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"Idealism Without Illusions"

 

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Issue No. 34 (May 2002) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Nine ways of looking at the next great social change movement

“No more racist wars!”

“U.S. out of Afghanistan!”

“De-fund the Pentagon!”

“Yes to turtles, no to tanks!”

BOR-ING. And irrelevant too.

The assault on the World Trade towers didn’t just signal a crisis in the world community (RAM #19). It signaled a crisis in the old social change movement.

When millions of us looked to the movement for advice on how to respond to the assault, we found it running on empty . . . dangerously out of touch with the realities of the world.

“I gave up friends over the attack,” Michael Phillips, author of the movement classic Seven Laws of Money and long-time Bay Area activist, told Radical Middle. “Out here many old lefties found themselves ranting anti-Jewism [or claiming] America brought this terrorism on itself. . . .”

“There IS a radical middle brewing, especially in my age group,” Eric Vessels, three decades younger than Phillips, told us from Ohio. “Fed up with the [Democrat-Republican] duopoly and tiring of the protest groups, we are seeking a new political reality in America. 9/11 did it for me. I was horrified by both the left and right response. . . .”

Many of us spent our entire adult lives hoping that the old social change movement would eventually grow out of its prolonged anti-business, anti-Western, anti-high-tech, anti-globalist, anti-urban, and anti-professional adolescence. Now we know it never will.

But when dreams are broken, it’s an opportunity for dreamers to find in real life what they can’t find in dreams. And real life is bursting, now, with new insights for a new kind of social change movement. . . .

From a Congressman’s office in Washington, D.C., to an independent political scientist’s home office near San Francisco -- from the august halls of the Cultural Values Project at Harvard to the cheerful walls of the Business Ethics Magazine office in Minneapolis -- spokespeople for eight distinct political traditions are calling for a new social change movement. Listen:

-- Jesse Jackson, Jr., human rights advocate and son of that other Jesse Jackson, says he wants a new “political movement” that would fight for “social and economic rights” for individuals. Meanwhile, Amitai Etzioni, communitarian, says he wants a new “social movement [to] shore up the commons”;

-- Lester Brown, ecologist, warns that a sustainable “eco-economy” can arise only if an “informed citizenry” promotes ecological values. Meanwhile, Lawrence Harrison, values conservative, warns that productive cultures can arise only if leading citizens promote Protestant-ethic-like values;

-- Carmen Sirianni, localist, would inspire a “civic renewal movement.” Meanwhile, Walter Truett Anderson, globalist, would inspire a movement toward a “global open society”;

-- Marjorie Kelly, economic democrat, wants a movement “akin to the British Glorious Revolution” that would give us more power over corporations. Meanwhile, Ted Halstead, radical centrist, wants a movement that would give us more choices in life.

Could they all be talking about the same movement? Listen:

Rights matter

When Jesse Jackson, Jr., was elected to Congress in 1995, at the ripe old age of 30, he really didn’t know what he believed in. He’d sit alone on the House floor wondering, “What is this Congressional thing? Where do I fit?”

He didn’t have to sweat it. He’d happily traded on his father’s name to get elected, and he represented as safe a district as they come (poverty-stricken south Chicago and environs). He could have done what hundreds of other Congresspeople do -- adopt somebody else’s agenda, play along, and reap the rewards.

But Mr. Jackson is different; he resolved to fashion his own course. In 1997 and again in 1998, while other House members were off enjoying Cannes and Cancun, he toured Civil War battlefields across the U.S., reading, thinking, and asking pointed questions along the way.

We now have the product of his searching, A More Perfect Union (Welcome Rain, 2001) -- easily the most intellectually ambitious, personally revealing, and politically visionary book you’re ever likely to see from an American politician.

It’s a book that has something for everyone. For those who think African- Americans tend to do jus’ enuff work to get by -- an in-your-face 525 pages of small print and tiny margins.

For brothers who want assurance that Jesse’s one of them -- tales of his earlier life as “Fella,” ornery football playing dude who got himself suspended from an elite boarding school twice (albeit for the right reasons: girls, and cheating on a math exam).

For those who wonder if Mr. Jackson is really different from his father -- passages making Jr. seem like a character straight out of our article on the Rising Generation (#18). At Operation PUSH, he says, he “was always arguing that we needed to apply new, more sophisticated technology and techniques to the movement and to political organizing. This mostly fell on deaf ears -- including my father’s.”

