Opinion

From Crisis Comes Hope

But only if a weary left can lead with new ideas. Here's a few to start.

By Murray Dobbin, 19 Jun 2009, TheTyee.ca

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It's not the size of the stimulus, but how you use it.

It is ironic that Homo sapiens, we big-brained and clever species, can trace almost every tragedy and failing to one generic cause: a failure of imagination. We seem to be an idiot savant species -- stunningly clever at so many things, capable of greatness, creativity and sacrifice for others, melding genius and love when we are at our best, and greed and hate at our worst. But whether it is the individual who fails to imagine the consequences of punching someone in a bar or a whole society which fails (like California) to imagine the consequences of starving itself of the revenue needed to function, observers from another world could easily conclude that we are terminally stupid. Or, as John Ralston Saul put, unconscious as a civilization.

Those individuals and organizations who have fought off the madness and ruin of neo-liberal policies for more than 20 years are now presented with the best possible time to present a vision of what is possible. Globalization is effectively dead: what characterized the world for the past 30 years, the suicidal policies of what was called the Washington Consensus, will never return, at least not in its old form. The climate crisis, the damage done to the real economies of the global North, the arrival of peak oil, the inevitable return of protectionism and state intervention mean that we have left that era behind.

Not only has financial capitalism and its corruption and ersatz wealth been exposed. The Chicago boys, the intellectual storm troopers in the free-market think-tanks and editorial writers of Asper media are facing an ideological crisis. The whole edifice stands exposed as a pack of lies and deceptions created for the sole purpose of enriching the already wealthy. "There is no alternative." Really? There bloody well better be or we are all doomed. "Government is the problem, not the solution." Really? The banks and the CEOs of the transnationals who revelled in this slogan would now disagree. And what about the cause of the evil deficits -- governments "...spending like drunken sailors"?  Now Bay Street believes that government isn't nearly drunk enough. And the demand that we "...run government like a business"? Just which bankrupt, crooked, reckless business would that be?

The magnitude of the moral crisis of the political right is staggering. The greed, dishonesty, hubris and psychopathic disregard for the public good renders the whole business elite utterly unfit to pronounce on anything -- not even on the economy, but certainly not democracy or how we run our collective affairs.

All of this should add up to the biggest opportunity the left has had in more than a generation to take the lead, to frame the issues in terms of Canadians' stated values and aspirations, to bury the Washington Consensus ideology in the rubble of its own destructive legacy. This is our opportunity.  These two crises have arrived just in time to wake us up, just in time for us to choose to save the planet and ourselves from a truly grim future. Not just rising oceans and the loss of coastal communities, but a nightmarish dystopia characterized by global social unrest, the rise of fascism, mass starvation and wars over energy and water.

But to date there is silence.

'Denial on a gargantuan scale'

Most middle-class people -- and this includes the majority of social and political activists -- are still acting as if this is just another recession. We'll just eat out less and take a two-week vacation instead of four until it blows over. The concession to the moral crisis of climate change is to buy a Prius and think we have made a difference. This is denial on a gargantuan scale. If every gas guzzler were replaced tomorrow by a Prius, we would still have 10 times too many private cars on the road.

In the U.S. there is a growing movement to cut taxes -- in a country starved for social programs, with an education system barely competing with Botswana's, and an almost unimaginable debt counted in the tens of trillions of dollars. The U.S. is headed for the most catastrophic collapse of empire in human history. Canada is not quite as delusional, but we are still a nation in denial, determined to maintain an insane consumer culture, and damn the consequences for ourselves and future generations.

