Part B: Models of Utopia - Ambit Claims and Long Term Goals
In this second section of my paper I will be examining the problems of the mixed economy in more detail and going on to look at two other utopian models that the Greens might consider. I will also be suggesting that the Greens could do well to separate their aims as a ginger group from a more long term strategy for a Green utopia.
Structural Problems for Capitalism and the Environment in the Mixed Economy
What I have talked about so far are the difficulties that wage labour poses for any attempt to restrict consumerism. This is a barrier to the Greens in their attempts to restrict and regulate capitalism now. It would also be a continual headache in any future mixed economy. In a similar vein, the structure of capitalism as an economy based on competitive private ownership is both a problem now and would remain a problem for any proposed mixed economy.
In the capitalist economic structure, managers of any business are required to maximize the profitability of their business. They can do this by expanding markets, cutting costs, bringing in new technology, saving on labour costs and so on. In a competitive economic environment, any failure to maximize profitablity may result in the collapse of the business - as it is competed out of existence by other firms who take its markets, as its shareholders desert it, pulling out their investments to get more profits elsewhere. As writers such as McLaughlin have noted, this is a structural impediment to environmentally safe business practice (McLaughlin 1993). It is in the interest of every manager to externalize environmental costs if they can get away with it. Even if government legislation comes in which forces all businesses in the same field to internalize their costs, the most likely response is that investors will just pull out of that sphere of business and move to a more profitable arena.
The solution of the mixed economy to these issues is merely to regulate all businesses into a state of environmental soundness, with government taking up a large share of the economy. While this is not a totally impossible solution, it creates a perpetual and perpetually problematic line of political cleavage within the mixed economy. The class of entrepreneurs is always and necessarily in conflict with any environmentalist government and politically will do its utmost to avoid environmental regulation. As well, the structure of the capitalist economy means that shareholders and managers of private firms are the most wealthy people in society. So they are also the ones who can most readily afford political campaigns. They are also likely to own and loosely to control, much of the media. Whatever environmental regulation is enacted, it will always be in the interests of private companies to avoid it. Even better if they can do this secretly, while their competitors are hindered by government regulation. So in the mixed economy the government must put a lot of energy into the enforcement of environmental regulation, against a backdrop of continual efforts on the part of industry to get round this regulation.
We can look at this in two ways — as a structural feature of capitalism or as a cultural arbitrary of present society.
In a structural analysis it is a mistake to see these political processes as driven by 'greed'. They are implicit in the economic structure of a society in which productive capital is owned privately. It is an economic reality of this structure that investors will move investments to get the highest profit and resist political regulation that impedes profits.
In a cultural analysis we can argue that this is not just a purely 'economic' mechanism. We could envisage a culture in which rich people wanted to invest in the most socially worthwhile projects, regardless of profitabilty. We could imagine a class of owners who believed that workplace decisions should be taken by workers in their companies, regardless of profitability. We could imagine owners who would only invest in environmentally sound ventures. In such a cultural context ethical investment firms would boom and would inform capitalists about the most useful ways to invest their fortunes. In this context we might, for a short time, have the legal structures of private competitive ownership, but the cultural meaning of these structures would be completely changed. De facto, we would not really have a capitalist economy at all, because the cultural norms which sustain capitalism as a structure would have vanished.
The Economic Problems of The Environmental Package
Is it actually possible to carry out the environmental reforms proposed by the Greens in a context where private capital and taxes on the rich are supposed to fund the increased government revenue for new environmental programmes? What would be the likely economic consequences of the Greens’ policies? I have already looked at some of the policies of the Greens to argue that they imply a great increase in government revenue and many serious restrictions on business profitability. I will reinforce this argument by referring to two studies by environmentalists of the kinds of proposals put forward in Greens' policy documents.
Ted Trainer argues for the impossibility of sustaining anything approaching our current levels of energy use in an economy based in renewable energy sources. He begins his argument by referring to the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This body argued that to stabilize levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere we would have to reduce our emissions of these gases by 60 to 80 per cent.( Trainer 1995, 112) Trainer imagines this taking place in a near future in which the world had 11 billion people. If we were to parcel out the remaining 40 per cent of greenhouse emissions equally, the per capita share in rich countries would be about 1/18 of the current levels (Trainer 1995, 112). The implication is that to stabilize greenhouse gases people in rich countries would have to cut their energy use in fossil fuels to about 1/18 what it is now.
Trainer goes on to consider the argument that much of this energy saving could be achieved through conservation measures. He points out that if we were to cut 50 to 60 per cent through conservation, we would still multiply energy use through our commitment to a growth economy. For example if we were to continue our present 3 per cent rate of growth, we could cut energy use in one year by 60 per cent but in 14 years we would be back to the original figure and in 23 years we would have doubled it (Trainer 1995, 116). The Greens deal with this aspect of the problem by committing themselves to zero or negative growth.
Trainer’s argument provides a context for reviewing the Greens’ energy policies. The Greens aim initially at a fairly modest target of reduction in Greenhouse gases; 5 per cent reduction on 1990 levels by 2010. However, like Trainer, they quote the Intergovernmental Panel finding that levels of Greenhouse gases would have to be cut by up to 80 per cent. In the long term, their policy aims to achieve this 80% reduction through a combination of energy conservation and transition to renewables; ‘supporting the phase-out of coal and oil fired power stations and the development of renewable alternatives’. They aim to move in this direction through a carbon tax and subsidies to alternative energy research and production (NSW Greens 1999, 1.2; 2.5; 3.7.3). Note that in this policy there is no direct commitment to cut energy use in rich countries so as to equalize it across the globe. What the policy envisages is only a proportional cut in energy use so that Australians cut their current share of fossil fuel use by 80%.
Let us assume with Trainer that the Greens could cut half of current energy use through conservation measures. This is in itself a costly project in the short term, even though some money may be saved through using less energy in the long run. A Canadian government study showed that to cut energy use by 20 per cent through conservation would initially cost government $108 billion. They also say that in the long run the economy would be saved $192 billion (Flavin 1990, 27). Accordingly, to get a fifty per cent saving from energy efficiency would cost either government or private industry a considerable amount initially - which would have to come out of government revenue or out of the profits of private industry. These funds would have to be found and extracted from the economy first, - before any savings from energy effiency were achieved.
To maintain the current effective level of energy input following these energy efficiencies, another fifty per cent of current supply would still have to be provided. Since the Panel says that we have to cut fossil fuel use by up to 80 per cent we could retain 20 per cent in fossil fuels. We would have to fund a replacement of 30 per cent of our current capacity with renewable energy. In other words, if the aim is to maintain the amount of energy use that we have now in our economy, we could reduce the total by 50 per cent by energy efficiency, keep 20 per cent in fossil fuels and provide another 30 per cent of capacity from renewables.
Currrent Energy Usage
To be saved by efficiency measures
To be replaced by renewables
To be retained as fossil fuels
Trainer’s discussion shows that this replacement would be a very costly exercise. He notes claims that electrical energy can be produced by solar or wind power at less than twice the cost of coal fired power. However these figures are taken at the most favourable sites at the best times of the day. In the case of solar power the figures relate to summer in the middle of the day in a warm latitude. In winter, at night and on cloudy days, and in colder latitudes, these figures drop drastically. For example on a clear winter’s day in Sydney, averaged over 24 hours, the panels are producing only 13 per cent of their total capacity. This drops to 6 per cent of capacity if the cells do not track the sun. He estimates that to put out the same amount of energy a solar power station would have to have 17 times the capacity of a coal fired station that can produce peak capacity all the time.
Using the NSW electricity household consumption average as a base figure, he argues that to produce this amount, given a battery loss of 35 per cent, the householder would have to pay $408,000 for the panels alone. He points out that he himself pays 20 times as much for every watt of electricity he gets out of his solar system as does the user hooked up to coal fired power stations. Costs of storing electrical energy for use when solar power is not available are also high. He calculates that a 1000 megawatt station that stored power through conversion to hydrogen would cost 27 times the amount of a comparable coal fired station (Trainer 1995, 118-122).
If Trainer’s calculations are even close to correct, the Greens’ policies could imply the conversion of 30 per cent of our current power to alternatives that were 20 to 30 times more expensive. That would be the scenario if we tried to maintain current levels of usage of power. However the Greens would not be uncomfortable with a reduction in power usage as part of an overall strategy of reducing levels of production and consumption. So what these calculations can actually do is to give some idea of the economic consequences of the Greens’ energy policies. Either the price of power would skyrocket as renewables replaced fossil fuels. Or effective use of power could decline by 30 per cent to maintain the current costs of energy use in the economy as a whole. Some combination would be the most likely. Environmentalists are quite right in thinking we could live quite comfortably on a 30% reduction of effective energy use if society was set up to allow it. However what I want to draw attention to here is the considerable economic disruption implied by the policy. This would not just be zero growth but a fairly extreme drop in the levels of production and consumption considered normal by Australians, accompanied by a severe crisis of profitability and employment in the private sector.
