Rethinking Sustainability: Power, Knowledge, and Institutions

Rethinking Sustainability: Power, Knowledge, and Institutions

by Jonathan Mark Harris

NOOK Book(eBook)

View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now
LEND ME® See Details


Bringing together the thoughts of economists, political scientists, anthropologists, philosophers, and agricultural policy professionals, this volume focuses on the issues of sustainability in development. Examining such topics as international trade, political power, gender roles, legal institutions, and agricultural research, the contributors focus on the missing links in theory and practice that have been barriers to the achievement of truly sustainable development.
Any theory of sustainable development must take into account economic, social, and environmental dimensions. Until recently, the question "What is development?" was often answered predominantly from the economist's perspective, with high priority being assigned to expansion of economic output. Social, political, institutional, and ethical aspects have often been neglected. But now that sustainable development has become a broadly accepted concept, it is impossible to maintain a narrowly economistic view of development. For this reason, the varied perspectives offered by the contributors to this volume are crucial to understanding the process of development as it relates to environmental sustainability and human well-being.
The selection of articles is meant to be stimulating and provocative rather than comp-rehensive. They are roughly divided between those dealing with broad theoretical issues concerning the economic, political, and social aspects of development (Part I) and those presenting more applied analysis (Part II). The common thread is a concern for examining which factors contribute to making development socially just and environmentally sound.
Rethinking Sustainability will be of interest to economists and social scientists, development professionals, and instructors seeking to offer their students a broad perspective on development issues.
Jonathan Harris is Senior Research Associate, Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, as well as Adjunct Associate Professor of International Economics at Tufts University Fletcher School of Law.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472023738
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 11/12/2009
Series: Evolving Values For A Capitalist World
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 1 MB

Read an Excerpt

Rethinking Sustainability: Power, Knowledge, and Institutions

By Jonathan Harris

University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2000 Jonathan Harris
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0472089242

Gar Alperovitz

For most of the twentieth century the progressive vision of the future in many parts of the world revolved around the socialist theory--namely, that equality and democracy could best be achieved by a system in which ownership of society's wealth (the means of production) is vested in a structure beholden to, and controlled by, society. This system theory has now collapsed.

However, the crisis of mainstream liberalism (or social democracy) leads to a closely related problem: What happens if socialism's distant cousin--the welfare state--also loses its capacity to achieve the fundamental value goals its core theory affirms? A less commonly recognized question concerns the implications when the fundamental basis of the conservative theory of liberty falters. All three issues, I shall suggest, point to a shared regime problem: the disintegration of traditional articulations of the relationship between values and systems.

The Conservative Critique

It is instructive to begin with the last issue first: Against the socialist idea, thoughtful conservatives (as opposed to demagogues and self-serving right-wing politicians) have for more than a century argued that vesting both economic and political power in one institutional structure must inevitably lead to the destruction of individual rights, of democracy, and of the human spirit. They have applied a similar structural critique to the expansive welfare state.

Friedrich Hayek, whose book The Road to Serfdom became a conservative bible, pushed this argument well beyond narrow economic ideas: "The most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change, an alteration in the character of the people." Hayek quoted de Tocqueville approvingly:

The will of man is not shattered but softened, bent and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrial animals, of which government is the shepherd. (Hayek 1972)
Most progressives have generally been unsympathetic to this conservative position because it seemed oblivious to the moral and political importance of equality, and because it often served to mask a cruder form of conservatism willing to use any argument to justify private enterprise exploitation. They urged that to vest the ownership of the means of production in private hands inevitably produced great inequalities of income and wealth, powerful private interests that tend to subvert democracy, the desecration of the environment, and an equally disastrous spiritual result--the worship of money, of materialism, and of greed.

These strong criticisms of unrestrained capitalism led most progressives to underestimate the importance of the basic conservative argument regarding political and economic power. Only a very few argued the importance of listening to the main point of the critique, and of engaging serious conservatives in a serious dialogue over theory. Through most of the past half-century, cold war polarization focused progressives' attention on critiques of conservative policies, permitting many to avoid reflecting deeply upon the conservative structural argument and upon similar themes in anarchist and libertarian antistatist thought.

It is undeniable that the socialist ideal in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was severely handicapped by the devastation of World Wars I and II and also because it was introduced into essentially underdeveloped societies that had only a minimal historic experience with democracy. Further, the cold war generated an environment that gave priority to "national security," military expenditures, rigorous "internal security" measures, and a Soviet imperial occupation. However, the fatal underlying structural problem cannot be denied, and it has now demonstrated its tremendous importance as millions in the East have undertaken a sweeping rush away from a disaster they know directly to a seeming solution they know only vaguely: democratic capitalism.

In practice, the experience of capitalism in the former communist areas these last years, however, has also been radically different from its promise, as unemployment, social dislocation, ecological horror, and massive disillusionment have set in (sometimes even leading to the election of old communists as the least bad alternative!). If--as many in the West know so well--democratic capitalism also contradicts important values, what possible alternative can be conceived and affirmed for the future?

