Climate change and peak-everything have moved the clock up on capitalism, outrunning those more abstract contradictions of old. Mark Jones, attending well to these heretofore secondary environmental matters, called the final stage of imperialism “exterminism.” For good reason. People are going to get killed or left to die in great numbers, along with every other form of life. It has already begun. We are living in a dangerous pre-interregnum in which the existing powers are too entrenched to remove and increasingly too ineffectual to govern. We begin to sense that something long and hard and ugly may be coming that will last for generations after things fall apart, and we feel the pull of the tempo task — Eisenstein’s film convention when the direness of an emergency calls for a suspension of all the civilized rules for its resolution.
Every day, the Lenin question comes to the fore: What is to be done? And with each day, the answer becomes: A hell of a lot more than what needed doing yesterday. Over, under, around, and through every order of existence and practice there is self-organization. The mind of a person is self-organized, each aspect relating particularly with each other aspect, and that mind is likewise self-organized with other minds, other bodies, other things and happenstances, knitted together in a kaleidoscope of semiospheres, social structures, buildings and roads and power lines, institutions, enterprises, layers of management and governance, and so it goes. Even in that realm where practice theorists dwell — between personhood and culture, combining them — there is self-organization. Different practices and combinations are tried until entire systems become cyclic and comparatively stable, each individual practice demonstrating agency, but agency constrained, and within those constraints is self-organization . . . which remains until it doesn’t, but until it doesn’t it resists change by wrapping the status quo in layer upon layer of self-organized protection. Resistance need not be crushed. More easily, resistance is swallowed.
Some of us are pretty sure that whatever people do as this “exterminist” phase in global governance plays out, it will require tremendous change precisely because self-organized systems are full of micro-articulations that relate to and ramify through many more micro-articulations. No “system” can be corrected superficially, or the deeper secular stability of self-organization will simply swallow it. We can’t even talk about these things, because the conversation leads us down a very hard path.
Let’s pretend, then, that in a few years, one of the least bad scenarios plays out, and that is one where a re-energized and environmentally literate left gains sufficient political power to actually effect policy changes. If I didn’t think this was at least possible, I wouldn’t bother writing this down in the first place. My optimism about that, of course, is tempered by my conviction that this re-energized left will inherit a massive, broken system for which no one can honestly promise the perennial “better future” of 1950s US white capitalist boosterism. There is no “better future.”
That’s disappearing at the same rate as non-extinct species, ocean-side real estate, and fresh water aquifers. I hope we heed that caution and not make silly promises like this, because political enterprises can get pretty tangled up by failing to deliver. The choice is between nose dive and controlled crash landing, and about that I hope we remain honest. Progress is a blood-drenched, cannibalistic, imperial myth.
Pretending, as we are now, that we have been democratically seated to deliberate on and develop policy, we have to confront in every potential policy its likely effects, the likely responses it will draw, and a whole host of unintended consequences.
At a national level, this process is even more fraught, even if every single elected official is on board for the common good (f’real), because the greater the scope of any policy or practice, the more unforeseen exceptions that disrupt the reason for the rule (lack of granularity), the more layers of management and administration (which tend to become the tail that wags the dog), and the more unintended (and potentially problematic) consequences, from whence come unintended responses, and so forth.
I’ll talk about the Constitution in a bit, because that’s where this post is headed, but for the time being, just consider all the unintended consequences of our current Constitution, because every consistent failure of compassionate humanity in the history of the US is failure unfolding beneath the overarching legal edifice of the US Constitution.
The potential for unintended consequences at these grand scales demands that we observe some version of the precautionary principle: “an expression of a need by decision-makers to anticipate harm before it occurs. Within this element lies an implicit reversal of the onus of proof: under the precautionary principle it is the responsibility of an activity-proponent to establish that the proposed activity will not (or is very unlikely to) result in significant harm.”
When we talk about emergency transformation, then, and contextualize that in a self-organized system that is riding its mass and inertia into the abyss, then any restructuring in one aspect will have to anticipate how that restructuring will interact with every other aspect. What happens when you decide to abandon one transportation grid and begin development of an alternative? How do we most effectively organize a public work force that attends to the most critical needs in redesign of the built environment and rehabilitation of biomes? What happens to Los Angeles as the water dries up? How do you redesign a food system?
This stuff doesn’t happen using existing models through simple wealth redistribution. Unless you want an epic clusterfuck.
