One of the most respected political insiders in the U.S. environmental movement has declared the bankruptcy of “America’s ruthless brand of capitalism.”
Environmental attorney Augustus "Gus” Speth, a cofounder of the highly respected Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and founder of the World Resources Institute, as well as former dean of the prestigious Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, has been labeled the "ultimate environmental insider" by some commentators due to his past ties to elite circles, both within the green movement and within the halls of government.
Speth served as a White House environmental advisor under Jimmy Carter, is a former director of the United Nations Development Programme and has even been a trustee of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund — presumably a somewhat capitalist enterprise.
Yet in a book published late last year, America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, Speth states that the U.S. today faces an “overwhelming, colliding collection of problems” that stems from “fundamental flaws in our economic and political system.” He explicitly describes that system as a "virulent, fast-growing strain of corporate-consumerist capitalism."
And Speth argues that not only is this version of capitalism unable to grapple with the crucial problem of climate change — an issue central to his worldview — it also is perpetuating such problems as high and increasing levels of economic inequality, extensive child poverty, and a practice of mass incarceration — particularly of black men — that has given the US the world’s largest prison population.
In addition, America the Possible notes that the U.S. currently suffers the highest infant mortality rate in the developed world, the second highest school dropout rate, the highest homicide rate, and the world’s highest rate of spending on wars and the military.
To cure this daunting list of national maladies, Speth indicates that environmentalists as well as other progressive forces must develop a compelling vision of an alternative political and economic future that will break decisively with corporate capitalism as we now experience it.
The alternate vision will initially seem unrealistic to most U.S. citizens, Speth acknowledges. Yet he predicts that as our corporate-dominated economic and political system suffers from a series of crises in coming decades, it will lose legitimacy in the eyes of millions of people, and “progressives of all stripes” will have a chance to force through systemic change by joining in a unified movement for national transformation, despite “fierce and determined resistance” by supporters of the status quo.
Although praising the civil disobedience practiced by the Occupy movement, Speth in his book and in a speech at the AFL-CIO building in Washington last September has not called for change primarily coming through any form of insurrection. Instead, he urges progressives to follow a strategy of interlocking and mutually reinforcing transformations of key features of the existing system, beginning with a coordinated effort to democratize the nation’s corporate-dominated politics.
Transformation as America the Possible envisions it also will rest heavily on an ongoing “bottom-up” effort to establish new economic institutions at the local level, both as alternatives to corporate rule and as models of what a future democratic society might look like.
According to America the Possible the transformed economy of the future will not be “classic socialism,” yet it will not be our existing capitalism, either. Speth seems to favor a highly modified market society combining some features of Swedish social democracy with the "small is beautiful" focus of the late E.F. Schumacher and a “no-growth” or “post-growth” economics such as that advocated by Dr. Herman Daly of the University of Maryland.
To combat corporate power at the national and international levels, Speth recommends a system of “stakeholder representation” somewhat resembling the system in Germany that places labor representatives on corporate boards. Another recommendation is that progressives fight to replace the state chartering of large corporations with federal corporate charters, as recommended by Teddy Roosevelt a century ago and as recently endorsed by Ralph Nader.
To address the chronic economic insecurity, widespread poverty and high unemployment rates affecting millions of people in the U.S. today, Speth’s book calls for a “new war on poverty,” although he offers few details on how to wage it. He also argues for the federal government’s serving as “employer of last resort” for the jobless, possibly through tax incentives for cooperating corporations but possibly through direct federal hiring.
Along with radical economist Juliet Schor, Speth calls for a less growth-addicted economy in the future. Instead of attempting to pursue perpetual economic growth — which many environmentalists consider inherently impossible, and destructive to the planet in the short run — Speth’s model would address unemployment through a mixed program of shorter work weeks, increasing government expenditures on unmet social needs and the building of a new U.S. culture less influenced by advertising and consumerism and more devoted to leisure time, community, and the quality of life.
For some democratic socialists, both inside and outside of DSA, particular elements of Speth’s economic vision may be problematic. For example, America the Possible points with alarm to large federal deficits and the growing U.S. national debt. Unlike the Tea Party, fortunately, Speth wants to reduce the deficits through cuts in bloated military programs and higher taxes on the rich, and his book advocates an increase in social spending on the poor and insecure, not Republican-style austerity. On the other hand, despite short and favorable quotations from Keynes and liberal economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, America the Possible seems to rule out Krugman’s vision of curing the current business slump through a massive increase in deficit spending.
Perhaps equally importantly, Speth’s vision of long-term economic transformation through the evolutionary growth of co-ops, worker-owned enterprises and small green businesses — while compatible with radical economist Gar Alperovitz’s vision in America Beyond Capitalism — is likely to be economic anathema to some pragmatic leaders of the labor movement.
What democratic socialists should find striking and important in Speth’s vision, however, is the emphasis he puts on mainstream green groups moving beyond their focus on “environmental” issues alone, and his goal — whether or not it is fully achievable — of all liberal and progressive movements joining to supporting one another’s issues while also working in unison for long-term, system-transforming change.
For all U.S. progressives who have deep reservations about the viability of capitalism, and have long advocated the formation of a multi-issue movement to modify or replace it, the publication of America the Possible is a surprisingly hopeful sign. Democratic socialists who are looking for ways to engage in coalition building with the environmental movement might want to give this book some serious attention.
Andy Feeney is a member of the District of Columbia local of DSA.