Reasons to be hopeful, in spite of everything
An extraordinary number of awful things happened in 2016. Both the world as a whole, and almost every country in it, is looking fascinatingly unstable. There are so many ways things could get even worse next year, and in the years to follow, that I'm not even going to try to start enumerating them.
But things might turn out much better than we expect — there are plenty of opportunities for things to get better than they've ever been. New technologies, and the kinds of communication and collaboration that they allow, make it more feasible than it has ever been to put in place new, more equitable and sustainable systems allowing people to live fuller, freer lives.
We may have been unable to fix many of the problems that have made our economies and democratic systems so unequal and inefficient so far, but as those systems eat themselves at an accelerating rate, we have the ideas and the technology to fill the gaps with things that objectively work far better. You might not think so to look at 2016, but it is possible that humanity is on the cusp of actually getting it right.
Given it is collapsing anyway, our task is surely to steer the demise of the old order — controlled-demolition style — to minimise the damage as much as we can, while working out and implementing alternatives that can do the useful work the old systems have been doing. We need to do this as soon as possible, preferably without waiting for the collapse of the unsustainable messes they're replacing.
That means prioritising democratic economic structures, and doing everything we can to make it easier for people to help each other. It also means applying strong pressure to the people in control of existing power structures, to change course in ways which bolster economic security and sustainability. The changes required are hard to resist once people understand that overwhelming evidence suggests they will be beneficial not just to individuals and to society at large, but also to the economy.
This is a hell of a job, and it's going to be all the harder because we need to work on it while fighting regressive forces tooth and nail. There is a massive backlash going on against the social progress that has been made in recent decades—right-wingers are riding high on the tide of disillusion brought by almost a decade of economic stagnation, on top of thirty years of growing inequality. With established representatives of the Left having largely given up on fighting for an alternative economic vision after the failures of the 1980s, millions have felt like nobody in power is standing up for them. Once the establishment Left gave up pointing out it was the workings of capitalism causing all this misery, they left the door open for others to convince people it was immigrants, women, people of other races or the feckless poor to blame. So there is an urgent need to stand up for social justice, and it doesn't look like that's going to get less urgent any time soon, but we need to be damn clear what we're fighting for, too, and that means articulating well-thought-out alternatives to the failed economics and politics of the past century.
There are several threads that I think are worth picking up and running with, because they stand to make a real difference in the short to medium term, while helping to lead us in the direction of sustainable systemic change. These are all tied together by a common thread of economic democracy, and by an abundance of clear opportunities for doing things better than we have been. They are sustainable energy; economic security; and cooperation.
Cooperation, the act of working together for mutual benefit, is not always easy. However it always makes things easier and more efficient, as well as friendlier, when we can identify common goals and work towards them. Instead of this our economies have been based around a strong presumption in favour of competition, especially since the 1980s, and in favour of centralised control. This is neither inevitable, nor based on strong evidence.
Competition requires adversarial positions, and assumes self-interest; collaboration is far more efficient, and far more equitable, when it works. Many real-world systems lend themselves to something resembling a monopoly, making genuine competition either impossible or exceedingly unlikely. For example, competition between energy suppliers or train companies is almost entirely artificial, without massively redundant systems in place; competition between search engines is largely unfeasible once one company has effectively cracked the problem, and it requires enormously redundant infrastructure. Systems fitting this pattern can be rightly termed 'natural monopolies', and as long as they are run in the interests of the few individuals legally in control of them, they lend themselves to all the kinds of abuse that monopolies lead to under capitalism. Splitting these companies into smaller parts is only ever a partial solution, when the problem is to make sure they bring the greatest possible benefit of the wider public.
When it works, competition can be very valuable, providing a kind of accountability, encouraging experimentation and efficiency, and keeping prices sensible. Unfortunately it very often doesn't work so well, and it has been falsely touted as a magic bullet solution for all sorts of problems, providing spurious justification for widespread privatisation. Once we acknowledge that competition frequently fails, we are left with the problem of how else to achieve the same ends. Part of the appeal of putting in place market mechanisms for almost everything came from the observation that state-run services have often been inefficient, inadequately accountable and stuck in their ways; setting prices other than by market mechanisms is also a problem that has never been satisfactorily solved. These are all valid criticisms.
However, it was never true that the only alternatives were the extremes of neoliberal capitalism and state communism. There have always been people pushing in a different direction from both of those Cold War poles, towards the decentralisation of economic power and a much more mixed economy. There are many ways of achieving this, from municipal enterprises under local democratic control to worker (or consumer) representation on boards and strong trade unions. All of these mechanisms make sure more people have input into decisions that affect them. Trade unions won a series of huge victories in the context of jobs where big capitalist employers hire workers on a long-term basis, but they have yet to get to grips with a mass of precarious workers, mainly in service industries. Co-operatives lend themselves particularly well to the kinds of problem we are now facing, moving beyond the adversarial relationship that otherwise exists between bosses and workers.
