In my view the significant aspects she fleshes out in this great piece are related to sustainability and to our relationship to time, partially linking them to economy
Though it contradicts many of our modern shibboleths, the crusade for a more democratic future obliges us to look to the past. From those democratic innovators Jefferson and Paine we inherited an obsession with novelty, in daily life and in activism. This was groundbreaking in the 18th century, but in the 21st it has become orthodoxy. Our relentless presentism, encouraged by the 24/7 news cycle and social media, enjoins us to immerse ourselves in an eternal now, a state of amnesiac contemporaneity. It severs us from the past and the future—which serves the powerful just fine: the past contains many ideas they would rather see buried than revived, and reconfiguring our way of life to account for the future would entail a massive disruption of business as usual.
Because democratic socialism has never been tried in the United States, it’s no wonder that a political program centered on fulfilling a variation on Pericles’s ancient definition of democracy, on providing for the many, not the few, strikes young people as refreshingly novel. The next step, however, is expanding “the many” to somehow acknowledge and account for future generations, adding a new temporal dimension to our concept of social inclusion. If the combined descendants of the earth’s human and nonhuman creatures, in all their diversity, are to have a chance of a decent life, those of us who live here and now must create a society that is not just equitable but sustainable.
Sustainability has become fashionable in recent years, but the concept is worth deeper contemplation. In the dictionary definition, “sustain” means “to continue or be prolonged for an extended period”; its etymological roots in the Latin sustinere connote support, holding strong, something lifted “up from below.” Thus a sustainable democratic society involves reorienting our relationship to time, allowing for drawn-out and deliberate public participation, but this can be achieved only by transforming society’s underlying economic relations, as well.
Capitalism thrives on speed, novelty, consumption, obsolescence, and, above all, growth. True sustainability, then, is anathema to capitalism, which rests on the following precept: there must be more value at the end of the day than there was at the beginning. Contraction is a crisis for capital—indeed, without expansion there is no capital, for there is no profit. At bottom, the twin perils of inherited wealth and mass indebtedness, as well as the threat of ecological apocalypse, flow from an economic system predicated on greed and boundless accumulation.
“Debts are subject to the laws of mathematics rather than physics,” the radiochemist Frederick Soddy observed in 1926. “Unlike [material] wealth which is subject to the laws of thermodynamics, debts do not rot with old age…. On the contrary [debts] grow at so much per cent per annum…which leads to infinity…a mathematical and not a physical quantity. Oblivious to the laws of physics, capitalism’s commitment to compound expansion inevitably leads to environmental catastrophe, compelling the extraction of natural resources to meet escalating targets, forcing us to behave, in aggregate, like Lewis Mumford’s “drunken heirs,” ransacking our common inheritance, despite the fact an overwhelming majority of individuals believe that environmental protection is more important than economic growth.
As economist Ann Pettifor has noted, the pressure to increase income demands that both land and labor be exploited ever more intensely. The degradation of soil, sea, and atmosphere comes from the same source as the day-to-day deprivations of our working lives, propelling the hand-to-mouth treadmill on which many find themselves stuck. Millions of people toil nights and weekends, juggling multiple jobs, with the rewards flowing to the already rich. (Since 1973 productivity rose 77 percent in the United States while wages stagnated, the rising tide lifting only the most luxurious yachts; since the same year, the average American works an additional five forty-hour workweeks annually.)
That the affluent few are able to live idly off of unearned dividends and interest while most find themselves enduring extended shifts for a reduced pay-check makes this much clear: it is not just wealth but leisure that must be fairly apportioned if a sustainable democracy is to be achieved.
With climate calamity on the near horizon, liberal democracies are in a bind. The dominant economic system constrains our relationship to the future, sacrificing humanity’s well-being and the planet’s resources on the altar of endless growth while enriching and empowering the global 1 percent. Meanwhile, in America, the Constitution exacerbates this dynamic, preserving and even intensifying a system of minority rule and lashing the country’s citizens to an aristocratic past.