There’s no shortage of political blather in this year’s mid-term election campaigns, but most of us yearn for substantive discussion of the serious problems we face. What should the politicians be discussing? The University of Texas at Austin asked faculty members who teach about politics “to analyze, examine and provide their perspectives” on key political issues for the university’s web site, with new essays posted each weekday throughout the campaign season.
Below are my contributions, three short essays that raise critical questions about economics, empire, and energy that are routinely ignored by most politicians.
Economics: Doing business as if people mattered
When politicians talk economics these days, they argue a lot about the budget deficit. That’s crucial to our economic future, but in the contemporary workplace there’s an equally threatening problem — the democracy deficit.
In an economy dominated by corporations, most people spend their work lives in hierarchical settings in which they have no chance to participate in the decisions that most affect their lives. The typical business structure is, in fact, authoritarian — owners and managers give orders, and workers follow them. Those in charge would like us to believe that’s the only way to organize an economy, but the cooperative movement has a different vision.
Cooperative businesses that are owned and operated by workers offer an exciting alternative to the top-down organization of most businesses. In a time of crisis, when we desperately need new ways of thinking about how to organize our economic activity, cooperatives deserve more attention.
First, the many successful cooperatives remind us that we ordinary people are quite capable of running our own lives. While we endorse democracy in the political arena, many assume it’s impossible at work. Cooperatives prove that wrong, not only by producing goods and services but by enriching the lives of the workers through a commitment to shared decision-making and responsibility.
Second, cooperatives think not only about profits but about the health of the community and natural world; they’re more socially and ecologically responsible. This is reflected in cooperatives’ concern for the “triple bottom line” — not only profits, but people and the planet.
The U.S. government’s response to the financial meltdown has included some disastrous decisions (bailing out banks to protect wealthy shareholders instead of nationalizing banks to protect ordinary people) and some policies that have helped but are inadequate (the stimulus program). But the underlying problem is that policymakers assume that there is no alternative to a corporate-dominated system, leading to “solutions” that leave us stuck with failed business-as-usual approaches.
It’s crazy to trust in economic structures that have brought us to brink of economic collapse. But even in more “prosperous” times, modern corporations undermine democracy, weaken real community, and degrade the ecosystem. New thinking is urgently needed. Politicians who talk about an “ownership society” typically promote individual ownership of a tiny sliver of an economy still dominated by authoritarian corporate giants. An ownership society defined by cooperative institutions would be a game-changer.
None of this is hypothetical — there are hundreds of flourishing cooperative businesses in the United States . The United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives, provides excellent information and inspiring stories. In Austin, a cooperative-incubator group, Third Coast Workers for Cooperation, offers training and support for people interested in creating democratic workplaces.
Putting our faith in institutions that have become too big to fail has failed. Institutions that are too greedy to defend can’t be defended. Cooperative businesses aren’t a magical solution to the critical economic problems we face, but a national economic policy that used fiscal and tax policies to support cooperatives would be an important step on a different path.
Empire: Affluence, violence, and U.S. foreign policy
The United States is the most affluent nation in the history of the world.
The United States has the largest military in the history of the world.
Might those two facts be connected? Might that question be relevant in foreign policy debates?
Don’t hold your breath waiting for such discussion in the campaigns; conventional political wisdom says Americans won’t reduce consumption and politicians can’t challenge the military-industrial complex. Though not everyone shares in that material wealth, the U.S. public seems addicted to affluence or its promise, and discussions of the role of the military are clouded by national mythology about our alleged role as the world’s defender of freedom. Business elites who profit handsomely from this arrangement, and fund election campaigns, are quite happy.
There’s one word that sums this up: empire. Any meaningful discussion of U.S. foreign policy has to start with the recognition that we are an imperial society. We consume more than our fair share of the world’s resources, made possible by global economic dominance backed by our guns.