To distribute power evenly across the world population Trainer actually envisages a much more drastic reduction in power use in affluent countries. His calculations are that we would have to reduce consumption to 1/18 of present levels. The Greens could well support this policy as part of a general commitment to sustainable development and social justice at the global level. The economic consequences for Australia would be correspondingly drastic.
The Murray Darling Basin
Another environmentalist study that also looks at the cost of moving to a sustainable economy is the discussion of the Murray Darling Basin by Geoffrey Lawrence and Frank Vanclay (1992). The Basin produces one third of Australia’s farm products. The value of its annual production is about 10 billion dollars (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992, 34). Most of the Basin’s products are exported which means that the area makes a strong contribution to Australia’s overseas earnings. 70 per cent of exports from Australia are bulk agricultural commodities, which shows just how important this sector is to Australia’s economy as a whole (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992, 48). For this area alone, essential environmental repair would cost between 2 and 3 billion dollars (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992, 40, 41).
The kinds of repairs that Lawrence and Vanclay are considering are just those nominated in the Greens’ policies on rural land and coastal management - removing nutrients from the waterways, dealing with salinity through tree planting, moving to a reduction of artificial fertiliser and pesticide use, increasing the flow of major rivers by cutting water supplies for irrigation. Clearly such repairs would make a large dent in earnings from the farm products of the Basin. Nor would it be possible to take the money for these repairs out of current farm income, which is barely enough to make ends meet. For example in the 1991 -1992 financial year an average farmer in the Murray Darling Basin only got a net farm income of $2,100 (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992, 37; see also Vanclay & Lawrence 1995). Obviously, someone is making a lot of money out of production in the Murray Darling Basin, but it is not the local farmers, who would have to pay the bill if these environmental repairs were to be mandated by government regulation. To avoid this, they would have to be funded by taxes on large agricultural companies, ‘internalizing’ their environmental costs, or more indirectly through an increase in taxation of business in general. In the first alternative, the decline in profitability would hit the rural sector most heavily, while in the second alternative, the increase in taxation would be part of the generalized burdens on capital imposed within the Greens’ programme.
Eurocommunism and the Greens
These detailed discussions of energy and agriculture are designed to suggest the magnitude of the economic impact of Greens’ policies. I would argue that similar economic accounting could be carried out in relation to the whole range of their policy documents. My discussions of transport and coastal management illustrate some of these issues in yet other contexts.
In the late seventies and early eighties, a number of socialists on the left of European socialist parties developed what were then called ‘alternative programmes’ for socialism — also often known at the time as "Eurocommunism". These were alternative in the sense that they proposed a radical shift away from the failures of democratic socialism to achieve any real change. Yet at the same time they avoided the traditional communist/socialist strategy of national ownership of the means of production. The economy they favoured was a ‘mixed economy’ of socialist and capitalist elements. Frankel’s critique of these proposals (1983; 1987) is quite relevant to the policies now put forward by the Greens. Like the policies of the Greens, the ‘alternative programmes’ favoured a system of regulation and incentives to move private production to more socially useful alternatives and also proposed an increase in taxes on the rich to fund new programmes of social welfare and environmental reform. Like the Greens, these parties proposed to deal with problems of unemployment by combining a guaranteed minimum income with the development of new state-owned enterprises, providing socially useful products.
As Frankel remarks, the basic premise of these programmes was that ‘private capitalistic enterprises are sufficiently profitable and "flexible" to be able to live with a "transitional" strategy which demands higher taxes and greater controls over all facets of production and profits’ (Frankel 1983, 218). Frankel argues that this is not the case. At the time of his writing, he argues, private companies can only survive by labour shedding and government subsidy, being faced with a continual problem of overproduction and insufficient markets. Companies in rich countries are restructuring and downsizing their workforce to respond to international competition in terms of both labour costs and technology. These conditions are still relevant. Frankel also argues that the shift of the economy as a whole to produce only socially useful products would mean a ‘truly staggering unemployment figure’. He argues this in two ways. Firstly, socially useful products would cost less labour to produce. We would be making durable buses instead of the many private cars which are now intentionally manufactured to be obsolescent in less than ten years as part of a marketing strategy. The second reason is that socially useful production does not include the marketing industry and all its attendant subsections. So a vast amount of employment in promotional retailing and servicing would also vanish. Looking at these alternative programmes as a whole, Frankel remarks:
'Alternative programmes' accord a decisive role to the expansion of employment and social services in state institutions. Yet the assumption still prevails that a 'mixed economy' will continue to exist rather than a full-scale socialist economy. Consequently, all the admirable policies are couched in a framework that seems blind to the existing incompatibility of expanded 'social wages' (let alone half the intended new social policies advocated in 'alternative programmes') with capitalist rates of profit (Frankel 1983, 198).
As Frankel points out, this inevitable fall in profitability has certain obvious implications for a policy which is heavily dependent on increasing taxes to provide the GAI and fund the social programmes. Firstly, many large businesses go broke and the number of unemployed and their dependence on the social wages increases. Secondly, while taxes on large business seem like the obvious source of funds for the social programmes, these taxes are unable to raise sufficient revenue in a situation where they cannot be increased without threatening bankruptcy and capital flight. Consequently the program could only be carried out by increasing the taxes on 'small and medium businesses, professionals, well paid workers, farmers, the self-employed and all those living on rents, share dividends and so forth' (Frankel 1983, 208). Yet this would be politically difficult since the numbers of people who would be affected by heavier taxes increases to a sizeable part of the electorate.
It is worthwhile to look at these issues in the context of the Greens’ commitment to zero or negative growth. Economists seem to agree that anything less than a 3 per cent per annum growth rate is a recipe for galloping unemployment. This is because technological changes continue to increase productivity — if the economy does not expand to soak up this extra production, unemployment keeps going up (Hartcher 1992, 7). To avoid this unemployment while still reducing production is the problem for the Greens. They have to move to an economy in which the same or a lower standard of consumption is maintained by constantly reducing hours of paid work in the private economy. They could deal with the employment problem in one of two ways. In one model they would reduce the number of people working in the private economy. They would increase the number working in government employment and those on the GAI. In another model they could spread some of this work across the personnel. Most people would work a small number of hours in the private economy and a larger number of hours in government employment but still have lots of leisure. There would also be people receiving the GAI without undertaking any paid work.
At the same time, the private economy would be the source of the consumer products which the Greens would want to see fairly distributed in the community at large. Taxation of the private economy would achieve this goal - money would go out in taxes to enable people who are not employees or owners of the private economy to receive its products. The taxes provide the funds for government projects, government employment and the GAI. In other words, the total number of hours worked in the private economy falls - at the same time as the distribution of products outside this economy, as people use money from government work or the GAI, must continually increase.
As I have suggested above, this would be considered inimical to the interests of the capitalist class. It would also be difficult to handle politically. In one scenario, a smaller and smaller section of the population would actually be employed to produce the consumer goods which everyone would share. They could end up by feeling that they were being exploited by the community at large, especially those on the GAI. In another scenario, almost everyone would work in both the government and private economy as well as having a lot of leisure time. Others would receive the GAI. This might remove some of the problems of resentment amongst private economy employees. However the end result would be that private employees would become a much less tractable workforce. They would only be partially dependent on the income from their private employment - having government work and the GAI to fall back on.
Discussion of the Mixed Economy Model
I have looked at two main issues so far in relation to the mixed economy model. In part A of this paper I reviewed the unpopularity of the package of reforms offered by the Greens. I argued that certain aspects of the capitalist structure of work and leisure make these policies unacceptable to much of the electorate. This is not just because of media conspiracy against the Greens, although that certainly plays a part. More centrally, it is because freedom, consumerism and consumer choice are experienced as necessary compensations for wage labour. Inevitably, the package of environmental reform and regulation will be seen as as cutting into these compensations. Moreover little about what the Greens say about their long term plans suggests an end to wage labour. The mixed economy model implies the continuation of wage labour as the dominant experience of work.
In part B of the paper, I have gone on to examine the economic problems of the mixed economy model as a long term utopia for the environmentalist movement. Basically, any thorough package of reforms that would actually create sustainability would also massively undermine profitability. This would make the mixed economy package hard to implement and politically unpopular. As stressed in earlier parts of this paper, the failure of the Greens to foreshadow a policy to deal with these likely outcomes is itself a form of manipulation of the electorate. I suggest that in a hundred and one ways the electorate already suspects this and regards the Greens as extremist, irresponsible and secretive about their real intentions.
