Sunday, January 25, 2009

The vision thing

Excellent piece in the current issue of the Nation, by Benjamin Barber on the opportunity the current economic crisis presents to rethink the way we organize our society - economically, and in terms of the values we pursue. I wish that Obama's inaugural speech had had a little less talk of "responsibility" (although that's part of it, of course) and a little more soaring rhetoric like this:
Economists and politicians across the spectrum continue to insist that the challenge lies in revving up inert demand. For in an economy that has become dependent on consumerism to the tune of 70 percent of GDP, shoppers who won't shop and consumers who don't consume spell disaster. Yet it is precisely in confronting the paradox of consumerism that the struggle for capitalism's soul needs to be waged.


The convergence of Obama's election and the collapse of the global credit economy marks a moment when radical change is possible. But we will need the new president's leadership to turn the economic disaster into a cultural and democratic opportunity: to make service as important as selfishness (what about a national service program, universal and mandatory, linked to education?); to render community no less valid than individualism (lost social capital can be re-created through support for civil society); to make the needs of the spirit as worthy of respect as those of the body (assist the arts and don't chase religion out of the public square just because we want it out of City Hall); to make equality as important as individual opportunity ("equal opportunity" talk has become a way to avoid confronting deep structural inequality); to make prudence and modesty values no less commendable than speculation and hubris (saving is not just good economic policy; it's a beneficent frame of mind). Such values are neither conservative nor liberal but are at once cosmopolitan and deeply American. Their restoration could inaugurate a quiet revolution.
I've written in similar terms before. One of the enduring curiosities of the human condition is how little people are able to imagine things being to even the smallest degree different than how they are now. I'm not even talking about capitalism; I'm talking about the idea that the economy "has to" be based on consumer spending and the internal combustion engine. All current thinking about stimulus etc. are based on these assumptions.

The very best and most important thing about the triumph of progressivism in the recent election is that it allows us to dream again, to think about the world as we might want it to be and to begin to plan ways to get there. One important element of this at the current stage, perhaps the most important given the way Obama was able to harness this energy, is the bully pulpit of the White House. The president must continue to keep hope and change in the forefront as the primary goals of this administration, even as he works on the many difficult, intractable issues that he and we face.

In the campaign, suggesting convincingly that it could be done was the single important element in causing it to happen. And that needs to be applied ever more so the redefinition of the American economy - or is it American values? - that this article underlines.

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