For radicals who’d rather shun The System -- proud passages about being a “young professional,” earning a law degree, spending time at seminary school.

Best of all, though -- for visionary realists everywhere -- hundreds of pages proposing eight new Constitutional amendments . . . including seven granting us “social and economic rights.”

The amendments would actually convey 10 new rights, as follows:

-- right to employment;

-- right to a living wage;

-- right to health care “of equal high quality”;

-- right to decent and affordable housing;

-- right to public education “of equal high quality;

-- right to sexual equality in all things;

-- right to a “clean, safe, and sustainable” environment;

-- right to be taxed “progressively in proportion to” your income;

-- right to vote;

-- right to enjoy nationally established “election performance standards.”

Mr. Jackson uses everything he learned in law and politics -- and at the seminary -- to justify these rights. You’ll find passages drawing on Abraham Maslow, Reinhold Niebuhr, the Earth Charter (RAM #17). But, perhaps wisely, the bulk of his arguments are hyper-pragmatic (e.g., social guarantees could “save taxpayers trillions of dollars through pre-emptive preventive action”).

The argument that seems to speak most viscerally to him, though, has to do with race: “If we are ever going to have a chance to make progress on the race question, we must first make every American as economically secure as possible. . . . Then, maybe -- just maybe -- we can make more rapid progress on the race question and racial reconciliation.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Jackson can’t let the race angle go. The book is so obsessed with white racism, so consumed by it, so (in my view) paranoid about it, that at times it becomes not so much a policy document as a window into the soul of a Gen-X black professional. And you’re not going to like what you find there.

From an epigraph accusing “white voters everywhere” of wanting to bring back the lily-white 50s, to innumerable nasty aspersions about white attitudes and motives, to a 140-page screed accusing the Democratic Leadership Council, decentralists, white people born in the South, and virtually everyone else who probably doesn’t agree with J.J.Jr., with being part of an updated version of the Confederacy [I’m not exaggerating! - ed.], you get the sense that this is a man whose beautiful words about human rights and self-actualization conceal a bottomless rage.

Reparations are seldom mentioned. But re-read that quote three paragraphs up about social and economic rights making “racial reconciliation” possible. When I first read it, I suspected Mr. Jackson was using “racial reconciliation” as code for reparations. Later I heard him speak at the D.C. Law School, a school with a largely black student body, and there he acknowledged -- in response to a questioner -- that he wants reparations to follow the granting of the 10 new rights.

So here’s Mr. Jackson’s full and unadorned message: “I think we should create a more perfect union for all Americans, even though I think many Americans are shits. So let’s all raise our taxes by a humongous amount, and by our sacrifices create a virtual heaven on Earth, and then it’ll be payback time.”

As they say on Madison Avenue, there’s something off about that message. But I think it’s quite salvageable, for two reasons.

First, the messenger is young. I was as angry in my 30s as Mr. Jackson is now; there’s plenty of time for him to learn to be more generous in his assessments and empathic in his understandings.

Second, I’m not sure Mr. Jackson fully appreciates the difference those Constitutional amendments will make. If implemented, they’ll effectively bestow the reparations he seeks . . . and not on blacks alone, but on all Americans who for one reason or another were left behind.

Goodness matters

At about the same age Jesse Jackson, Jr., got suspended from boarding school, Amitai Etzioni dropped out of high school to join the Zionist Palmach (underground) and fight the British and Arabs.

Mr. Etzioni is well known for his early opposition to the Vietnam war, his pioneering work in macro-sociology (aka socio-economics, RAM #7), his leadership role in the communitarian movement (RAM #4). Few know that his first book is Diary of a Commando Soldier (1952, available only in Hebrew).

Although he says almost nothing about himself in his latest book, Next: The Road to the Good Society (Basic/Perseus, 137 pp., 2001), his personal history -- the many strong ethical stands, the experience of idealistic but demanding Kibbutz life as a young boy -- bubbles under it like an underground stream.

If Jesse Jackson, Jr. is the angry young man of the radical middle, full of talk about rights and bad guys, then Mr. Etzioni is the wise elder statesman, full of talk about responsibilities, balance, and inclusive moral values.

But they’re not that far apart. In fact, the best parts of Mr. Etzioni’s book are those where he extends and deepens Mr. Jackson’s arguments.