If this argument is accepted, what is the way forward? The first step would be for the Greens to make a much clearer distinction between their aims in the short term as a ginger group and their more long term policies. The second step would have to be a vision of a long term solution that could actually work economically, politically and environmentally and to find a way of selling this extremist solution to the electorate. At the same time the Greens would want to retain and attract voters whose main aim is merely to pressure the major parties to become a bit more sensitive to environmental issues.
Distinguishing the Short Term From the Long Term
The Greens could make a decision to regard their mixed economy model, as enunciated in their policy statements, as merely a collection of short term policies or ambit claims. In other words, the Greens would not claim that this total package would be workable if the Greens were to become the governing party. Instead, each of these policies would be offered as means to influence government policy in the present political and economic context - an economy in which there is a dominance of private ownership and some opportunity for modest tax increases without economic catastrophe; an economy in which there is some scope for increased environmental regulation and government funding of environmental initiatives without major economic disaster.
In this context, each Green policy is an ambit claim for a particular arena of economic and social life; an arena in which the Greens as a ginger group in parliament may have some chance to influence the decisions of the ruling party in Government. What the Greens policies represent individually is what would be necessary within the context of the present economy to bring the particular arena to a state of environmental sustainability. However, so long as the Greens remain a ginger group, there is no chance that any of these policies would be fully implemented by majority parties, whose commitment to the economic status quo would prevent major reforms. Even less is there any chance that the whole package of policies would be implemented by any governing party. The Greens could rename these policies - Interim Policies of The Greens for The Present Context. So while the total combination of these interim policies could spell economic disaster for an economy such as the one we have now, there is no danger that such an outcome could take place. In government, the Greens would adopt a completely different strategy - what they could call their Long Term Strategy for an Environmentally Sustainable Society. As a ginger group, the interim policies could be a guide for Green representatives to forecast the directions in which they would attempt to influence the major parties.
How to sell this complicated position to the electorate becomes a key problem. As before, I will suggest a few paragraphs that might reasonably go in an election pamphlet.
Interim Policies and Long Term Strategies of the Greens
If you are thinking of voting for the Greens in this election, you will be aware that there is little chance of the Greens getting into government. The percentage of the vote that the Greens have achieved in other elections was never above 5 per cent. Even in our most optimistic moments we do not expect to get more than 15 per cent in this election. So the point of voting for the Greens is to have an influence on whatever major party gets into office. In the lower house, if you vote for the Greens first and give your preferences to another major party you will influence that party to take environmental issues more seriously. If you vote for the Greens in the upper house you will help us to get a few Green Party representatives into the Upper House who can put the case for the environment.
The policies of the Greens that we have been talking about in this pamphlet are policies designed for this situation. We call them our 'interim' policies because they are designed to point out the direction for Green Party influence on the major parties. Whenever we get the chance, the Green Party will attempt to move policy in the direction of increased social welfare for the less powerful and well off in the community. We will try to influence policy towards tougher environmental controls. We will try to get more government funding for environmental initiatives. We will try to ensure more taxes on the rich and the affluent to fund these policies.
Given the present situation - with the Greens as a small minority party - there is no chance that all of our interim policies could ever be implemented. In fact, in the context of the present economic and political structure, if we were to get into government and implement the full list of our interim policies there would be economic chaos. Many major firms would go broke, foreign investors would pull their money out of Australia, a lot of people would lose their present jobs and have to be re-employed.
So the Green Party actually has quite a different long term strategy for the time in the future when we might be elected as the governing party. For that situation, the Green Party proposes a total restructuring of the economy. We think that nothing less than this could actually solve the environmental problems we face in the long term. And we think that nothing less could deal with the vast economic and social problems of moving to a sustainable society.
Long Term Policies for the Greens: The Nationalisation Plus Democracy Model
The Green Party does not clearly distinguish interim from long term policies and almost every policy is written as though it is a description of what the Green Party would do in Government. As I have stated above, the main drift of all this is that there would be a 'mixed economy' with private ownership and wage labour reformed, rather than abolished. I have explained why this policy mix would actually be difficult to implement. If the Greens were to abandon this commitment to a 'mixed economy' they might favour the utopian model in which aspects of the economic structure of soviet style economies were grafted onto a democratic and participatory model of political life. We can actually develop the outlines of this model by simply abandoning some parts of party policy which stress the private capitalist elements of the mixed economy.
We could see this new model as being developed in the context of the economic crisis which might follow on the separation of Australia from the global economy. The main form of income would be wage labour with the Guaranteed Adequate Income as a means of support for those who were not able to be employed in the wage labour economy. As with the current dole, the GAI would have to be less than the wages of the lower reaches of the labour market. Most property would end up being owned by the Government as businesses went broke or were started up by Government to respond to a perceived environmental need. On the other hand, such businesses would not be organised completely by government direction from above - as in the soviet model. Instead, some form of workers’ control would be implemented at the local level. At the same time all major decisions about production, and especially any decisions connected to environmental issues, would be made by government - for example to produce trains and buses rather than private cars. Some businesses would also be owned by collectives of workers, who would become private proprietors, except that their businesses might depend heavily on government funding or be set up in response to a government initiative. Some small privately owned businesses might also survive in this economic structure. Whereas representative democracy was quite nominal in the soviet Union, it is clear that the Green Party would envisage it to continue to be quite substantial within their model and to include real rights for unionists and other interest groups to organise, even if in opposition to government policies.
One could debate whether this model is actually implicit in the Green Pary policy documents, or whether the sketch I have drawn above merely selects certain elements from the mixed economy package to create a picture of a more soviet style economy. On the other hand there is no doubt that this soviet style economy plus political democracy model is the preferred scenario of many current socialist writers, with Frankel being an obvious proponent of this model in the contex of rival Euro-Communist schemes and Pepper being typical of more recent eco-socialist versions. One could also include Ted Trainer, as someone who presents this model more in the manner of Gorz, by stressing the extent and importance of an alternative non-monetary economy within this broad framework (Frankel 1983; Frankel 1987; Pepper 1993; Gorz 1982; Trainer 1995).
It is important to acknowledge the strengths of this model in terms of the argument we have been considering so far. Even in a situation where Australia became economically isolated as a result of its decision to move to a sustainable economy, this proposed economic and political structure could handle the resulting economic chaos. It would not be necessary for large sections of the population to become unemployed and destitute - the inevitable outcome if a broadly capitalist economy was retained. As capitalist firms became bankrupt as a result of Green policies they could be either re-started with government control and funding or simply abandoned with the workforce being absorbed into new government enterprises - or encouraged to receive the Guaranteed Adequate Income. Wealth would be redistributed so that the economic costs of moving to a Green economy would be shared fairly. Even though the overall purchasing power of the workforce would diminish according to Green Party policies, lower income groups would not experience increased hardship, or at least no more than that experienced by those who formerly enjoyed middle incomes. Overall hours of paid work would diminish without the population being divided into 'haves' in paid employment and 'have nots' who were unemployed. Hours of work would be cut across the board. The unemployed by choice would be supported adequately under the GAI scheme. Although separation from our major trading partners would cause considerable hardship there might be an atmosphere of excitement in the common endeavour of moving towards a Green economy; similar to the experience of Australians during the second world war.
Issues of government revenue that are so difficult in the context of a mixed economy, could be approached quite differently in a soviet style economy. The government would presumably requisition its requirements from government or private firms under its control with the excess product being sold on the open market. Wage levels would be set for all businesses as part of a general coordination of the economy and people would be attracted to work in fields determined by the government within a general plan of economic priorities.
Despite the positive features of the 'nationalisation plus democracy' model, I see some real problems with it. The soviet economic model is very unpopular in the community at large. If the community was to be directly faced with the choice of voting for nationalisation with democracy it would reject it. In my interviews, whenever this was proposed as a possible model, it was roundly attacked. A typical comment was that it had been proven not to work economically in the 'communist' countries. It was also believed that national control of the economy inevitably led to dictatorship and a concentration of power in the hands of an elite. This model was never volunteered by interviewees as a way out of our environmental problems.
This is a difficult topic to discuss. It is not useful to reproduce the self interested anti-socialist rationales offered by the business community in the present context; the kinds of arguments that are trotted out to avoid adequate taxation and state spending in the context of Labor party welfarism. On the other hand, there may be some aspects of the small ‘l’ liberal critique that are relevant. One of the main arguments here is that even a democratic state centralises power. Nationalisation means that the state controls the whole arena of what is now the private economy - as well as the present arena directly under government control. This is a necessary part of the model. Direct government ownership and control is the means to the environmental planning and control of distribution and funding. The model requires this to escape the problems of a mixed economy.