Serious conservatives are aware of another profound difficulty at the very heart of their preferred option: the conservative argument against statist socialism held not only that the concentration of economic and political power in the institution of the state was dangerous, but also that there had to be alternative sources of independent support for the individual, else liberty could never be sustained over time.

The essential notion involves a balance of forces: at the same time they contended against a strong state, such conservatives argued the importance of small-scale, entrepreneurial enterprise. In this system the underlying structural support for the principle of liberty cannot be compromised: a free political culture requires that society rest upon the foundation of a citizenry sustained by economic independence.

"It is widely believed that politics and economics are separate and largely unconnected," conservative economist Milton Friedman observes,

that individual freedom is a political problem and material welfare an economic problem; and that any kind of political arrangements can be combined with any kind of economic arrangements.. . . such a view is a delusion . . . there is an intimate connection between economics and politics . . . only certain combinations of political and economic arrangements are possible. (Friedman 1962)
Thomas Jefferson urged a broadly similar theory of the requirements of a meaningful political-economic system. In his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson wrote: "Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition" (1781). His hope for the new system in early-nineteenth-century America also had a very specific structural foundation:

everyone may have land to labor for himself, if he chooses; or, preferring the exercise of any other industry, may exact for it such compensation as not only to afford a comfortable subsistence, but wherewith to provide for a cessation from labor in old age.. . . such men may safely and advantageously reserve to themselves a wholesome control over their public affairs, and a degree of freedom. (Jefferson 1813)
For all its other difficulties, pre-twentieth-century American society did in fact rest upon a footing of millions and millions of individual entrepreneurs: they were mostly farmers (or, more accurately, farmer-businessmen--an entrepreneurial breed very different, for instance, from the farmer-peasants of many societies). A majority of the society (including spouses and children) actually had the experience of individually risking capital and being directly responsible for their own economic enterprises.

By the late twentieth century, however, only a very small fraction of Americans, no more than 15 to 16 percent, can in any sense reasonably be called individual entrepreneurs. The United States has become a society of employees, most of whom work for large or medium-sized bureaucracies, private or public. "As the consolidation of economic power progresses," traditionalist conservative Russell Kirk admonished in 1957, "the realm of personal freedom will diminish, whether the masters of the economy are state servants or servants of private corporations."

From this essential perspective, the difference between a system dominated by General Motors and Exxon and one based upon the individual landholding farmer and small businessman of an earlier day in American history may very well be as important in the actual life experience of the average person as the difference between a system based upon large private bureaucracies in the United States and public bureaucracies in "socialist" nations.

Moreover, irrespective of the hopes of conservatives and largely irrespective of who has been in power--including Herbert Hoover and Ronald Reagan--the state has generally grown in size and power. The government accounted for less than 8 percent of the GNP at the turn of the twentieth century and has grown to roughly 34 to 35 percent in recent years (U.S. Census 1975; Council of Economic Advisers 1995).

The dangers of statism in socialism are now clear to all. However, the truth is that serious conservatives, like serious progressives, also confront a direct contradiction of both aspects of their most dearly held theory in the experience of the West.

Democracy and Equality

Is there any meaningful way forward that promises to honor equality, liberty, and democracy, to say nothing of ecological rationality and even, perhaps, community? Might it be possible to begin to define a viable third structural option other than traditional socialism and traditional capitalism?1

What is needed is not a set of rhetorical goals, but a serious discussion of the outlines of an alternative system of institutions and relationships that might one day nurture, rather than erode, cherished values in an ongoing fashion over time. Space permits only an introductory set of notes and elements that might help contribute to a dialogue aimed at ultimately fashioning such a vision. Let us begin with equality.

Democracy obviously requires a reasonable degree of equality to be a meaningful expression of the idea not only of one person-one vote, but of "each and all" having equal capacity to impact the governing decisions that determine the fate and shape of the society in which they live. By this test the underlying condition of "democracy" in the United States is clearly weak, given an income distribution characterized by marked--and increasing--inequality.

Money and television, many studies show, increasingly tend to dominate elections. Even more fundamental is that when there are vast differences in income, wealth, education, free time, and personal security, those with low incomes are systematically disadvantaged: they do not have the wherewithal to influence politics, their educations do not give them as many skills, they don't have the time, and, often fearful of losing their jobs, they must be silent rather than speak their minds (Dahl 1996).

Any American reporter in any American city easily finds innumerable individuals chosen at random who express extraordinary disillusionment with the actual operation of democracy. They do not need to be instructed in the limits of what some have called "electionism"--a process in which mudslinging, distorted advertising, and a lack of significant issues make a mockery of the idea of democratic decision making in connection with important public matters.

