The main way we are fooled is by being convinced that there is some perfect society that awaits us if we follow all the rules — a utopia, if you will. It is the American and the Marxian dream that one day we will be part of a well-oiled machine that moves productively and elegantly in perpetual motion. Walter Mosley
You say you want a revolution; well, you know we’d all love to change the world. But if you’re talking about destruction, then you know that you can count me out. You ask me for a contribution; well, you know we’re all doing what we can. But if you are asking for money for people with minds that hate, then I’d tell you buddy you have to wait. John Lennon
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Franklin Roosevelt
There appears to be a gradually growing consensus that our existing economic system is failing us in a number of fundamental ways, and yet there is an exploding cacophony about what can be done about it. Many economists, still drunk with their neo-liberal excess (anti-labor, pro-monopoly, and financial recolonizing), still contend “there is no alternative”, while clandestinely embracing a return to feudalism and fascism. Others decry the massive inequality and suggest that a number of socialistic alternatives merely be grafted onto our already fatally over-rigged system. Unfortunately, as Walter Mosely reluctantly points out, in his Folding the Red into the Black: Developing a Viable Untopia for Human Survival in the 21st Century, both capitalism and socialism are utopias (as in fantastical mirages) that humans CANNOT obtain, maintain and/or contain. In fact, given our standard practices, all isms (even libertarianism) swiftly degrade into oligarchy and/or kleptocracy.
In another magisterial opus, Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century, leading economist, Brad Delong, chronicles the vast success of the American Century (1870s to 1980s). However, he concludes with observations suggesting that the party is now over, with many a promise (e.g., shared prosperity via “trickle-down”) largely unmet. Nevertheless, he offers little in the way of alternatives, aside from alluding to reassembling smashed remnants from the New Deal era. It is worth pointing out that DeLong observed some the smashing firsthand, during his service in the Clinton Administration. Unfortunately, there is no reincarnation of FDR (nor his ideas) in either of the major political parties today. Political Economy, (both left and right) is now mostly just slouching toward DYSTOPIA (e.g., Mad Max, The Last of Us, or merely Nazis with Nukes). Even those social theorists who accept an untopian, or moderating perspectives, still believe that we can somehow blend the oil and water of capitalism and socialism. By contrast, I believe that even a remotely reasonable economy demands, in the words of Monty Python, “something completely different”.
Let’s Be Unreasonably Reasonable
The quest for viable economy should begin with relatively intense immoderation. To succeed it will also involve MLK style non-violent resistance and extremely rare experimental (yet non-dictatorial) leadership. This assumes that there is still time to avert a dystopian outcome, even if the chances are growing slim. Several historical scholars contend that societies with such massive inequalities always end in violent insurrection. Many scholars contend that we can only initiate a more inclusive economy well after a few decades of violence and reactionary repression (assuming we survive). When I say immoderate, I still hope that we can miraculously avoid a descent into extreme barbarism beforehand. I recognize, however, that economists like Thorstein Veblen who chronicled our previous Gilded Age would tell us we have already returned to a level of “war-like barbarism”.
Immoderation begins by reclaiming a number of ingredients and ideas not included in either socialist and capitalist dogma. I and number of my unorthodox colleagues conclude that an ecological worldview (both natural and social), with tools and concepts drawn from the emerging science of Complex Adaptive Systems, is absolutely essential. For a bit more technical discussion see: (http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue102/Daneke102.pdf). In essence, a new improved socio-ecological economics anchored in adaptive institutional designs and insights from evolutionary societal processes is integral to averting mounting crises in our basic life support systems, as well as enhancing wide-spread economic well-being.
More essential perhaps, the entire economy must be placed upon a new provisioning foundation. As George Monbiot, in his epic Out of the Wreckage: New Politics for an Age of Crisis, illustrates that, from a historical as well as ecological perspective, the base elements of an economy are not delimited by state versus market, rather they include: state, market, commons, and household. Obviously, this suggests a great deal more effort focused on the latter two.
Making the Commons Relatively Common Again
The commons once referred to lands that were publicly shared. The Boston Commons was once a grazing area for anyone bringing their flocks to market. Commons were once fairly common. Commoners (mostly serfs) were allowed to freely use certain pastures, forests, and farm plots. Provisions for the commons were once codified in ancient Roman Law, yet in our British Common Law tradition the concept was spirited away by greedy landlords. In Britain a policy called “the Enclosure” was brutally enforced, and the notion of commonwealth became an oxymoron. George Orwell (wearing his journalist hat) once observed:
Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power.
In our time, enclosure extends to so-called “intellectual property”. Patents, trademarks, and trade restrictions have been applied to mountains of what should be public patrimony. The seven years of protection from competition given to BIG FARMA on drugs that came from decades of tax payer supported research is a case in point. Moreover, they merely have to alter their formula in some minor way (e.g., making a time-release version) to have their monopoly extended.
The Internet which was built by the Defense Department (i.e., DARPA NET) is less an information super-highway than a privately exploited misinformation toll road. The huge social media and search engine monopolies have also benefited mightily from the virtual abandonment of anti-trust law enforcement sold by the neoliberal/neofeudal economists and lawyers. Furthermore, the algorithms that reprocess the BIG DATA, not only exploit stolen and unwittingly shared personal information, they manipulate our choices (not to mention fuel our fear and hatred in ways that would have made Goebbels giddy).
Reclaiming or untangling the commons will be no simple matter, but it is not as impossible as one might think. Contract and licensing law is full of instances of broadly shared property rights. Some small-scale agriculture commons still exist in parts of Europe. The late, Elinor (Lin) Ostrom made a very illustrious career locating and explaining examples of sustainable communal management of “common pool resources” (e.g., watersheds, fisheries, crop rotations, etc.) across the globe. While her work has been misused by anarcho-capitalists, it stands as a significant contribution to thinking about “polycentric” political economies. A wide array of think tanks and societies are now dedicated to carving out new commons that go well beyond urban gardens and co-ops. The real battles, however, will be waged over clawing back resources and technologies by reversing trends toward privatization and monopolization. We need to target a range of domains amid the commonwealth and scientific infrastructure (funded by the public, yet transferred or licensed out for a song).