Like Mr. Jackson, he argues passionately that a good society would provide certain minimum guarantees; his include shelter, health care, environmental justice, “fair taxation,” “work for all,” and “early childhood development” for all. But Mr. Etzioni’s arguments are relentlessly moral and ethical, rather than racial or economic or narrowly political.

The “core tenet of the good society,” Mr. Etzioni says, is “people must assume responsibility for others.” Personal responsibility is important, but “[r]esponsibility from all is to be paralleled by responsibility for all” [italics in original - ed.].

Mr. Jackson often assumes the national government will play the preeminent role in provisioning -- not just enforcing -- our new rights. Mr. Etzioni is more concerned with developing a “centrist” approach, one that assigns leading roles to markets and communities as well as the national government.

In fact, he wants communities and voluntary organizations (including faith-based charities) to provide our first line of defense in many areas: “[C]ommunities can do so at a much lower level of cost and with greater humanity than either the state or the market.”

Given Mr. Etzioni’s emphasis on ethics and community, it’s not surprising he thinks we’re going to have to change America’s “moral climate” before we can seriously address the socio-economic proposals in books like his and Mr. Jackson’s. He urges each of us to engage in what he calls moral dialogues:

“Moral dialogues are composed of a large number of hours spent over meals, at bars, in car pools, at work, and in the media (e.g., call-in shows) on one ‘hot’ moral issue. . . . A profound moral dialogue that developed in the 1960s led not merely to a new shared moral sense of our duty to Mother Earth but also to a fair amount of changed behavior. . . .”

Fair enough. But could anyone who fought in the Palmach really believe that Americans can’t be more quickly and systemically stirred to action?

Nature matters

Over the last 20 years, I’ve watched Lester Brown turn the Worldwatch Institute into one of the most influential radical environmental organizations in the world. Its annual State of the World report is the best-selling environmental title in the world, and every environmental reporter of any consequence in Washington attends at least some of Worldwatch’s briefings.

Now Mr. Brown has created a new organization, Earth Policy Institute -- one that will allow him to reflect more broadly (i.e., more politically) on the environmental movement and its goals -- and Eco-Economy (Norton, 333 pp., 2001) is Mr. Brown’s first book as President of EPI.

“Unless we have . . . a vision of where we want to go,” he declares, “we are not likely to get there”; and the book is just that, a complete, coherent vision for the environmental movement, backed up at every turn by data from Worldwatch books and research papers.

Ecologically speaking, we’re told, the world is in terrible shape and getting worse (Part I of Eco-Economy may be the most concentrated rundown of alleged ecological horribles I’ve ever seen). But a solution is at hand.

Since the basic problem is that the economy is in conflict with “the earth’s natural systems,” the solution is to create an environmentally sustainable economy (aka an eco-economy). As soon as possible, the “principles of ecology [must] establish the framework for the formulation of economic policy.”

Primary among these principles: life depends on maintaining an incredibly delicate and “intricate balance, woven together by food chains, nutrient cycles, the hydrological cycle, and the climate system.”

So what would an eco-economy look like? A “solar/hydrogen economy” would take over from coal, oil, nuclear, and even natural gas. (Nuclear power is dismissed in a few repetitive paragraphs.) A “new materials economy” would stress permanence and recycling. (Nanotechnology is not mentioned.)

“Feeding everyone well” would be problematic, given that it’s becoming progressively harder to make cropland more productive. (Biotechnology gets one skeptical paragraph.) Encouraging “the affluent” to eat less meat would make a difference, as would encouraging you and me to bring fewer children into the world.

Cities are “unnatural,” we’re told, and people who insist on living in them “impose a disproportionately heavy burden on the earth’s ecosystems.” Implementing urban rail and bicycle systems could at least begin draining cities of noxious automobiles. (The potentially benign impact of silicon and software on urban life is not explored.)

It’s hard not to admire Eco-Economy; behind its dispassionate tone one can feel the author’s passionate and caring spirit. And it’s much more enthusiastic about making use of market forces than are most radical environmental treatises.

But I didn’t feel the same enthusiasm reading it as I did reading Worldwatch publications 10 years ago. It sums up the Sixties Generation’s take on environmentalism without even acknowledging -- let alone responding to -- a newer kind of environmentalism that’s arising now among many radical middle types (christened “Next Generation” environmentalism by Marian Chertow and Daniel Esty of Yale University in Thinking Ecologically, 1997).