The traditional American progressive or liberal answer to inequality has been that "reform" or "activism" or "political demands" or "organizing" can correct such imbalances and move society toward greater equality. In a sense, "politics" is seen as somewhat independent from and able to correct the essential functioning and structural basis of the system. This idea, in fact, is at the very core of the social democratic or liberal system theory.

The statistical record, however, confirms that there are obviously deep linkages between the structure of the economic system and the kind of politics it generates or permits (Thurow 1980; Rodriguez 1998; Roemer 1998). There is little evidence, for instance, that what we commonly understand as "reform," "activism," "political demands," or "organizing" has had the capacity to move the American system toward greater economic equality in the twentieth century; and if so, this theory also falters.

In fact, the only times there have been brief positive improvements in the relative distribution of income have been as a result of major crises: during World War I, during the Great Depression, and during World War II. But these shifts, indisputably, were associated with fundamental, system-shaking explosions--they are clearly not evidence that politics on its own in "normal" times has the capacity to alter the underlying trend.

With the U.S. economy buoyed by the postwar boom, the Korean War, the cold war, and the Vietnam War, the U.S. distribution of income held reasonably constant for two decades. However, the painful deterioration that has now been in process for a number of years resumes and points to a much older trend of growing inequality.

To be sure, the situation would undoubtedly be worse without progressive political activities. However, it is one thing to say that politics may have prevented or slowed down a trend toward even more regressive patterns of inequality and it is quite another to say that it has had the capacity to move society toward greater equality as the traditional theory argued.

Today, roughly 54 million people among the top one-fifth of American society receive approximately 49 percent of household income (including interest, rent, and dividends). Just about the same number of human beings among the bottom one-fifth of society make do on 3.6 percent of such income (U.S. Census 1999a). Still lower, at the very bottom of the system there is extreme poverty concentrated overwhelmingly among women, children, and minorities. In 1998, for instance, 12.7 percent of American society lived in poverty by official definitions-- 34.5 million people. 36.7 percent of all black children (including 60 percent of all black children under six in female-headed households) and 34.4 percent of all Hispanic children (including 67 percent of Hispanic children under six in female-headed households) were living in poverty (U.S. Census 1999b).

But this clearly understates true inequality: If you receive $1,000 in one year and I receive $50,000, and a few years later you have $2,000 and I have $100,000, the ratio between our incomes has not changed. Economists will tell you, correctly, that the "relative" distribution of income has not been altered. But, self-evidently, in the real world the gap between us has jumped from $49,000 to $98,000, and the "realworld inequality" between persons has increased dramatically.

This, in fact, is precisely what has been happening in the United States. One recent study, for instance, concludes that the real-world gap between those at the top and those at the bottom of the American income pyramid more than doubled in the postwar period: The income gap between families in the bottom 20 percent and families in the top 5 percent, for instance, exploded from $31,000 in 1947 to more than $68,000 in 1987 (measured in 1985 dollars) (Winnick 1989). Another congressional study calculates that the gap (in 1993 dollars) between a family of four at the 80th percentile of income and a family of four at the 1st percentile of income grew by more than $98,000 in the brief period 1977 to 1989 alone (House Ways and Means Committee 1992). More recent U.S. Census data indicate that the real-life gap between a family at the 5th percentile and 80th percentile of income distribution increased from $74,623 to $89,549 between 1980 and 1992 (in 1992 dollars) (U.S. Census 1994).

It may be that in some special cases "social democratic politics" can achieve sufficient momentum so that the underlying structural tendencies of capitalism can be countered by a politics sufficiently powerful to significantly alter the trends and patterns of "real" inequality between people. The evidence from countries like Sweden is mixed, but even if it were not, this possibility would clearly be an exception to the general rule especially as that rule is exhibited in twentieth-century American experience.

The essential system theory as it relates to the affirmed value of equality has lost all serious operational meaning.

Community-Based Institutions

To those who reject the traditional conservative, socialist, and liberal (social democratic) alternatives, another commonly discussed structural possibility as the basis of still another system theory is worker ownership of the means of production. This is an arrangement in which it is hoped that the dangers of statism, on the one hand, and private capitalist ownership and exploitation, on the other, can be avoided.

There are many important advantages to worker ownership schemes, especially those that offer some real degree of participation. However, they are clearly no panacea.

First, there is very little evidence that worker-owned firms significantly alter society's overall distribution of income. Within the local or national community, for instance, privileged workers in rich industries do not easily share their advantage with the community as a whole or with workers in other industries, with the elderly, with the poor, or with women and children outside their own families. Second, worker-owned firms tend to develop their own "interests." Worker-owned steel mills, for instance, generally seek similar kinds of subsidies (and trade protection) as privately owned mills. Nor, for that matter, do worker-owners have any great interest in expensive pollution controls that may advantage the larger community but cost them money.


Excerpted from Rethinking Sustainability: Power, Knowledge, and Institutions by Jonathan Harris Copyright © 2000 by Jonathan Harris. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Customer Reviews