Speth and Courrier, eds., The New Systems Reader: Alternatives to a Failed Economy, Routledge, 2021, pbk, 0 367 313 383, 510 pp, £32.99
For those interested in what an alternative economic system might look like this new collection of essays provides plenty of helpful material. The collection was put together under the auspices of the US-based Democracy Collaborative think-tank, which has recently pioneered thinking and action on community wealth-building.
The collection contains a total of 29 short essays on specific proposals and themes. The emphasis is on how to build a new economy – the Next System as Democracy Collaborative call it – that responds to the challenge of climate change while also addressing structural economic inequalities at the domestic and global levels. Contributions include essays on fostering more co-operative and public ownership forms and on developing the commons.
The essays include perspectives from the Global South, such as a very interesting article by Zitto Kabwe, leader of Tanzania’s opposition party Alliance for Change and Transparency, on the contemporary relevance of the values of African socialism. Overall, and with one caveat, as an introduction to contemporary efforts to imagine a new economic system this book is hard to beat.
The caveat, though, is important. This is that across the book’s multiple essays and over 400 pages of text there is hardly any discussion of universal basic income. Lane Kenworthy’s essay on social democracy discusses the idea in one paragraph, apparently rejecting basic income – at least if set at a level sufficient to meet average needs – as likely to reduce employment (page 9). Marvin T. Brown argues that ‘[i]n time, we will need to move toward something like a basic income for all’ (page 65) in the context of a transition to an environmentally sustainable economy. Gar Alperowitz (a co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative) also mentions a basic income as one means of supporting ‘substantive (positive) liberty’ (page 240).
These mentions are fine in the context of the individual essays, where the author’s main focus is elsewhere. However, for the book as a whole, they do not amount to a serious consideration of basic income, despite the status it has a major idea in contemporary thinking about a possible new economic system able to respond to challenges of climate justice and structural inequality.
What the collection needs is a couple of short essays that dig into the basic income proposal in a more developed, exploratory way. The reader needs to know more about the concrete possibilities and the arguments both for and against a basic income. Perhaps if there is a second edition of the collection, the editors might address this omission?
Stuart White is Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations, Oxford University, and Fellow in Politics at Jesus College, Oxford.