Friday, July 25, 2008

On replacing a bad system

Advocates of reform often make the mistake of reducing capitalism to a logical structure rather than seeing it "holistically" — as a dynamic process. Even as they note its continued evolution, when they talk about changing it, their interest tends to focus on parts and wholes, on mechanical interactions. Hence, they usually assume it will be a massive job from the standpoint of some mythical observer.

That it might conceivably be more of a chain reaction having "emergent properties," where individuals and groups all begin to adopt a massively coherent response at around the same time (without warning or even having a clear picture) analogous to, say, a flock of birds leaping suddenly into flight — is perhaps not so intuitively obvious. Yet it was to just such a torrential outpouring of public opinion that the rigid Leninist bureaucracies of the former Soviet system fell.

This suggests that it might be more useful to understand social change as a continuum of similar patterns that start with some not very sophisticated model and work their way up the scale of complexity to various all-encompassing models, with social change as a question of degree more than of kind. We might then be able to perceive possibilities and even opportunities we might otherwise have overlooked.

Such is arguably the case with a recent New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert. She starts with a detailed account of a successful windmill project on the Nantucket-size Danish island of Sams and counterposes this to a broadly planetary emphasis with an analysis of the Swiss "2,000-Watt Society," focused on the concept of globally sustainable technology. What makes this article interesting is that its argument is sufficiently "whole cloth" that we can borrow from it to draw still more radical (social) conclusions relative to replacing capitalism with socialism. The following four propositions serve to illustrate how this might work.

1) Citing the prediction that eventual damage from climate change will amount to simply wiping out at least five percent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) each year, and "if a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account," that figure could "rise to 20 percent of GDP or more," Kolbert begins with a detailed, concrete description of the island of Sams's successful transition to the use of wind power in providing for its local economy's energy needs. This particular energy reform's distinctive characteristic was in its design: the islanders themselves drove the process. For several years, the project remained the brainchild of its "father," Sren Hermansen, but once it caught on in 1997, it snowballed and rapidly transformed the island economy's energy infrastructure. Kolbert cites an observation by Hermansen that "the hard work starts [with] convincing the first movers to be active."

In a parallel sense, the "first movers" of a socialist revolution are not really its theoreticians (those who self-consciously adopt an object grounded in a set of principles) but those sectors of the working class whose needs, interests and activities are functionally socialist. But whether or not one makes such a distinction, active first movers have to get the ball rolling. Thus, making socialists is an absolutely necessary first step in making a socialist revolution.

(2) On a more abstract plane, exploring issues similar to those that led to the Sams wind-energy project, Kolbert reports that "scientists affiliated with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology asked themselves what level of energy would be sustainable, not just for an island or a small European nation, but for the entire world. Answering this question led them to found the 2,000-Watt Society." According to a former director of the project, Roland Stulz, the Society "is not a program of a hard life. It is not what we call Grtel schnallen (belt tightening), it's not starving, it's not having less comfort or fun." It is about treating the future as a global common project of human creation. Again, from a still broader perspective, when we rethink our basic assumptions, we are rethinking the future.

(3) Former director of the 2,000-Watt Society Dieter Imboden told Kolbert that as a scientist he could see no technical barriers to creating a two-thousand-watt world. "Nothing has to be reinvented — for an engineer it's not even a challenge." But what does require changing is how people think of themselves. In the analogous socialist context, Imboden's conclusion remains intact: "The problems of the 21st century pose a different, qualitative kind of problem — a paradigm change in the role of science for our society."

(4) "It usually makes sense," Roland Stulz told Kolbert, "to become more intelligent in any human activity. As the former Saudi Arabian oil minister Sheikh Yamani once said, the Stone Age didn't end because there were no more stones. It ended because people became more intelligent."

This is as true for a socialist revolution with its overarching concepts as for a windmill project in a small Danish island community. We might therefore convincingly argue that more than anything else, a socialist revolution has to rest on most people re-learning the ancient survival art of tapping into their own native intelligence.


No comments: