We Are in the Middle of Transformational Change: It's Time the Debate Matches up with the Huge Challenges Ahead of Us
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A better world is possible. So is a worse one. Which will we get? Finding the proper focus is itself a challenge.
For example, much of the conversation these days among well-meaning people about the state of our economy and what the president (or somebody) ought to do about it centers on jobs. Do we need more jobs? The conventional answer is of course we do, so let’s keep on having the old arguments about tax breaks versus government stimulus, big business versus small business, blah, blah, blah.
But maybe we don’t need "jobs" at all. Maybe instead of scurrying around to create "jobs" as defined for the last 100 years we should start by taking a different tack altogether.
As it always has been and as it always will be, there are plenty of things that need to be done -- growing food, moving people and goods around, teaching young people what they need to know, manufacturing various kinds of stuff, curing sick people and so on. But the 20th century "jobs" method of connecting those needs to individuals, families and communities has been seriously out of whack for quite some time.
A huge portion of the population is already totally outside that model with no prospect of inclusion. That’s the meaning behind our exorbitant rate of incarceration, massive school dropout and perpetually high unemployment, especially in our cities. Further evidence of systemic breakdown is revealed by recent “revelations” that more education does not truly bestow immunity to income stagnation and recurring unemployment. Like it or not, absent a radically different approach, job elimination will continue to outpace the trend toward job creation in good times and bad.
Truth be told, just about all of the systems that sort-of, kind-of solved various problems for the last 200-300 years don’t work all that well anymore. They are out of alignment with current reality.
The reaction to the Supreme Court’s "free speech for corporations" ruling provides another example. Those crying the alarm have it backwards. That ruling is decidedly not going to cause the end of democracy. And "fixing" the ruling isn’t going to "save" democracy either. It is actually but one effect of a line crossed some time ago. Thanks to the superseding power of the transnational corporation, democracy “peaked” in the United States some time ago.
Until we break out of the straitjacket of 20th century paradigms we can expect nothing but more gridlock and frustration. Even mainstream pundits like Frank Rich are quoting mainstream historians like Alan Brinkley to observe that, "We will soon enter the fourth decade in which Congress -- and therefore government as a whole -- has failed to deal with any major national problem, from infrastructure to education."
Neither the founding fathers of the United States, nor for that matter Marx and Lenin, envisioned the world we live in today. By way of reference points, we all know about the huge societal transformation from feudalism to capitalism or the shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy. But even these examples do not capture the magnitude of the forces at work today:
- Economic globalization under the domination of transnational corporations
- Climate change
- Nuclear disorder that has displaced the relative stability of the cold war
- New science and technology
- Changes in the species homo sapiens (It is rarely part of our political discourse, but us humans ain’t what we used to be: human reproduction no longer requires intercourse; there are new, reliable and widely available methods of birth control; neuroscience and pharmacology are increasingly used to modify human behavior, longevity has increased dramatically; our diet is very different; the economic status of women has become drastically altered.)
These five forces are rocking our planet as it has never been rocked before. All are fast moving. Each is significant. And each one powerfully impacts the others. By way of illustration, consider the nature and role of nation states.
"Old" nations such as China are profoundly different than they were less than 50 years ago -- never mind 300 or 1,200 years ago. The same is true of “middle-aged” nations such as the United States. (The United Nations had 51 members when it was founded in 1945. Today it has 192. Thirty-three nations have come into existence just since 1990. It’s that dynamic that makes even a relatively new kid on the block such as the U.S. middle-aged.)
But be they ancient or newborn, all nations today are struggling to define their relationship to global corporations loyal to no nation-state whatsoever. For the time being, governments are not effectively regulating the behavior and setting the rules of the road for corporations. Clearly, it is the other way around.
The United States is as good a case in point as any. To be sure the American Revolution created an effective alternative to the tyranny of the British throne. But more than 200 years later our system of government is conspicuously not up to the test of offsetting the tyranny of Big Finance, Big Energy and Big Health Care.
At the same time, as the role and power of the nation state has changed, so has the nuclear "balance of power." Yes, the possible use of nuclear weapons by countries that possess them, most notably the United States, remains a threat to the world. But now, so does the possibility of their use by non-state actors such as Al Qaeda.
Naturally, such dramatic change creates both noise and confusion. How could it be otherwise? Much of the 20th-century world order was explained and even predicted by Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, C.L.R. James, Albert Einstein, Frantz Fanon, and others. But that has yet to happen for the emerging world order of the 21st century.
There are some exceptions, but mostly what we have instead are the utterly inadequate "cutting the foot to fit the shoe" efforts of neocons, neoliberals and neo-Marxists alike. None of their theories entirely anticipate or fully contend with the five big forces identified earlier.
The obsessive looking backward of many political thinkers and activists is itself evidence of disorientation in the face of these powerful changes. In the U.S. for example we hear calls from all points of the ideological spectrum to take America back, recapture the American dream, restore America’s place in the world, "save" this and "defend" that, etc. Elsewhere Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other organizations are also dedicated to restoring a long-gone and never-to-return economic, political and social order.
But can the new reality be crammed back into the old assumptions and structures? Is "left to right" the immutable and permanent way of defining the political positions that humans can adopt? Three-hundred years from now will the descendants of Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell still be going at it tooth and nail?
The left-right spectrum does retain some descriptive power. But as a genuinely useful tool of analysis, let alone the source for envisioning better ways to organize human activity -- not so much.
That is not to say that efforts to start from today’s reality are not underway. Bruce Lipton and Steve Bhaerman in their book, Spontaneous Evolution: Our Positive Future and How to Get There from Here; Grace Boggs drawing on the foundation laid with the late James Boggs; Naomi Klein; Jeremy Rifkin in his new book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in World Crisis; scholars at the Ho Chi Minh Institute in Hanoi; the editors and writers of Monthly Review and many others are working to understand, describe and define the forces in play. It is not an easy task. The new reality is extremely complex and the pace of change adds a whole other level of difficulty. That said, perhaps a breakthrough is right around the corner.
But based on what is already understandable, one fundamental choice is already crystal clear. Should we spend time trying to claw our way back to the 20th century social contract? Or, should we shift our energy to working on a new one?
Isn’t the decision obvious? Every minute we spend grieving over the loss of the old world order is time we are not spending on imagining and creating the new one.
Does imagining a new world order mean we should give up our struggles to end wars, fight current injustices and so on? Not necessarily. But the times do call for activists to rethink our collective and our individual commitment of time and other resources. Be it health reform, reinventing unions, improving labor law, ending this or that war -- you name it -- our problem is that we that we are thinking too small, not too big.
Fortunately, more and more people instinctively grasp that we are living in extraordinary times of enormous potential. Throughout much of the world, including the U.S., the attraction to Barack Obama derived partly from the awareness that the old answers no longer apply -- even if we don’t yet know what the new answers are. It is no surprise then that the disappointment with Obama comes from the perception that he turns out to be completely wedded to old ways of seeing the world and totally loyal to the existing centers of power.
Another world is already happening. Consequently, another world is not only possible, another world is necessary. The quest of the World Social Forum and the U.S. Social Forum is one prominent manifestation of the search for new solutions and new forms of organization. There are others.
Many are turning down the daily noise to focus on the potential for all humans, above and beyond present divisions within and between various nation states, ideologies, tribes, political parties, single issue causes, social or economic classes and religions.
All over the world, some are already reflecting the comprehensive vision expressed by the late peace activist Lillian Genser: "I pledge allegiance to the world, to care for earth and sea and air, to cherish every living thing, with peace and justice everywhere."