Overcoming Ideology: New Actions and New Ideas

Efforts to find a viable path to mitigating climate chaos and forging an ecologically viable economy are just not moving fast enough. They seem bogged down in struggles over old ideas and inadequate actions. Even some of the most esteemed liberal economists who are not on the corporate bandwagon have failed to escape this trap.

Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, both highly respected liberal economists, oppose the crass neo-conservative economic ideology of corporate imperialism. Yet, in his own way each remains trapped in the general economic ideology of extractive capitalism as the only way forward. Krugman imagines robust restrictions on carbon emissions without curtailing economic growth. Stiglitz imagines a ‘reformed’ capitalism where healthy competition can be restored. The imaginary and the possible are not necessarily the same.

French economist Thomas Piketty’s recent book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has received vastly more attention and sales than ever expected of a heavy economic tome. Piketty seems to expect inequality to be reduced by expanding economic growth. A simpler version of the myth of sharing a “bigger economic pie” or the “rising tide lifts all boats” story is available in any Econ. 101 class. Unfortunately for these fables, inequality is a positive feedback loop – greater power begets greater power.

Meanwhile, Krugman argued in his September 18, 2014 New York Times column, that carbon emissions can be reduced cheaply amidst strong economic growth. He does not mention the skyrocketing depletion rates of many important industrial materials – including petroleum – upon which continued economic growth depends. The connection between economic growth, growing poverty, and climate disruption is nowhere to be found.

Stiglitz writes in last September’s Harper’s Magazine, that Piketty is wrong in concluding that inequality is an inevitable outcome of capitalism. Instead, he says, ‘capitalism as we know it’ isn’t truly competitive like a capitalist system should be. Our system’s growing extreme disparities in income and wealth have been engineered by the wealthy. Stiglitz would reform capitalism.

Ending Economic Ideology

Stiglitz and Krugman are stalwart and articulate critics of the neoliberal economic ideology that attempts to justify corporate dominion over economic and political policy. However, despite their rather sophisticated economic analyses, our present economic system is what it is because it is not allowed to be reformed. The concentration of both wealth and income in the hands of a small elite is inherent in any economy in which excessive political power accrues to the financial elite. Inequality is becoming extreme, extractive demands of industrial production grow ever stronger as resources are depleted, and the devastation of the planet continues. Reform? You can’t get there from here.

As the international death dance continues around failed commitments to reduce carbon emissions, sufficient national and international actions to curtail climate chaos seem ever more unlikely. We know a lot about carbon emissions and the most important sources. Technically, the necessary reduction of greenhouse gas emissions could be planned as effectively as the U.S. mobilized the entire economy upon entering World War II. But execution is a political matter and therein lays the collective failure. Another way is needed and not even the most sincere and smart conventional economists seem able to help.

Increasing poverty, massive concentration of income and wealth, and accelerating climate disruption all have the same cause. The economy of endless growth required by the debt-driven imperatives of extractive capital is not susceptible to political reform. The very financial and corporate elites that drive the economy have captured and completely control the key players in the political process. We must look elsewhere for solutions. And elsewhere we will find them.

Resistance and Replacement: Actions Reforming Ideas

The people and the planet desperately need resistance to and replacement of the very institutions that even the most liberal critics of economic and environmental failure cannot give up. As neo-conservative economic policies still seek to solidify the empire of growth, progressive leaning conventional economists seek to reform what needs to be replaced. Powerful financial and corporate elites do not give up easily. Consider Jamie Diamond’s arrogant dismissal of Elisabeth Warren’s desire to regulate Wall Street’s excesses. The conversation in which it occurred is noted in the Afterward to the paperback re-issue of her book, A Fighting Chance.

Neither resistance nor replacement will be easy. But both will be nurtured by the growing sense among more and more people that we are on a path to catastrophe and need an immediate course correction. There is much to learn from non-violent movements of resistance that have succeeded, as reported in Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict. Even so, new models of resistance must involve accelerated withdrawal from the consumerist complex – no easy task. There is still a place for the forms of resistance seen in the Occupy and Arab Spring movements. But Gene Sharp, whose From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation, inspired those movements’ strategies, urged practical agility and creativity in fighting oppressive forces.

Today’s forces of oppression, especially in the ‘industrially advanced’ nations, are of a different order than the old dictatorships. The “inverted totalitarianism” with a façade of democratic formalism, as Sheldon Wolin describes in Democracy Incorporated, calls for new creative forms of resistance. Naomi Kline argues for ideologically driven forms of resistance in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. However, new ideologies of humane social and economic relations, economic justice, and ecological society must be shaped by resistance that has direct and meaningful relationships to the immediate crises we face.

