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By Howard Richards
Life’s (humanity’s and the earth’s) bottleneck problems can be solved, I dare to suggest, by applying just two general principles. The two can be regarded as principles of unbounded organization. Unbounded organization is the name of a conversation, an academy and a movement (one of many, but not one that duplicates what the others do) devoted to making the impossible possible. Here I contribute to its conversation the proposal that implementing just two principles will make the impossible possible; namely, a pro-social attitude plus doing what works; or alternatively, a pro-social attitude plus structural understanding.
Of course, if thus solving the world’s main problems with just two principles makes sense at all, then the two principles could be stated and practiced in many languages, conceived in many theoretical frameworks, etc. A third principle might be: There is no privileged language. Whatever can be said can be said in many ways. Further, if it is true and useful to boil down ethics to just two principles, it must also be true that the two ramify into innumerable practical norms, of which many or most are transient and local. And it does not stop being true –as H.L. Mencken said—that for every complicated problem there is a simple answer and it is wrong.
One of the thousands of ways to state the first of the two principles is Alberto Hurtado’s way: having a pro-social (and pro-earth) attitude. (The days are past when a principle must be a sentence in the declarative or imperative mood. Nowadays a principle can be an attitude.) Unpacking this principle, a little: Any problem, including the bottleneck problems, are likely to be solved if people and organizations align across sectors for the common good. (This is Gavin Andersson’s original definition of unbounded organization; see www.unboundedorganization.org) They will align for the sake of life (or as Erik Erikson puts it, for the sake of vitality) if all concerned really want to solve the problems. If everybody on earth really, sincerely, with all their hearts and souls, with all their minds, with their lives their fortunes and their sacred honours, wanted to reverse climate change, then we would (I claim) be half way (but only half way) to reversing climate change. Unpacking a little more: having a pro-social attitude is (as Hurtado said) part of what it means to be well-educated. I would add (in company with many others): it is part of what it means to be mentally healthy. A person with an anti-social attitude, or an indifferent person who does not care, is abnormal, i.e. sick. (Here the word abnormal is used in a standard medical way that has been carefully elaborated by Georges Canguilhem.)
Before going on to state the second principle –needed to get the rest of the way there– let me specify that it is impossible fully to apply the first principle and then go on to implement the second. When being a good person leads to questioning the powers that be, social systems resist ethical enlightenment. Upton Sinclair expressed one facet of its resistance when he wrote: ‘Nothing prevents a man from understanding more than his salary depending on not understanding.’ Although the educational pessimism of Bourdieu and Passeron is not (in my view) entirely right, it is not entirely wrong. Dysfunctional systems reproduce themselves with dysfunctional educations. They resist the changes at the levels of psychology, therapy, spirituality, religion, science, philosophy and education that –if they were implemented– would lead toward the adaptive social structures that –if they could be brought into existence— would solve the bottleneck problems. Progress has to be stepwise. Pro-social education is both cause and effect of social changes that move in the direction of taking homo sapiens off the endangered species list.
The other principle is do what works. Adding the second principle to the first makes my philosophy true by definition. If we do what works, the problems are solved. If the problems are not solved, then whatever we did, we did not do what works. (I claim that the truth of this general idea survives adding the qualifications that would be needed to state it precisely.) My philosophy can still be called trivial, or called an abstraction that is useless in the real world, but it cannot be called false.
Let me give an example to show that (like the definition that proves that an atom with four protons is carbon) do what works is a true-by-definition abstraction useful in the real world and is not trivial. Consider a central point Milton Friedman made in his 1976 Nobel Lecture. The populist measures taken by left-leaning governments to achieve full employment and build a welfare state did not work. Echoing his intellectual allies Karl Popper and Friedrich von Hayek, and also echoing innumerable editorials in the mainstream press, Friedman provided empirical evidence that their unintended consequences were inflation and unemployment.
Innumerable editorials in the same vein have made ‘populist’ a pejorative term. ‘Populist’ names politicians who are, or are alleged to be, irresponsible and less than honest. To get votes they promise people things they want (like pensions and health care) when they know, or should know, that they cannot keep their promises. If they are elected, their government will not be able to raise the money to pay for implementing their programme. The editorials regularly conclude with lines like, ‘inevitably, it is the poor who will suffer the most.’
In the real world do what works is a right-wing principle. When Margaret Thatcher opens her purse, takes out a copy of The Fatal Conceit by Friedrich von Hayek and proclaims ‘This is what we believe!’ she is saying: We do what works. Labour does what does not work. History and logic prove it.
