Embracing the possibilities of a legitimation crisis

Just sharing some hopeful excerpts from a very interesting new essay that I came across on openDemocracy to lighten the mood here, after Psam’s last post!

[….] Now for the good news. Social democracy may be at an impasse, but history is once again on the march. From Cairo to Wall Street and from Santiago to the City of London, change is in the air (Schiffrin and Kircher-Allen, 2012). 2011 has already joined 1848, 1968, and 1989 as a ‘year of revolution’. More recently, a wave of industrial action has broken out across southern Europe, culminating in general strikes in Spain and Portugal and associated stoppages in Greece, Italy, France and Belgium. As part of this mass political mobilisation, growing numbers of people – especially the young – have begun to conclude that traditional policies to achieve equitable and sustainable social, economic and ecological outcomes simply no longer work. A full-scale legitimation crisis is in the making. Growing income and wealth disparities are seen to be corrosive of democracy. Governments are judged as lacking the will or capacity to regulate corporations effectively. A generation of young people expects to be worse off than their parents.

Confronted with these realities, more and more people have begun to ask ever more penetrating questions. They see traditional politics as no longer even attempting to address the issues that matter most. To do so would in fact require confronting the need for fundamental systemic change. But what would this entail? And what would a different system even look like?
Now is not the time for timidity, for all the old fears about frightening horses with manifestos for radical change; quite the reverse.

The social pain arising from the continuing economic crisis has made it possible – for the first time in decades – to pose these questions in a serious fashion. But despite this new space for a major public debate about fundamental change, serious political challenges to the system – from ‘Occupy’ protestors, community activists, environmentalists and others – have thus far been contained by the continuing sense of a lack of viable alternatives. The only choices have seemed to be corporate capitalism, on the one hand, or state socialism, on the other. Neither seems capable of addressing the problems of the twenty-first century. Neither commands the intellectual and ideological support of a new generation of indignados. But is there any alternative?

Today there is a real need for – and hunger for – new understanding, new clarity, and a new way forward. At the same time, growing despair at the inability of traditional politics to address economic failings has fuelled an extraordinary amount of practical experimentation. Over the past decades, literally thousands of on-the-ground efforts have been developing. Even experts working on such matters have rarely appreciated the sheer range of activity.

As popular movements and new institutional developments converge, there is the glimpse of a new world in the making.

In spite of – or perhaps because of – the lack of many of the social democratic features of European countries, a lot of this experimentation has been taking place in the United States. The Democracy Collaborative has been gathering information on the steadily building array of alternative economic institutions in communities across America. They include social enterprises that undertake businesses to support social missions; non-profit community development corporations (CDCs) and community land trusts that develop and maintain low-income housing; and community development financial institutions (CDFIs) that now invest more than $5.5 billion a year in creating jobs and housing and providing services for poor communities.

Most of these projects, ideas and research efforts have gained traction slowly and received little attention. But in the wake of the financial crisis they have proliferated. They illuminate how new community wealth-holding principles and approaches can work in practice and generate new solutions to political and economic challenges. It is slowly becoming possible to see how, by projecting and extending these practical experiments, the underlying structural building blocks of a new political-economic system might be assembled. What is needed – besides more capital to build up the sector over time – is an integrated and strategic effort to bring all this together and show how, in total, it forms the lineaments of a radically different system capable of delivering superior social, economic and ecological outcomes. […]

The challenge is not technological but organisational and political. It is a matter of systemic design. Work is already underway to flesh out the elements of what a system based on pluralist forms of democratic capital ownership might look like (Alperovitz, 2013, forthcoming). That there is political space to be occupied in this regard is increasingly evident. […]

Now is not the time for timidity, for all the old fears about frightening horses with manifestos for radical change; quite the reverse. The upside of an almost total disenchantment on the part of the electorate with politics-as-usual is that they are now ahead of the politicians in this game. People buy the argument that things are not working any more. They experience directly the growing inequity, the insecurity, the unfairness. They are no longer creatures of a discredited media. Now people want to hear, boldly and clearly, an authentic message about change that will make a difference.

As popular movements and new institutional developments converge, there is the glimpse of a new world in the making. Embracing these possibilities will require abandoning some of the mental furniture acquired from long residence in the house of power.