Replacement of the failed perpetual-growth political economy and its extractive energy-production and consumption practices requires even more creativity and organization. Various books, magazines, and Web sites, such as John Brown Childs, Trans-Communality, David Korten, Change the Story, Change the Future, Yes! Magazine, and Resilience.org – to name just a few – seek alternative cultural and political as well as economic paths. Works like that of Juliet B. Schor, author of True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans Are Creating a Time-Rich, Ecologically Light, Small-Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy, point to the formation of a new society grounded in humanity’s relationship to the earth and all its inhabitants. The idea of the good life is captured in that title. Many families and communities are experimenting with new ways of living outside of institutional entanglements. But much more is needed and on a much larger scale.

The hard part, of course, is getting it done, especially with so little time before catastrophic consequences of our current path become unavoidable. Some argue that it is too late. But that claim is pointless. We fight not because we will win; we fight because we must win.

Imperious Imaginaries and the Necessities of Now

Power over Nature is an old cultural ideal in the Western world.  It seemed largely achieved by the exploding rate of industrial invention in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  This core western value continues unabated today.  A major downside of the unprecedented successes of the industrial age is the growth of a deep  institutionalized hubris.

This entails major risks, especially for Americans.  That’s not surprising, given our short history of western conquest, our experience as the world’s most powerful economic force, and our well practiced cultural amnesia. The power of expanding industrial and military might is nothing if not seductive and has become the norm for our economic and imperial expectations.

Imperious Imaginaries

The web of institutional relations between Big Banks, Big Government, Big Corporations, Big Media, and Big Military assures a certain cultural uniformity. This giant institutional complex shapes the framework for public discourse, thereby controlling the focus of any debate. Unfortunately, this powerful establishment also assures that little of the critical problems we now face become the subject of much serious public discussion. The cult of “American Exceptionalism” exacerbates the failure to recognize, no less deal with, political, economic, social, or environmental problems — even as they reach crisis levels.

Even so, many Americans do recognize that something is amiss. Scientifically confirmed and increasingly urgent problems are steadfastly ignored or denied by the power elites. Corporate management of both information and media controls the content and flow of mass communications. That is why “net neutrality” is so important.

Consider this. As a culture, our problems with Nature are due to our core imaginary separation from and dominion over the natural world. Modern Western Man — gender reference intentional — in both religious tradition and philosophical attitude expects and believes himself meant to control nature. The intellectual and power elites believe themselves to be rightfully and inherently in charge of the outcomes of their projects in the natural world.  Harmonizing with nature is not part of that equation.

Currently, disastrous results of the unjustified U.S. war on Iraq are coming to a head. The radical Sunni insurgency, ISIS, is taking over major Iraqi cities as the U.S. installed Shiite sectarian government and army falter. The U.S. trained and equipped Iraqi army has largely failed to defend the repressive regime the U.S. created. Yet, who do the Sunday talk shows invite back to explain what we should do next about the crisis that American Hubris caused? Why, the very neo-conservative war mongers whose imperious hubris got us into that mess in the first place, that’s who. Just how much hubris can we take?

Where are all the analysts who warned of the folly and had it right? Oh, they’re just “isolationists,” so should have no standing, and besides, there are the ratings to consider. And who do the talking heads invite to explain the consequences and offer solutions for the economic crash caused by the Big Banks?  Why, the Biggest Banksters, of course! The corporate media are not interested in a Joseph Stiglitz or a Nomi Prins. Opposition to hubris is not allowed.

Necessities of Now

But the cycle of the industrial era operates on a trajectory, a time line with a launch point and an unavoidable landing. The history of the great transformation to a capital-growth driven industrial society is well documented. But as the transition to its decline and fall begins, it is excluded from public discussion, at least by ‘the usual suspects.’ Mainstream economics is the ideology of corporate capitalism  and does not accept an end point for its growth. That is one reason it is imaginary.

The American imaginary has little memory and its likely fate remains unrecognized. It is folly is to project past trends into an indefinite future. But that is the core of the corporate economic ideology. At a certain point, it was understandable that the industrial elites would see no end to their growing enterprises. But now the evidence is in, and the jig is up.  End point indicators proliferate all around us. The real issue, the choice of a hard or soft landing is up to us.

Imperious imaginaries have no useful place in the strategic planning that is now necessary to carve out a smooth transition to survival in the coming decades. In fact, they are downright dangerous. How to achieve a broad recognition of the necessities of now is our biggest immediate problem. What is necessary now, beyond general needs for energy efficiency and reduced carbon emissions, is neither taken seriously nor widely discussed.

The most urgent necessity of now is to develop and immediately implement a strategy to radically reduce carbon emissions. In order to restrain the rapid acceleration of global warming, we need to target the most extreme and easiest to mitigate sources of carbon emissions first. Many of these are interconnected, so a coordinated plan is called for but not discussed among all the political finger pointing and denials. Well, that compounds the other imperious imaginary: the sovereign right of each individual to do whatever the (corporate) “person” damn well pleases, regardless of the consequences for the rest of us, and for the planet. Catch-22 is in full force, and time is not on our side.