On April 19, I delivered a short opening keynote talk at the EDGE Funders Alliance conference in Berkeley, California, on the challenges facing progressive philanthropy in fostering system change. My remarks were based on a longer essay that I wrote for EDGE Funders, "A Just Transition and Progressive Philanthropy," which is re-published below.
The weak reforms enacted after the 2008 financial crisis….the ineffectuality of climate change negotiations over the course of twenty-one years….the social polarization and stark wealth and income inequality of our time. Each represents a deep structural problem that the neoliberal market/state seeks to ignore or only minimally address. As more Americans come to see that the state is often complicit in these problems, and only a reluctant, ineffectual advocate for change, there is a growing realization that seeking change within the system of electoral politics, Washington policy and the “free market” can only yield only piecemeal results, if that. There is a growing belief that “the system is rigged.” People have come to understand that “free trade” treaties, extractivist development, austerity politics and the global finance system chiefly serve an economic elite, not the general good. As cultural critic Douglas Rushkoff has put it, “I’ve given up on fixingthe economy. The economy is not broken. It’s simply unjust.”
Struggle for change within conventional democratic arenas can often be futile, not just because democratic processes are corrupted by money and commercial news media imperatives, but because state bureaucracies and even competitive markets are structurally incapable of addressing many problems. The disappointing Paris climate change agreement (a modest commitment to carbon reductions after a generation of negotiations) suggests the limits of what The System can deliver. As distrust in the state grows, a very pertinent question is where political sovereignty and legitimacy will migrate in the future. Our ineffectual, unresponsive polity may itself be the problem, at least under neoliberal control.
The failures of The System come at the very time that promising new modes of production, governance and social practice are exploding. Twenty years after the World Wide Web went public, it has become clear that decentralized, self-organized initiatives on open networks can often out-perform both the market and state – a reality that threatens some core premises of capitalism. The people developing a new parallel economy – sometimes by choice, sometimes by necessity, as in Greece and Spain – are neither politicians, CEOs or credentialed experts. They are ordinary people acting as householders, makers, hackers, permaculturists, citizen-scientists, cooperativists, community foresters, subsistence collectives, social mutualists and commoners: a vast grassroots cohort whose generative activities are not really conveyed by the term “citizen” or “consumer.”
Through network-based cooperation and localized grassroots projects, millions of people around the world are managing all sorts of bottom-up, self-provisioning systems that function independently of conventional markets and state programs (or sometimes in creative hybrids). They are developing new visions of “development” and “progress,” as seen in the buen vivir ethic in Latin America, relocalization movements in the US and Europe, and the FabLabs and makerspaces that are reinventing production for use.