The current situation is not a normal crisis -- it is a world-changing shift that could go in any of several directions. It cannot remain static, and without progressive leadership it is certain to go badly.  But where is that leadership? It is not coming from the traditional sources. Organized labour is, understandably, preoccupied with saving threatened industries. (No talk there of forcing the Big Three to focus their massive infrastructure and technical know-how on mass transit. And no government commitment to expand it.) Social movement organizations are fighting the usual single-issue battles as if the context had not changed at all. The environmental movement still resists the fact that dealing with climate change without addressing social and economic democracy is impossible. And the political parties who should be providing a vision for a better future are mired in tactical politics. Jack Layton dismisses Michael Ignatieff's musing about the need for future tax increases as "old school" and suggests that the solution is to "grow the economy."

The planet will not survive "growing the economy." In its current trajectory, our world is terminal with the cancer of rampant consumerism metastasizing to every living system we need to survive. 60 per cent of the world's ecosystems are currently degraded. The stupendous "growth" of the last 20 years has seen the rich get filthy rich and the poor get poorer, with 20 per cent of the global population subsisting on two per cent of the world's resources. Canadian families have wrung up unprecedented debt trying to maintain a middle-class consumer lifestyle that doesn't even make them happy.

The solution isn't at the mall

Buying a hybrid car isn't going to cut it. Indeed nothing short of a cultural revolution in the developed world has any chance of saving the planet and humanity. How will we know that the revolution is under way? When there is a movement not to cut taxes but to ban advertising. When there is a massive call for taxing wealth so that no individual can take more than, say, $100,000 a year out of our collective wealth.  When mandatory Sunday closing returns and families spend time together outside the shopping mall. When there is no more talk of ending poverty and homelessness because it will have disappeared. When we willingly -- no, eagerly -- pay half our income in taxes so that we can have the things we actually say we want as a community.

We need, on the left, to once again become the source of Big Ideas. Our defensive politics of the last 25 years has dulled our imaginations to the point of stagnation. We are leading from behind. So-called ordinary Canadians are desperate for a vision of the future they can grasp on to and believe is possible. We have given them more of the same: the politics of despair, telling struggling working people that things are actually worse than they already think they are.

We are obsessed with "stimulating" the economy. Instead we need to have a national conversation about starving the beast. Capitalism must grow to survive and no matter how we tweak this perverse system, growth will ensure its continued social and environmental destruction.  Growing the economy in the face of this crisis is madness: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Fortunately, there are people thinking about this under the umbrella notion of "prosperity without growth." Amazingly, the British government has put together a whole website full of ideas and debates about what this might look like. A project of the Sustainable Development Commission, it suggests that creating conditions for people to flourish, "Includes tackling systemic inequality and removing incentives for unproductive status competition; sharing available work and improving work-life balance, and reversing the culture of consumerism; Building a sustainable macro-economy which is no longer structurally reliant on increasing consumption." 

In Canada there is the just-started, three year Climate Justice Project of the B.C. office of the CCPA.  It promises to engage in ground-breaking research on climate change but through the lens of social justice. 

There are others, as well. In Paris last year the Economic De-Growth For Ecological Sustainability And Social Equity Conference came up with a declaration about the world of the future. Among its many articles, two stand out as characterizing the kind of thinking that must start spreading. De-growth in the global North, says the declaration, "...is  characterized by substantially reduced dependence on economic activity, and an increase in free time, unremunerated activity, conviviality, sense of community, and individual and collective health; [and the] encouragement of self-reflection, balance, creativity, flexibility, diversity, good citizenship, generosity, and non-materialism." Everyone put their Blackberrys down. Go to these sites. Send them to friends.

To be fair to ourselves, progressive organizations are exhausted and demoralized. Fighting trench warfare and rearguard actions against a powerful and ruthless adversary for 25 years will do that to individuals and organizations. But we will not find new energy and inspiration in the trenches -- and we won't inspire others from there either.  Canadians' values are amazingly progressive but a generation of neo-liberal assaults has lowered their expectations of what is possible. Nevertheless, they are out there waiting for someone, anyone, to present them with reasons to be hopeful. What they want and what we need is what America's radical rabbi, Michael Lerner, calls the politics of meaning. More on that next time. 

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