Often this liberal critique is put in terms of the media. How is it possible for the media to remain independent if it is funded and owned by government departments? How could a government department ever decide to fund an innovative media project which is intended to criticise ideas which most people take for granted? This would be most obviously the case where the majority of the population regarded the innovative project as anti-social at best. For example, within the current feminist movement, some networks have developed a minority position based on the endorsement of sadomasochism within lesbian relationships. It has been possible to find private money to fund this literature, and use this money to pay for printing and publishing - by private firms that are not necessarily sympathetic to the point of view expressed in the literature. It is hard to see any democratically elected ministry of the media funding the publishing of such a point of view. To take another more obvious example in the case of a Green government. The critique of environmentalism is something which is alive and well in this society. In the context of a mixed economy it would undoubtedly continue to flourish through private funding. Yet again, it is hard to see this endorsed by a ministry of the media that controlled all funding of publishing and printing, in the context of a nationalised and planned economy. Apart from the anti-democratic implications of this, there are also environmental implications. The Green government would bit by bit remove itself from effective criticism and become less and less capable of acting intelligently to pursue environmental objectives.
Possibly these liberal critiques are unfair in the sense that the Greens would envisage a much more locally controlled nationalisation of the economy. For example, decisions about what to print might be taken by local factory committees, whose politics could vary in different locations. The problem with such replies is that they only succeed by putting the whole nationalisation project into doubt. They bring us to a more central problem with this model. Is it actually politically viable to mix local democratic control of production with national control of the economy as a whole? As Cardan (1974; Castoriadis 1987) has pointed out, capitalism faces a problem like this continuously. Modern production and the political accomodation of representative democracy requires producers to constantly make decisions and participate responsibly in production. Yet at the same time, these elements of workers' control have to be continually monitored and squashed lest they get out of hand by calling the necessity of management control into question.
The nationalisation plus local democracy model merely replicates and intensifies this problem. If local democracy really means anything it allows workers to subvert and sabotage government directives in a hundred and one different ways - by filling in false reports, by allocating products in ways that are neither reported nor sanctioned by government departments, in pretending to work when no real work is being done and so on. If these attempts at local control are continuously squashed through inspections, senior management and government directives, then workers' democracy means little. Instead we have the full economic horror of the soviet system undiluted; worker disaffection combined with the inability to create efficiency through competitive market place mechanisms.
This relates to my next major critique of the model. Most of the economic problems of the soviet Union would be replicated by any form of nationalisation. This would be true even if extreme measures were put in place to ensure local control of the production process. For example, let us imagine an extreme of local cooperative control combined with national economic control and overall ownership by the state. We could imagine that in every factory, farm, and service industry, the enterprise was actually controlled by the workers in that enterprise. However, in order to be sure that decisions were made according to the national environmental and social plan, all inputs to the enterprise and all its outputs would be strictly controlled by government. In such a situation each collective would function in exactly the same manner as each manager in the soviet system.
The planning problems of such a system have been well analyzed by Feher, Heller and Marcus in their discussion of soviet Societies (1983). Describing these societies, they argue that at the local level, each management unit is motivated to increase their share of national resources, in de facto competition with other units. To do this they inflate their estimation of the necessity and importance of any projects that they are responsible for. They also understate the costs of the projects which they intend to carry out. The most important thing is to get central government to become committed to their project, and this is more likely if they understate its costs. Later, it will make sense for the government to put further inputs into the project, since funds have already been committed. At a higher level, the bureaucrats making decisions about how to allocate materials and wages are faced with an impossible situation. Their most likely response is to discount all claims for the importance and necessity of particular projects. But how much to do this is impossible to work out. The end result in such a system is that there are massive inefficiencies in the allocation of raw materials, the determination of markets and the estimation of social needs for products. Systematic hoarding of production inputs becomes the norm because there is no way to be sure that government will be able to supply resources when needed.
All of these consequences of the soviet style economic system would apply in conditions of 'democratic' nationalisation. Instead of managers systematically misleading central planning authorities, local industry collectives would do so for the same reasons - to give themselves the greatest possible chance of effectively carrying out their responsibilities for production in a particular arena of economic life, according the instructions of national planning institutions. As in the soviet societies, a common tendency would be for top planning authorities to favour projects which they could most easily monitor. Their interest would be to prove their efficiency by initiating projects which were guaranteed to work out in the way that they had predicted. This would work directly against any form of local democracy, since local democracy would move decisions out of the hands of bureaucrats further up in the hierarchy. If the soviet example was followed this would also mean that producer goods and large state projects would get most funding from government authorities with consumer goods receiving inadequate attention. As in the soviet economies, the quality and durability of all goods and services would suffer without any adequate competitive marketplace competition for consumers. None of this would be particularly favourable to the environmental goals of the Green government in power, which would aim to reduce waste and increase the durability and efficiency of products.
Looking at these arguments together, what I have tried to show is that a nationalised economy based on wage labour still works according to most of the parameters of capitalist and socialist economies today. Alienated labour is still dominant in any situation where people have to work for a wage to get access to goods and services produced by other units. Control over wage labour through the control of wages is still the central key to government control of the workforce. Within the model it is absolutely necessary to use this tool to ensure that products are produced and distributed according to the requirements of a national plan. The conflict between the requirement that workers participate and the necessity to stifle that participation is still central to the dynamic of production - as in present capitalist society and recent soviet style economies. Worse, wages, private income, or income from corruption are still seen as the main compensations for the sumbmission that goes with labour at all levels of the hierarchy.
Environmentally, this is disastrous. The Green government is pitted in struggle against a populace that individually seeks more and more wealth while the government itself seeks to diminish consumer purchasing power to attain environmental goals. As in the capitalist and soviet style economies, more responsible and trusted managers of the economy have to be rewarded for their loyalty by being paid higher wages, sending the continuous message that the consumer lifestyle is desirable and a mark of social status, power and community trust.
Something which is a sign of this structure is the status of the Guaranteed Adequate Income. In a context where real purchasing power overall must drop considerably, the GAI must be lower than any wage in full time paid work.
As the GAI is envisaged, people on the GAI may in fact do socially useful work, gardening or looking after children or engaging in bush regeneration. But ultimately, the Greens are not intending to conscript and supervise everyone on the GAI. So the GAI represents 'free' time. If the GAI was a good wage, people would leave paid labour to go on the GAI. They would do this to avoid the constraints and control implied by wage labour. But the Green government could not allow people to desert wage labour in droves. It could only carry out its national plan if a large number of people were being employed, and controlled, through wage labour. So the GAI would have to be lower than any wage of a full time paid worker.
In the end, this situation severely compromises another aim of the Greens in terms of the GAI. The GAI is intended to be an attractive alternative to wage labour and by being attractive, to draw people out of the consumerist lifestyle associated with wage labour. It is intended to soak up the unemployment associated with the Greens' policy package as a whole. Yet the danger is that if the GAI is too attractive, it will completely undermine and replace the nationalised economy. For example, are recipients of the GAI permitted to request and get access to productive tools? Could they produce economically valuable goods which could be exchanged with other recipients of the GAI? Could they use this strategy to increase their standard of living beyond that experienced by workers in the paid labour force? Would people's experiences of true collective decision making within the context of the unwaged economy make them difficult employees within the wage labour economy? So the dilemna for the GAI in the context of the nationalisation model is this. If the GAI is too attractive it undermines the wage labour on which the model as a whole is premised. However if it is not attractive enough, it just becomes another version of the dole in the present economy, with people reduced to a standard of living which makes it close to impossible to carry out any genuinely creative work. The Greens policies would merely expand the underclass; an underclass which is bored, depressed and envious.
Promoting the Nationalisation Plus Democracy Model
I regard the nationalisation model as unworkable and even as damaging from an environmentalist viewpoint. At the same time, we could imagine that the Greens could favour this model if they were to become convinced that the mixed economy would not work. Also, if the Greens were ever to get into government and try to implement the mixed economy, a growing economic crisis might lead the Greens to more and more shifts in the direction of the 'nationalisation plus democracy' model. Many elements of the model are all already present as aspects of the 'mixed economy model' - for example replacement industries funded by government to do jobs assigned by government decision; for example workers' collectives running environmentally sound industries backed by government regulation and funding; for example a vast increase in government owned production in areas like transport, energy, housing, medicine and so forth; for example redistribution of the social product through controls on wages and the GAI system. All we have to imagine is an expansion of these more socialist aspects of the mixed economy model as the economic crisis of Green government bites deeper and throws more and more people out of work.
