Skip to content Skip to footer

And if We Were to Change … Everything

(Photo: random cliché)

Month after month, Alternatives Economiques describes and analyzes the economic news. That does not prevent us from reflecting on what could, on what must, change. Today, beyond the troubles born of the financial crisis, our societies face many challenges at the economic, environmental and geopolitical levels which demand we once again question the aims of the economy and which strengthen the desire for alternatives. We don't imagine that good necessarily comes from an evil: the troubles we are experiencing carry the seeds of a serious risk of an authoritarian aberration, of a demand for order. They exacerbate the contradictions in the large countries' interests. Far from inciting us to inaction, these risks constitute so many reasons to demonstrate a renewal of the imagination, to bring forth viable and desirable solutions to the challenges with which humanity is confronted.

In the face of environmental challenges, in the face of inequalities that threaten our societies' cohesion and global peace, it is no longer possible to distinguish what pertains to the short- or to the long-term in the reforms that must be executed. It is necessary to act now without waiting, to transform our modes of production and consumption, to make our lifestyles sustainable for ourselves and our children.

Utopia is not what it used to be. The dream of a radically different model that would put an end to history by establishing an ideal and conflict-less society through a complete rupture with what went before is over. To the contrary, the propositions formulated in this special edition are, for the most part, applicable here and now. Often, they are already in application on a reduced scale. Each, taken in isolation, does not radically change our society, our economy, but taken together, they would profoundly transform our society and our economy by making them far more respectful of the environment and of persons.

Utopia is no longer what it used to be, because its ends are now in its means. In other words, the process that may allow us to achieve the objectives we set for ourselves is part of those objectives. There will be no other economy without an enlarged and deepened democracy. The initiatives, the proposals, that follow contain a certain vision of the common good. This vision has no meaning unless it is very broadly shared. That's why this special issue not only describes the solutions to our problems, it also counts on stimulating the “want-to's” to motivate you to involve yourself in bringing them alive.

And If We Were to Change Society
by Laurent Jeanneau

Changing society begins by definitively scrapping the idea of “working more to earn more.” Not to earn less, nor even to gently coast along, but quite simply to live better. That's what should be our priority, and not this frenzied race in which individuals competing with one another wear themselves out in the process – in the hope of finishing out the month in the black. At issue is changing the compass, no longer remaining with our eyes glued to the development of gross domestic product (GDP) and beginning to concern ourselves with our collective well-being. In other words, it is time to ask ourselves collectively: what really matters?

Why, in fact, should economists be the only ones empowered to define what a society's wealth is? It is certainly useful to know what a society produces, but it's a bit stunted: GDP tells us nothing about our social health, no more than it informs us about the attacks on the environment and the explosion of inequality. With so many blind spots, it will become difficult to avoid catastrophe.

Criticism of GDP is not new. Already twenty years ago, the United Nations Development Program proposed an alternative with its human development index, the famous HDI. It was a question of no longer being blinded by the level of production and trade and of taking an interest in the state of people's health, education and purchasing power – in short, of counting the human. Today, the HDI has not unseated GDP, but it has gained in legitimacy.

Measuring wealth a different way is one thing; translating that change into public political terms remains. Sociological studies show that work, family, relations of love and friendship, communication and connections with others are very important values. Moreover, once essential needs are met, the accumulation of material goods does not significantly increase a person's sense of well-being.

Therefore, allowing each person to satisfy her essential needs is a priority. That priority is effected through the guarantee of a minimum decent income, the possibility of being housed respectably and of providing one's children with a sufficient level of education. Beyond that, policies designed to improve the general well-being of the population should set a certain number of goals: to prevent inequalities of income, gender, condition and discriminations related to people's origins, rather than correcting them after the fact; to promote quality jobs that have meaning and are performed in work conditions that do not harm one's health and that allow a harmonization of professional and family life; to improve social connection, by, for example, encouraging community engagement; and still further, to facilitate citizens' participation in public and political life. These are a handful of goals that are far from being outside our reach and that would contribute to the improvement of our individual and collective well-being.

