momentum for a fairer tax system internationally, with moves being made to reduce tax avoidance by transnational corporations.

More progressive taxes on income also need to be accompanied by more taxes on wealth, as discussed in chapter 32.

So we need to force more mainstream discussion of the need for wealth taxes and more progressive income taxes, and support political parties who advocate this.  Because taxes are a great enabler – they create public wealth which can be used for the public good, not private wealth for Chinese vases.

And just as tax is a great enabler, with multiple effects, so too is the financial sector.  By being given the license to create and move money, and to gamble with it in ways even they no longer understand, the banks and stock markets have provided the financial fuel for our current bonfire.  They need to be reined in, better regulated, more highly taxed, and never again treated as “too big to fail”, or in other words, able to demand bailouts from taxpayers at will.

What I have just done is one of the funny bits about trying to describe a linear “transition path” within a complex system.  Fossil fuels are the biggest driver of climate change, so they need to be reined in first and fastest – they are the climate-wide equivalent of CFCs for the ozone layer.  But the consequent impact on poor countries needs to be addressed at the same time, otherwise the immediate and downstream effects will be very damaging.  And the best enabler for all of this is redistribution of income in the affluent countries, through higher taxes on the wealthy, and better regulation of the financial system.

So, the first three “steps” on the transition path are really three “fronts” – areas for action which need to be undertaken together.

A sidebar on more taxes on the wealthy as the source of funds.  Cutting out spending on “defence” (ie the state’s capacity for extreme violence towards other states and its own citizens) would immediately free up enough resources for a rapid transition to a fossil-free world while simultaneously beginning restitution to the poor world, and more equal distribution of wealth.  The Institute for Economics and Peace calculates that the world’s direct expenditure on the military, at about $2.4 trillion dollars, is more than 12 times the world’s expenditure on foreign aid[iv].  And good old Uncle Sam spends about half of this.  This spending, of course, shows no sign of preventing violence – it simply enables it.

But I think it will be easier in the short run to get successful democratic support for more taxes on the wealthy and better regulation of the banks than to change the aggressive and paranoid delusion of the powerful, that more and more effective weapons, and more people trained in the use of them, is the key way to a safer and better world.  First, we take back our money, and only then do we take their guns.  But, in the long run, we will need to take their guns, or they’ll use them to take the money back again.

Four fronts for longer-term action

At the beginning of this chapter, I said that there were two large risks associated with the radical changes we need.  The first was that we might make the changes too slowly.

The second large risk is the severely disruptive effect of making the changes too fast – destruction of our current institutions without transitional plans and institutions might cause such chaos that it simply creates space for the previously powerful to take even firmer hold, or the newly powerful to start repeating the same old mistakes.  Violent revolutions create power vacuums.

Violent revolutions happen as a last straw, when pressure which has built up to push back against oppression finally pops the lid of the pressure cooker.  Revolutions which are successful in overthrowing the powerful, however, are not always successful in planting the seeds of a better society, and even less often successful in building a genuine long lasting civilisation.

One of my contentions in this book is that we do not have a single truly “civilised” society in the affluent world, and that any movement we might have been making towards this has been thrown into reverse by the dominance of the market society and social Darwinism, particularly over the last thirty years.

A staged transition is preferable to revolution, and the implication of this is that a lot of work needs to be put into the institutions which guide and support the transition.  I know there is a lot of thinking being done in this area at the moment.  For example, I have already referred to Pierre Calame’s “Oeconomy”, which is a brave attempt to design a new economic system which is at the service of, rather than served by, society.  Further examples are given in Chapter 38.

And, either as part of these institutions or separately, there are three major areas where design of transitional arrangements is important.

The first is what will replace the profit-oriented corporation as the key actor in the economic system?  The good news is that we have at least two models already operating, albeit under great pressure from the profiteers.

The cooperative corporation (most famously represented by Mondragon in Spain) looks to me like an application of some of the distributed democratic principles of La Via Campesina in the economic sphere.  I have just read an excellent article which describes both the successes and the difficulties faced by Mondragon itself, which brings some of the issues involved firmly into the foreground[vi].

There are many cooperative businesses operating today around the world, with mixed success in the current competitive system.  Their essence is ownership by the people who actually work for the business and, usually, fairly egalitarian sharing of the income earned and wealth created.

The other model, which is gaining traction from within the United States itself, is the new “B Corp”, or “benefit corporation” model, which I first came across in “Six Capitals”[vii].  These are corporations which do not have profit for their owners as their legally-determined primary imperative, but some other specified benefit, and that benefit is for society, not for the corporation itself.