Next Generation environmentalism sees nature as less strictly cyclical in its operations, humans as less culpable in their aspirations, and human ingenuity and creativity -- the forces that drive nanotechnology, biotechnology, computer technology, etc. -- as more pertinent to nature’s future than radical environmentalists acknowledge.

Actually, there is one veiled reference to Next Generation environmentalism in Eco-Economy -- the sentence “There is no middle path,” on the very last page. But the sentence comes completely out of the blue and is not explained.

If you want explanation, see Alston Chase’s defense of “evolutionary” as opposed to “systems” ecology (in In a Dark Wood, 1995). Or Gregg Easterbrook’s concept of “resilient” nature (in A Moment on the Earth, 1995). Or Bjorn Lomborg’s statistical refutation of Worldwatch Institute data (in The Skeptical Environmentalist, orig. 1998; not entirely convincing, but important questions are raised).

I can understand that Mr. Brown would spend the bulk of Eco-Economy summoning up his own radical environmental vision. But he’s a political spokesperson now, not just a scientist; and political spokespeople have an obligation -- both educative and ethical -- to respond to their critics, especially those critics who share their goals.

To write a book like Eco-Economy without engaging such critics is to write “received wisdom” -- exactly what Mr. Brown was rebelling against when he started Worldwatch Institute.

Culture matters

In the early 1980s, as a young international affairs scholar at Harvard University, Lawrence Harrison knew in his gut that the received wisdom about underdevelopment was wrong.

On the right, many economists were (and still are) claiming that free-market economic policies will work wonders without regard to culture. On the left, many social scientists were (and still are) claiming that underdevelopment is primarily a result of capitalist exploitation, or economic “dependency,” or racism, or unfortunate geographical conditions -- anything but attitudes and values.

Mr. Harrison begged to differ, and in 1985 he published a thunderbolt of a book, Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind. But despite his impressive credentials (which included a stint at USAID), the book sank like a stone.

“[T]he whole idea of promoting cultural change [in the Third World] has been taboo,” Mr. Harrison says. “A similar taboo has existed in the U.S. with respect to cultural explanations for ethnic group underachievement.”

But Mr. Harrison kept hammering away; by the early 1990s, scholars across the U.S. and in many developing countries were beginning to sound the same primacy-of-culture theme; and in 1999 Mr. Harrison organized a hugely ambitious symposium at Harvard for them all.

The symposium begat an anthology, Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington, eds., Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (Basic/Perseus, 348 pp., 2000) -- one of the freshest and most stimulating books on development policy you’re ever likely to find.

Thesis of virtually all the contributors: In order to turn an underachieving nation -- or ethnic group -- into an economically successful one, certain Protestant-ethic-like values are going to have to be adopted.

Contributor David Landes, author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (RAM #6) conveys these values with a wry smile: “rational, diligent, orderly, productive, clean, and humorless.” Mr. Harrison conveys them in fine orderly fashion, as a sort of Top Ten list. Examples:

-- Emphasis on the future (rather than on the present or past) -- thus frugality, investment, etc.;

-- Work as central to the good life (not a burden);

-- Education as the key to progress;

-- Merit as central to advancement.

Nearly all the U.S. contributors write as if all cultures could -- and should -- move as fast and as far toward the Protestant ethic as possible. But if you read the non-U.S. contributors, you’ll get a far more nuanced view.

For example, after criticizing many dominant Latin American traits (e.g., tendency to focus on “grand cosmovisions” rather than what’s useful), Mario Grondona argues that it’s important to “identify those values that, even if not wholly favorable to development, must be conserved because they preserve the identity of the society.”

Daniel Etounga-Manguelle, after criticizing many African traits (e.g., near-universal obsession with witchcraft), phrases the real issue far more adroitly than the Americans when he says, “Our first objective is to preserve African culture, one of the most -- if not the most -- humanistic cultures in existence. But it must be regenerated through a process initiated from the inside that would allow Africans to remain themselves while . . . destroy[ing] all within us that is opposed to our mastery of the future.”

And Tu Wei-Ming doesn’t criticize Asian values. Instead, he presents a spirited defense of what he calls “Confucian humanism,” East Asia’s ongoing attempt to forge a synthesis between its “own rich spiritual resources” and what it needs to learn from the West. Then he calls on the U.S. to also “transform itself into a learning as well as a teaching civilization.”

It is unfortunate that, in his important introduction and conclusion to this anthology, Mr. Harrison chose not to highlight these radical middle views.

