Chapter 5 of
Expanding the Boundaries of Transformative Learning: Essays on Theory and Praxis
Edmund V. O’Sullivan, Amish Morrell,
and Mary Ann O’Connor
From Opposition to Alternatives:
Postindustrial Potentials & Transformative Learning
The possibilities for social movement learning, and most aspects of transformative learning, are historically specific. The cultural, economic and technological potentials of society clearly affect the goals of social change. This even includes possibilities for personal-spiritual change, but this is a topic I cannot deal with here. In this essay, I want to look—from a political-economic point of view—at how postindustrial development potentials have affected political strategies—and the educational agenda—for radical social change today.
In the wake of the anti-free trade
This is an important debate because the anti-globalization movement expresses a high-water mark of social activism dating back to the decline of the last mass tide of activism in the early seventies. The decline of those movements was due to many factors, but a major one was undoubtedly that they were unable to define satisfactory alternatives to what they opposed. This is understandable since they were relatively new movements, without a lot of time to find common ground and make their (largely implicit) alternative visions concrete. The environmental movement in particular was very young, and this is very significant in view of how central the ecological dimension is to economic alternatives. Besides this, the economic boom of postwar Fordist capitalism was just cresting, and the hollowness of the promises of the Welfare State and economic growth were just starting to be acknowledged.
Another reason why it would be unrealistic to expect that the new social movements of the sixties to provide comprehensive alternatives is that such an alternative project was historically unprecedented. The new social movements of the Fordist era—for peace, women’s liberation, the environment, Afro-American and aboriginal self-determination, etc.—were themselves expressions of emerging human potentials and new productive forces (NPFs). These potentials were first visible during the Roaring Twenties with its vibrant cultural experimentation. But after a harsh dose of material depravation in the Great Depression, and then wartime mobilization, it would be the sixties before the new sensibilities would reemerge in the new social movements.
These new sensibilities were largely the product of a major movement of industrialization into the realm of culture. Old roles and identities, based on labour and on gender, began to break down as work, social organization, and consumption changed. The process intensified throughout the twentieth century. The so-called information revolution is often seen to be the driving economic force behind this upheaval, but it has actually been only one small aspect of it. The most important thing is not the new role of information, but a new role for human creativity in general—expressed in a fundamentally new relationship of culture to the economy. It is a transformation that has also profoundly changed the nature of politics.
I will come back to elaborate on these political-economic-cultural dynamics, but my basic point is that in this new context, alternatives play a much more important role in social transformation than in the classical era of industrial capitalism. During the early period of industrialism, the progressive social movements were primarily concerned with the distribution of society’s wealth. In the current period—marked by postindustrial potentials—the new social movements are more concerned, at least implicitly, with the redefinition of wealth: from quantity to quality, from accumulation to regeneration.
Not only have the concerns of popular movements changed over time, but the NPFs have also fundamentally changed the relationship between opposition and alternatives in progressive movement strategy. The old labour and socialist movements of the past needed to have control not only of the means of production but also of state power in order to implement any substantial alternatives. Today, it is possible to begin to create these alternatives directly without having prior control of the state (Roberts & Brandum, 1995). This is not just because eco-technologies are more developed, but because even much mainstream technological development tends towards decentralization. Think, for example, of fuel cells and “distributed generation” in the energy sector. Even though market globalization is trying politically and economically to offset these technological potentials, this is very wasteful, and many decentralizing tendencies are still powerful. This can work in our favour, and we are in a very different situation than the one that, for instance, Ghandi faced when he advocated self-reliant community economies.
The tasks of redefining wealth, and of defining and creating specific alternatives in every sector of the economy, are core responsibilities of transformative learning today. Before getting any more specific about them, however, we should look at little more closely at the role of culture in postindustrial development.
The new movements that have occupied the progressive political stage since WW II have been much more culturally-defined and more concerned with quality-of-life than the older labour and socialist movements. They sprung from a new form of capitalism in which industrialization had moved into the realm of culture and quality, with both inputs and outputs of production becoming more cultural. The rise of intellectual labour, new kinds of services, cultural industry, mass education, and eventually, the growing concern with lifelong learning, are all manifestations of this new importance of culture. Industrial capitalism has more or less integrated these elements into its forms of production and exchange, but it is not generally appreciated what contradictions have been involved and what strains this has put on the system.
