If Not Now, When?
Too often in the attraction and spectacle of self-consciously “historical” moments we forget the deep and enduring hypocrisy throughout our social institutions, and the deep forces of structure and history underwriting the particular object of our concern. The granting of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barrack Obama in the midst of the COP-15 talks in Copenhagen this week is neither an exception to nor too far off from the Nobel committee’s record of awarding their top prize to wholly unjustifiable candidates.
There are better standards than shilling in the most appalling way. Frankly when you are faced with a colossus that outspends everyone on the wrong things, to the point where the future survival of the species is now an open question, rather than begrudging the Swedes for currying favor we might better focus on what we can do here at home. Given the events of the past week and the potential of inaction to be grossly underwhelming next week, perhaps we can do better with some unflinching realism today in keeping our eyes on what truly matters.
What follows is one attempt at the kind of realism this moment demands. We should be clear that this moment is not just the Copenhagen moment or the Climate Justice moment, but the ending of the post- Cold-War interregnum and the neoliberal market fundamentalism that led to such obvious mistakes as the 11th of September and the resulting war in Afghanistan and the continued occupation in Iraq. You cannot hold the promise of the future with perilous teeth in the present. However noble or novel it may be to have the Executive Branch headed by a black man, his West Point speech on December 2nd of 2009 is only the latest episode to clarify the limits of this one man when the power structure to which he is beholden seriously worries about its real prize – their access to Central Asian oil.
As much as we might rightly say in response to the hollowness of President Barrack Obama and his prize “earn it” – what does that mean? Here and now? Obama has responded more than once – to labor, to healthcare, and to clean-energy development and other progressive movements that we “have got to make him do it” – so what does that take to achieve? If it is true that a movement as broad and as energized as that captivated by the 2008 elections cycle can counteract the entrenched forces of money and power that keep a deadlock on American politics, what does that require of us today? What will it require tomorrow that we cannot do today?
Toward Social and Economic Reconstruction
We must collectively recognize that social and economic problems do not begin nor end with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and actively work to address their root causes and conditions. Care must be taken to extend our efforts past the immediate effects and aftermath of the wars that we struggle to end, to the totality of social and economic institutions that constitute “the system” writ large, and in concrete and immediate ways address the following concerns:
- That we live in a militarized economy and society, and that the United States is, dangerously, first and foremost a military empire whose economic empire is in decline. We must work to not only end military research, military funding and investitures, and military programs in our universities, but throughout the society as well, and work to reconstitute the productive capacity and social benefits currently devoted to and dominated by the military and war system.
- That the National Security State, the conglomeration of military, intelligence, technological and financial institutions that ultimately have control over direction and organization of the society and economy, must be held accountable to everyone in the society. Every institution or practice that does not justifiably maintain and enhance solidarity, cooperation, and mutual concern must be refigured so as to achieve these ends.
- That irrationality, waste, environmental decay and mismanagement, as well as the potential for outright ecological collapse threatening the future of the species and that of the planet are inherent to an economic and social system that ignores or externalizes every consideration save for one – profit. We must work to mitigate present ecological damage, drastically reduce our footprints, and convert to sustainable social and economic infrastructure.
- That unsustainable urban and community spaces basic to the lives of everyday people must be converted with the utmost urgency. Much of what makes “the system” seem inevitable and immutable is its everydayness, how often and unthinkingly people participate in it at some level. A commitment to bringing urban and community spaces under the control and direction of the people that live in them must also involve a commitment to creating sustainable alternatives to housing, transportation, parks, and basic infrastructure and social services more generally that are attractive to, and in practice work better for, everyday people than currently existing forms.
- That industrial policy at all levels be reclaimed by everyday people for civilian uses, and focused on reconstituting the society’s manufacturing base, with decision-making and control firmly in the hands of the communities where production centers and infrastructure are located.
- That the ability of everyday people to acquire economic, media, and political power is wholly mitigated by deal making and compromise with established foundations, corporate media, and entrenched political parties. These tethers obviate in great part the creation of alternative institutions and social relations that create and extend self-sustaining infrastructure for our movements. We must strive to not only connect the dots of militarism, the sabotage of democracy, and ecological decay, but to actively oppose and refigure tendencies towards commodification, corporatization, and cooptation present within our movements as well as possible from without.