Community matters

When Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland first met three decades ago, they founded a community newspaper. Now they’re both respected academics (Mr. Sirianni at Brandeis, Mr. Friedland at the University of Wisconsin), but their interest in community empowerment never flagged; and last summer they brought out their long-awaited magnum opus, Civic Innovation in America (Univ. of Calif. Press, 371 pp., 2001).

It was worth the wait. If you’ve ever wanted to read a book that was obviously and compellingly a labor of love, this is it.

The core chapters -- on recent attempts to practice (and theorize about) community organizing, civic environmentalism, community health building, and civic journalism -- are extraordinarily savvy and informative. And Mr. Sirianni and Mr. Friedland’s affection for the individuals they write about is infectious.

You’ll find yourself cheering for unsung heroes like Len Duhl, the National Institutes for Mental Health bureaucrat who somehow managed to draft the original Model Cities proposal; Chris Gates, who helped turn the venerable National Civic League into “networking central” for civic innovators; Harry Boyte, who created a think tank for community activism at the University of Minnesota. . . .

Thesis of the book: a “civic renewal movement” is arising today, one that differs significantly from traditional social-justice and rights-based movements.

“The central motif of the civic renewal movement,” say the authors, “is that ‘we as citizens must reclaim responsibility for and power over our nation’s public affairs.’ . . .

“Responsibility involves engaging in the shared tasks that build communities. . . . It includes finding ways to collaborate across all kinds of professional and organizational boundaries and to define the civic dimension of every occupational identity. [It] means working on common tasks even with people who may share little in common with us. . . .

“Citizen politics . . . means a responsibility to deliberate about complex issues and causes, to consider various costs and possible trade-offs, and to struggle to reframe issues in ways that might build upon some set of shared values and lead to mutual gain.”

The authors’ critique of traditional organizing runs through the book like a silver thread. Among their points:

-- the far left’s “dominant frame of radical change versus cooptation tend[s] to belittle self-help.”

-- national public interest groups often “constrain or displace effective community problem solving”;

-- rights-based liberalism “often tends to frame issues as nonnegotiable and in no need of balance among relative costs and other worthy claims.”

Mr. Sirianni and Mr. Friedman are careful not to give too ideological a spin to their perspective. Again and again they insist on the value of learning from everyone and the wisdom of being expressly nonpartisan. But I think it’s fair to say that what they’ve done in this book is articulate -- powerfully, comprehensively, and with great sophistication and quiet joy -- the radical middle approach to civic activism.

Connectedness matters

At the same time Carmen Sirianni was focusing on, e.g., pro-community stirrings at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Walter Truett Anderson -- independent political scientist in the San Francisco Bay area -- was focusing on the BIG picture.

From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s he wrote books on evolution, the self, and postmodern reality. Then, as head of the World Academy of Art and Science (500 Fellows from diverse cultures, nationalities, and intellectual disciplines), he helped organize a series of cutting-edge conferences on globalization, and engaged in a widely discussed “great debate” with antiglobalist David Korten (summarized in The Futurist, May 1997).

Now we have Mr. Anderson’s big-picture book on globalization, All Connected Now (Westview/Perseus, 310 pp., 2001), and it’s as definitive in its way as the Sirianni book. Nowhere, not even in Thomas Friedman’s Lexus and the Olive Tree (RAM #2), does the promise of globalization -- and the sheer excitement of it -- come across so vividly.

Mr. Anderson concedes that globalization “can’t be described as a totally benign event.” But his book is a veritable bible for every thinker and activist who knows, in their gut, that the stirring together of the world’s economies, cultures, and peoples can in the end enrich us all (and not just economically).

One of Mr. Anderson’s boldest points is that the process of globalization began hundreds if not thousands of years ago; in that sense, it’s “inseparable from human evolution itself.” Even when antiglobalists try to halt globalization, they organize globally by means of the internet -- thereby advancing the larger process.

Although antiglobalists claim globalization will lead to centralization and homogenization, Mr. Anderson shows that on the whole just the opposite is taking place. Politically, the world is moving toward a system of global governance, a “system of systems,” not a one-world state. Economically, there’s a healthy give and take between “parent” transnationals and their foreign “daughters,” and some of the most successful transnationals are quite small.

