Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us

This is the title of a talk written by John Dewey given at the celebration of his 80th birthday held in New York on October 20, 1939. The context of course was America climbing out of the Great Depression and on the edge of entering a war unraveling in Europe.

As I am coming to the end of the recent 500pp. intellectual biography of Dewey, The Education of John Dewey by Jay Martin,  I was stirred by the mention and purported focus of this speech, which was delivered by a friend. Enough so that I tracked it down on the internet this morning. You could read the four page speech here and I highly recommend it.

Remember Dewey has been considered one of America's greatest philosophers. His long-time emphasis  on democracy and education are clearly in full view in this piece. He was not an armchair philosopher, although he could hold his own with any of his contemporaries. He was involved with the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union, American Association of University professors, and the National Association for the advancement of Colored People.

Born just before the Civil War in 1859, he was to live and be active until his death in 1952, almost a century. His long view provides a rare and deep look at what democracy was and could be. In the spirit of this blog that attempts to provide a window into "possibilities", Dewey believed in the possibility of a deeper democracy and the evolution of human society through education.

A few excerpts from this talk may perhaps whet your appetite to read the full piece. What is clear to this reader, is that his words from three-quarters of a century ago are at least as timely and as necessary to be considered and reflected on today as they were then.

At the present time [1939] the frontier is moral not physical. The period of free lands that seemed boundless in extent has vanished. Unused resources are now human rather than material. They are found in the waste of grown men and women who are without the chance to work, and in the young men and young women who find doors closed where there was once opportunity. The crisis that one hundred and fifty years ago called out social and political inventiveness is with us in a form which puts a heavier demand on human creativeness.

At all events this is what I mean when I say that we now have to re-create by deliberate and determined endeavor the kind of democracy which in its origin one hundred and fifty years ago was largely the product of a fortunate combination of men and circumstances. We have lived for a long time upon the heritage that came to us from the happy conjunction of men and events in an earlier day. The present state of the world is more than a reminder that we have now to put forth every energy of our own to prove worthy of our heritage. It is a challenge to do for the critical and complex conditions of today what the men of an earlier day did for simpler conditions. 

If I emphasize that the task can be accomplished only by inventive effort and creative activity, it is in part because the depth of the present crisis is due in considerable part to the fact that for a long period we acted as if our democracy were something that perpetuated itself automatically; as if our ancestors had succeeded in setting up a machine that solved the problem of perpetual motion in politics. We acted as if democracy were something that took place mainly at Washington and Albany - or some other state capital - under the impetus of what happened when men and women went to the polls once a year or so-which is a some-what extreme way of saying that we have had the habit of thinking of democracy as a king of political mechanism that will work as long as citizens were reasonably faithful in performing political duties...

...Democracy as a personal, an individual, way of life involves nothing fundamentally new. But when applied it puts a new practical meaning in old ideas. Put into effect it signifies that powerful present enemies of democracy can be successfully met only by the creation of personal attitudes in individual human beings; that we must get over our tendency to think that its defense can be found in any external means whatever, whether military or civil, if they are separated from individual attitudes so deep-seated as to constitute personal character.

 ...I am inclined to believe that the heart and final guarantee of democracy is in free gatherings of neighbors on the street corner to discuss back and forth what is read in uncensored news of the day, and in gatherings of friends in the living rooms of houses and apartments to converse freely with one another. Intolerance, abuse, calling of names because of differences of opinion about religion or politics or business, as well as because of differences of race, color, wealth or degree of culture are treason to the democratic way of life.

First published in John Dewey and the Promise of America,
Progressive Education Booklet No. 14 (Columbus,
Ohio: American Education Press, 1939), from an address read by Horace M. Kallen at the dinner in honor of Dewey in New York City on 20 October 1939; reprinted in The Later Works,Vol. 14. 
Found at: http://www.beloit.edu/~pbk/dewey.html 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Change is Not Only Possible, It's Inevitable

Extending the idea of what's possible -

 a rebuttal to Margaret Thatcher's  "There is no alternative".

As the tag line on this blog of nearly two and a half years and 170 posts later maintains, There Are Alternatives to the dominant paradigm. Our political, economic, education, and social systems are human designed and can be altered by us. History gives us plenty of evidence to back that up. Sometimes, we're forced out of necessity to change, sometimes it's by choice. Often it's a combination of some of both.

This blog has tried to share "possibilities". I am not of the belief that income inequality has to be at the extreme level it has risen to. I am not of the belief that we can't slow our destruction of  the ecological systems that provide us life. I am not of the belief that we have to have war and killing forever. If the abolitionists, suffragists, environmentalists, civil right and gay and lesbian activists had bought into Maggie Thatcher's dictum we'd be living in a different and worse world.

Having played in the sandbox of sustainability for two decades I've come to realize that the dominant paradigm and Bill Clinton have it all backwards - It's not the economy stupid. Rather the economy is the wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment and is further a subset of society, not the other way around. Yet our dominant paradigm focuses on the economy (through the narrowest monetary lens) as if everything else will just fall in line if we fix the economy via free-market nostrums. How many times today might you heard or read of the stock market's inching up or down? 

From Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles and Practices. (Gale/Cengage, 2013)
Two recent releases help us see "possibilities" of a different way to think of and to restructure the economy, understanding that it is a human designed system embedded in larger social and environmental systems.The New Economics Foundation, a UK think tank just released a visionary possibility based upon a different paradigm, but grounded in a deep understanding of economics.

Image result for new economics foundation 

Towards a New Social Settlement was just released last month. While focusing most closely with the UK the authors think the principles and direction can be applied to any community, state or nation.  This 64 page report lays out the following possibilities (taken from summary).

The new social settlement has three goals: social justice, environmental sustainability, and a more equal distribution of power. All three are intertwined and must be pursued together. They tackle severe contemporary problems: widening social inequalities, accelerating threats to the natural environment, and accumulations of power by wealthy elites.

These goals lead to a set of objectives, which highlight crucial issues too often ignored in mainstream debate. Like the goals, they too are linked together and can be mutually reinforcing:

  • Plan for prosperity without depending on economic growth.
  • Shift investment and action upstream to prevent harm instead of just coping with the consequences.
  • Value and strengthen the core economy of unpaid work, everyday wisdom and social connections on which all our lives depend.
  • Foster solidarity, understanding just how much we depend on each other to achieve our goals.  

We challenge the dominant view that the key to progress is to deregulate markets, promote choice and competition, and boost consumption. We offer a different set of ideas that promotes well being for all within the limits of the natural environment, as well more inclusive and collaborative ways of making decisions and working together. We aim to meet today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The proposals are focused around four key areas:
  • Rebalance work and time 
  • Release human resources 
  • Strengthen social security 
  • Plan for a sustainable future
There is obviously a lot more meat to the bones in the summary and in the full report. The wholeness of the report is its greatest strength.

Paralleling this, almost as if it had read the report, is the new People's Budget, released this week by the 70 member Progressive Caucus of the U.S. Congress. You likely will not hear about the proposals in this budget. Much more media time and space will be given to President Obama's budget or the House Republican's budget. While there is much I admire and much that aligns well with the report from New Economics Foundation report noted above, it  has a long way to go to get seriously considered without a lot of pressure from citizens on their elected leaders.

For a review of this budget check out the Center for Effective Government brief summary and analysis. They promise to do a side-by side comparison of the various budget proposals in the coming weeks.

You can see the National Priorities Project analysis of the various budget proposals here.

You can see the Economic Policy Institute's analysis of the budget here.

To read Senator Bernie Sanders critique of the House Republican Budget see here

There are possibilities, but one has to nourish them if you expect them to survive and thrive.

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