- That we recognize the need for, and actively build towards, social and economic reconstruction. That is, we design and implement alternative institutions whose operational details, the actual plans and actions across firms and industries, embody our shared values, and are not only responsive to the challenge of capitalism, but address other challenges as well, such as militarism, environmental decay, sexual and ethnic divisions of labor, and so on.
Social and economic reconstruction may be achieved through concrete institutions and actions such as cooperatives, worker participation and control, employee ownership plans, socially responsible firms, community procurement, cross-industry solidarity and cooperation, decentralized participatory planning, state and regional federations and networks among local cooperatives and worker controlled firms, and various initiatives to organize the economy on a decentralized basis where each and every economic actor has a say in decision-making in proportion to the degree in which they are affected by social and economic decisions.
The present demands it of our generation. So does the changed social and political landscape that is breaking upon as the waking nightmare of this post-Cold War interregnum is finally passing. Though we seek long-term fundamental change in the dynamics of power, we must concurrently seek concrete immediate gains that empower and improve the lives of people in our community. These short-term gains need not be conceived of or abandoned as “reformist” – mere palliatives that do not address let alone explain root causes. Eddies and dead-ends and what have you for our movements. Strategically implemented, even the most basic of reforms can lead to building what “hope” and “change” can truly mean. Here and now in the real world of state power and corporate capitalism. Through non-reformist reforms our movements to reach out, gain support, create real improvement in our world and in people’s lives, enable larger changes in the future, and come closer to a common vision of a just and stable future. We simply have to start, with whatever we have, get creative leveraging it to maximum effect, and future possibility along the pathways we seek.
From public healthcare, public education, community-owned clean-energy production, safe and healthy food, and so on, our ultimate goal must a complete and fundamental reconstitution of society along truly democratic lines. This is the trajectory of the change required. There simply is no alternative if your prize is peace, and your goal is climate stabilization. Here and now. This will no doubt be an arduous task. This will no doubt require a sea change in how we consider ourselves and our movements in the future. We must recognize that near every community, and certainly every congressional district, has been wholly entrenched in and dependent upon the permanent war economy since the Second World War, deformed by unsustainable urban and regional planning and infrastructure that works for capital and not for people, and frozen by a multitude of processes that continuously alienate people from the political process, and their own self-governance more generally.
None the less and no matter more, demilitarizing, greening, and bringing the society and economy under direct and local control will not happen after attaining political power, or through top-down processes. These goals must be sought simultaneously in all of our progressive movements, and we must aim to build ever greater and more self-sustaining infrastructure to meet to scale each transformational stage on the pathway towards what visions of a just and stable future we can justify.
These are urgent patient tasks that must involve building alternative institutions and social practices and relations that not only embody our values and prefigure our vision, but actually work better for people than economic and social forms as they are currently organized. Here and now. Our “seeds of the future in the present” must be practicable and compelling in their own right, and be attractive to everyday people and everyday concerns precisely because they are the most rational, effective, and equitable means to embodying the values and achieving the goals of communities, local regions, and the society more generally. This means addressing in complete honesty just how the concerns of a tiny plutocratic elite and their attendant mandarin classes have and continue to be elevated by current economic and social forms. This means that by delinking ourselves and our communities from the system we oppose, we must simultaneously devolve the power of that system while rebuilding our own power – in a metaphor, entirely rebuilding a ship piece by piece while at the same time keeping it afloat at sea.
Notes on Origin:
In its origins, this essay was a statement of vision addressed to students drawing off the history and legacy of progressive movements for social justice in the United States. Just a few short years ago, climate change was not a priority for the generation that is simultaneously most within a position to act on its causes, and disproportionately first and foremost to suffer its impacts. Visions for the future had the luxury of being defined merely by what one had the courage to be for. Now, for student and master alike, there simply is no alternative to what the science of climate change demands. More than mitigation or adaptation to climatic impacts, our generation is tasked with moving on a trajectory of change for climate stabilization under specifications that cannot be negotiated with. Nature does not engage in casuistry or equivocate.