Culturally, we seem to be moving toward an extraordinary pluralism, in which “all the world’s cultures become the property of all the world’s peoples” -- who proceed to “re-invent” those cultures in myriad ways. There’s even an emerging biological globalization -- a blurring of the boundaries of what’s “natural” and “unnatural,” what’s “indigenous” and “nonindigenous” -- which more and more ecological scientists approve of, as they move toward notions of ecosystems as “dynamic and unstable” (on this point Mr. Anderson sounds very much like the Next Generation ecologists cited in the Lester Brown review, above).

One of the most fascinating sections of this book is called “Informatizations” -- a rundown of how communications and information technologies are affecting our world. Cyberspace is becoming the “electronic town square of a global civilization.” Corporations (the better ones) are becoming “learning organizations.” Individuals and nonstate actors are becoming “independent change agents.”

Sounding exactly like Mr. Sirianni, Mr. Anderson speaks hopefully of the rise of a new kind of nonstate actor that “serve[s] the cause of dialogue.” He also finds hope in what he calls the “globalization of concern,” massive global efforts to confront such problems as climate change, AIDS, and population growth.

Admirably, Mr. Anderson sticks his neck out by issuing a clarion call for a “global open society” with open borders (partly to free workers from the “bondage” that denies them access to an open labor market).

To map out our “new political terrain,” Mr. Anderson draws a quadrant, with the vertical line running downward from Globalists to Antiglobalists and the horizontal line running rightward from Political Left to Political Right.

On the globalist right he puts libertarians like Virginia Postrel; on the antiglobalist right, Pat Buchanan. On the antiglobalist left he puts “anarchist” activists like John Zerzan and “anticorporate” types like Mr. Korten.

On the globalist left he puts Third Way spokespeople like Anthony Giddens (RAM #1 and see below), and it goes without saying that one should put Mr. Anderson there as well -- along with the many readers who will surely be swayed by this clearly written, elegantly argued, and thoroughly radical middle book.

Power matters

When the 1980s began, Marjorie Kelly had a freshly minted masters’ degree from one of our top journalism schools. She could have moved to New York and climbed journalism’s greasy pole. What she ended up doing instead was moving to laid-back Minneapolis and starting Business Ethics Magazine, which quickly became one of the leading publications in its field.

Now she’s written her first book, and it will surprise you. As she tells us in a moving preface, after many years at Business Ethics she no longer believes that “voluntary change” by enlightened capitalists is enough. Our problems are “systemic,” she says, and we need to change our corporations by exercising our power as voters and citizens.

Still, this is not another one of those bash capitalism / reinvent socialism books. The Divine Right of Capital (Berrett-Koehler, 276 pp., 2001) is something far more valuable and rare -- a genuine, well informed, and intellectually courageous attempt to see our economic system anew (to “see old customs with new eyes,” Ms. Kelly says), and to suggest visionary improvements that might work in the real world.

It’s impossible to read three pages in this book -- any three pages -- without being struck by its tone, its voice. Most authors who criticize mainstream institutions for an activist audience try to sound like they imagine The People should sound -- angry and embattled. Ms. Kelly writes with a tone of openness and personal vulnerability. She is an explorer, constantly inviting you to explore further with her. So you do.

Another unusual approach here is equally welcome and wise. Although Ms. Kelly makes many radical points, she doesn’t back them up using primarily radical sources. Instead she relies on business school professors, real corporate executives, mainstream political scientists, and law review articles galore.

Just as Walter Truett Anderson sees globalization as a vital part of the evolutionary process, so Ms. Kelly (drawing happily on Kant, Hegel, Popper, Dahl) sees economic democracy as a vital next step on our evolutionary journey to ever-more-democratic forms. You could say that the central question in the book is, Why has economic democracy been stifled in the U.S. (especially when compared with political democracy), and how can we begin making business structures more democratic?

Ms. Kelly’s short answer to the first part of that question is that we’re suffering from “wealth bias” or “wealthism,” a conviction that the rich are better and more deserving than the rest of us.

Because of wealthism, we haven’t dared realize that maximizing short-term returns to shareholders needn’t be the Number One Purpose of corporations. Because of wealthism, it never occurred to us to protect (mere) workers against what happened at Enron. . . .

Ms. Kelly doesn’t have a short answer to the second part of her question -- how to make business structures more democratic -- but she offers many suggestions.