Today the United States spends as much on the work of war as the rest of the world combined, and we are the planet’s largest arms dealer. Professor Catherine Lutz of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University reports in her book The Bases of Empire that we maintain 909 military facilities in 46 countries and overseas U.S. territories, and we have more than 190,000 troops and 115,000 civilians working at those sites. That’s in addition to U.S. bases, military personnel, and contractors occupying Iraq and Afghanistan .
The military is there to project power, not promote peace. We regularly use these destructive forces, especially in the Middle East , home to the largest and most accessible energy reserves. Flimsy cover stories about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, or self-indulgent tales about U.S. benevolence toward the people of the region, cannot obscure the reality of empire. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were unlawful, in direct violation of international law and the U.S. Constitution, but such details are irrelevant to empires.
Terrorism is real, of course, as are weapons of mass destruction. Law enforcement, diplomacy, and limited uses of military force need to be vigorously pursued through appropriate regional and international organizations to lessen the threats. Most of the world supports such reasonable and rational measures.
In its global policy — especially in the Middle East — U.S. policymakers prefer force, not only though invasion but also by backing the most repressive Arab regimes in those regions and unconditional support for Israel ’s illegal occupation of Palestine . In the short term, this cynical and brutal strategy has given the United States considerable influence over the flow of oil and oil profits.
But these policies, which have never been morally acceptable, also aren’t sustainable. Just as the age of affluence is coming to a close, so is the age of U.S. domination of the world.
That need not be bad news, if we can collectively tell the truth about our own greed and violence, and begin to shape a new vision of the good life and a new strategy for living as one nation in the world, not the nation on top of the world.
Energy: Recognizing how much isn’t there
Will America ’s energy crisis be solved by more aggressive pursuit of fossil fuels or by more vigorous development of renewables?
In this campaign season, there are politicians on all sides. Chants of “drill, baby, drill” ring out, while others sing the praises of wind and solar, and some argue we must try everything.
Unfortunately, politicians don’t seem willing to face a more difficult reality: There is no solution, if by “solution” we mean producing enough energy to maintain our current levels of consumption indefinitely.
To deal with the energy crisis we must deal with a consumption crisis, but politicians are reluctant to run a campaign based on a call for “less” — the American Dream, after all, is always “more.” But, whether the public and politicians like it or not, our future is about learning to live with less, starting with a lot less energy.
In the United States , we have been living with the abundance produced by an industrial economy, all made possible by the concentrated energy of fossil fuels. We tell ourselves this is the product of our hard work, but our life of plenty was made possible by the incredible energy stored in coal, oil, and natural gas. How long can that continue?
It’s true that there’s a lot of coal in the ground, but burning all that coal means an acceleration of global warming and climate disruption. Easily accessible reserves of oil and gas are quickly being exhausted, and while geologists can’t tell us for sure when the wells will run dry, we should be thinking in decades, not centuries.
High-tech schemes for extracting oil from tar sands or “fracking” — hydraulic fracturing, a process of injecting water and chemicals deep underground to force out pockets of gas — are so ecologically destructive that they should be abandoned immediately. The same for most deep-water drilling; the Gulf disaster of the past year is a reminder that no matter how sophisticated the technology, we cannot control these processes. Nuclear energy presents the same trade-offs, magnified by our inability to dispose of the deadly waste safely.
There are more reasons to be positive about renewable energy sources, and intensifying research funding for wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass energy is the sensible move. But the reality to face there also is one of limits: None of those technologies, alone or in combination, will ever replace the energy stored in fossil fuels. The belief that because we want that energy we will create ways to produce it is the most naïve technological fundamentalism.
The most important step in dealing with our energy crisis is to realize just how much isn’t there. Either approach — believing that we can drill our way or invent our way out of the predicament — is magical thinking. Instead of fantasies of endless abundance, we have to recognize that a radical shift in the way our lives are arranged is necessary for survival. The most obvious of these arrangements we need to change is our car-based culture, but it doesn’t stop there. If there is to be a livable future, we need to commit in the present to major changes in our entire infrastructure.
The solution to the energy crisis can be stated simply: We must move around less and consume less. That means the solution is not only about where we get our energy, but how we define ourselves.
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