And If We Were to Reinvent Democracy?
by Thierry Pech

Democracy today is perceived by a majority of French citizens as a given that essentially comes down to electoral procedures and the designation of the government – of members of parliament and local officials. Ultimately, that's nothing but a decision-making system designed to decide the differences concerning the exercise of power by majority rule.

Everyone feels intensely that such a definition is at once too slight and too formal to cover the issues at stake, for democracy is much more than that, and it's enough to enumerate its other facets to measure the degree to which it remains imperfect. We'll settle for mentioning just two of those other facets here.

First of all, democracy is also a continuous exercise in collective deliberation. It lives and breathes in the intervals between votes. Thus, the legitimacy acquired at the voting boxes may be questioned every day by the press, public opinion, social movements…. If the ballot box remains preeminent, it must nonetheless make way for other forms of expression, whether by unions, experts, judges or even regulatory authorities.

Furthermore, democracy is a regime of representation and recognition. Ideally, elected representatives must “resemble” the diversity of voters who have voted them in, in such a way that the different parties that comprise society – conditions, ages, sexes, minorities, regions – can see themselves in their representatives and have some justification for thinking that those representatives will be faithful spokespeople for their interests and sensibilities.

On both these fronts, the democracy we experience remains highly imperfect and the source of multiple frustrations. What must be done to make it at once richer and more in conformity with the numerous promises it carries? The answers are various: transform our institutions to make them more welcoming to social diversity, enlarge the circle and methods of participation, bring alive local-level deliberation, that which is closest to citizens, learn to have the different forms of legitimacy enter a dialogue. And above all, accept the idea that democracy remains a utopia-under-construction guided by the competing forces of a quest for equality and an imperative of individual freedom.

And If the Economy Were To Be Harnessed in the Service of Everyone?
by Guillaume Duval

Enough already! After the Enron affair and so many others in 2000-2001, the present crisis confirms – if that were necessary – that it is well past time to limit the fantastic inequalities that have been widened over the last 30 years and to finally bring democracy into banks and companies. Why should shareholders alone, with the management they appoint, decide on the future of these institutions? Especially when it's the employees – as well as the society that surrounds them – who pay the price when things go badly. Without counting that these crises also virtually systematically involve the government – hence, at the end of the day, taxpayers – in sponging up private actors' losses to avoid a collapse of the economy.

In fact, these private actors apply, with no shame, and to a degree altogether unheard of in history, the old precept at the base of the development of capitalism: socialize the losses and privatize the profits. Heads, I win; tails, you lose. It is therefore well past time for society to set much stricter limits on shareholders' powers and to obligate them to share that power with all those who also – like the shareholders, and, frequently, far more than the shareholders – have stakes in banks' and companies' activities that they risk losing when business goes badly, even when those “stakes” do not take the form of financial capital.

Moreover, limiting inequalities is not a question of morale or morality only, but also one of economic efficiency: these fantastic inequalities and the unlimited greed of the richest are the source of the insane risk-taking that provoked today's crisis. They also brake economic innovation and dynamism by promoting the reproduction, in duplicate, of the elites through inheritance, thereby blocking a rise in power of true innovators. The latter have, in any case, become scarce to the extent that the concentration of wealth at the summit of the pyramid limits the cultural as well as the financial capital to which the great mass of the population has access.

Finally, last but not least, these fantastic inequalities undermine the very foundation of democracy: how can anyone effectively believe that one person is worth as much as another when the material means they each have available to them are so fantastically unequal? The multiple affairs of indecent lobbying and the purchase of political officials which corrupt the life of most industrialized countries' democracies are, in the end, but the consequence of these unjustifiable inequalities. In short, there is an emergency. Follow a few leads – with no pretentions to covering all possibilities – towards correcting these serious aberrations.