First and foremost, she says, we need “mind change.” For example, we need to start thinking of corporations as communities of people, not vast abstractions. To that end, an “Employee Income Statement” might help -- a financial statement that doesn’t classify employee income as a cost of doing business, but as part of corporate earnings. (Clever, clever.)

Once “mind change” takes hold, we’ll be ready to mandate (not ask!) corporations to adopt employee ownership plans, profit sharing schemes, stock option plans, “ownership transfer” schemes -- whatever fits best. For ALL their employees, top to bottom.

Corporations should also be forced to acknowledge the public good -- for example, by expanding the legal concept of “fiduciary duty,” or by giving various stakeholders (communities, consumers, etc.) a right to sue whenever their interests aren’t considered.

At the same time, corporations should be made more internally democratic -- possibly by mandating “employee assemblies” to approve major decisions.

I am not entirely in love with this book. Sometimes its rhetoric does go over the top. It overstates the virtues of pure democracy (Mayor Marion Barry’s Washington, D.C. was as appalling in its way as the Enron scandal), and it understates corporate-led efforts to make business more appealing (Ian Wilson’s The New Rules of Corporate Conduct, 2000, is a useful corrective here).

It fails to discuss structural-historical forces pushing capitalism in the right direction (see Diane Coyle’s Paradoxes of Prosperity, 2001, or the Halstead book below). It blames The System for sins that might better be laid at the door of dimwitted business leadership (see Jeffrey Garten’s Mind of the CEO, 2001).

And yet, after all these objections are duly recorded, we have to count Ms. Kelly’s book a great gift. “Radical middle” doesn’t just mean learning from everyone, it means daring to think in fundamentally new ways. No one is doing that more appealingly right now than Marjorie Kelly, at ease in Minneapolis.

Choice matters

In 1993, at the age of 23, Ted Halstead founded Redefining Progress -- a think tank in San Francisco -- on one tiny grant and a dream. Two years later he co-authored an article on the “Genuine Progress Indicator” (an eco-version of the Gross National Product) that the Atlantic Monthly turned into its Oct. 1995 cover story.

The article brought national attention to the fledgling think tank, which soon managed to tear itself apart. (The Old Activist’s Tale.) Bowed but not broken, Mr. Halstead headed for Harvard’s Kennedy School to flesh out an even more ambitious think tank, the Vision Trust, focusing on young people and new ideas.

Thanks to a huge initial grant from Bill Moyers (who told Mr. Halstead, “Hate the name. Lose the name”), the think tank -- renamed New America Foundation -- opened its doors in Washington, D.C., and soon became hot, very hot. Its 20 young Fellows publish in radical, liberal, and conservative periodicals, and money is cascading in from liberal and conservative foundations.

Detractors -- and there are many -- claim the Foundation stands for nothing. Actually, it stands for nothing Washington has seen before. It’s a beachhead of radical middle politics, and Mr. Halstead’s book The Radical Center (Doubleday, 264 pp., 2001), co-authored with Michael Lind (RAM #7), is the first explicit and systemic introduction to radical middle politics by anyone not named Anthony Giddens.

The book is ready for prime time. The writing is crystal-clear, the arguments as carefully crafted as those you’d find in books from Brookings or the American Enterprise Institute.

The term “Radical Center,” the authors say, instantly differentiates their “principles and policies from those of the Democratic Left and the Republican Right.” Moreover, the word “radical” conveys that “we are interested not in tinkering at the margin . . . but rather in promoting, when necessary, a wholesale revamping” of institutions.

The authors then suggest “design criteria” for an “Information Age political program.” First and foremost is “increasing the amount of choice available to individuals . . . : voting choices, educational choices, medical choices, retirement choices. . . .” Other design criteria include providing a “true safety net” for those who make unhappy choices.

The program they come up with is admirably specific. The new economy would be characterized by a “new, citizen-based social contract.” We’d each take responsibility for buying “basic” private health insurance, saving 5% of our gross income per year for retirement, etc. Government, in turn, would subsidize basic health insurance for the poor, and provide assistance to those whose retirement incomes fell below a certain “floor.”

In addition, each of us would receive $6,000 at birth (basically untouchable by mom and dad), as a “down payment on a productive life.”

The result: We’d have more real choices in life, and businesses -- freed of the need to administer benefits for employees -- would be better able to compete in the global economy.

