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Building the New Economy: Ten Steps We Can Take Now

How to choose people, place, and planet over profit, product, and power.
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steps by KB

Photo by K B

Are we ready for a new economy?

And a new politics?

First, some definitions. I think we can define the new economy as one where the overriding purpose of economic life is to sustain and to strengthen People, Place, and Planet, and is no longer to grow Profit, Product (as in gross domestic), and Power.

And a new politics? No surprises here. A new politics in America is one that replaces today’s creeping corporatocracy and plutocracy with true popular sovereignty.

Well, then, let’s explore how we can begin the process of transformation to a new economy and a new politics. This afternoon, I want to offer 10 steps we can take now that would start us on our journey. Time is short, so here they are.

Step 1

The journey to a new political economy begins when enough Americans have come to two important conclusions. The first is that something is profoundly wrong with our current political economy—the operating system on which our country now runs. That system is now routinely generating terrible results—failing us socially, economically, environmentally, and politically. When big problems emerge across the entire spectrum of national life, as they surely have in our country, it cannot be for small reasons. We have encompassing problems because of fundamental flaws in our economic and political system. The second conclusion follows from the first. It is the imperative of system change, of building a new political economy that routinely delivers good results for people, place and planet.

A growing number of Americans are already finding it impossible to accept the deteriorating conditions of life and living. They see frightening gap between the world that is and the one that could be. So, our first step is to become teachers—to help bring these Americans, and many more, to see the basic relationships: that the huge challenges we face are the result of system failure, that our current system of political economy no longer deserves legitimacy because it doesn’t deliver on the values it proclaims, and that, therefore, the path forward is to change the system. As the slogan goes, “System change, not climate change.” This is the core, foundational message, and we must pursue many ways to reach ever-larger numbers of Americans with it.

Step 2

What I call progressive fusion. If the various U. S. progressive communities remain as fragmented and as in-their-silos as today, we won’t be able to take advantage of positive opportunities opened up by rising popular disenchantment and by the inevitable crises ahead. What’s needed, for starters, is a unified progressive identity, a concerted effort to institutionalize coordination, a common infrastructure capable of formulating clear policy objectives and strategic messages, and a commitment to creating a powerful, unified movement beyond isolated campaigns.

Critical here is a common progressive platform. It should embrace a profound commitment to social justice, job creation, and environmental protection; a sustained challenge to consumerism and commercialism and the lifestyles they offer; a healthy skepticism of growth mania and a democratic redefinition of what society should be striving to grow; a challenge to corporate dominance and a redefinition of the corporation, its goals and its management and ownership; a commitment to an array of prodemocracy reforms in campaign finance, elections, the regulation of lobbying; and much more. A common agenda would also include an ambitious set of new national indicators beyond GDP to inform us of the true quality of life in America.

A powerful part of the drive for transformation must be a compelling envisioning of the world we would like to leave for our children and grandchildren — a new American Dream, if you will.

Coming together is imperative because all progressive causes face the same reality. We live and work in a system of political economy that cares profoundly about profit and growth and about international power and prestige. It cares about society and the natural world in which it operates primarily to the extent the law requires. So the progressive mandate is to inject values of justice, democracy, sustainability, and peace into this system. And our best hope for doing this is a fusion of those concerned about environment, social justice, true democracy, and peace into one powerful progressive force. We have to recognize that we are all communities of a shared fate. We will rise or fall together, so we’d better get together.

Step 3

A powerful part of the drive for transformation must be a compelling envisioning of the world we would like to leave for our children and grandchildren—a new American Dream, if you will. When systemic change does come, it does so because the people agitating for change have painted a compelling vision of a better future. And this new dream should be accompanied by a new narrative or story that explains America’s path from yesterday to tomorrow. Harvard’s Howard Gardner stresses that “leaders . . . can change the course of history . . . by creating a compelling story, embodying that story in one’s own life, and presenting the story in many different formats so that it can eventually topple the counterstories in one’s culture. . . . The story must be simple, easy to identify with, emotionally resonant, and evocative of positive experiences.”

Bill Moyers has written that “America needs a different story. . . . So let me say what I think up front: The leaders and thinkers and activists who honestly tell that story and speak passionately of the moral and religious values it puts in play will be the first political generation since the New Deal to win power back for the people.”