As I have argued throughout this paper, there is no point in hiding the 'extremism' of Green Party policy from the electorate. If the Greens were to become convinced that the nationalisation model was in fact the most likely long term green utopia, they should promote it as such in their public statements. Accordingly I am suggesting the following pamphlet paragraphs to outline and explain this program.
Long Term Solutions
The policies of the Green Party have been worked out as what we absolutely need to live comfortably in this country in the long term. Without environmental sustainability, life will just get worse and worse for the Australian people. At the same time the Green party realizes that in government , it is likely that our policies would cause considerable economic upheaval. Foreign investors would be likely to desert Australia. Many firms would fold up, unable to make a profit within the context of stringent environmental regulation. As an initial consequence, a lot of people would lose their current jobs and have to be re-employed through government initiatives. It would be hard to fund our environmental strategies by taxing rich companies when the economy was in this kind of crisis. More direct government control of the economy would be necessary to ensure that essential industries were maintained and that environmental alternatives to current industry were adequately funded. As well, the policies of the Greens would be designed to cut back on the consumption of goods and services to a level that the environment could sustain. We would have to reorganize work and income structures so that everyone got a fair share of paid employment and of the goods and services that were produced.
In the long term, the shape of our economy would change radically in such a context. We would have an economy in which government owned a great deal of what is now controlled by the wealthy few. Even many industries that were in private hands might be subcontracted by government or funded partially by government initiative. Government direction of industry and agriculture would be much more comprehensive than it is today. For many Australians, such a program conjures up nightmare visions of the soviet Union and its worst excesses of dictatorship and economic bungling.
Three things make the long term future of a Green economy very different from this nightmare vision:
1. Workplace Democracy
The Green Party believes that government would be necessary to coordinate the funding and goals of the economy and to set down stringent environmental regulations for production. However, within every workplace, the Green Party would make sure that the people on the job actually made all the day to day decisions about how to run their enterprise. Work would be quite different from what it is today where senior management and their local representatives rule like petty dictators. Instead, all daily decisions would be made through meetings of those actually involved in doing the work.
2. Reduced hours of work and the voluntary sector
In the Green economy, people would work much fewer hours than they do today . Even a full time job would be no more than seven hours a week, four days a week. Many people would be paid a small but adequate income by the government and devote their time to voluntary projects of their own choosing, such as looking after children, restoring native bushland, gardening or pursuing their hobbies. This would be possible because a sustainable society must produce and consume a lot less than we do today. The result would be that there would be less need for paid productive work and more time for leisure. The aim of the Greens in government would be to make sure this time could be spent in enjoyable and socially useful activity.
3. Democracy in Political Life
The Green Party in government would defend and extend the democratic freedoms we enjoy today. The right to elect representatives to form our government, the independence from government of legal bodies, the freedom and independence of the media, the right to form trade unions and organise to defend working conditions, rights of free speech and assembly. The Green Party believes that considerable government control of the economy and production is quite compatible with a flourishing democracy.
Is there another long-term solution? The Gift Economy
I have outlined what I take to be the main problems with the nationalisation plus democracy model. However the final 'gift economy' model that I am about to propose is more extreme than the wildest suggestions of the Green party in their policy documents. Oddly enough, the gift economy model was in fact offered without any prompting on my part by a number of my interviewees.
In 1994 I was beginning my current research into people's attitudes to environmental politics. I arranged a focus group with a group of LEAP workers who at the time were engaged in a bush regeneration project at a Council Reserve in the Hunter region. As the group consisted of unemployed young adults whose chances of future employment were somewhat doubtful I was particularly interested in their visions of the long term future of this society. Early in the interview Alex came up with a utopian model based on a TV program he had seen about the Ba Mbuti who live in the Ituri forest in Africa:
Yeah, We're all going down hill. We're just fucking up. So we've gotta try and save this planet ... Man's greed for the dollar, is they'll just take more and more and not give anything back to the environment. But if we put it back into the forests. We should use our shit. We should recycle excrement. No man, the plants just grew on the site, just grew in the forests and you'd just go and say ohh I feel like smoking ... all drugs - you'd just have natural ones, and they'd be all legal. See if man didn't stuff up we'd have the land of milk and honey and you'd just pick things from the trees and bum around ... Everyone works to, just like do as little as possible, just to get by or just do a little bit more than they have to ... live like the Ituri forest people. Alright they do as little work as possible - a bit of hunter gathering work 'cause it's a really good area, they can just keep moving on. Then they dance and sing to the gods, smoke hemp through their pipes and umm walk on stilts, play games with bows and arrows. They just play games the rest of the time.
Other members of the focus group were very entertained by this utopia but most indicated that they would not like to do without modern technology. In many ways Alex’s utopia may be considered as a product of the 'feral' subculture which generates a great deal of the environmental activism which is the backdrop for Green Party support. The model takes inspiration from an encounter with an ethnographic description of a stateless society and in some ways idealizes that society and relocates it in the desired future. This utopian fantasy validates these stateless societies as free from alienated labour, in terms of a constrast with current society, our days taken up with coerced labour for the 'Planetary Work Machine' (P.M. 1985; Maddock 1974; Clastres 1987). It pictures a society in which there are no commodities, wage labour or money. It is a 'gift economy' in the way this term is appropriated from Mauss by the Situationists (Vaneigem 1983). Products are either consumed directly by the producers or made available to others as gifts.
Alex's utopian model is centrally preoccupied with a new kind of relationship between humans and nature. What is proposed is nothing less than the abandonment of agriculture as a laborious extraction of products from nature; instead there is an edenic vision of nature as a 'land of milk and honey'. In terms of environmental technologies, this vision is related to ideas within the 'permaculture' movement. 'Permaculture' is defined by Bill Mollison, one of its co-founders, as the 'conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems' (Mollison 1988). This is to be achieved through the abandonment of monocultures based on plough cultivation of staple cereal crops. Such monocultures are to be replaced with polycultures of trees, shrubs and perennial vines supplemented with some annual gardening for root crops, vegetables and legumes. It is a system of organic gardening in that it relies on mulch and composting to fertilize, and deals with pests by companion planting, diversity of species and careful choice of suitable perennials for the site in question. Vast acreages given over to meat production are to be replaced with local production of small animals fed from the excess production of fruit and nut crops.
As in Alex's vision, a permaculture system is designed to be set up so that it will produce food and other useful products without having to be constantly worked upon. As Mollison says in the video 'Global Gardener' - 'with most of the garden perennial or self seeding, your work in planting's finished after a year or so and basically you're a forager' (Mollison 1991). While these claims are a bit ambitious, there is no doubt of the viability of permaculture in the context of a gift economy utopia. In such a situation, it has the advantage of being a system of sustainable agriculture and also a system of farming that emphasizes food production as creative gardening - as opposed to the boring monotonous work associated with monocultures. It links people in an immediate and sensuous tie to the natural world, on which they depend for their subsistence and it creates a basis for localized independent food production as a foundation for political autonomy (P.M. 1985).
An obvious critique of this 'feral' gift economy is that it envisages a future without modern technology, material wealth and the social possibilities of global communication. This is certainly not the aim of the Greens, whatever some Australians may think! These more Luddite aspects of Alex's utopia became an issue in the focus group:
Terry: So would you like to live like that?
Alex: Yeah, if I could, if I was brought up to it.
Trevor: Nooo. I'd like a stereo and electricity.
Alex: No but if you weren't brought up. Imagine all the hassles, you wouldn't have bills, you wouldn't have anything.
Trevor: Everything 'd be unplugged!
Alex: It'be unreal but ... [over much laughter] You'd be more advanced in ways, I'm sure they're more in tune with nature and stuff. They've probably got slight telepathic powers and things.
In interviews concerned with environmental politics I generally found that an exclusive dichotomy informed people's opinions about modes of production. A mode of production can be stateless, egalitarian and in harmony with the natural world only if it is:
small scale, meaning that local groups are self sufficient and socially separate,
technologically primitive, meaning that there is no use of the technologies made available by recent science and
austere, meaning that material wealth is very limited.
To me, the exclusiveness of this dichotomy fits within a pro-capitalist ideology. The dichotomy creates an indissoluble link between:
- The social and material possibilities opened up by modernism, and;
- The state, commodities, wage labour and the inevitability of environmental destruction.
The question proposed to the public in the first world by this discourse is - do you want to throw away everything that capitalism has given you? Alex's discussion is marginal in embracing the alternative that hegemonic ideology discounts as folly. In this he follows some authors in the environmentalist movement - for example Bahro who advocates an end to what he calls 'industrial society' and its replacement by small self sufficient communes (Bahro 1986; Dobson 1990). From one perspective this advocacy of austerity is just an unattractive and politically unwise puritanism. More favourably it could be viewed as a no holds barred challenge to hegemonic discourse; yes, if that's what it takes to destroy class society we are ready.
