by David McCarthy
If you’re interested in really fundamental thinking about our economy and where it might go, The Next System Project is worth your attention. It was founded by veteran activists and leaders Gar Alperovitz and Gus Speth, who have been working for decades in the realm of social, economic, and environmental justice. They have attracted a really impressive and diverse team of supporters, including climate activist Bill McKibben, author Barbara Erhenreich, and actor and activist Danny Glover. One thing I see in this project is not only talk about how inclusivity and justice are integral to the kind of system they are envisioning, but also an effort to be inclusive in terms of the voices that are heard. In other words, they are trying to make their process reflect their values.
Danny Glover expresses the challenge in the form of questions; he asks: “What is a system that humanizes us? What is a system that opens up our imagination of possibilities of cooperation?” Recently, the project has published a series of four articles laying out proposals for that “next system.”
Riane Eisler’s article, “Whole System Change,” takes a very fresh approach, and looks to go beyond conventional categories such as socialism vs. capitalism. Instead, she looks into the very fabric of society at the level of human relationships. Using a multi-disciplinary approach called “relational dynamics” she points out “social configurations that are not discernible using a conventional, siloed, uni-disciplinary approach.” Eisler contrasts two main configurations, using the terms domination model and partnership model. Essentially these models come down to gender relationships, questions of how aggression and violence are viewed, and also views about equality and inequality. The partnership model is characterized by gender equality starting at the family level, and in the most general sense it is founded on “beliefs about human nature that support empathic and mutually respectful relations. Although insensitivity, cruelty, and violence are recognized as human possibilities, they are not considered inevitable, much less moral.”
In his article “Social Democracy,” Lane Kentworthy lays out a vision of political economy that is exemplified by contemporary Nordic countries such as Sweden and Norway. He defines it as follows: “This is a type of capitalist democracy. Most property is privately owned. Markets are the chief mechanism governing economic activity. The government provides an array of insurance programs and services in an attempt to enhance economic security, opportunity, and shared prosperity.”
Social democracy has deep resonance in American society, starting with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. Professor Kentworthy makes several interesting points based on his extensive research into the Nordic countries. One of them is that government regulation of private businesses is in many cases less extensive and invasive than it is here in the US. I get the feeling that the idea of an inclusive, supportive society is somehow baked into the culture there, and government simply has fewer problems to fix, as it were. He also makes the point that although in the past social democracy has been associated mostly with a strong social safety net, “Today, social democracy is oriented toward activation or social investment. It promotes employment as a route to economic security, opportunity, and prosperity, while still recognizing the importance of ensuring decent living standards for those not in paid work.”
David Schweikart’s article “Economic Democracy” is an interesting take on what I’ve always considered to be a very slippery subject. Although he labels his proposal as a form of socialism, it bears little relationship to socialist experiments of the past. As he puts it, “central planning does not work for a sophisticated economy. The knowledge and incentive problems are too great. But these markets should be largely confined to goods and services. They should not dominate labor or capital.” The whole question of whether capital should operate in a market system is particularly interesting to me. Markets bring certain efficiencies, even in the realm of capital allocation. I think it is an open (but intriguing) question as to whether some sort of democratic process could be brought to bear on investment decisions. Overall, and though I agree with many of his ideas, my main quibble with Schweikart’s article is the socialist label. I believe there is a better route to economic democracy through what I call a civil-guided economy, one in which civil society institutions take on the primary responsibility, rather than government.
Finally, there is Robin Hanhel’s article, “Participatory Economics and the Next System,” which in many ways continues the theme of economic democracy. He proposes things like worker councils, consumer councils and federations, and a general planning process that replaces the market economy. In many ways, his is the most radical proposal of the four, especially with his view that, “in a participatory economy, everything needed to produce our way of life belongs to everyone, no more to one person than any other. While individuals own personal property, everything we need to produce goods and services is owned in common.” Even if that is a good idea, it’s hard to see a path that would lead us there. But what I like about the Next System Project is not so much that I buy into everything people are saying, but the fact that they are speaking at such a fundamental level.
As they put it on their website (thenextsystem.org) “…the goal is to put the central idea of system change, and that there can be a “next system,” on the map.”
David McCarthy is the author of Civil Endowment—The Transformation of Economic Power; co-founder and board member of The Hudson Valley Current: Our local currency system; and organizer of the Hudson Valley New Economy Meetup.