On the necessity of ‘mediation’ for economic and social transitions

To act radically too early is often self-defeating. But to act non-radically in the short-term without a very clear view of the medium- and long-term radicalisms in whose name one might justify immediate compromises is just as bad. Like it or not — and there are days when I, too, don’t like it all that much — short-term radicalism needs to be traded off against long-term radicalism. The whole art of mediation is never to lose the critical thrust of the long term, so as not to lose the raison d’ĂȘtre of one’s short-term compromises and tactical alliances.

Excerpted from Christian Arnsperger :

“If we want to be serious about the ultimate transition we seek, we simply can’t avoid putting into place what we might call mediations. The utopian often writes as if her vision could be implemented im-mediately — a word that literally means “without mediation.” Utopians usually neglect the inter-mediary steps through which we might wriggle out of the strictures of the status quo and start heading in a different direction — a direction indeed oriented towards a utopian horizon — since etymologically, ou-topos in Greek means “out of this place,” or even “in no (known) place.”

The art of mediation — because an art it is — consists of striking a careful balance between short- and long-term radicalism. Only very rarely, if ever, is a new set of radically new principles and/or practices implementable as such immediately. A change mechanism has to be found by which initial, very low-grade radicalism (perceived by most incumbent actors as nothing more than “innovation” or “new opportunities”) will set in motion a sequence of changes leading, eventually, to high-grade radicalism in the long run. What is needed, therefore, is a gradual drift in principles and practices — probably practices first, and principles later, when the initial new practices gain supporters — and this means that, as I had announced in the very first welcoming post back on April 15, there will need to be several transitions rather than just one large one, so that the word “transitions” in the name of this blog is, indeed, aptly put in the plural. As a result, it’s crucial to focus on the timing and sequencing of this long change process. Part 5 of this blog is, among other things, about how to conceptualize, spell out, and phase a three-step sequence:

1. Long-term goal: The continual operation, through free decisions by citizens, of a plural economy in which various modes of production, consumption, financing, working, etc. — let’s call them various “eco-logics” — coexist within a world economy ruled by a socioeconomic constitution ensuring continual equality of opportunity, for each citizen, to move between eco-logics (without exorbitant systemic sanctions, although there might be associated costs) as his/her existential situation and worldview changes. This is, in essence, a genuinely free economy — an economy peopled by reflective citizens who are able to determine for themselves which eco-logic they choose to submit to, and who are helped in that choice by a set of rules that ensure fluid circulation across eco-logics. The long-term goal is simply to have a (finally) just, durably sustainable, and humanly fruitful economy — one in which only the truly unavoidable hardships of the human condition remain and can be shouldered without additional hardships coming from the economy.

2. Medium-term goal: The implementation of the framework conditions — six of which I discussed in Part 4 — that would ensure that this genuinely free, plural economy becomes a true possibility. Not, mind you, that it will immediately be put into place, since as we saw citizens will move at varying speeds depending on many parameters, with “pioneers” starting out first and later waves following them as the actual conditions for a coexistence of alternative eco-logics improve over time. The basic idea when creating the right framework conditions is that we thereby create a new “sustainability frontier” which — similarly to the Western frontier in 19th-century North America (with apologies to native Americans for the analogy) — can gradually fill up with people who, through a mixture of free choice and circumstantial pressure, decide to emigrate away from the increasingly unsustainable mainstream economy. The medium-term goal is to have in place the general conditions that will maximize the likelihood of the long-term goal of point (1) becoming reality — without there ever being absolute certainty, as this would consist in violating citizens’ basic freedom to choose.

3. Short-term goal: The “next step” — which I have flippantly formulated as: “What do we do next Monday morning?” — has to be such that system-maintaining changes in behavior can create small “cracks” through which enterprising citizens can (somewhat in the manner of small plant shoots in a cracked tarmac sidewalk, or of slight water infiltrations in a cracked concrete wall when the winter comes) set in motion a cumulative dynamics towards system-changing changes in behavior as well as in economic evaluation criteria. Let me give an example. Neither employers nor, for that matter, trade unions are going to support an Economic Transition Income (ETI) as long as prevailing employment and production conditions within the capitalist logic haven’t changed sufficiently so that they realize that a truly plural economy will actually provide better business opportunities than the current mono-economic logic. Of course, radicals might claim that this perception could be generated in good part by the State creating specifically targeted taxes that would make most mono-economic activities less profitable for shareholders. But the question bounces back: Who, in the current economy, would support a government that would do this? Clearly, it would be a more expedient and convenient solution than citizens and intellectuals having to tediously “work on” mentalities in the corporate world — but in actual fact, given the political economy of capitalist social democracy, even a radically modified tax scheme would require that corporate mentalities change. So there appears to be no actual choice, whether some of us like it or not: Unless a way is found to hook up the short-term pushes towards “cradle-to-cradle” production, “natural capitalism,” sustainable Wall-Street investment, and employee participation in capitalist profits with the medium-term goals of an ETI, a World Transition Organization, a global de-growth compact, a new monetary system, an economic democracy, and a new political governance structure (all of which are necessary for the long-term transition towards a genuinely plural economy), we simply won’t have a case. We may have a vision, we may have a good rallying call amongst radicals, but we still won’t have a Next-Step case.”

