2. A green social democratic world view
Let us agree for the moment at least that science, education, democracy and organization are among the necessary means to achieving a just, sustainable future.1 If the aims of justice and a sustainable natural and social environment are to shape our ethical relationships to each other and to nature, what world view should we adopt to guide us in the use of these means? Can past thinking, perhaps some variant of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s (1844) Communist Manifesto or Milton Friedman’s (1962) Capitalism and Democracy, produce different results in this century than the tragic failures associated with these ideas during the last one? The urgent need for timely adaptive action to avert the potentially catastrophic consequences of humankind’s impact on the natural environment and the associated threats to the stability and even to the very future of human civilization are the impetus for asking these questions and responding with the world view that follows.
Let’s begin by stating what may, for many, seem obvious: neither the supporters of communism nor of capitalism have demonstrated in practice viable alternatives for this century, at least not in the forms that emerged in the last century. These twentieth century alternatives may - and clearly to many people did - seem reasonable when Earth’s resources still appeared to be unlimited for all practical purposes. But it is now painfully clear that this necessary condition for either communism2 or capitalism3 to work cannot be met by the finite character of Earth and its resources.
Included in the following argument is a minor elaboration on this main criticism of both Marxism and neo-liberalism, the two seemingly polar opposite theoretical perspectives that were the most influential viewpoints during the last century. Also included in this argument is the outline of an alternative perspective, one in which fundamentalist either/or policy choices are rejected in favor of temporal reconciliation of conflicting, but arguably incontrovertible features of human individual and social nature.
The aim of this argument, in part, is one that Marx and Friedman might have shared, in spite of their very different ways of reaching it: in Friedman’s words “individual freedom” and in Marx’s typically expansive manner “the free development of each” as “the condition for the free development of all” (1875, Critique of the Gotha Programme.) The reader can refer to the works cited above for the classic elaborations of their aims and views, noting Marx and Engels’ emphasis on social context and Friedman’s focus on the individual.
Necessarily bound to the aim of human freedom is the inextricable aim of a sustainable human future. It is argued here that temporal reconciliation of several opposing, but essential characteristics of humans and human society is needed at every stage in the effort to achieve a just, sustainable future, including competition and cooperation, globalization and localization, homogenization and diversity, appropriation and conservation, centralization and decentralization, validity and reliability. The reconciliation, or set point, reached at each stage will depend on the conditions then prevailing, including the alignment of political forces, the development of science and technology, the level and effectiveness of education and the extent and participation in democratic decision-making.
To this list of dichotomous variables, public (or common) ownership of property and private (or individual) ownership of property4 are also suggested as two opposing but essential characteristics of contemporary human society, the first corresponding to the need for cooperation and common action (for example in relation to the oceans and atmosphere and for the social provision of such common goods and services as education and healthcare), the latter to the need for competition and individual action (for example in relation to family-owned and operated local businesses engaged in providing goods and services to their neighbors). However, if common ownership of some resources is preferable, then the sacrifice of individual freedom for the common good is an associated evil. Likewise, if private ownership of some property is preferable, then the consequent limitation of the freedom of those who do not share in this ownership is an associated evil. The challenge is to maximize the benefits while minimizing the evil. The direction this takes us inevitably leads to a society in which the responsibility for owning and managing resources is more evenly distributed across the population, joining a parallel movement towards more equal and universal participation in democratic decision-making.5
1 The reference here and throughout this essay to science is to its content (scientifically validated knowledge) and its processes (the methods by which scientific knowledge is gained). There is no argument here for giving priority to scientific institutions or scientists over other institutions and workers. Likewise, the references in this essay to education are to the process of teaching and learning and not to educational institutions and educators. If the author could find a magic wand that would put all scientific and educational institutions and all scientists and educators at the service of a just, sustainable future he would not feel the need to write an essay like this one. To the contrary, science and education as institutions are at present subsystems of our currently dominant neoliberal capitalist socio-economic system. Only to the extent and in countries where an aroused and determined people successfully transform their current societies into more just, sustainable ones will their institutions of science and education more consistently serve the moral purposes argued for in this essay.
2 By communism we refer to a system whose operative ethical principle is, following Karl Marx (Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875), ‘from each according to [their] ability to each according to [their] needs’. Among the undeclared assumptions of nineteenth and twentieth century communists were that humans can be expected in the communist society of the future to rationally constrain their wants and that these self-constrained wants can be met by a centrally planned economy in an environmentally sustainable fashion, assumptions for which there is yet little evidence.
3 By capitalism we refer to a system of private ownership of the means of production where the aim of the capitalist owners is private profit. Supporters of capitalism, from Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, 1776) to Milton Friedman and his followers have argued that the exchange of goods and services on the capitalist marketplace is guided by an invisible hand to satisfy human needs in an efficient manner. Underlying this expectation is the same undeclared assumption made by the communists, namely that Earth is an unlimited source of natural and human resources. In practice, the competitive drive to the accumulation of capital and its concentration in fewer hands appears increasingly to be inconsistent with the aims of human well being and a healthy environment on a finite planet.
4 Common ownership might be equated with communism or socialism, but historically these descriptors have become identified with their bureaucratically centralized and even totalitarian forms. Likewise, private ownership of property might be equated with capitalism, but private ownership of property is likely to continue beyond capitalism although with stricter limitations on what and how much can be owned by any individual. Similarly, we might prefer to differentiate socialism from communism, applying the former to societies with mixed forms of ownership and reserving the latter for systems in which common ownership dominates, but even Marx and Engels often used these terms interchangeably, so we might best avoid using either of them in relation to the just, sustainable societies we aim to achieve. See: Michael Heinrich (2004, Monthly Review Press), An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital for more on this theme.
5 A society that combines elements of communal and private ownership of resources is often described as a socialist one by non-communist social democratic parties and their members and followers. But this descriptor is for the most part avoided in this work, in part because of its historical association with the more authoritarian, centralized Soviet example. Greater democracy is needed than so-called socialist democracies practiced, particularly in relation to including the knowledge, experience and talents of everyone in economic decision-making and action. While social democracy is arguably a preferable descriptor for what we have in mind, it too has some negative historical connotations, notably the frequent failure of right-wing social democratic politicians to oppose imperialist war and defend the working class against the predations of the ruling capitalist political and economic elites.
This website was launched September 1, 2010 in support of a green social democratic policy. Please check out the new 2013 version of the essays that comprise our core document, TOWARDS A GREEN SOCIAL DEMOCRACY: A 21st Century Manifesto for a Just, Sustainable Future listed on our home page, beginning with the Introduction Also check out Tax the Rich, End Poverty, Save the Planet! Policies for a just, sustainable future which argues for political movements with an alternative program to neoliberal capitalism. All current and archived features can be found from the tabs in the header. If you are a returning visitor, see What’s New.
A green social democratic world view (substantially revised from prior version)
Taxation Policies for a Green Social Democracy(substantially revised from prior version)
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