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Issue No. 22 (March 2001) -- Mark Satin, Editor
Four books, four visions; or,
A generation ago, most of us shared certain common visions of a better world. On the left, the Alpha Visionary was Herbert Marcuse (as watered down by Charles Reich or whomever); on the right, William F. Buckley, Jr.
And while most of those books are forgettable (or worse), four jump out at you -- Tom Berry’s The Great Work, Joe Coates’s 2025, Unger and West’s The Future of American Progressivism, and Michael Lind’s The Next American Nation.
Each is exceptionally bold. Each is exceptionally detailed.
And each expresses the thinking of one of the four major political forces in this country -- radical environmentalist, corporate, social democratic, and new nationalist, respectively (see RAM #6, p. 1).
Each of the books is saying, in effect, “Vote for me and my long-term vision!”
There’s another way of approaching them, though.
Put them all together and you get a pretty good sense of what the emerging new force in American politics -- the “radical middle” or “creative center” -- will want to draw upon, reconcile, synthesize. . . .
Ecology in command
Thomas Berry’s The Great Work : Our Way into the Future (Bell Tower/Random House, 241 pp., 1999) is the “political” book the great 85-year-old advocate of Earth-centered spirituality had been promising ever since his earlier book, The Dream of the Earth (1988), became required reading among radical environmentalists the world over.
Yes, Berry says, science, technology and commerce have brought the planet into a new age. But we tend to see only the bright side of progress. In reality, our “commercial-industrial obsessions have disturbed the biosystems [to] a depth never known,” and the Great Work -- our Great Work -- is to “carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.”
Present to the planet: That’s the key phrase. The whole book is a meditation on what it might mean for each of us to be fully present -- to each other, to future generations, to plants and animals and all natural phenomena. . . .
Government economic leaders -- the Alan Greenspans of the future -- would make preservation of the “integrity” of the Earth community the “first purpose” of any economic program.
Legal scholars would create a jurisprudence dedicated to the proposition that “every component of the Earth community,” plants, animals, trees, air, whatever, should have “basic rights.”
Universities would redesign the humanities, which exaggerate the “place and role of the human in the structure and functioning of the universe.”
Global trade would be out, trade among cities and regions would be in. And the big corporations would be tamed (perhaps by re-chartering them), since “[m]ass production and distribution is more expensive and less productive” than economists reveal.
Above all, we’d be a learning society. We’d continue to learn from science. But we’d also learn from indigenous peoples, from religious traditions, and from a new personal intimacy with the natural world.
Technology in command
Imagine the world a generation from now as a bunch of bright, energetic corporate executives might care to imagine it. That’s the world you get in Joseph Coates et al.’s futurist opus, 2025 (Oakhill Press, 516 pp., 1998, partially online at www.coatesandjarratt.com).
It is literally the world some executives imagine -- the book grew out of a project at Coates’s think tank sponsored by folks from AT&T, Chevron, Dow, DuPont, Motorola, the National Security Agency, and other organizations Thomas Berry doesn’t cotton to.
But their world is just as appealing, in its way, as Berry’s world.
It’s a world shaped by science and driven by four “enabling technologies” -- information technology, genetics, materials technology, and energy technology.
By 2025, computers will be everywhere, constantly monitoring physical systems and human performance. Some of us will keep “knowbots,” smart robots that can help us change our sheets and prepare our meals.
A lot of us will hang out in “work-study-entertainment centers,” glorified living rooms where “the adults in the family do a portion of their work, the children reach out to the resources of the world, and the family seeks entertainment.”
The government will be constantly gauging our opinions online, and of course we’ll be voting online.
Genetic engineering will eliminate or drastically reduce the incidence of many dread diseases. (Health care costs will plummet as a result.) Materials engineering will create new materials molecule by molecule.
Key to Coates’s vision is a “worldwide orientation” to -- you’ll never guess -- environmentalism. Energy efficiency will be a virtual holy grail by 2025, and the Japanese will make a fortune marketing conservation technologies worldwide.