What would such an attention to a mediated ‘next step’ look like?

Christian writes:

“So what might the Next-Step Economy, remotely but powerfully inspired by the new framework conditions we need to have a genuine transition, take root in? I’ll need many posts to spell this out to satisfaction. But let me just start out by positing what I believe to be one very realistic, though not by that token necessarily easy, starting point.

* To the extent that we’re set, ultimately, on ushering in new ways of working, producing, and consuming, we need to gather momentum for what has been, in various documents recently published by the OECD or the UNEP, called the “Green Economy.” And within that very broad project of reforming capitalism to make it more sustainable both environmentally and socially, one key aspect is green (or sustainable) investment — that is, financial and industrial investment which, while still capitalist in nature, increasingly obeys the “triple bottom line” idea put forward by John Elkington: not just financial profitability, but also ecological and social sustainability. Only if this happens now, however unsatisfactory to the “radicals,” will there be any chance that, one day, cooperatives and other social firms might be seen as broadly legitimate, rather than as mere freaks.

* This tweaked vision of business has, of course, to be protected against various instances of “greenwashing” and “social-washing,” and much critical vigilance is needed in that area. It also requires that, right from this moment on, our business schools build and constantly reinforce programs of alternative management — not just as a facade to attract students (although this is already, in itself, a good thing, actually) but as a genuine laboratory to produce cohorts of more and more genuine “eco-preneurs”: not just businesspeople who vaguely care about carbon emissions and want to replenish forests but, more fundamentally, leaders and decision makers who, assisted by technicians developing new models of non-financial and qualitative accounting as well as new business models that generate deep “social innovation,” come to realize that triple-bottom-line activities — even if, and because, they entail less-than-maximal returns on investments — are fully legitimate and economically reasonable. Which also means that the rules of international investment protection might have to be modified gradually so as to allow eco-preneurial investment to thrive rather than be competed out by unduly “protected” mainstream investments.

* To the extent that we seek, ultimately, new governance structures along the lines of participatory coordination and subsidiarity-based municipalism, we first have to start to reflect on existing political structures so as to make them gradually more congenial with the broadened equality-of-opportunity principle defended in Part 4. I want to focus mainly here on two aspects: (a) the EU and its integration process, to see how seeking to strike the right balance between centralization and decentralization, between closer a-integration and more federalism, might make post-Lisbon treaties more transition-friendly; and (b) the WTO as well as the multiple regional trade agreements, to see how international trade regulations might be very gradually made more congenial to the emergence of a global de-growth compact and an accompanying WTransO.

* Overall, the conditions for a Green New Deal need to be investigated — in the sense of a new social compact between governments, employers, workers’ organizations, and citizens’ organizations, so as to make sure that the three previous reform streams don’t degenerate into a reinforcement of capitalism’s current unsustainability. In other words, the forces and energies set free by sustainable investment, by alternative management and eco-preneurship, or by new methods of European integration and of international trade regulation, need to be harnessed towards a more, rather than less, sustainable system — even if it remains capitalist for an indefinite time. And this will require that various actors, but first and foremost citizens’ organizations and NGOs, become more conscious of the large-scale technical challenges that need to be grappled with if a more equal-opportunity-oriented system is to gradually emerge out of the “green capitalism” that is currently taking shape. In a sense, the question is: How to regulate “green capitalism” so that society can gradually reorganize itself in the direction of the six framework conditions required for transition? Without such an effort, the creation of an Economic Transition Income (ETI) or the gradual emergence of a Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) sector will once again be halted by the “single bottom line” requisites of an unreformed (green) capitalism.”

1 Comment On the necessity of ‘mediation’ for economic and social transitions

  1. Avatarhappyseaurchin

    i really liked the long-term, mid-term, short-term goals
    since that resonates with the notion of intention and projection
    (though for me there is no need to have three levesl
    which smacks of categorical theoretical thinking
    whereas a computer assisted system like the confluence model would allow anybody any number of projections)

    when asked about short-term
    what can be done by next monday
    (again something which resonates with eg action cycle which asks a group the question:
    what can be done by next week?)
    christian’s answer escalates out of all proportion

    seems to me
    what we need is not more “big scale thinking” disembodied thinking
    but such thinking embodied in a social polity

    that is
    “what can be done by next week?”
    set to a specific group of people in the real world
    who then go about attempting to achieve it

    we can’t do this in a (random sample) p2p way with 10 people
    let alone a conference sized group of people

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