‘Toward Social and Economic Reconstruction’ was a hastily written proposal when organizing for the national constitutional convention of the new Students for a Democratic Society. It was combined with another proposal, ‘A Vision for the Future’, and passed on the convention floor July 29th, 2007 as a starting point for developing that organization’s vision for the society they wished to build, and win. A more updated version was included in the October 26th 2007 dissemination of the final constitutional convention bulletin. However the process for collectively and democratically developing such an organizational statement was not completed as stipulated by the 2008 SDS national convention, and has since been surpassed in word and deed by more than one part of the student movement in the United States, to make no mention of those in other countries.
Nonetheless, in thinking through the imperatives of a new decade, and indeed new century, I have found this piece useful to reflect on in thinking through how we move forward in our current economic and political moment. It is a starting point that was written with the honest conviction that ordinary people are capable of controlling and managing their own affairs – and that they will do so when we name and then take action on their true burdens. Though I left this new “students for a democratic society” in July of 2008 when it became clear that that particular project was no longer viable on any sort of regional or national level, I still do believe there are tremendous lessons that can be learned from both the strengths and the failures of both iterations. To name a few that should be obvious to any informed observer – without common and explicit goals, or a democratic culture defined by a democratic process for meeting them – well, you might just sop up every tendency within the left over the past forty years. But whether truly for a democratic society through democratic means or not, students now have no option but to learn, and fairly quickly upon a demanding curve.
The students and youth in this country – those born after the neoliberal transformation of American society began – have the unenviable position of living in the world’s largest economy, largest consumer, heaviest borrower, largest military power, and largest emitter second only now to China, a country that manufactures most of what we and the rest of the world use. Ours is a nation whose historical burden for global emissions far outweighs that of any another – while both we and the Soviet Union paved the world over in asphalt, it is our unsustainable way of living that prevailed in the short-term. Ours is at root a dirty, wasteful, unjust way of living that was forcibly thrust on local communities in the States and later entire nations alike worldwide in the post-war era. Ours is also a generation that has come of age under the waking horror that was the Bush administration exponentially ramping up our carbon footprint. Ours is a generation now that has the unenviable waking knowledge that the future survival of our species will be in large part be decided by our own actions within the next decade – in other words at some point or other after we leave our twenties – and so, to my own, I can only say the following:
Let’s keep our eyes on the real prize: where our institutions present rules and roles for us that we can affect. The onus of movements that are for the next stage in social evolution – a necessary transformation concerned at the very least concerned with preserving the stability of a planet whose conditions remain close enough to those for which life is adapted – is not in arguing the necessity, nor even feasibility, of alternatives to capitalism. It is to respond to the imperatives of transforming our institutions and our politics with the strategic insight, and, most of all, concrete action that can yield immediate net peaking and reduction of global emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases when that task will matter – well within the coming decade – along pathways that will ensure climate stabilization in the long-term. Vision through action. Those pathways can be easily defined by where equity and democracy meet – and every alternative to capitalism worthy of the name has always had that as its focus.
It has dawned on the power structure that the world has reached insurmountable questions about our common survival. Let us not shirk from this moment the fullness of its truth. Either in my own country or in any other part of the world, the power structure has no compelling vision nor analysis nor strategy for achieving a stable future. Their order is bankrupt. Their management of society is inherently unjust, and incapable of dealing with nature’s demands. Their methods of organizing (sic) production are the cause of crises, fundamental crises in climate, energy, water, food, jobs, manufacturing, and financial and on and on. We have seen parts of the world once familiar to us grow horrifically strange over the past years as these crises have become more frequent in number and intensity and likelihood. Yet we have had to scale viable social and economic alternatives and models of clean energy production, to name one example, for the entire duration of my life and those of my generation – a period coextensive not too surprisingly with the neoliberal takeover of democratic institutions worldwide that has consolidated power against the threat of any better example. It is time to counteract that power.
The right questions for my generation are no longer those of goals. They are merely the usual ones of democratic culture and democratic process: who participates, who pays, who benefits, who decides, and who gets submerged by inaction? Far beyond the future, America is here and now.