With the rise of precarious employment, there is a very strong case for platform co-ops to take over the role currently filled by a range of for-profit companies like Uber and Deliveroo in the 'gig economy'. These companies siphon off a chunk of wealth from every single transaction they facilitate. This is largely as a reward for work that has already been completed and paid for, making it a kind of economic rent. The 'first mover advantage' is enormous in cases like this, but a cooperative platform for such systems would be able to set rates to maximise benefits for customers and workers, rather than shareholders. On a level playing field, we should expect co-ops and ethical companies to out-compete profit-driven companies more often than not. It is too often forgotten that what is being competed for is not profits, but customers.
Instead of making it easy for people to work together, we keep setting things up to favour competition, which is almost always the death of cooperation. We do this both within firms and between them; in our democratic systems; in international relations; and between groups of people, in the form of races, classes and genders. Again and again we see the advantages when we manage to overcome this and work together, yet the trend towards pitting people against each other continues. Getting past this will require a major cultural change, but given the instability of the world we live in and the fact we live in an age of unprecedented communication, it's something worth fighting for. We progress when we understand each other's priorities, and take them on board, something that information technology potentially makes far easier. We need to stop actively promoting systems that make it harder.
There is an urgent need for humanity to get over our reliance on fossil fuels. Our governments have been unforgivably slow to take the kind of action we need to achieve this, but thankfully, sustainable energy technologies are coming on in leaps and bounds regardless. The world's total renewable energy capacity has doubled in just a decade, with even faster growth in solar and wind energy. Meanwhile the price of new solar has plummeted to a third of what it was — and it's still getting cheaper even as its energy efficiency improves. It's now clear that new fossil fuel power plants are a terrible investment. As appealing as it might be to get former mining communities back to work, at this point we'd all be better off if they were just burying coins and digging them up again, rather than mining coal. Renewable energy is cleaner, faster to get online and cheaper, and advances in storage technology are steadily increasing its reliability.
We've known for a long time that burning more than a small fraction of known fossil fuel reserves will tip us past the point of no return with the climate, but this has not been enough to stop people investing in finding even more of it. Market forces may yet do the trick, but we're on a knife's edge — the surge in atmospheric methane this year probably indicates that we have passed at least one of the tipping points that could lead to runaway climate change, with masses of frozen methane released from the ocean floor. This is the context in which the UK government has massively cut back on subsidies for renewable energy, while leaving subsidies intact for fossil fuels and nuclear: a perverse distortion of the market in favour of the worst possible solutions.
We still need far more investment in renewable energy, and far less investment in carbon-intensive fuels, and that is almost certainly going to require political action. Most of the world's governments expressed willing this year in the Paris Agreement on climate, pledging to take action to keep global warming to less than 1.5 degrees: a major step, but the UK government is not alone in following it up with policies that make that almost inconceivable — and the USA has now elected a climate change denying president who wants to get out of the agreement altogether. Meanwhile the Chinese government is putting us all to shame by investing so heavily in renewable energy that they are smashing ambitious targets for reducing emissions.
It is important to realise how much this move away from fossil fuels is going to disrupt old economic and political orders. Fossil fuels have arguably been the major driver of economic growth and transformation for more than a century now; physical power translates readily into economic power. Thirst for oil has undoubtedly contributed to several wars, even if it might be simplistic to see it as the central driving force behind Western foreign policy. At the same time as renewable energy is making fossil power generation obsolete, the explosive growth in electric vehicles that many analysts expect to see in the coming decade (partly driven by self-driving vehicles) could drastically reduce our reliance on oil for petroleum. Solar, wind and tidal power stand to provide energy security for much of the world.
Many renewable energy technologies also lend themselves to small-scale power generation in a way fossil fuels never could, making huge savings in transmission losses. The near-monopoly held by big power companies in many countries is about to fall apart. Solar panels and wind turbines can make villages self-sufficient in power even if they are not connected to the grid; or just drastically reduce the cost of energy. Indeed, the tiny marginal cost of renewable energy once it is installed makes such a difference that we badly need to replace old business models with ones capable of absorbing the initial investment, without demanding constant payments bearing no relation to the cost of the energy produced. This applies whether power is being generated on a small scale for the benefit of local people, or on a larger scale from things like concentrating solar power or tidal energy. We have an opportunity to move from monopolistic power companies to far more democratic structures, and it would be foolish to waste it.