While this feral vision is certainly one kind of version of the gift economy, it is interesting that other interviewees also produced gift economy utopias that were not constructed in terms of the abandonment of industrial society. One group of three men who were co-workers in a maritime industry spent the first part of the interview inveighing against the failings of the Federal Labor Government; it's embrace of right wing economic rationalism. They blamed global capitalism for environmental problems. One of the interviewees, nicknamed 'Prawn', introduced the following outline of a utopia:
It's funny. We can't seem to. We couldn't come to a situation, where, if money was say totally - meant nothing, right and we said to each other righto, now Matt, you bloody drive a good boat, you know and Barry you're good on splicing and knots, you're good at what you do. Everyone. We've all got our little bit to do, you know. And we said righto. Well let's all just do it that way, you know. Instead of working for money, and we'll just. And the people who grow the fruit, we'll bring in the fertiliser and that they need, you know. And you know, you got people who make cars, and you know. So every one. The whole world is just self sufficient with each other you know.
As I shall explain later, Prawn went on to say why he doubted whether such a system could work in reality. However I was struck by the way Prawn quite spontaneously produced the basic outline of the utopia that I call 'the gift economy'. In a gift economy, people would operate according to an ethic of maximizing their own pleasure and giving useful services and products to other people. In a sense all production would be voluntary; it would be organized to satisfy the immediate needs of the producers themselves or would be given away to meet the needs of others. We can envisage it in terms of a vast extension of the voluntary forms of organisation that in Australia are responsible for such services as surf life saving, rescuing whales from beaches or knitting jumpers for relatives.
To explain why such a system might be more compatible with ecological imperatives than capitalism we can suggest the following points:
- In the context of such a gift economy useless production would be reduced by the producers themselves - to save effort. It would make no sense to work hard producing useless items that no one else particularly needed and that you did not enjoy making. By contrast in a capitalist society, it makes sense for entrepreneurs to produce any marketable commodity, however unnecessary, to make a profit. Those who produce such commodities have no choice as to the nature of their work, which is dictated by their superiors, and finally the purchase of useless goods comes to seem sensible as a compensation for a life of forced labour.
- Within a gift economy producers would avoid environmentally damaging production. Having complete control at the point of production and given an understanding of environmental problems they would avoid causing themselves and their communities environmental problems. By contrast, within capitalism it makes sense to produce whatever will generate profits, regardless of environmental costs. These decisions are made by managers who have to worry about the effect of their actions on the decisions of shareholders, not by the communities and producers who have to live with the environmental problems that are created.
- Producers in a gift economy would be motivated to produce environmentally sensible items and services in order to maximize the social value of their gifts; they would not be rewarded with praise and acclaim if they damaged the environments in which their own and other communities had to live. Planned obsolescence would not be a sensible strategy in so far as the value of one's gifts to other people would be enhanced if the objects were long lasting, easy to repair and ultimately easy to recycle.
The gift economy would create a context in which it would be easier to enact the massive transformations of technology and infrastructure that would be necessary for sustainability and to accept the sacrifices of material consumption that would go with this. As I have argued above, the populations of the first world are attached to their consumerist materialism because it is the main avenue for power, control and creativity within the framework of alienated labour that the capitalist economy sets up. By contrast, within a gift economy this motivation for consumerism wanes, since work itself becomes an important arena for creative and participatory control over daily life. In that situation, creating the material infrastructures of the Green economy would itself become a fulfilling and exciting project.
The real burdens of a Green gift economy would be borne by all. Within the scenario of the mixed economy that the Greens currently propose, it would be inevitable that the sacrifices of moving to a Green economy would fall most heavily on the poorest sections of the populace. I have suggested that this is a key difficulty in moving to a Green economy within the framework of representative democracy and capitalism. In a gift economy it would also be the case that various products which were formerly available became scarce. The former producers would have either curtailed their production to avoid ecologically damaging side effects, would have become engaged with more immediate problems of their own, as in the developing world, or would be preoccupied in setting up new environmentally sound systems of production. However these scarcities would be distributed around fairly evenly with producers of all goods and services attempting to provide for the widest and most useful dispersion of their products to other people.
Finally, moving to a gift economy would actually release a large section of the population to provide goods and services that would to some extent compensate for the sacrifices that moving to a green system of production would entail. Within current first world economies it is not profitable or practicable to employ a vast section of the population - the young, the old, the unemployed. However within a gift economy all sections of the population would be able to contribute and would be encouraged and expected to do so. It is also pertinent to point out that within first world capitalist economies only a small section of the time spent at paid work actually coordinates, produces and physically distributes the wealth to which we as consumers are so attached. Capitalism requires a vast amount of labour time to promote and sell products and to ensure the maintenance of the system of private property. The latter is a truly prodigious task since each individual in terms of their own interest is motivated to get round the system while equally motivated to ensure that that it be ruthlessly enforced upon everyone else. Within a gift economy much of this labour could be released for other more useful purposes.
One can consider the implications of the end of alienated labour for what we are accustomed to think of as necessary organisations of authoritative coordination - the government or state. My view is that if producers controlled the distribution of their products and directly organized this, the powers of national government would be severely limited. An aspiring state could not regulate conduct by denying livelihood to any section of the population - since all sections of the populations would be supplied by gifts from a multiplicity of independent collectives of producers. People would not need to be in an army or police force to get access to a livelihood so it would be impossible to recruit a force whose obedience was premised on their need to keep their job. Any armed force would be dependent for provisions and arms on the whims of various producers' collectives on the occasion in question - there could be no reliable control of an armed force by a central body. So there could be no state in the sense of an automatically authoritative body monopolizing the use of legitimate force. Meetings of regional representatives could perhaps be found useful but they would not be the main means of coordination or have any automatic coercive authority. I take it that the implication of this for the Green Party is that as a Party elected to government on a promise to institute the gift economy, their first act would be to give power to voluntary associations and in this process to effectively abandon the coercive authority of the parliamentary system. On the other hand, how this process might be negotiated in detail would depend on a host of factors that it is pointless to discuss at the present time.
A gift economy of the type I am proposing would not depend on dividing the population up into self sufficient communes. Instead people would continue to participate in multiple networks of overlapping productive activities. Such coordination as there was in a gift economy would also have to be achieved by voluntary organizations - of media workers, pollsters and statisticians, advising other voluntary organizations of problems of shortages, waste, future requirements and so forth. As I have argued, in such a society no policing would be legitimate and authoritative. All control of the activities of other people would be contestable and would depend upon sufficient force being mustered by the offended parties. For such a system to work to produce roughly equal outcomes there would have to be a cultural commitment to equality on the part of most people, but then no democratic system can produce equal outcomes unless this is the case.
The gift economy is envisaged as a society that is socially, racially and sexually egalitarian. For a system of gifts to work to produce this effect people would have to be motivated to achieve this outcome by a generous and sympathetic benevolence to others. Equality could not arise from a rationed out impartiality which would require a central authority to determine equal shares. Instead it would come about through relations with particular others that in aggregate were not balanced to the disadvantage of any sex, sexuality or cultural/ethnic group. While this account stresses benevolence and the gift it would also make sense to call such an order a theft economy in that people would not respect any supposed rights of others to dominate or unfairly hoard.
Critiques of The Gift Economy
Typical objections to anarchistically inclined utopias come from socialist adherents to a statist solution to our problems and from conservatives who see a stateless egalitarian society as a hopelessly optimistic ideal. In both cases what is criticised is not the ethical desirability of such utopias but their practicability. Some of these criticisms may be relevant to the gift economy and some are not.
Many of Frankel's criticisms of anarchist green utopias could without doubt be applied to the gift econonomy (1983; 1987). One of these is that a gift economy in which producers decided the allocation of the social product could favour male factory workers, farmers and miners at the expense of those who do not produce consumer goods; namely those in the bureaucratic or service sectors of society, the unemployed, women who are mainly preoccupied with housework or childcare, children and old people who are not involved in the direct production of consumer goods. Frankel uses this as an argument that we need to maintain a state. The role of the state is to ensure that those who are not 'direct producers' can have guaranteed access to the goods produced in the industrial sector of the economy. It also ensures that all people have democratic control over decisions about what goods are to be made by the direct producers.