The system has been strained because, compared to material products, culture is not so easily commodified and accumulated. Culture is largely a qualitative phenomenon. Industrialism, by contrast, is essentially a system of quantitative development, based in money and matter. More is always better. The system prioritizes accumulation above everything else, satisfying people’s needs only indirectly as a by-product, spin-off, side-effect or trickle-down. For example, it produces as many cars as is profitable, assuming people’s transportation needs will be taken care of. It produces any food commodities that will sell, assuming nutritional needs will be satisfied. The state is charged with filling in the gaps when the spin-off is intolerably insufficient, but real needs, be they social or environmental, still take a backseat to accumulation. This in fact is the very definition of capitalism: “exchange-value” must always come before “use-value” or social need.
During an earlier phase of industrialism—when the primary end-markets were overwhelmingly for products to satisfy primary needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.)—this one-sided focus on accumulation made more sense. Primary needs are pretty standard, and the goal of overcoming scarcity was uncontroversial. Socialists and labour activists generally had no quibble with the industrial definition of wealth—money and matter. They were concerned primarily with the distribution of this wealth, and the conditions in which workers produced it (Paehlke, 1989). Except for some communitarian and utopian socialists, few argued with the benefits of economic growth or what I will call quantitative development.
Things change, however, when both the inputs and outputs of production become less material. In the conventional industrial system, the key factors are cog-labour and vast amounts of physical resources. With the industrialization of culture, human creativity becomes the key factor; it can begin to displace both drudge-labour and resources from production.
This is a major threat to capitalism for a couple important reasons. First, cultural production is not really compatible with capitalist markets geared to accumulation and the “allocation of scarce resources”. Industrial capitalism is a mode of quantitative development, based in matter and money; its supposedly self-regulating markets do not work properly when faced with non-standardized needs and products. This is one reason behind the Great Depression—a market failure that dramatized the historical limits of quantitative development. At this stage, some kind of conscious intervention is needed.
Qualitative wealth defies commodification for a variety of reasons, but one of the most important ones is that it requires the direct and specific targeting of human need. It doesn’t just happen as a spin-off or trickle-down of accumulation. In fact, as we see so clearly in terms of environmental health, an excess of quantity (e.g. economic growth) can destroy quality (e.g. ecological balance or community). Increasingly real quality requires dematerialization. This is not an argument against matter and money—only that they be dethroned as humanity’s economic gods, and become strictly means to the end of real qualitative development.
The second and related reason why the industrialization of culture has been a latent threat to capitalism is because the NPFs embody the possibility of moving beyond scarcity. Capitalism is a class society, and class society is based in relative scarcity, both material and cultural. Class power involves the control of scarce resources—the economic surplus—by a minority. Absolute abundance undermines class, because when people have all their basic needs taken care of, they are not so compelled to take orders.
In this sense, industrial capitalism has always been a living contradiction, because its open-ended productiveness and its constant economic growth were destined from the first to eventually undermine the scarcity basis of class rule. This inevitability came to fruition with the Great Depression, which has been referred as a structural crisis of overproduction. The post-WWI technological explosion of the twenties generated a productive output far beyond the capacity of worker-consumers to purchase. After the 1929 crash, a chronic crisis of “effective demand” and “business confidence” ensued and put a final end to classical capitalist free markets (Block, 1986; Guttmann, 1994). In this sense, the Great Depression was a spontaneous system shutdown in response to the threat of abundance, and capitalism would henceforth need various forms of state intervention not simply to perpetuate economic growth but to maintain scarcity.
The threat to scarcity and class was, however, been just as much cultural as economic. Class society has always been based on a monopoly of “high culture” by a privileged minority. The maintenance of a gap between high and folk culture has been just as essential to ruling groups as control of the state or the economic surplus. By industrializing culture, however, industrialism gives workers new cultural and intellectual capacities that might undercut their cultural dependence. The twentieth century has seen the virtual elimination of the distinction between “high” and “folk” culture—as we see so clearly in the sophistication attained by folk arts like jazz. Capitalism has had to reproduce class relationships in other more subtle ways, but always there has lurked the latent spectre of a classless society.