Insecurity is ruinous, reducing the mental energy people have for making good decisions and holding them back from taking risks. It is not hard to keep people from having to live with economic insecurity, by providing reliable safety nets and good public services. Alternatively we can demand benefits sanctions to punish people for their inadequacies, which generally doesn't save money or make people work harder, but does make them easier to exploit by trapping them in bad situations. This way, we employ large numbers of people to ensure that the poor and disabled are ashamed and inconvenienced, and often do not receive the support they need; the big advantage is that people who are in work are too scared to do anything different.
Meanwhile, many people are now working in the so-called gig economy, with unpredictable hours and minimal benefits provided by their employers (who often claim not to be real employers at all, to get out of paying sick leave, holidays and so on — despite the recent ruling against Uber in the UK). In principle this is no bad thing; companies like Uber and Deliveroo do allow more efficient resource use, providing genuinely valuable services. However, the intensely precarious nature of work with such companies is something existing welfare systems are utterly unsuited for. Someone working less than about 16 hours a week often has an effective marginal tax rate close to 100%, and has to fill in extensive paperwork every time their status changes, or else give up claiming benefits.
A social security system that makes sense for the 21st century has to start with a Universal Basic Income. By providing a floor below which nobody can drop, it stands to eliminate the most extreme forms of economic insecurity at a stroke. Knowing they will not face destitution however bad it gets, people will be free to pursue their own creative and entrepreneurial projects, care for relatives, devote time to charity, and walk out of jobs or relationships where they are treated badly. It will be far easier to thrive in unpredictable part-time work, and the increased appeal of reduced hours and re-training will take much of the sting out of the threat of automation. The assumption that people only work thanks to the constant threat of poverty was always poorly supported, and there is more and more evidence against it.
The speed with which Basic Income has moved from being considered a fringe proposal, with limited support outside of various Green Parties, to a mainstream policy, says a lot about both the power of the idea and the way the internet is transforming how we collectively think about politics. It also says something about the failure of the approaches to social security currently being taken in much of the world.
How to pay for Basic Income is still a stumbling block, but it looks like a manageable one. For one thing, we could pay for it out of income tax while increasing the take-home pay of the great majority of people; it is almost mathematically impossible for this to work out any other way. Another approach is to pay for it mainly out of property taxes of various sorts. As things stand, economic rents have a way of constantly redistributing wealth to a few people, in a manner strikingly unhelpful. Arguably land, and the resources found in it, should be considered the common heritage of humankind, and people extracting wealth that way should therefore be paying into a common pot for the privilege.
While Basic Income is the single thing that will make the biggest difference to economic security, it should be seen as one expression of a philosophy of universalism in provision of public services and social security. Free universal health care, education, childcare, roads and libraries all provide tremendous benefits for the population at large. Efforts to reserve them only for the exceptionally needy and those who can pay are always stigmatising and costly to enforce, and inevitably lock out people who need the help but are unwilling or unable to claim it.
Having economic security gives people a chance to make wise decisions and long-term investments, and to look after their health. Economic worries force people to accept whatever they can get, be it exploitative jobs or shoddily-made goods which need to be replaced in a year or two.
Each of these threads reinforces the others. Demand for fossil fuels creates insecurity on an international level, while sustainable energy can provide economic security for participants. Co-ops are the natural way to manage energy on this kind of scale, escaping from an energy market dominated by a few players notorious for monopolistic practices. Co-ops also provide much greater security than capitalistic employers, with workers deciding how best to deal with automation and other changes. Economic security empowers people to do things which benefit themselves and others, without always having to focus on turning a profit. It gives people the space to take on board other people's needs — and environmental concerns — in a way that day-to-day struggles often make difficult.
For all the things that felt like steps backwards in 2016, there is a lot going on that is positive, too. Even while there are more refugees than ever before, people are less likely to be hungry than at any time in the past. Even though inequality is so high and still rising within so many countries, the wealth gap between countries is closing to a stunning degree. Even though many leading politicians hold scientific evidence in contempt, science and technology are making faster progress than ever. Even though we stand horrifyingly close to a series of climate tipping points that could undo so much of the good we have achieved, avoiding this disaster looks more plausible now than it has in years.
Despite the ascendancy of politicians who stand on the wrong side of all these things, we are collectively working out and discussing new ways of solving old problems like never before. The cultural, economic and political transformations that humanity is now going through are disorienting and often downright terrible, but if we can figure out how to make it out the other side, we may yet find ourselves in a better place than we ever were before.
This article also appears on Medium.