There are a number of ways of replying to Frankel's argument. To begin with, in a gift economy all services are gifts. The power of distribution, the social status of producer and the right to receive gifts are just as much the prerogative of those who engage in domestic work, service work or bureaucratic work as they are the prerogative of those who produce durable material objects. A strike in domestic labour or bureaucratic labour is just as crippling to a gift economy as a strike in steel production. Secondly we can envisage a gift economy as being one in which socially useful tasks are not life long sentences but are spread about so that people are not generally exclusively occupied in any one sector. If indeed manufacturing is a source of power, prestige and status - through the ability of workers in that sector to determine the initial destiny of durable goods - then such work would be shared widely in the community.
As Frankel's argument suggests, a gift economy would be one in which producers made decisions about what to produce and how to distribute it so there would be no guaranteed community control of any particular instance of production. However producers in any sector of the economy would be making decisions about what to produce and how to distribute it that were based on their understandings of the needs of other groups. For a start the status of the givers would depend on genuine needs being met by the gift. Secondly, producers in each sector would be aware of their dependence on the services of other sectors. To produce without considering the needs of others would be to undermine the social ethic which guaranteed services from others.
Another socialist objection to stateless utopias is that coordination in a modern industrial economy cannot be achieved without authoritative and coercive centralised organisation of production. This argument is a recurring theme in Frankel's discussions and Pepper quotes the following succinct comment:
Any state policy that relies on utopian assumptions about mutual aid and volunteerism is a formula for economic catastrophe, a descent into chaos (Pepper 1993).
This is an old chestnut and goes back to Engels' 'On Authority' if not also to classic functionalist defences of social class from Plato onwards. The gift economy utopia envisages that effective coordination of supply and demand in a gift economy is the result of two factors in combination. On the one hand independent and multipronged collectives of media, research and administrative workers keep the other producers' collectives up to date with what is required by whom and for what. The other factor which ensures fair and adequate distribution of goods and services is the will of the various producers' collectives to ensure that the outcomes of distribution are in fact equitable. Any further fine tuning could be achieved by informal gift links between consumers' themselves.
Frankel (1983) adds to the standard socialist objections to anarchist utopias by arguing that communalist green utopias suggest a socially divided populace. An insular and smug parochialism would prevent an even handed distribution of goods between autonomous self sufficient communities. The gift economy is not a communalist utopia of this type. It is not "bioregionalism" as that term has been explained by Sale (1991). I envisage a system in which society is organised into networks of producers' collectives which are geographically overlapping. The gift economy does not put an end to the globalism that contemporary society has produced. Instead global networks of culture, travel, coordination, and the transfer of goods become more effective in producing mutually beneficial outcomes. At the same time, the kinds of transport of people and goods that are environmentally problematic are restricted. Self sufficiency is not a social and cultural goal but may take place to reduce workloads or for environmental reasons.
Above all, Frankel and other marxists argue that only a democratic majoritarian state can ensure that the rights and well being of minority groups are adequately protected. It does this by making sure that all groups are paid adequate and equitable wages, protected from violence by the law and afforded social security in a state - guaranteed social wage. This is a very attractive argument, the more so because the rights of indigenous peoples, gays and lesbians, victims of sexual assault, women and the old, not to mention workers are in fact protected within liberal democracies by these very mechanisms. For a radical politics to abandon these gains in some future utopia and cease to defend them in the current context - as part of a statist plot - seems quixotic at best.
What must be remembered about this situation is that these rights, these minimal defences of the well being of the underprivileged, are in fact supported by majorities of the whole population in those liberal democracies where they are currently implemented. A gift economy would do no worse in this situation. If we were to wake up tomorrow in a gift economy the people who have voted for minority rights in the context of liberal democracy would be implementing these same liberal policies through their participation in producers' collectives to ensure just distribution and through the defence of minorities from violence through voluntary organisations of peace keepers, community justice mediators and social workers. They would have a lot more power as producers than they currently have as voters; the power to actually do something concrete about the situation of less privileged groups. A gift economy could not work to produce tolerance and fairness unless most people were committed to these goals. But then a democractically controlled state apparatus could do no better than this.
To me the main problem with the socialist position is that authoritative coordination of the economy and state guarantees of rights are not simple democratic tools that can be used to ensure coordination and a fair distribution of products without other outcomes. They always imply that there is an important section of the economy in which people are engaged as alienated labour. They are employed to produce, distribute products or protect rights in the way that some central government, however democratically elected, has decided is necessary. They are not just doing whatever it may be that they themselves think is necessary. There are two ways to ensure this kind of obedience. The order takers are either slaves or they are employees who have to do this work in order to procure an essential part of their living. Authoritative coordination by a state necessarily goes hand in hand with alienated labour. As I have explained above, the main problem for the Green Party, is the link between alienated labour and consumerism. The main environmental virtue of the gift economy is that it abolishes alienated labour and removes the incentive to produce an ever increasing spiral of consumer goods.
Environmentalist versions of the socialist critiques of the gift economy are easily imagined. From the point of view of the Green party the main worry would have to be that environmental decisions were being turned over to the population at large, and were not being authoritatively coordinated by a Green government. In the Australian Greens 'Democracy' policy the following comment is made about the role of local government:
While the Australian Greens support local autonomy, we also acknowledge that giving unbridled power to local councils could lead to further problems, especially irreversible environmental ones (Australian Greens 1999, democracy 2.2).
Qualms of this kind could readily extend to the gift economy as a whole and are quite analogous to Frankel's concerns about the implementation of social justice within an anarchist utopia. My response is somewhat similar. The Green gift economy utopia could only be implemented if more than 50% of the population were prepared to vote for it and to take the risks associated with bringing about this new mode of production. In the gift economy, environmentalists could count on these people to continue working in their roles as producers to support environmental initiatives. They would see themselves as having every right to intervene to prevent 'irreversible' environmental disasters. The main difference between the gift economy and the present or proposed mixed economy would be that the underlying structural causes of environmental degradation in alienated labour and competitive private ownership would no longer apply. In would not be in the interests of Queensland farmers to clear endless hectares of native vegetation to graze cattle for the international market, because that whole system of private ownership, profit and marketing would no longer apply. Even if they personally believed that it should continue, their private property rights in the land would not be respected by a good majority of the population, they would not be able to arrange transport or port facilities or shipping across a hostile terrain of locally empowered producers and so on.
Conservative critiques of the gift economy are common amongst the population at large. These argue that egalitarian generosity is fundamentally at variance with competitive human nature. Prawn, the interviewee who so succinctly set out the overall characteristics of a gift economy also went on to make a typical prognostication on the problems of implementing any such scheme:
Prawn: But then you'd get people who'd say. Ohh no. I want two cars.
Barry: Yeah. I want a better one.
Prawn: Yeah, I want a better one. Yeah exactly. And this is the point. If we could come to, you know, an understanding, or I don't know, you know what I mean. It's, maybe it's too idealistic or you know. It would be the perfect system, right, and I'm sure that you could make it work, but you are always going to get those people who are going to say, I don't want to work today, and bugger it, I'm not going to work tomorrow either.
Matt: I don't have to.
Prawn: I don't have to. You know. And then the other people say well shit, I've got to do it. You know. That system in theory would be fantastic but what would destroy it is ourselves. Human nature would destroy it. That's what would destroy it. And it's a shame when you think about it. You know when I think about things like that I really lose faith, you know.
In its most general form such a criticism expresses the view that the gift economy would come to grief as particular groups secured strategic advantage and used it to consolidate power against the interests of others. This is a more bleak picture than that of the marxist critics of the gift economy. Marxists believe that an egalitarian distribution and equal rights could be secured by a socialist state. Conservatives see these goals as impossible in terms of human nature. My reply to this conservative argument is to accept that human nature as it is now socially constructed may indeed operate to prevent a gift economy from being successful. A cultural shift must take place in order for the gift economy to operate effectively to produce egalitarian outcomes.
I see three aspects of socialisation as essential to a gift economy and as key signs of the broader cultural patterns that would operate in such a society:
1. Being indulged one's infant and childhood needs is the prerequisite for becoming a generous adult who feels confident that their needs will be met by other people.
Hamilton, discussing the socialization of children in an Australian Aboriginal group, the Anbarra, argues that the customary generosity of adults, upon which their mode of production depends, is psychologically based on an indulgence of demand in childhood. Children are allowed the breast even when they are not hungry and for several years. They are indulged by being instantly picked up and comforted when they cry. Infants are almost always in arms. Toddlers are given toys by older children if they cry. By contrast, she argues, western child raising practices have emphasized the practice of denial as a preparation for adulthood and a lesson in self control: separation from the mother for days after birth in hospital wards; scheduled infant feeding; prohibitions on dummies or even thumb sucking; children left to cry because picking up a child is supposed to encourage them to manipulate adults; ruthless childhood competition over toys (Hamilton 1981). Hamilton concludes from this that Western adults grow up to be extremely and continuously anxious about their needs being met by other people. They amass and hoard consumer goods and property in an attempt to stave off these anxieties.