The development of law in the United States over the last two hundred years has given enormous ammunition to the profiteers so that, even when a corporation tries to move in a more socially responsible direction, it can be forced back to the pursuit of profit as its primary, indeed its only, goal.  The designers and supporters of B Corps have had to get legislative changes at a State level to enable them to overcome this.

But a word of warning – B Corps may only be a halfway house to something better, or even something less than that.  There’s nothing stopping them being in business for profit, so they, or some of them, may simply be another form of “green capitalism” – an oxymoron that Naomi Klein has quite rightly skewered.  But, in form at least, they have the capacity to be something better than the for-profit corporation.

Search the Internet for “B Corp” and “Critiques of the B Corp model” if you’re interested in learning more.

Regardless of the sorts of production and distribution models developed, safeguards will need to be raised against the new actors becoming too large and powerful, so that they tilt the system in their own favour to the extent that current corporations do.

The second major area is how to design and implement post-industrial agriculture wherever industrial agriculture has been.  While industrial agriculture is only a secondary contributor to climate change as such, it is also creating major risks to our basic food chain, by degrading both its immediate and its downstream environments.

Again, there are good models here, mostly but not exclusively in the poor world.  I have already referred to La Via Campesina and the permaculture movement, but I am sure there are many more.

Current movements to assert land rights, to stop deforestation, and to give Nature rights so she can be better protected, are also part of this fight, focussed on blocking or reversing the growth of industrial agriculture.  Many of these have been in the poor world, but they are increasing again in the affluent world as well, as a second wave of environmentalism grows in response to such corporate activities as fracking and expanded coal mining.

Another sidebar: You will notice I continually use the term “poor” world rather than “under-developed” or “developing” world.  This is partly because, as I’ve said before, the use of the term “developed” world to describe the affluent world is both incomplete (it does not include the necessary rider “at the expense of the poor world”), and also arrogant (it assumes that we are indeed in some sense complete or mature, as opposed to just being “the biggest consumers”).

And partly because one of the reasons for the poverty of the poor world is that the affluent world doesn’t listen to it.  Despite the fact that it is far further along the road of survival in a harsher world than most of the affluent world.  Traditional farming, and making do with little or nothing, are both highly developed skills in the poor world – when things get tougher in the affluent world, the poor may be better equipped to survive than the affluent.  But my underlying point is that the affluent world assumes it knows better than the poor world – this is the arrogance of power.

The third major area where design of transition arrangements is important is how will we redesign our education systems and curricula?  After some excellent developments in the generation after the Second World War, many of our education systems have been regressing to elitist, market-society focussed job training.  Even though there are fewer jobs to go round.

We need to place development as citizens, not as managers and advisors (rewarded for serving the power elite) or as resource workers (paid low or subsistence wages in unstable working conditions), at the centre of the curriculum.  We need to give children, from an early age, training in science (particularly ecological science), systems thinking, solidarity and diversity, personal development, and even thrift.

We need to create societies where children have a chance to fulfil their potential as human beings, not wither under the pressure of cut-throat competition for jobs and wealth.  And we need to prepare them to thrive in that world, through our education systems.

Further down the transition path

I haven’t addressed strengthening real democracy, or deweaponisation, in this chapter.  In the first case, this is partly because I suspect that it will be an inevitable trend or necessary tool as part of the transition.

The second case, deweaponisation, will only happen after a sea-change in either the composition or the minds of the powerful. Humanity has already had plenty of experience in weapons control, some of it effective, some of it less so.  But, given the will of a large majority to deweaponise, our existing institutions are likely to have the technical capacity to do it reasonably effectively.  This is one case where, at least in the short term, power may need to be met with greater power of the same kind, and we will have to trust that those with the greater power are acting on humanity’s behalf, not their own.

And further down the path, if we make taxes more progressive, and change our economic actors by replacing for-profit corporations with cooperatives and genuine B Corps, we may be laying the groundwork for an economy that runs WITHOUT MONEY.  By reducing the power of ownership, equalising income, and producing for the common good, we will be moving closer to a model of production and distribution based on mutual support.  At the very least, the function of money will be brought back closer to its central purpose, of smoothing exchange.

Read on, about “Confronting power…”>>
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[i] See for example http://advocacyinternational.co.uk/featured-project/jubilee-2000

[ii] “The Value of Nothing”, loc 800ff

[iii] See chapter 39

[iv] Page 4, “The Economic Costs of Violence Containment”, Institute for Economics and Peace, 2015

[vi] http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/19704-mondragon-and-the-system-problem

[vii] “Six Capitals”, loc 2858ff