For capitalism, the crucial means by which it has perpetuated scarcity—both material and cultural—has been waste. Quantitative growth has been kept going, and yet this hasn’t begun to meet all the basic needs of the people. After WW II, the key elements of the Fordist waste economy were the arms economy and the privatized consumer economy based in suburbanization. The latter was a fragmented landscape, populated by bungalows and cars, and powered by oil, which maximized the consumption of virtually every material. The blatant wastefulness obviously maintained material scarcity. But just as important is the fantastic waste of human potential implicit in the extension of cog-labour to all kinds of unnecessary or alienated production—from cars, to finance, to TV, to junk foods, to pornography. Alienated forms of consumption have been just as suppressive of cultural development. Such a capital-intensive form of development also inevitably worked to limit the power of organized labour—since it channeled the information revolution in the direction of displacing labour (rather than resources) from production. Even with the legitimization of collective bargaining in mass production, eventually labour’s strength would be eroded. This has been very obvious since the mid-seventies.
This role of scarcity in maintaining class and quantitative development is one reason why certain environmentalists are wrong when they see our environmental crisis as resulting from affluence in the developed countries. The problem is not affluence but effluence—i.e. waste that artificially reinforces scarcity relationships. The compulsion to get money is a constant distraction from more regenerative goals. If we were able to free people and firms of the compulsion to get money or accumulate capital, we could more easily target real human and environmental needs and substantially de-materialize the economy.
Appreciating how important waste is in maintaining class today shows how environmental questions are absolutely central to questions of economic development, political power and social justice. Waste has been the crucial structural means by which industrial capitalism has maintained anachronistic relationships. The alternatives that must be implemented are not simply new forms of distribution or governance, but substantial new designs for every economic sector to fit within natural processes. Ecological design helps establish the economic basis for justice, equality and democracy.
Real postindustrialism is all about actualizing potentials for qualitative wealth creation, for putting human development first, for dematerializing the economy, and integrating economic processes within natural cycles. Besides spawning new potentials for economic development, the industrialization of culture has also created the possibility of new forms of regulation and political action. A green economy does not simply require a new politics of ecology (as the mainstream green parties tell us), but a new ecology of politics—featuring the de-compartmentalization of politics as a separate realm.
It is no surprise that the new social movements have not focused primarily on elections, party politics or the state. Intuitively they know that the old political forms are designed to narrow and fragment important issues and relationships. It is not even enough to democratize the state, because the state itself is a problem, serving to keep politics out of daily life and everyday activity. The role of the state as a rule-maker is a very important one. But there are all kinds of ways to create pressure to change the rules while building parallel grassroots power.
The original separation of
politics, economics and culture in classical industrial society was to some
extent inevitable. Perpetual economic
growth was a totally new phenomenon, and industry was the engine of
progress. As Polanyi
(1957) showed, the new market economy and the associated property
relationships were deliberately created by the state. But it is also true that the new industrial
economies raged on like runaway trains without anyone at the controls. The
new importance of production gave the working classes a strategic position to
exercise power it never had in agricultural societies. Workers struggled for the right to vote,
but this unprecedented political power was something that ruling groups could
concede. On one hand, electoral
democracy could act as a kind of social feedback mechanism for the elite,
providing some stability for the runaway economy. On the other hand, the political realm
could be isolated from the economic realm, where the real power lay. Class interests used the state to
institutionalize property relationships that insulated the economic realm
from the political (
This was a temporary situation, however. As the industrialization of culture gathered stream early in the twentieth century, markets became increasingly incapable of performing their assigned tasks of efficiently distributing resources. The cultural-economic revolution also began to provide the state with the organizational and informational tools to manage the economy: especially white-collar labour, the substance of bureaucracy. The erosion of the industrial separation between politics, economics and culture had begun—an erosion that would threaten class power if left to continue. Bureaucracy might be seen as something of a threat to markets, but it could also be a new means of reproducing class relationships. It depended on how the new political-economic forms of integration would take place.
State socialist regimes began to appear. Corporations—which are actually large
political-economic organizations (or “industrial governments” as David Bazelon  put it)—came to replace individual
entrepreneurs and family businesses.