Governance would change equally deftly and dramatically. For example, the progressive income tax would be radically simplified -- and made more truly equitable -- by eliminating most tax deductions, credits, and exemptions. And the federal government would pay for most or all K-12 education (it’s the “only way to ensure that all students have access to a quality education on a relatively equal basis,” say the authors, sounding very much like Jesse Jackson, Jr.).

Community would not be synonymous with balkanization in radical centrist society. For example, to combat the “racial divide,” the goals of affirmative action would be pursued “by race-neutral methods like better primary education for all Americans.”

A closing chapter scours the U.S. for a “coalition of the Radical Center” -- and finds the elements of one among “disaffected voters,” “the newly wealthy and influential elites of the technology sector,” and “young adults.”

Mr. Halstead and Mr. Lind have provided all radical middle thinkers and activists with an extraordinarily rich blue- print -- the richest single blueprint we have now. But there are some curious gaps.

Almost nothing is said about past or present radical centrist advocates. Sociologist “Donald I. Wallace” is identified as the first to use the term, in a book from 1976. Actually, his last name is “Warren,” and New Age and spiritual activists were using the term in the 1970s in ways much closer to the way Mr. Halstead and Mr. Lind are using it now. Marilyn Ferguson made much of the term in her book The Aquarian Conspiracy (1980), which sold over a million copies.

Even radical centrist advocates from Mr. Halstead and Mr. Lind’s own circle go unacknowledged. For example, fellow Harvard alum Diane Coyle uses the term to describe her views in The Weightless World (1997), Anthony Giddens of the London School of Economics uses it to describe his views in The Third Way (1998), and Isabel Sawhill of Brookings, Rudolph Penner of the Urban Institute, and Timothy Taylor of the Humphrey Institute created an “Agenda for the Radical Middle” in their book Updating America’s Social Contract (2000).

Besides lacking a certain generosity of spirit that’s essential to building the coalition they claim to want to see, Mr. Halstead and Mr. Lind shy away from two issues that nearly all other radical centrists put at the top of their agendas: They devote a scant page and a half to environmentalism, and they devote no space at all to globalization, explaining -- lamely -- that “doing justice” to the subject would require “another book in itself.”

Of all the books reviewed above, this is the meatiest in terms of public policy. And yet, when you’re done, it’s strangely unsatisfying. It stirs the mind, but you’re not tempted to go out and fight for the radical center.

Jesse Jackson, Jr.’s justifiable anger gives his list of social and economic rights a special urgency. Lester Brown’s justifiable anguish makes you want to defend the Earth and all its creatures. But there’s no passion in Radical Center, and there’s never been a social movement without an animating, justifiable passion. Mr. Halstead and Mr. Lind have given us plenty of beef, but where’s the juice?

Dare to synthesize

With the moral collapse of the old social change movement, the temptation is to latch onto one or two of the most comfortable-sounding perspectives above and leave it at that. I strongly urge you to resist that temptation.

All eight perspectives above are shouting to the skies that they “matter.” And now that you’ve finished this article, it should go without saying that they all DO matter, a lot. The next great social change movement is going to have to synthesize key truths from all of them.

This is not a prescription for inaction. It is a precondition for “right action,” as the Buddhists would say.

For the old social change movement the burning question was, How far left are you? Hopefully someday soon the question will be, How much can you synthesize? How much do you dare to take in?

ABOUT THE RADICAL MIDDLE CONCEPT

WHY "Radical Middle"?

WIKIPEDIA Weighs In

50 Thinkers and Activists DESCRIBE the Radical Middle

50 Best Radical Middle BOOKS of the '00s

GREAT RADICAL MIDDLE  GROUPS AND BLOGS:

Over 250 Great Radical Centrist GROUPS and  Organizations

25 Great Radical Centrist BLOGS

  RADICAL MIDDLE INITIATIVES:

Generational Equity and Communitarian platforms,1990s

U.S. Green Party's "Ten Key Values" statement, 1980s

New World Alliance, 1970s

SOME PRIOR  WRITINGS BY MARK SATIN:

New Options Newsletter, 1984-1992

New Age Politics: Healing Self and Society, 1976

OTHER
PRIOR   RADICAL MIDDLE TEXTS:

50 Best "Third Way" Books of the 1990s

25 Best "Transformational" Books of the 1980s

25 Best "New Age Politics" Books of the 1970s

NOT JUST RADICAL MIDDLE:

10 Best U.S. Political NOVELS

50 Current Political IDEOLOGIES

50 Current Political  MANIFESTOS