And If We Were to Change Globalization?
by Christian Chavagneux

Globalization's halcyon days are over. Belief in the endless virtues of economies' ever-more-advanced opening to trade and international capital movements is no longer triumphant, first of all, because this globalization feeds inequalities. Certainly, the successful insertion of emerging countries into the international division of labor has allowed a significant fraction of their populations to emerge from poverty, and that's reason for joy. “Northern” consumers have also gained in long-term purchasing power. However, by adding a large low-cost population to the global labor market, emerging countries also burden the employment and salary levels of the North. While big companies, their management and shareholders cash in the benefits of their global presence, the repartition of wealth that feeds these exchanges strongly contributes to this reconsideration.

Emerging countries' rise in power has, in fact, changed the global balance of power. Some of those countries would be the first to benefit from increased commercial openness, notably with respect to agriculture. Hence the rich countries' lack of eagerness to conclude the Doha cycle trade negotiations. Similarly, the rise in sovereign investment funds feeds the fear of seeing strategic companies pass to foreign control. Hence the beginning of financial protectionism, even among rich countries. And the massive arrivals of funds in search of quick returns in Southern stock markets have brought the virtues of capital controls back into fashion.

Even before the current crisis, people had come to understand that globalization carries instability within itself. Even the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) studies show that trade opening increases growth volatility. As for the subprime crisis, it confirmed in the extreme how generalized financial deregulation and the uncontrolled openness to international capital movements fostered a complex and opaque form of finance subject to sudden loss of control and catastrophes overcome only with difficulty, as well for private actors as for public authorities, and costly in terms of rescue plans and lost jobs.

Ultimately, having asparagus travel 12,000 kilometers from Mexico so that European markets can offer them in February alongside tasteless tomatoes and strawberries undoubtedly gorged with pesticides is no longer the consumers' dream. At a moment when the planet's survival is at stake, outrageous globalization is no longer perceived as progress. Without preaching isolationism still dangerous for world peace, it is decidedly well past time to move to a less neoliberal globalization.

And If We Were to Go Green
by Antoine de Ravignan

Be realistic, demand the impossible! The utopias outlined in the pages that follow have little in common with this good old slogan from '68. It is striking to observe the extent to which the means that would allow assuring our economy's necessary ecological reconversion – and, among other things, dividing global carbon emissions in half between now and 2050 – are, on the contrary, practicable. And already practiced, even though far too little.

Twenty years ago, when countries met with one another in Rio at the bedside of an already seriously ailing planet, these utopias seemed impossible. Today, not. The trajectories that will allow us to contain global warming within limits bearable to humanity are clearly identified. Thanks, notably, to the tremendous progress in technology, they are compatible with the well-being of some and the being better of others. Their cost, now quite well-estimated, is certainly significant, but not out of reach: on the order of one percent of global GDP to invest each year, half what countries devote to their military budgets.

The tragedy is that the best of the arguments that could have motivated people to agree to that investment – the scarcity of energy resources – has just died. The global economy is in the process of demonstrating that it is perfectly capable of adjusting to a one hundred dollar barrel of oil. The 1973 shock had been the goad for a “drive against waste.” Today, the level of prices pushes people to draw from the nonconventional oil and gas deposits that humanity has learned in the interim how to exploit. Now the resource is vast and will not be exhausted for a century – far too late to ward off climate change.

As for the studies according to which the future benefits of the environmental transition – in terms of jobs created, especially – will exceed the investments to be approved, they are hypothetical and regularly refuted by the adherents of the opposite thesis. Whichever may be the case, that line of defense doesn't hold against political decision-makers' time-horizon, limited to the next scheduled election. The sole certitude: if we do nothing today, the world we will leave our grandchildren will be dreadful. However, this moral argument weighs even less heavily than the two preceding ones.

So what could make utopia possible? Maybe the ever more vocal exasperation with gaps in wealth that have become unbearable and which maintain a model of consumption – lived by the well-off, dreamed of by the deprived – that condemns us all. But only on the condition that the renegotiation of the social contract also be the opportunity to negotiate the contract with nature.

This article was translated by Leslie Thatcher, Truthout's literary editor, French translator and sometime book reviewer.

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $34,000 in the next 4 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.