New forms of Welfare State capitalism emerged which permitted
political-economic integration at the highest levels, but kept politics and
economics well fragmented in the daily life of ordinary citizens. Again, especially in
In this context, it is no surprise that the new social movements would move beyond strictly distributional struggles, especially those focused on the workplace and the state. And while the new movements would use conventional political avenues, they would not subordinate themselves to these processes. They would insist on a broadening of politics.
The fragmentation of industrial society, along with working class cultural dependence, dictated a dual strategy of change for the 19th century working class. It had to get control of the means of production, or at least establish some power at the (paid) workplace and on the labour market—which it tried to do through trade unionism. But it also had to exert some power in society at large, by influencing or getting control of the state. Whether peaceful or otherwise, substantial change required action on these two fronts, economic and political.
Underlying it all was cog-labour, or what Marxists would call “simple labour-power”, which defined the role of the human being in the industrial system, as it shaped working class consciousness and identity. Industrial machines were not, like craft tools, extensions of the worker; but rather, the worker was a cog in the machine system, as well as a commodity on the labour market. The essential unpaid domestic work that reproduced this labour, while uncommodified, was equally routine and drudge-like.
Workers immersed in cog-labour, be it paid or unpaid, clearly had neither the time, nor the skills, to carry out the dual strategy alone. Politically, the working class needed representatives—advanced workers and sympathetic intellectuals—to carry on the political struggle via Socialist, Social Democratic, Labour or Democratic parties. This was the role of the organized left.
During an era when the working class was shaped by cog-labour and cultural dependence, the organized left served as the proverbial head on the working class body. It was the workers’ shadow state and carried on the struggle in the separate political realm. It was after state power, and no substantial economic alternatives could be implemented until after its attainment. And, as discussed earlier, the focus of the alternatives was on redistributing wealth material wealth, not redefining it.
Today there exists a very different situation. The working class is large and almost synonymous with “the people”. It is not a homogenous mass, however, and its progressive elements are constantly moving to express the diversity and complexity of human experience. So-called “identity politics” is the expression of people looking not only beyond class, but also beyond cog-labour for a deeper sense of selfhood, integrating their cultural heritages with new developmental possibilities. The new social movements have attacked all restrictions on human potential development as expressed in racism, sexism, ageism, anthropocentrism, etc. They have worked to undermine not simply class society, but all the interrelated forms of domination that date back to the beginnings of civilization. Identity politics is by no means peripheral to economic issues, but, at its best, our means of taking control of the “people-production” that is at the core of the new productive forces.
Today, the crucial productive forces are not machinery, but human creativity and self-development—which exist everywhere. We have moved beyond the era of thing-production to one of people-production, but the industrial system attempts to disguise this by producing people-as-things, and creating so much material waste.
Industrialism has always kept key forms of human and
ecological productivity invisible—for example, domestic labour
and ecosystem services. Today’s Casino
Capitalism has maintained and extended this invisibility via the undervaluing
of natural resources and many human activities. But the competitive struggle in capitalism
means that the system must deploy at least certain aspects of the NPFs. So it
selectively cultivates and channels this creative activity into destructive
and anti-social forms of production: financial industry, defense industry,
genetic engineering, advertising, etc.
Not only is this deployment of human creativity, as expressed in
high-skill jobs, destructive, but it is also restricted to a narrow band of
the work force. As
For the working class of today, seizing the means of production essentially means seizing ourselves. While institutional change is important, there is a crucial internal dimension to change. People must not only reclaim control over their creative capacities, but they must begin to cooperatively establish productive economic outlets for this creativity—in the form of grassroots community-based ecological alternatives. Many of the existing mainstream forms of production are not worth saving. They are invariably wasteful and inefficient. Whether we look at agriculture, the energy, manufacturing or even finance, socially- and ecologically-responsible production would be completely different in form and content.
This strategic importance of alternatives, along with the cultural capacity of the working class, has great implications for both the form and content of revolutionary strategy today. First the historic organizational role of the left is obsolete. The working class does not need to be led or represented—it can do that itself, in many diverse forms. Second, the division between politics, economics and culture has no material, social or technological justification as it did in 19th century capitalism. This division is artificially maintained for political reasons. The realm of real politics is everyday life—everyday culture and economics, and the crucial forms of political action are in these areas.
Not even technology can be invoked when justifying world-scale division of labour. As mentioned earlier, the direction of most technological development is toward decentralization. Even in manufacturing, industrial ecologists point out that reuse-based industry with extended producer responsibility demands more local-regional production.