Nuclear power and renewables will both be considered the energy sources of choice, thanks to technological advances making the former safer and the latter cheaper.
In the end, it will be technology -- not political activism -- that inspires global management. The inexorable quest for efficiency will turn us all into committed Planetary Citizens.
Politics in command
The vision of Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Cornel West is not nearly as unctuous and politically correct as you might suspect, given their book’s title (The Future of American Progressivism, Beacon Press, 93 pp., 1998) and their reps as left-wing “minority” faculty at the great Ha-vahd University.
In fact, only a couple of pages into the book you’ll realize that their principal goal is to drag the old New Left and the new “identity left,” kicking and screaming, into the world of entrepreneurship, personal responsibility, and scientific and technological progress.
It might not be real smart, say Unger and West, for Americans to worship the “power of the individual to better his or her life.” But let’s be real, they say: The left is toast if it continues to slur the “American religion of possibility.”
So let’s not work for an AFL-CIO-inspired future that gives people “something like tenure in their present jobs”; instead let’s make it easy, affordable and fun for folks to acquire new skills and knowledge.
And instead of granting workers, consumers, and local communities veto power over corporations (as Nader would), let’s “decentralize and democratize access to productive resources and opportunities” for all.
The progressive income tax looks great on paper, but in real life it’s a mess. Replacing it with a consumption tax would “increase revenues while easing the burden of taxation upon savings and investment.”
Instead of basking in unearned self-esteem, all high school students should be expected to master a tough set of conceptual, practical, and learning skills.
In short: Progressives should lead the march away from the old economy, and thereby help define the emerging new economy of “flattened hierarchies and permanent innovation.”
Culture in command
When you hear the phrase “new American nationalist,” you probably think of Pat Buchanan. But according to Michael Lind in The Next American Nation (Free Press, 436 pp., 1995), there are two kinds of nationalists -- “nativists” like Pitchfork Pat, and “liberal nationalists” like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Lind is a liberal nationalist (and a prominent mainstream journalist), and The Next American Nation is a dangerous book. Like the McCain candidacy, it’s impossible not to be emotionally affected by it even when you know better.
There’s a single American people, says Lind. What holds us together is language and culture: “Centuries of white supremacy have not prevented the formation of a transracial American culture blending the elements of the cultures of many European, African, American Indian, Latin American, and Asian peoples with innovations unique to North America. . . .”
How to protect our special culture against the assults of the (Balkanizing) multiculturalists and (snooty) universalists? Lind proposes the following:
Lind ends by calling for a “generation-long, bloodless . . . Revolution” to establish the New Nationalism.
Synthesis in command?
Can the four powerful, passionate visions above (encompassing all the positive currents of our time) be reconciled? Can a “radical centrist” position be staked out among them?
Some movement toward that end is already happening.
Jennifer Cobb’s book Cybergrace; The Search for God in the Digital World (1998) breaks down some of the distance between Berry and Coates by concluding that the distinction between nature and machines is not (as Berry has it) critical. On the contrary, she finds the distinction “arbitrary,” and says that computation is simply “a new substrate in which divine creativity can act.”
Meanwhile, books like Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies (1998) -- pro-high tech, pro-economic growth, and pro-nationalist -- are collapsing some of the barriers among Coates, Unger/West, and Lind.
I also draw hope from the visionaries themselves.
Coates, the corporations’ man, works out of an unpretentious building in a small but cheerful think tank with no apparent dress code and few walls.
Unger and West, the left-wing radicals, inhabit the Ivy League.
Lind, the Americanist, chose to attend our most Oxbridge-like graduate school (Yale) and made his mark at our two most Brit-like magazines (the New Republic and the New York Review of Books).
And Berry, the ecological thinker, recently told me he enjoyed working on his book at a local McDonald’s.
In real life, in other words, the best visionaries can’t be completely contained by their visions; personally and programmatically, they’re forever stumbling toward each other. It’s only a matter of time before a 21st century Marcuse comes along to illuminate their connections to each other, and to our deepest hopes for a better world.
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