What’s the ‘next system’ going to look like?

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Posted Apr 24 2015 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org
next system

I want to bring your attention to this group, if you don’t know them already. They’re called ‘The Next System Project‘ – very slick, very American and very new (founded in March this year), but what they’re saying is rare and, I believe, essential.

They are saying what we’ve been saying for years – we need a new system. The best we can do by tinkering with the current system is to buy ourselves time, until we can install a new one.

As this corporate system that we find ourselves in has at its heart gambling, compound interest on imaginary money and perpetual growth, it is completely impossible to reconcile it with environmental sustainability – they are in fundamental opposition. Tear those things from the heart of this system and you don’t have this system any more.

And they don’t have an ideology – all they are suggesting is that we begin conversations about what a new system might look like, and how we get there. This is essential, so as not to alienate the right. There’s no reason at all to assume that the right like environmental destruction, or corruption, or corporate domination. There’s nothing in right-wing ideology to indicate that they naturally would – why on earth would they? There’s scope for collaboration when it comes to systemic change, and we can argue about the details later.

They rightly point to all the co-operative, renewable, mutual, decentralised projects that have sprung up to provide an alternative to corporations for the essentials of life, but they (also rightly) don’t suggest that this is enough. It isn’t, because however optimistic you become at the range and creativity of new initiatives, not enough people are going to be recruited. The majority are still going to be seduced by corporate advertising. Corporations know this, which is why they spend £350 billion on it globally.

They list the types of model that lend optimism to the current situation:

  • Worker ownership: (David Schweikart, Richard Wolff) democracy at work, including in the financial sector – worker co-ops, credit unions and mutuals, but also partnerships and self-employment (cf. distributism).
  • Localism: (E F Schumacher, David Korten) – small-scale, decentralised economies, as well as the worker-owned businesses mentioned above. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful is the seminal work; Korten points out that corporate capitalism is its exact opposite, as it extracts wealth from local communities to pay distant shareholders. Constraints on corporations, banks and central banks are proposed.
  • Reinvigorated social democracy: not so thrilled about this one – very similar system, i.e. growth and profit oriented, but more of a role for the state. As the state is corrupted by corporate political donations, lobbying and board positions for ex-politicians, I don’t think this one is worth pursuing too vigorously.
  • Participatory economic planning: this is where the public is at the heart of economic policy-making. The best example of participatory budgeting in action is probably Porto Alegre in Brazil.
  • Ecological economics: (Herman Daly, Richard Douthwaite, Richard Heinberg, Tim Jackson) in other words ‘no growth’ economics, for which Lowimpact.org has been a cheerleader for many years.
  • Bringing some parts of the economy back into public ownership: sometimes this seems like the only solution, and in the UK, the railways spring to mind, and the banks, and even land, if you’re feeling adventurous. They can always be broken up and redistributed at a later date, when we work out how to keep grubby corporate hands off them.
  • Bioregionalism: (Kirkpatrick Sale et al) let’s get everything we need from our own part of the planet, instead of getting butter from New Zealand, beef from South America or apples from South Africa. We can produce our own butter, beef and apples – it may make economic sense to transport basic foodstuffs around the globe, but that just goes to show the inadequacy of economics as a guide to anything worthwhile.
  • ‘Pluralist commonwealth’: basically, an amalgam of all the above approaches, rooted firmly in the principles of co-operation and subsidiarity.

The take-home message is that we don’t have to make do with either corporate capitalism or bureaucratic state socialism – there are alternatives that could form the basis of something new. All the above proposals can form the basis of a new society – but first we have to find a way of relocating global power to a new, non-corporate place, otherwise the main aim of the human economy will continue to be profit and growth – the root of our looming environmental catastrophe. As well as continuing to burrow away at the current system at the grass roots level, we need to be talking about how to transfer decision-making powers away from corporate boardrooms and professional politicians towards something a lot more democratic. It’s a question of political structure as well as of good works on the ground.

That’s the tricky part, and they admit that they don’t have the answer – but they want to inspire conversation. Human ingenuity is a wonderful thing. It’s a shame that so many bright, creative young minds have been seduced into advertising, finance, corporate R&D and into climbing the corporate hierarchy generally. They are lost to the task of imagining and building a new system, but enough brilliant minds have deliberately avoided the corporate route. Enough to successfully challenge the corporate system, I’m sure. But what I’m more sure of is that we won’t survive unless we do.

They really want to engage the media in discussions about systemic change, instead of the largely trivial and bipartisan arguments that fill the newspapers now. There’s a dearth of this at the moment, not surprisingly, as most of the media is corporate, and therefore not necessarily set to benefit from systemic change. But we need to start the discussions to shake people out of the belief that ‘there is no alternative’ (M. Thatcher / T. Blair) to global corporate capitalism.

All in all, this is an excellent idea – it’s just a pity that it’s written as if there are no other countries apart from the US. Actually, it’s more than a pity – it’s impossible to change this system in just one country. It would scare investors away from that country and into the arms of its more rapacious competitors, who, if this system remains global, will outcompete and impoverish it – and more than that, probably compromise its security. I find the America-centrism strange – their main report mentions that there is no precedent for the kinds of conversations that need to be had, except for perhaps the communications that took place before the American revolution. It doesn’t mention the 19th century ‘Internationals’ at all – which were much more like what they’re suggesting – and they were truly international, in an age before flight or the internet.

They do say that they would like to build relationships with similar initiatives in other countries, however. To that end, we’d like to initiate something like this in the UK, amongst organisations who understand the need for systemic change.

More to come soon, as well as a critique of a similar US organisation that believes that we can achieve a sustainable, free and fair society without systemic change. Not surprisingly, I disagree.