Treating do what works as a basic philosophical principle is a way to recommend do what works as a common normative framework shared by right, left and centre. It is a way to avoid what Lewis Coser called absolute conflict. In absolute conflict conversation is useless. The opposed parties cannot reason together because they start from incompatible premises.
Moreover, taking doing what works as a common premise leads to (that is to say, using appropriate educational methods it can be a starting point that leads to) structural understanding.
To move solutions to humanity’s bottleneck problems out of the category of the impossible and into the category of the possible, structural understanding is the second most important educational outcome, second only to a pro-social attitude. Let me give an example to illustrate why:
Another of humanity’s bottleneck problems is mass unemployment. It can be lumped together with poorly paid, precarious and miserable employment. Together they make joining the advancing juggernaut of the culture of drugs and gangs for many people by far the more attractive option. But the solution to this problem is not pleasing investors at all costs, come what may. To make this point one can concede to Friedman that social democratic policies led to stagflation and therefore did not work; but then add that a system that fails to provide pensions, health care, clean air, a sustainable biosphere, and good employment does not work either. The real solutions, the solutions that really work, must be ones that free humanity from the necessity to please investors at all costs, come what may.
We can restate the second of the two principles as: structural understanding. Then do what works would be reframed as a privileged common normative framework. It is privileged because it is a starting point that leads to structural understanding. In Paulo Freire’s terms it is a bisagra, a hinge. In Roy Bhaskar’s terms it is a transcendental argument: it is a transcendental argument because it proves the necessity of an economy of solidarity starting from a premise that people who initially disagree with you accept. Structural understanding makes it possible to see that solidarity really works, while individualism (what André Orléan calls séparation marchande and E.F. Schumacher called ‘institutionalized irresponsibility) at the end of the day does not work.
An economy of solidarity (taken as a generic name for a loose coalition of many progressive tendencies today whose adherents would voluntarily accept the label) advocates an ethic, namely solidarity. Its ethics is neatly expressed by the founder of permaculture, Bill Mollison, as: 1. Love the land, 2. Love the people. 3. Share the surplus. Solidarity is similar to Austrian liberalism because its foundations are ethical; but different from Austrian liberalism (sometimes called libertarianism) because its ethic is different. Both realize that a social structure is, after all, an ethics. Structure is about norms and roles, rules and rights. For Austrian ultra-liberals like von Hayek and von Mises the heart of ethics and of structure is found in contract rules and property rights.
If we start from do what works we can have a conversation. Instead of simply saying you see it your way, I see it mine, we can treat each other as persons of good will and look at the evidence together. We can have what Linda Hartling calls a dignilogue, dialogue with dignity.
Shortly before Milton Friedman argued that social democracy did not work because it tried to create full employment and a welfare state, Jurgen Habermas in The Legitimation Crisis gave different explanations of why social democracy does not work. The modern state (he had in mind states at least somewhat similar to Germany, his own) is overburdened and overwhelmed. It has to attract investment, which implies spending money on infrastructure, security, subsidies and education while keeping taxes on the investing class low. It is pledged to make into realities the social human rights promised the masses during and after World War II, such as employment, housing, health, and pensions. Its constitutional frame is one of limited government, defined by private law. The bulk of society’s wealth is beyond the government’s reach, beyond its power to tax. In modernity the market is the primary institution; the government is secondary. Markets govern states more than states govern markets. Making matters still worse, the system-world (the world of business and government) is dominating the life-world (the world of families and personal relationships). But it is in the life-world where persons are formed. The former cannot function without the latter’s human values.
Habermas is one of many to include in a bibliography of authors to read to learn structural understanding. He helps his readers to see both why the world as it is is not the world as it has to be, and also why Friedman in his Nobel Lecture was telling the truth about the world at is. Trying to create full employment and welfare for all within the constraints of the now-dominant structures, built on the now-dominant values, really is impossible. Unbounded organization is a conversation, an academy and a movement devoted to making the impossible possible. It has emerged from theory, but it has also emerged from practical experience, for example from community organizing in the town of Bokfontein that has made Bokfontein immune from waves of communal violence that have periodically swept over similar South African towns. That experience will be described in a forthcoming book from Dignity Press by me with the assistance of Gavin Andersson. Those seeking more detail on how general ideas like those above have practical applications might be interested in the two appendices to my older (2004) Understanding the Global Economy (with a Preface by Betty Reardon). It is available free in PDF on the Internet. One appendix is about ending war. The other (which has been published in Acorn, The Journal of the Gandhi-King Society) is about ending poverty.