Jan 7, 2012

Ecological and Environmental Renewal Requires Economic Reconstruction


In a panel discussion at New York University last month, Immanuel Wallerstein, Michael Mann, Craig Calhoun and other noted speakers addressed the question, “Does Capitalism Have a Future?” There wasn’t a consensus on the panel.  At one extreme, Wallerstein described a captitalist system unable to sustain itself because of underconsumption and a growing international labor force of competing workers. In contrast, Michael Mann suggested that a Keynesian reflation attached to green jobs might sustain the capitalist economy through a Schumpeterian boom.

Mann’s arguments seem plausible, leaving open alternatives to a kind of deterministic zero-hope agenda for the future.  Yet, many states underinvest in green markets and products. Moreover, the green jobs argument has taken a lot of hits lately. In Ontario, Canada, the U.S. transnational Caterpillar recently locked out its workers making locomotives, perhaps as part of an effort to shift production to another rail plant in the U.S. In Detroit, Michigan, a plan that would have expanded the market for green products through establishment of a new light rail line was scuttled by the City of Detroit and the U.S. Department of Transportation. The two parties supported using buses instead, but this decision (if permanent) shrinks the market for Oregon Iron Works, a new U.S. entrant into the passenger rail business. Detroit’s mayor is in danger of losing his authority to an outside manager, given the city’s serious fiscal difficulties. It becomes hard to talk about green job reflation when some cities in the U.S., like national governments in Europe, are apparently running out of money.
A Green New Deal offers an opportunity to expand locally-based manufacturing; manufacturing growth is necessary to promote the tax base that funds mass transit. Mass transit is a key bridge to reindustrialization because the state procures the product and helps create the market. Tax dollars can be recycled to support domestic employment if rail products are made locally. Yet, if the state can’t afford to buy green products like trains, the would-be virtuous circles become a dead end. Protectionism in the U.S. saves assembly jobs at the lower end of the economic food chain, but can’t by itself generate high-end engineering and design jobs that could form the nucleus of new industries as transit makers diversify into related products and markets. Keynesianism becomes just wishful thinking unless we explain how a political process could be launched to realize needed investments.
Marxian determinism and Keynesian voluntarism do not immediately address the question of social, political and economic design. In other words, how do people become freer by extending their choices through economic reconstruction of institutions? At a micro level, cooperatives and alternative banking systems become means for recycling the consumptive power of individuals and triggering alternatives to transnational companies and banks that sit on cash and fail to organize work at home. The guild socialist, G. D. H. Cole recognized the power of consumption as a key means of triggering and implementing an alternative economic architecture. In other words, green banks and alternative financial institutions patronized by citizens at large could finance new and emerging networks of green producers and suppliers.
This patronage system itself can be tied to the dynamic new social movements like UK Uncut or Occupy Wall Street. In fact, activists in Occupy Wall Street have supported a new U.S.-campaign, “Move Your Money,” in which millions of dollars have been moved out of established banks into alternative, community or smaller scale banks. Political capital was transferred into economic capital and potentially a funding base for green reflation.  Similarly, political action to cut military budgets can create such new green investment funds. In September, the Obama Administration announced a jobs creation plan worth $450 billion. In December, the Administration proposed future military budget cuts in an equivalent amount. Conversion of defense firms could bridge these two proposals by making such firms green wealth generators.
Expanding an alternative economics from below, requires the creation of new coalitions. A new kind of dialogue is needed where environmental, labor, peace and social economy constituencies come together and exchange ideas. Only by bridging the intellectual divide can we overcome both economic determinism and voluntarism.


by Jonathan Feldman,
Social Europe Journal

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