All this means big changes in revolutionary social change strategy. Marx lived and wrote at a time before the emergence of postindustrial productive forces. He believed, correctly, that it would take conscious popular political direction for these new productive forces (NPFs) to be comprehensively applied. He saw working class revolution as a prerequisite for the creation of the New Human and the establishment of direct democracy. He saw it happening through its representatives, the organized left, whom he apparently believed could be made accountable enough to eventually allow the "withering away of the state" as the gradual emergence of post-industrial productive forces facilitated the blossoming of direct democracy. Marx, clearly, was an optimist.
The actual situation is, of course, that the NPFs have emerged, making possible both working class autonomy and direct democracy, but prior to the revolution. Put another way, originally the revolution was to be made in order to create New Human and implement direct democracy. But today we need to create the New Human and establish direct democracy in order to make the revolution. The withering away of the organized left is the internal reflection of the need to move beyond state-focused politics. We don’t need a shadow state basically because we don’t need the (industrial) state.
The kind of state we do need is very different than the industrial state. It is far less autonomous from civil society, community networks, bioregional processes, and the alternative forms of production at the heart of a green economy. By and large, the state must become more of a co-ordinator, and less of a policeman. It would be able to do this not simply because of its advocacy of a community economic vision, but because of New Rules that could revamp the driving forces of economic life.
Even among those who acknowledge the need for substantially different forms of production and consumption in a green economy, it is not generally acknowledged we also need radically different forms of regulation. I don’t mean simply a more democratized state and greater levels of popular participation. That is certainly important and I deal with new forms of local democracy, particularly Green Municipalism, in my book (Milani, 2000). But here I want to emphasize that we need not simply controls on private greed and power, but rule-changes so fundamental that private enterprise becomes intrinsically social and ecological.
Perhaps the most crucial concept for understanding this possible new role of the state is that of the ecological service economy. This idea is antithetical to the conventional notion of the “postindustrial service economy”—in which manufacturing is shipped out of the developed nations to cheap-labour countries. In the ecological service economy, manufacturing stays local/regional, but becomes more geared to service. In this economy, social need—rather than production-for-production’s-sake—would be prioritized, and material substances become simply means to the end of satisfying the “service need”. Examples of service needs are nutrition (rather than food commodities), transportation or access (rather than cars), entertainment (rather VCRs), and so on. This kind of service-based economy is the logical outcome of rules that enforce extended producer responsibility (or EPR). When producers must take responsibility for substances over their entire lifecycles, they get very creative about conserving materials, and making them safe, so that lots of things get reused, designed for reuse, and designed for compostability. In a reuse-based economy, even manufacturing work tends to become more like service work (e.g. like shoe repair). Compared to the unhealthy drudge-labour associated with conventional recycling, reuse-based work is also more creative and highly-skilled.
The notion of the ecological service economy has been popularized and elaborated by industrial ecologists like Walter Stahel (1994). But it really goes back to Amory Lovin’s (1977) soft energy path analysis of the seventies, when he argued for an “end-use” approach to energy, where we would aim for “hot showers and cold beer”, rather than power plants and fossil fuels. Energy supply would be matched in both quality and scale to the task at hand, after the real need had been carefully considered.
Because most of the current discussions about a green service economy come from industrial ecologists, people have associated this mainly with green business and philosophies of “natural capitalism”. But the logical implication of making end-use the starting point for all economic design is the creation of a kind of postindustrial socialism. This is because capitalism, by definition, does and cannot prioritize social need. Even if capitalism might be radically democratized, it still it geared to accumulation, with social need still a spin-off or by-product. It is possible for businesses to sell services, as Xerox, Inferface and many others do. But it is another matter to base an entire economy on extended producer responsibility and related end-use incentives. It puts the economic spotlight on human (and environmental) need, which will ultimately even force us to distinguish between “wants” and “needs”.
This kind of state action is geared to redefining wealth, changing the relationship between means and ends in economic life. Industrial forms of state socialism, except perhaps for very brief historical moments, did not really work to redefine wealth qualitatively. They did not attempt to overcome the split between the social and individual, between exchange-value and use-value, or between politics and economics. They simply identified with the other side of the division. In doing so, they ended up, as Wallerstein argued, running whole societies like giant corporations.