We can realize a new American Dream, America the Possible, if enough of us join together in the fight for it. This new dream envisions an America where the pursuit of happiness is sought not in more getting and spending but in the growth of human solidarity, real democracy, and devotion to the public good; where the average American is empowered to achieve his or her human potential; where the benefits of economic activity are widely and equitably shared; where the environment is sustained for current and future generations; and where the virtues of simple living, community self-reliance, good fellowship, and respect for nature predominate.

Step 4

One key task for progressives of all stripes is not merely to have a compelling vision but also to pioneer the development of a powerful set of new ideas and policy proposals which confirm that the path to this better world does indeed exist. We must show that when it comes to defining the way forward, we know what we’re talking about. We are dreamers, perhaps, but dreamers with tools. The good news here is that system-changing proposals already exist in many of the key areas of transformation—ideas for dethroning GDP, transcending consumerism, transforming corporations, revitalizing communities, building a different system for money and finance, and more. The goal here is to design and test a new operating system. Carrying forward this work is something to which I know many of the groups represented here today will contribute.

Step 5

It’s vital that we continuously strengthen the intellectual capital of the new economy movement, as well as regularly link ideas to action and prepare for the crises that will surely come. This means that we need to dramatically strengthen the institutional capacity to do these things. That is why we have created the New Economics Institute, for example. And here, let’s face it, the desperate need for most institutions working these issues is funding. Given the stakes involved, financial support for new economy work from foundations and individuals has thus far been much too limited. Together, we can help to change this situation.

Step 6

This is the step I suspect many of you have been waiting to have recognized. It is certainly the step that many of you are already taking!

We are dreamers, perhaps, but dreamers with tools. The good news here is that system-changing proposals already exist in many of the key areas of transformation.

I have to reference, of course, to the extraordinary work being done today in America’s communities and regions to bring the future into the present, without waiting on the rest of the world to catch on and catch up. Many of you are already building a new world from the ground up with a proliferation of real-world, predominantly local initiatives—new forms of community revitalization and innovative community action—new business models focused on local living economies, rootedness, and sustaining people and nature (e.g. B-Corps, public-private and profit-nonprofit hybrids, mission-protected corporations) as well as new growth of older models (e.g. worker owned coops and other forms of employee ownership)—and new lifestyles and workstyles adopted at the individual, family and organizational levels. These initiatives are not only worthy in themselves, they provide inspirational models that can be replicated as the movement grows. They provide opportunities for people to get involved. And they also change peoples’ minds. As they say, seeing is believing. This may be the most hopeful thing going on in America today. So more power to you.

Step 7

This step embraces another area where numerous of you are already active. Many of the ideas needed to transition to a new political economy must await better times, or they need further development. But many do not, and should be pursued now, even in today’s political process. Of particular importance here are what we can call non-reformist reforms—they may look like mere reformist incrementalism, but they plant the seeds of deeper changes. The New Economy Working Group, the Institute for Policy Studies, Yes! Magazine and the New Economy Network, for example, have collaborated on pathbreaking work on reforms in banking and finance and on jobs in the new economy. Demos is pushing new indicators of progress beyond GDP. The Democracy Collaborative is developing and promoting new models of community revitalization and business ownership. And on and on. Again, more power to you. We need to define a new economy policy agenda that has a fighting chance today, and we need to pursue it with all our strength.

Step 8

This Takes us into politics. Clearly, America faces a daunting agenda, one that requires far-sighted, strong, and effective government leadership and action. Inevitably, then, the drive to respond to these challenges leads to the political arena, where a vital, muscular democracy steered by an informed and engaged citizenry is needed. That’s the democracy we need, but, unfortunately, it is not the democracy we have. Right now, Washington isn’t even seriously trying to address most of the country’s challenges. It is unimaginable that American politics as we know it will deliver the responses needed.

The deep transformations we need—and even most of the proposals for reform offered by progressives in Washington today—will not be possible without a new politics in America. As Michael Waldman, director of one of the key reform groups, the Brennan Center for Justice, has said, “Progressives have to grapple with this central truth—we can’t solve the country’s problems if we don’t fix the systems of democracy.” The antidote to creeping corporatocracy and plutocracy in America is a strong, muscular democracy in America.

We know what must be done here—and done with urgency before we decline into terminal corporatocracy and plutocracy. We need to guarantee the right to vote and ensure that all votes are counted equally, effectively challenge the two-party duopoly with fusion voting and otherwise, overturn Citizens United and enact meaningful public and citizen financing of elections, regulate lobbying and the revolving door, reform Senate rules on holds and filibusters, for starters.