Key among those legal challenges that will accompany redesign challenges — let’s be clear, leaving capitalism will require dramatic redesign of pretty much everything — will be the definition of property. And property — along with every other legal question — takes us to the Constitution. Which in turn brings us to the main point: We’ll need a new Constitution. The old one won’t work, because the Divine Judge at the center of American Law is a seventeenth century white male bourgeois notion of property.
Backing up a little here, big stuff that will have to change to have a prayer of mitigating the misery of billions for a century and salvaging enough of the biosphere to eventually recalibrate its climate systems . . . includes watershed restoration and management, the development of regional and local sustainable food systems, topsoil replenishment, reforestation, nationalization of all critical enterprises as public utilities (beginning with banks), the transformation of the Department of Defense into a Department of National Service overseeing a national public works jobs program (aimed at biospheric remediation), free public health care, free public reskilling training, and a power-down strategy that moves toward dramatic energy conservation as well as conservation-as-principle (old fashioned supply economy . . . thrift) being incorporated into the new constitutional ethos. (For reasons outlined in Mammon’s Ecology, I think we also need a multicentric money economy, but I’ll point readers to that little book for the details.)
Any reader who’s stayed with this so far is already thinking about other things that have to change so the people you see every day around you can go through what you might imagine without ever being terrified or further immiserated in the process. When you redesign a transportation grid, without its raison d’etre being business, what does it look like? If you had fifty really smart people on many of these issues and how they relate to one another, within a few days you might begin to be able to map out what a new constitution might require to escape the errors of the past and minimize the new errors in the future.
That’s where you might need some lawyers whose job it is to listen to the fifty smart people and begin to design a legal constitutional edifice that most closely approximates the combined wisdom of your fifty smart people and some smart lawyers. Put together fifty more of these groups of fifty smart people and some smart lawyers, and you have the beginnings of a New Constituent Assembly. By smart people, I don’t mean academics and experts. I mean practitioners of many kinds. Small farmers, designers, doctors, builders, craftspeople, parents, students, people who have practical insight about how things are done where they live and about how people might best begin to change the way things are done. Local, local, local, local.
I know what I’d want to see, based on one conviction — if you disagree with this conviction, then you can throw out everything else I say.
Conviction: For socialism to succeed, it must be the basis upon which several dramatic changes are made in policy and practice to be as proactive as possible in dealing with the emerging reality of a simultaneous climate, financial, and humanitarian crisis.
For reasons governed by unshakable physical laws, the regime of global capitalism cannot be sustained, and for those same reasons capitalist practices that rely on high flows of energy and materials across long distances cannot be sustained. Redistribution does not solve this problem, when people are utterly dependent on those flows. Practical economies quite simply must be re-localized as far as is possible in any given period.
If you want to summarize the practical problem, think of production and consumption. No matter what kind. Re-localization is the process of systematically moving every form of production as spatially close together as possible to those who consume it. Move production and consumption closer together in space.
We need this restated by a bright legal mind into a constitutional principle that guides all other decisions, not as a Kantian imperative (can we get this guy out of the law, please), but as a telos that assumes there are (there are, demonstrably) a host of social, economic, cultural, and ecological benefits that accrue from re-localization alone.
Relocalizing is not The Silver Bullet to slay the political monster; but it makes a pretty handy design compass for that re-organization of self-organization.
Other thoughts on a New Constitution developed by a New Constituent Assembly (would that we had a water group, a food sovereignty group, an energy group, a home economy group, etc etc etc etc…..).
Something else suggested in Mammon’s Ecology comes to mind — watersheds. Constitutions draw lines, but those lines once drawn — think US states, counties, municipalities — create their own reality. For ecologic concerns to be integrated into a new Constitution, it seems somehow essential that those older lines be allowed to languish and new lines be drawn for local governance along the boundaries of watersheds. In my state, iirc, we have 83 counties, and 63 major watersheds. Somehow, over time, through a series of policies, portions of responsibility and jurisdiction between the old and the new would have to be transferred, but the end result would be an actual integrated geographic feature that has the most direct impact on its residents. All politics comes down to water in the end. There’s a reason for that. Water is life.
Inviting others to think about it, a bluesky exercise.
What are the problems we might see eight years from now? What would we want to see if the left won? There’s a better chance they will succeed after they win if there’s already some thought put into it.