The point of postindustrial socialism would be not to limit the self-aggrandizing individual with regulatory boundaries, but to transform individual enterprise altogether, to infuse it with ethical/ecological action. It would do this by changing the rules of the economic game with such systems as extended producer liability. But such systems would be insufficient in themselves to create a comprehensive environment of regenerative incentives and disincentives. Here I will mention just a few more crucial elements in the economic design mosaic that the state can have some role in facilitating if not directing. Again, it should be clear that we can begin to move on these things even before we have popular control of the state:
· Appropriate scale for the economy: this would tend to be much smaller than at present, geared to make the most efficient use of local skills and (largely renewable) resources. Appropriate scale is absolutely essential to build accountability into economic decisions.
· Community account-money systems (like LETS) employ forms of money which not only support local activity but they eliminate accumulation altogether and focus exchange on use-value.
· A people’s financial system: The financial system itself could become an important form of community self-regulation if the principal lenders—e.g. credit unions, development banks, etc.—make loans primarily for projects that corresponded to the community’s green development vision.
· Community Indicators: Indicators are essential tools in generating qualitative wealth. They measure and monitor this wealth, and help to displace money as the primary conveyer of value. Many kinds of indicators can be helpful—for example, alternatives to the national GDP like the well-known Genuine Progress Indicator. But because qualitative wealth is very specific to people and places, the most important are “sustainable community indicators”. They combine objective factors (like eco-footprints and social stats) with more subjective preferences of the community. They provide ways of measuring progress toward achieving the green plan, but they are also the ways that communities discuss and decide what is valuable.
A visionary agenda is one that can be, and is being, implemented today. The alternatives movement is growing rapidly. It has a very large educational component—not just a critique of the existing system, but positive visions and techniques intrinsic to green community development.
Today there is raging debate about whether education should be geared to a “liberal education” or training for jobs. The debate totally ignores the nature of the jobs that are currently being created—whose primary purpose is to create profit by destroying community and the environment. There is no question that education should be directed to serve the community and economy. But the key to serving the community and economy is developing whole human beings. Conversely, whole human beings need a social context whereby their energies can help regenerate their communities.
Green and community-development alternatives are, par excellence, knowledge-based activities, much more so than mainstream development. But the educational resources currently at their disposal are woefully inadequate. Permaculture, eco-design, industrial ecology, and the like are generally not taught in our educational system. At best, they exist as fringe courses at especially progressive faculties. More commonly they are privately organized as weekend workshops and weekly seminars.
The movement to make green-community education mainstream would be helped tremendously by the development of large community visions or Green Development Plans. They could serve as both planning and educational tools. Such plans could show how alternatives in the food system, in energy, in manufacturing and resource use, in communications, in health care, etc. tie together into a cohesive paradigm of economic development that constitutes a realistic alternative to corporate globalization. These plans could tie into the community indicator projects—which exist in many places already—and focus both local and regional government on real problems and opportunities.
Green plans and indicators are also fertile ground for important research, especially for students and academics who would like to see some positive social outlet for their research activities. These plans would also provide guidelines for new educational initiatives that could provide regenerative skills for community and ecological development. They would provide legitimacy and encouragement for the creative disciplines that desperately need to be expanded and made available to enthusiastic young people.
Bazelon, David, The Paper Economy,
Block, Fred, Revising State Theory: Essays in Politics and
Guttman, Robert, How Credit-Money Shapes the Economy: The
Livingstone, David, “Work and Learning in the
Information Age”, presentation, OISE/UT,
Lovins, Amory B., Soft Energy Paths,
Milani, Brian, Designing the Green Economy: the Postindustrial Alternative to Corporate Globalization, Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000
Montgomery, David, Citizen Worker: The Experience of Workers
Paehlke, Robert C., Environmentalism
and the Future of Progressive Politics,
Polanyi, Karl, The
Roberts, Wayne and Susan
a Life! How to make a good buck, Dance around the dinosaurs, and Save the
world while you're at it,
Stahel, Walter R., "The Utilization-Focused Service Economy: Resource
Efficiency and Product-Life Extension", in Richards, Allenby
& Frosch (eds.), The Greening of Industrial Ecosystems,