Power Shift to Economic Justice and Democracy
Why the Environmental Movement Should Aim to Abolish Markets and Embrace Democratic Planning of the Economy
No sooner than I started to put my thoughts about the environment and markets onto paper, did I stumble upon a concrete example of one of the main things I was thinking about. I got out of bed this morning, went downstairs to make myself a cup of coffee, went outside to the end of the driveway, and grabbed the morning paper. As I was pulling the paper out of the box, a small headline indicating an article at the center of the paper caught my eye: "Utility finds foes to renewable energy line plan."
The problem the article talked about was straightforward. We desperately need a green energy revolution - that goes without saying. San Diego Gas & Electric Co. wants to build a $1.5 billion solar power plant in the California desert which would provide clean power to half of the utility's population, almost 750,000 people. Fair enough. So here's the problem: power plants need power lines and they want those power lines to cut through 23 miles of pristine desert parklands. Many people, quite understandably, aren't too fond of the idea.
Why I was surprised I don't know. Corporate destruction of communities and the environment is inevitable and endemic under market capitalism. And for good reason - people have no democratic say in what companies do with their land and to communities and the environment. You'd be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't want economic democracy. When asked, people always say they want a democratic say over the decisions which affect their lives. People want a democratic approach to our economic life and, when pressed, most people support either venues of public input or government regulation. Putting aside democracy for a second, both methods involve an intentional and planned response to market chaos and tyranny. Government regulation prevents markets and corporations from completely destroying our society, while avenues of public input (which are usually very limited or a sham) prevent people from completely revolting against their economic masters by providing concessions to them- they give a semblance of democracy in response to the naked tyranny of the "free" market.
I'm an advocate of what I think is the only solution to this problem: the abolition of markets as an economic system, and the establishment of a democratic and participatory economy with participatory planning to take its place. In short, I want to replace the hellhole we call capitalism with real economic justice, freedom, and democracy. This is the topic I think we all need to start talking about.
Whatever one thinks about cutting through pristine parklands (especially considering the myriad of alternative locations and methods for construction), there is an irrefutable contradiction in our current economic system: under capitalism, people neither have or ever will have a democratic say in the decisions which affect their lives. Development, economic growth, and the shaping of our economic future are all left up to people in corporate boardrooms with no connection to the lives of ordinary people. Every time there's a new technological development, no matter how it might improve our lives in the long run, ordinary people somewhere end up getting the short end of the stick. This usually revolves around one of the central tenants of capitalism, namely that someone else - virtually always the superrich and their mega-corporations - gets to define your economic future (or more precisely, your economic hell is the byproduct of the prosperity of the owning and coordinating classes). Markets have no mechanism to allow for democratic control; we couldn't have a democratic say in the market economy even if we wanted to.
What makes all this more tragic is that there are alternatives to the chaos of markets and class inequality. Democratic workplaces where all people share in empowering work, management, and the more difficult work can replace undemocratic workplaces where ordinary workers have no say in decisions and do only shit work. Such workplaces could be collectively owned and organized to benefit our entire society. Those democratic workplaces - along with community councils or governments - can network into local, regional, and national networks of councils - that is, we can form economic governments to democratically decide what our economic futures should look like. Workplaces and worker-run industries could submit annual workplace plans for production. Community councils could submit annual plans of what they need and want society to produce. A process of negotiation -a sort-of economic conversation about what's needed and wanted for the year - would occur and, after a few rounds of back-and-forths between the councils, would lead to a plan for that economic year. The plan could be changed as needed throughout the year, but we'd accomplish something that would be truly remarkable: we'd have a directly democratic way to decide what should be produced, what products we want to use that year, how to effectively and sustainably use resources and protect the natural environment, how to go about promoting growth, what technologies to invest in, how to protect human, civil, and labor rights, and how to have a more empowering and secure society and economy. The point is, there are democratic alternatives to the current chaos we live under.
If green development is left up to big corporations, not only will they be resistant to it for many years - coal and oil companies certainly aren't gonna give up without a fight - but it will be the rich, and not the rest of us, who will benefit from the greening of our economy. As is evident by the San Diego power plant example, many corporations that do "go green" will do it out of a drive for power and profit, instead of ecological necessity and sanity. And even if that weren't true, plans made in ivory-tower board rooms will never take into account the needs and ideas of our communities and families. Ordinary people will suffer from these failings. Areas of the natural environment will be destroyed; communities will be devastated, and much, much worse. A clean and just energy revolution is needed more than ever, yes. Such devastation would happen without a clean energy revolution in a thousand other, and more destructive, ways. But what I'm saying is that we can have clean and green energy and economic justice and democracy. And more, I'm saying that it's likely that it will be impossible to solve the climate crisis without being well on the way to economic democracy.
If we think economic democracy is a desirable aim, then that necessitates that environmental groups fighting for clean and just energy put economic justice and democracy - namely democratic workplaces, social ownership of those workplaces, liberatory labor compensation norms, and democratic economic planning - on their agendas. A participatory economic future needs to be one of our central demands. We need to build such an economy from the bottom up. We need to fight for reforms which leave us stronger than we were before, lift up those who most need lifting, and lead us on a path towards the democratizing of the economy. This is one of the most important tasks for my generation. It is our generation calling.
When the alternatives to economic injustice and tyranny are so clear, the only remaining question is: "why not?" And if the only major question is "why not", why don't we add economic emancipation to our list of aims, goals, and demands. Shouldn't our organizational platforms, culture, and conversation reflect what we actually want? And more so, while some level of reform is possible, will a clean and just energy revolution be possible without economic democracy? Unwavering action, more thorough organizing, and bolder demands seem, to me at least, to be the only logical course of action for our movement for a greener, more just, and more democratic society. We should leave nothing up to chance.
Brian Kelly is a 21 year old, revolutionary youth organizer, currently based out of New York, U.S.A. He studies how language, social networks, and communication affect political strategy, vision, and organizing. For the past two years, he has been an organizer with Students for a Democratic Society, and is also on the national council of the Student Environmental Action Coalition - both in the United States - addressing the War in Iraq, the environmental crisis, and youth and student rights and power. He runs a political strategy website - Diary of a Walking Butterfly (www.walkingbutterfly.org) - where he writes on topics of political strategy, social vision, youth organizing, social change, and how language and communication affect each of those topics. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through AIM/GTalk at email@example.com.