On the „Good Life for All“

In these times of transition, defined by insecurity, anxiety and pessimism, the Good Life for All offers a vision of a world, in which society can be organized along the principles of freedom, solidarity and democracy. It is a utopia, albeit one that would be readily implementable with our current state of technological and civilisatory development. The reflection on this utopia is food for thought and a spring of hope. Scientific evidence suggests we cannot go on in the way we have so far. This is also an opportunity. Many things in the way we organize our societies and our lives are worth preserving. Nevertheless, many things can and need to be organized differently. This offers new opportunities for flourishing with a low level of resource consumption that does not adversely affect others.

The Good Life for All is no naïve wish list to Santa Claus, but a specific utopian concept rooted in historical and current developments. It is a vision of a civilization whereby the Good Life is not limited to the privileged few. Since antiquity the tragedy of our western civilization has consisted in the limitation of progress to a few. The utopia of a society of the free and equal, put forth for the first time in the French Revolution, is the as of yet unredeemed promise of Europe.

The idea of equal civil rights first emerged in Austria after the First World War, supported by the newly acquired right to vote. A variety of social and cultural innovations in education, public welfare and housing, as well as the establishment of new social and ecological infrastructures opened up opportunities to all – from green public spaces in social housing to public swimming pools and adult education centres, the Volkshochschulen. The welfare state that emerged after the Second World War managed to eliminate hunger and hardship for a few decades, enabling a Good Life for All, albeit only in a rudimentary and locally limited way, with persisting inequality of opportunity between the sexes and based on the exploitation of resources from the Global South. The magnitude of this civilisatory achievement only becomes visible now, with hunger, social insecurity and poverty seeping back into Europe.

While the financial crisis of 2008 might have been a catalyst for these developments, the root causes for accelerating inequality, exploitation and erosion of livelihoods lie deeper – in a mentality of elitism that is as of yet unconquered. Over the course of human history, societies were organized along social classes with a fixed social hierarchy. They enabled culturally defined social groups – usually the powerful – to lead a good life. Already in antiquity, reflections on the Good Life were framed by a reality of slavery, patriarchal and colonial structures. Until today, equality of women and people from former colonies has only partially been achieved – equality of opportunity remains elusive. The call for a Good Life for All is thus a revolutionary concept – a spring of hope for many, yet also a threat to some, in these times of transition.

The upcoming processes of transition seem threatening only if we hold on to the illusion that a Good Life can only be achieved based on our current western consumerist life-style with its excessive footprint. However, if we understand a Good Life to encompass wealth of time, a flourishing local economy, good food, and a reduction of forced mobility, the illusion of a life-style based on the idea that all needs can be satisfied by money alone becomes obvious. Red Vienna which transformed rightless workers into equal members of the city offers important lessons for the sustainable life-styles required in the 21st century. In the 1920s, consumerism - that culturally warped social democracy after the Second World War - remained curtailed by liberal economic policies and harsh austerity programmes of the Christian social party. The gold standard resulted in a global economic order comparable to the neoliberal globalization we see today. Throughout the interwar era, it was not monetary wealth but public infrastructures and new urban institutions, such as democratic public schools and cultural associations, which promoted the transformation of hitherto marginalised blue-collar workers into confident citizens. Standard of living was not a function of growing wages but of lower cost of life, guaranteed by public services and affordable social housing.

Red Vienna illustrates the importance to appropriate local institutions and infrastructures. The city thus has a key role in the achievement of the prerequisites for a Good Life for All. Consequently, discussions around the socio-ecological development of municipalities and regions are indispensable. The Good Life for All is not a naïve vision in denial of conflict potentials. Infrastructures and innovations determine the possibilities of people to organise their lives: for instance, by providing infrastructures that forces people into owning cars to maintain mobility or that enables decentralised vivid neighbourhoods with short distances to organise the daily life. Different interests and evaluations exist in this regard. Hence cycle paths may meet resistance, but also further the establishment of new public spaces and local markets that inspire creativity.

The history of Red Vienna also shows the limits of a bottom-up transformation. Its model of social participation was interrupted by a global economic crisis, Austro-Faschism, and National Socialism. Only the post-war order without global financial markets enabled the de-colonization and national self-determination of the Global South and welfare capitalism based on extensive national freedom of action and democracy in the Global North. The following few decades were marked by a variety of economic institutions, including markets and social partnership as well as private, municipal, cooperative and state-owned firms. These conditions prevented banking crises and enabled social and economic progress, albeit accompanied by excessive exploitation of natural resources. Neo-liberal globalization, whose beginning was marked by the end of the Bretton-Woods system in 1973 and the following re-emergence of global financial markets, eroded national freedom of action and the welfare state. Just like in the interwar period, the dominance of global financial markets and corporations also adversely affected the rule of law and democratic institutions. Again, we see the rise of reactionary movements that deny scientific evidence on climate change and oppose social minimum standards as well as human rights.

The utopia of a Good Life for All is a counter-point to the still prevalent liberal illusion of cosmopolitanism, global democracy and global social civil rights under conditions of unregulated global markets. The central difference between these two visions consists in their alternative explanations of the linkage between neo-liberal globalization and the re-emergence of reactionary and nationalist movements. The liberal illusion is based on the assumption that capitalism is a precondition for democracy – an assumption that becomes less plausible every day. In contrast, an interpretation inspired by Karl Polanyi posits that nationalist movements are the reactionary response to the failure of neo-liberal globalization, while the Good Life for All provides an emancipatory response.

The vision of a Good Life for All is in equal parts conservative and progressive. A community of free and equal citizens requires a constitutional basis. International law and democracy are to be defended as achievements of constitutional, republican statehood. Only the right to dissent enables unity in diversity. The Good Life for All can also be considered conservative in its views on the conservation of natural resources and the intrinsic value of nature. Concurrently, the quest for a Good Life for All is progressive, even revolutionary and requires a level of social progress that is as of yet unattained: to live a good life without doing harm to others. This is a social and ecological impossibility in capitalist consumer societies. Capitalist post-growth societies are only imaginable as dystopian visions of the future. Moderation and capitalism are irreconcilable with each other. This requires a new type of cosmopolitan citizenship and local rootedness. It requires a form of municipal and regional governance that empowers citizens and achieves social participation without discrimination based on origin, gender and social class.

The rise of Trump and Putin has made it clear: the ecological and emancipatory questions of our time will not be at the centre of global policy making in the coming years. Therefore, a radical change of perspective that does not abandon the utopia of a Good Life for All but shifts political focus is necessary: global problems will not be primarily tackled by global politics in the coming years. Solutions for climate change, poverty and hunger must therefore be found in the various local, regional and national practices at our disposal. However, such experimentation with alternative visions of local governance requires political freedom of action at the municipal, regional and national level. This will not be achieved without a partial roll-back of global regulatory frameworks rooted in decades of neo-liberal globalization. In the short term, there is a need for a coordinated economic de-globalization of global financial markets, bringing an end to tax havens and the “too big to fail” principle inherent to global market-dominating corporations.