We missed a real opportunity in the recent financial crisis (which is still unresolved) when our leaders from both parties decided to bailout (and allow bonuses) to banks that should have been temporarily nationalized using existing regulatory rules. These government giveaways to the unscrupulous rich have recently been extended to individual corporations and “shadow bankers” (venture/hedge/private equity funds and various intermediating brokers) despite their not being Federal Reserve members. We could have at least required changes to their basic business model (e.g., making space for community owned banks) as well as increasing their reserve requirements. Dodd-Frank has already emerged as a total Trojan horse. Before we leave the tax payers holding another over collateralized/weakly covenanted bag of shit (e.g., repackaged distressed corporate loans) we might consider allowing the workers to substitute industrial democracies (e.g., Mondragon firms) for zombie enterprises.
We are now facing another bursting bubble (now mostly in commercial real estate) on a scale near the Great Dispossession of 2008. Before we offer bargain basement bailouts for hedge and private(pirate) equity funds, we should consider a broader range of options (e.g., housing the legions homeless in retrofitted commercial spaces and allow them their own ownership associations). If the tax payers are going to be forced to pay for more mountains of financial malfeasance, they should be able to redirect a portion of their involuntary investment.
There is No Place Like Home
The household is such a vital element to our economy is absolutely astonishing how it is so ignored, save it be Gary Becker and the Freakeconomicusers (who apply mercenary production functions to all sorts of human interactions). For the Greeks who coined the term, economics was mostly centered upon the household (eco means home), but most economists abandoned these concerns long ago. Billions in unpaid labor (mostly by women), however, resides there. As lowly as domestic house keeping has become, it would still be catastrophic if householders had to pay partners for their services (even at the suppressed market level). Apparently adequate parenting is a huge freebee for the economy, yet we all pay the huge costs of inadequate child rearing to private prison investment funds. One recent case where an elderly couple got far less public support for their blood grandchild than his half sibling (who was not of their blood), suggests where the law now stands on foster care versus free parenting. We just assume families shall provide for these vital processes at premium levels, despite the ravages imposed on the middle class lately (not to mention the absolute necessity of having at least two wage earners per household).
Like the enclosure of our intellectual commons, the crisis situation in our households raises some very vital questions about what the hell is an economy for anyway. Promises of utopia either left of right will not even begin to address these basic provisioning issues. We need to get to the gritty work of building a passable untopia (which is NOT some sort of crude “middle path”). Besides as Michael Harrington observed, we already have the left and right stuff upside down: “In American we have socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor”. Moreover, there is no promised land, especially not in our racist, misogynous, and mythological past (nor our neo-reactionary present). This is an open invitation to demagogues.
Even if we experienced the second coming of FDR (or even a Trust-Busting Teddy), they could never get elected in our current system of legalized bribery, and “dark money” (not to mention our polarized political culture and hate amplifying media). By way of a tangent, we probably need serious campaign finance reform before we can even get started on building a viable economy. Nevertheless, before we leave Franklin in the dust bin of history, it is worth noting that despite his patrician heritage, the wealthy labeled him “an enemy to his class”. A few from Wall Street actually plotted to have him overthrown (recently semi-depicted in the comic/mystery Amsterdam). Furthermore, in his 1944 State of the Union address: he set forth an Economic Bill of Rights, including:
- The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
- The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
- The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
- The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
- The right of every family to a decent home;
- The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
- The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
- The right to a good education.
In today’s context, these immoderate guidelines are far beyond the pale, yet they might be used (in FDR’s stead) to initiate our quest for untopia. They are, moreover, predicated upon dismantling our welfare for the wealthy programs. The income tax was originally sold on the promise that it would only impact the rich (another whopper from the No War/Yes Federal Reserve, Woodrow Wilson). Yet, now taxes only really effect wage serfs. Eisenhower era progressive rates and a “Tobin Tax” (on financial transactions) are crucially needed (not to mention removing the ceiling on Social Security contributions). Then we could seriously dissect and reevaluate the institutional ecology and remove the barriers that prevent the masses from sharing in our monumental prosperity. Well beyond the need for a living minimum wage and/or a guaranteed minimal income, our economy is completely riddled with redlining and over credentialing. Furthermore, the only source of a semi-normal life is to submit to the planet killing Debt (Death) Star. Our sick social ecosystem is worse that dog eat dog, it openly punishes altruism and voids reciprocation (despite evidence of their systemic utility). Our mega-Ponzi scheme banking and finance institutions have been cannibalizing the future for so long that we cannot even see the galactic black hole hanging over our children.
In the final analysis, the key to untopia is mostly about UNRIGGING the economy. It is not a shell game, nor is it about just re-rigging it for a different set special interests. As Lloyd Dumas, pointed out in his classic The Overburdened Economy: Uncovering the Causes of Chronic Unemployment, Inflation, and National Decline, we could break the cycles of rigging and re-rigging if we could just contain monstrosities, like the Military Industrial Complex. As Princess Leia would say “we already have everything we need”. However, we still need a truly “Great Reset”, just NOT the one offered by the “Davos Men(mostly)”, nor the MAGAnites. Securing a viable economy is not the domain of a self-appointed super-human idiots, nor omnipotent polymaths. Economics is not rocket science (except maybe when certain financial engineers misapplied Ito Calculus). Those who told you it is were lying. However, we need to remove the gantries and fire up the engines, and soon.