What we are currently seeing in the culture at large is a gradual process of reversal of hitherto dominant aspects of socialisation in western societies. Movements such as the nursing mothers associations, home birth and birthing wards in hospitals, child centred pedagogy in infants and pre-schools are all pointers to a new practice of socialisation in our society. While these new child raising practices are sometimes referred to as 'permissive', the main issue is not whether parents allow their children to make their lives a misery through incessant demands and inconsiderate behaviour. Instead it is about reversing a long term tradition of imposing unnecessary forms of discipline on children that actually make parents' work a lot harder.
2. The involvement of men in the direct care and succour of young children is necessary to prevent men from becoming anxious, competitive and insecure adults who seek to gain advantage to establish their masculinity.
In a key article in the cross cultural analysis of patriarchy, Chodorow (1974) argued that a universal feature of patriarchies is that men avoid most care of young children and typically maintain some social and emotional distance from children, both through their preoccupation with social power outside the family and as a basis for control in domestic situations. By contrast, mothers and other adult women relate closely to young children. In terms of the psychic development of adult men, Chodorow sees this pattern of socialisation as significant in the following way. Initially, boys identify with their mothers and have a close emotional link with women. As patriarchal society increasingly insists that they are to 'become' men, they try to develop their masculinity in a situation where adult males are not intimate company in their daily lives. They solve this problem in three main ways - by denying their ties to women and their identification with women; by rejecting the qualities of nurturance associated with adult female role models; by developing the ability to compete with other men and prove their masculinity competitively in relationship to adult males. The result is that adult men remain perenially anxious about establishing their adult masculinity. They attempt to prove it competitively with other men, and through the denigration of women. This becomes the basis of various forms of status competition in stateless societies and is also a key psychological prerequisite for the formation of social class and state societies. In the context of this argument, these psychological conditions work against the development of a gift economy. They could be reversed if men were to develop a close nurturing relationsionship with their children.
3. An experience of family life in childhood in which close familial adults are equal partners negotiating daily life is necessary if people are to grow up without expecting someone to always be the boss.
Following the arguments of Freud and his radical follower, Reich, Firestone (1972) suggests a connection between authority in the family and the widespread acceptance of authoritarian structures in society. Although this argument can be rendered in great detail in terms of the supposed 'Oedipus' and 'Electra' complexes, a simpler version is readily understood. The father in the family becomes the psychological model for a figure who demands love and obedience, and whose authority must be accepted. In societies based on status or class hierarchies, the leaders of society find it easy to represent themselves as the 'fathers' of society. In class societies, this becomes an ideology behind which the exploitative basis of social class is concealed. In Reich's model, people can opt to take up the role of the dominant party or that of the submissive party and may do both in relation to different groups in society. This makes it easy to set up a chain of command in which people are submissive in relation to those further up in the hierarchy and dominant to those whom they control lower down. Such a psychology makes democratic relationships difficult to achieve. To overturn this mass psychology of hierarchy and submission it is necessary to support the feminist goals of equal power to men and women in the interrelated realms of domestic life and the wider economy. Clearly the feminist movement is working on these issues continually.
These keys to socialisation for the gift economy can be regarded as practices which are being gradually implemented now as part of a current cultural transition. In terms of Green Party policies, it seems fair enough for the Green Party to announce a long term strategy now for a situation in the future in which they could gain the support of a majority. In a sense, all that needs to be said about this is that the Green Party does not believe selfish competition for material wealth is intrinsic to human nature itself.
Implications for the Green Party
If this argument is accepted there are two main areas which the Green Party would have to consider. One would be the extent to which the Green Party would support local and federative democracy within the environmentalist movement and society at large. A second would be the issue of promoting this utopia as a long term solution to environmental problems within electoral material.
In terms of the first issue it is important to note that the Green Party commits itself to federative principles of party organisation already. In doing this the Greens fit their organisation within the cultural norms of environmentalism as a social movement; especially in terms of the mass support to environmentalist activism, within contexts such as forest protests, anti uranium demonstrations, rescuing whales on beaches, local bush regeneration and landcare groups, reclaim the streets, critical mass, J18 and so on.
At the same time, my own view is that the gift economy is not best regarded as existing at the present time in embryo within capitalism as pure enclaves of a new mode of production. Capitalist culture, as well as the economic requirements of effective operation within a capitalist economy, produce a variety of hybrid situations. In these, some aspects of a gift economy operate to further the goals of the left social movements while other aspects of the capitalist authoritarian mode of production are also present. There is nothing more stifling of real options for change, for example, than a purism that suggests that all permaculture services should be offered on a voluntary basis or at some kind of unprofitable discount - as a token of commitment to a non monetary economy. The fact is that at the present time, a great deal of the energy of the left is not going into party politics but into the development of these hybrid forms in which capitalism is made to function against the grain. In these activities capitalist economic structures are made to serve the goals of democracy, participation, generosity, and creativity that are central to the gift economy. A few examples are the Grameen Banks; LETS community money systems; overseas aid through NGOs; all kinds of social and environmental projects taken on by community groups and NGOs; the ethical investment movement; doofs and raves; cooperative housing and eco-villages and so forth (Mollison 1988; Trainer 1995). For the Green Party, it is this broad social movement, along with the politics of direct action, which provides the background and the possibility for the Green Party to gain some electoral successes.
These thoughts can also be applied to the thorny issue of utopian socialists giving their support to a party that must operate within the present system to advocate legislation to be enforced by the power of the police. The Green Party, as a ginger group in parliament will inevitably call for more stringent regulation of industry and ultimately, the use of the state forces of law and order to back up that regulation. This political practice makes sense in the context of the capitalist economy we have now, at any rate so long as it is not seen as the central and most important aspect of environmentalist politics at the present time. We could look at these as activities in the political arena as attempts to deliver the gifts of biodiversity to the animals and plants on the planet now and to future generations of humans, in the political context that now exists. In the context of the gift economy we would be able to realize these goals quite differently.
The second issue is how to promote this long term strategy within the context of electioneering. Again I will attempt several paragraphs that might address this issue in the context of an election pamphlet:
Long term strategies for the Green Party
So long as the Green Party remains a minority party in parliament, we will attempt to make reforms in the context of the present economy. However, if the Green Party was ever to get to the point of forming a government, we would like to establish a completely different economic structure.
The Gift Economy
The economic structure we propose is what has been called 'A Gift Economy'. In a gift economy there is no money and no paid work. Instead, all work is organized on a voluntary basis, by clubs and societies with particular areas of interest and expert knowledge. People make things for themselves, for their friends and relatives or for the community. They are distributed as gifts. For example, people who are enthusiastic about train travel would organise themselves into clubs to provide train services to the community.
In a gift economy people do not work to get money to buy things. There is no money. What people get in the way of goods and services is either what they make themselves or what is given to them free of charge. So why would people work? People would volunteer their work because they realized that some job needed to be done and they could help to do it. They would work on something because they thought it was enjoyable and interesting work. They would do work to get the social status that goes with giving something to other people.
Coordination of such an economy would depend on the same kinds of mechanisms that coordinate work today - reports, estimates of production, statistics of needs and so on. However these would be produced by voluntary groups of office workers, statisticians, and media workers.
The Gift Economy and the Environment
The Green Party believes that an economy like this would actually work quite well , and would produce a much more environmentally sustainable economy than the one we have now. The voluntary clubs that produced things would want to look after their own community by making sure their work did not harm their local environment . They would take pleasure in producing gifts for the community of the highest quality - gifts that did not lead to environmental harm. They would want to develop solutions to environmental problems so that they could pass on a beautiful and safe environment to future generations. They would want to make things that would last or were easily recycled for later re-use.
The Green Party is aware that most people would regard this gift economy model for the future as extremist. We regard the present situation as extreme. The kind of economy we have now - the market economy - produces environmental damage through its very structure. It is in the interests of owners of private companies to increase their profits even if the enviroment suffers. If they don't their businesses will go broke in competition with other firms. It is in the interests of wage workers to get higher and higher wages even if the environment suffers. They don't get much else out of their work - they have no control at work and have to do whatever will get a wage, not what might be interesting or useful.
These problems can only be solved by moving to a radically new economic structure. The gift economy that we are proposing is completely different from the present market economy and it is completely different from the nationalized state owned economies that we have seen in soviet style societies. In the gift economy, the economy is not owned by private shareholders or by the government. It is owned by a patchwork of clubs, societies and federated hobby groups. These groups do not sell what they produce but give it away.
The Green Party hopes that as more and more people come to see the serious nature of our environmental problems, they will also come to realize that only the Gift Economy could actually make a real long term improvement .
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