Step 9

How do progressives begin to drive real change? The short answer is that we need to build a powerful citizens movement. In today’s America, progressive ideas are unlikely to be turned into action unless they are pushed relentlessly by citizen demand. The more serious the change sought, the louder the demand must be.

flag and sun by Voltaire Malazarte
America the Possible: A Manifesto

It’s not too late to build an American Dream that lives up to our highest ideals.

This reality has been stressed by many of our most perceptive observers. Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson wrote in 2010, “If there’s a common feature to the political landscapes in which Carter, Clinton and now Obama were compelled to work, it’s the absence of a vibrant left movement. . . . In America, major liberal reforms require not just liberal governments, but autonomous, vibrant mass movements, usually led by activists who stand at or beyond liberalism’s left fringe.” Successful movements for serious change are launched in protest against key features of the established order. They are nurtured on outrage at the severe injustice being perpetrated, the core values being threatened, and the future prospects that are unfolding. And they insist that power concede to their demands. As Frederick Douglass famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” If progressives hope to succeed, then the movement must capture the spirit of Frederick Douglass.

Achieving meaningful changes will require reaching out to diverse communities, and it will require a rebirth of marches, protests, demonstrations, direct action, and nonviolent civil disobedience. No one who followed recent events in Egypt or at the Wisconsin State House, or who remembers the civil rights and antiwar protests of the 1960s and 1970s, or has seen the impact of Occupy and other protests, can doubt their importance. Author and social critic Chris Hedges reminds us that “Civil disobedience, which will entail hardship and suffering, which will be long and difficult, which at its core means self-sacrifice, is the only mechanism left.” Those words ring true to those who have worked for decades to elicit a meaningful response to the existential threat of climate change and who find, after all the effort, only ashes.

Step 10

The final step we need to pursue is a little different. An imperative we face is to preserve the possibility of a bright future by preventing any of today’s looming disasters from spinning out of control or otherwise becoming calamitous or so overwhelming that they monopolize resources of time, energy, and money.

So, while the struggle to build a new system goes forward, we must do everything we can to make the old system perform to head off such calamity. For example, climate disruption is already well under way. Should we fail to act decisively on the climate front, the world will likely become so nasty and brutish that the possibility of rebirth, of achieving something new and beautiful, will simply vanish, and we will be left with nothing but the burden of climate chaos and societies’ endless responses to it.

In the end, it all comes down to the American people and the strong possibility that we still have it in us to use our freedom and our democracy in powerful ways to create something fine, a reborn America, for our children and grandchildren.

To sum up, I believe we can already see how the dynamics of fundamental change might emerge—how systemic change can come to America. As conditions in our country continue to decline across a wide front, or at best fester as they are, ever-larger numbers of Americans lose faith in the current system and its ability to deliver on the values it proclaims. The system steadily loses support, leading to a crisis of legitimacy. Meanwhile, traditional crises, both in the economy and in the environment, grow more numerous and fearsome. In response, progressives of all stripes coalesce, find their voice and their strength, and pioneer the development of a powerful set of new ideas and policy proposals confirming that the path to a better world does indeed exist. Demonstrations and protests multiply, and popular movements for prodemocracy reform and transformative change gain strength. At the local level, people and groups plant the seeds of change through a host of innovative initiatives that provide inspirational models of how things might work in a new political economy devoted to sustaining human and natural communities. Sensing the direction in which things are moving, our wiser and more responsible leaders, political and otherwise, rise to the occasion, support the growing movement for change, and frame a compelling story or narrative that makes sense of it all and provides a positive vision of a better America. The movement broadens to become a major national force.

Demands for immediate amelioration—for jobs, for tax justice, for climate action—will at best be met with proposals for modest accommodations and half measures, and the struggle for deep, systemic change will be met with fierce opposition and determined resistance. So all-important conclusions emerge—namely, that the prospects for systemic change will depend mightily on the health of our democracy and the power of the popular movement that is built. And those prospects will also depend mightily on our willingness to take real risks, to struggle together, to sacrifice, to put it all on the line.

In the end, it all comes down to the American people and the strong possibility that we still have it in us to use our freedom and our democracy in powerful ways to create something fine, a reborn America, for our children and grandchildren.

At this gathering, we affirm that possibility.


James Gustave Speth adapted this article for YES! Magazine from a speech he delivered at the Strategies for a New Economy conference, presented by New Economics Institute in June 2012. Gus teaches at Vermont Law School. He is the author of The Bridge at the Edge of the World.

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