By Howard Richards

This is a proposal for a pragmatic, functional and realistic framework for talking, thinking and building institutions.1

The fundamental fact of human history and of social science is the existence of living human individuals. This implies the physical organization (körperliche Organisation) of food production or gathering and, in general, of whatever is needed to make human existence possible. As Plato put it, ‘The true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention. …Now the first and greatest of necessities is food, which is the condition of life and existence.2

Human beings are a species that organizes itself by creating cultures. Cultural rules constitute material positions (i.e. roles, i.e. relationships). The material positions constitute social structures. The causal powers of social structures explain phenomena in social science in a way analogous to the way the causal powers of natural structures (e.g. molecules, cells, tectonic plates) explain phenomena in natural science.3

Human history is a history of organizations. Körperliche Organisationen are created by reflexive, playful, storytelling, spiritual and moral social creatures. They are tested in the fire of experience. Some of these are sustainable. Some adapt to cope with new challenges. Some do not.4

Every society has a basic cultural structure. It consists of the cultural rules that constitute the material positions (social structures) that determine how and whether the basic needs of people will be met; and how and whether the relationships of humans to the rest of nature will be harmonious. Because humans are persons, their basic needs include dignity, freedom, self-esteem, inclusion, love, purpose and so on; as well as food, medical care, safety and so on.5

Today most of humanity lives in a single worldwide neoliberal global economy. Its basic cultural structure pretends to have only one cultural rule: freedom. That one rule constitutes the material positions that define the free market. (Property in liberal thinking, sometimes implicitly; sometimes explicitly as in Kant, the Austrian school and Jean-Baptiste Say; is usually not a separate cultural norm, but an aspect or corollary of freedom.) The key positions are buyer and seller. Adam Smith expressed its spirit when he wrote that to get our daily bread we appeal always to our baker’s self-interest, never to our needs or to his benevolence.6

Often when one writes, ‘the basic cultural structure of liberal modern western (now global) modernity is (or claims to be) freedom.’ one could also write, following Sir Henry Maine, contract; or following André Orléan, séparation marchande. Separation is both a condition and a consequence of human relationships being reduced to what Lappé and Collins call ‘money-based ties.’ Orléan adds : ‘…la puissance de la monnaie ne supprime en rien la conflictualité marchande et les luttes de puissance.’ 7

There is inevitably a class of losers, a class of people who fail to sell their labour power or anything else at a price sufficient to support a dignified and decent life. This is a logical consequence of separation, mistakenly called freedom, also called by many other names. There is no duty to buy. Hence although there is an ethical duty to serve society, there can be no ethical duty to find a job, much less a job that pays enough to support a family. A job requires a labour-buyer, not just a labour-seller. Freedom to buy and sell includes freedom to not buy. The fact that one person needs a good job, does not obligate any other person to hire him or her. Beginning with the first plebeians (people belonging to no tribe) and proletarians (people with no property) ca. 500 B.C. in Rome, western basic cultural and social structures have generated losers.8

Pope Francis in Laudato Si (2015) perhaps did not realize that in adopting key terms from orthodox economics he was using words whose technical meanings assume the b.c.s. of modernity. Yes, saving the biosphere and saving humanity from extinction are public goods. Yes, this is a case of market failure. Yes, government intervention is therefore justified. But what is called the fiscal crisis of the state, fuelled in part by tax competition lowering taxes to encourage investment, leaves governments unable to do what they should do. The necessity to put investor confidence ahead of ecology is a consequence of a körperliche Organisation that makes the lives of most people physically dependent on the accumulation of capital by a few people. The same b.c.s. makes growing inequality the long-term trend. As the early Habermas spelled out in detail, the market is the primary institution; the government secondary.9

The b.c.s. tends to punish responsible wealth-holders who share their surplus (by sharing they avoid avarice, one of the traditional seven deadly sins, defined as taking more than you need). Over time, families who concentrate single-mindedly on accumulating capital and then reinvesting it to accumulate more capital will, ceteris paribus, by the laws of compound interest gain more power and influence than the good citizens who care and share.10

If you start with freedom, defined (mistakenly) as what E.F. Schumacher called ‘institutionalized irresponsibility’, you end with an ungovernable economy. Governments cannot correct market failure. In addition to corruption and power politics, there is a fundamental structural imperative making everyone’s lives dependent on highly efficient well-capitalized producers. The inevitable (i.e. inevitable given the b.c.s.) process of concentration of economic power is called ‘the law of substitution’ by Alfred Marshall. It is called the superior efficiency of well-capitalized round-about production by Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk.11

Unbounded organization proposes a framework for changing the present disastrous course of history by changing its root cause: the b.c.s., separation, mistakenly called freedom. It calls for alignment across sectors to serve the common good. It grew out of community development and popular education practice in Brazil, Honduras, South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique and several other Latin American and African countries; and a critique of the Lewinian (behaviour is a function of person plus environment) psychology once dominant in development circles. Its methodologies apply Vygotskyan Cultural Historical Activity Theory. It is not bounded because it does not treat the person or the organization as existing for its own sake; as if were the centre of the universe, devoted to its own objectives and implementing its own self-centred strategies. And because for any given problem the number of possible solutions is in principle unbounded. UO practices cognitive justice, learning from the epistemologies of the Global South. It takes a long and inclusive view of human origins and history. The emphasis shifts from negative critique to positive community-building. Space limitations forbid saying more here about how it is done. The above eleven points briefly outline why it is necessary.12


1“Proposal” in the sense expressed by Richard Rorty, The Linguistic Turn. (1967) p.24.
2 Marx and Engels, The German ideology. (1845-46) p.6. Marx/Engels Internet Archive version; Plato, Republic, Book Two. Jowett Translation.
3C.H. Waddington, The Ethical Animal (1960); Douglas Porpora (1993) Cultural Rules and Material Relations Sociological Theory Vol. 11, pp. 212-229; Roy Bhaskar (fourth edition 2015) The Possibility of Naturalism p. 38.
4 Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (2005); Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History (1934)
5 Christian Smith, What is a Person? (2011); Victor Frankl, Man´s Search for Meaning. (1946). Many writers use different words to make points the same or similar to those we make with the concept of basic cultural structure. For example, Max Weber and Karl Marx write of social relations (their Verhältnisse = our structures), such as the wage relation.
6 Howard Richards, Understanding the Global Economy (2004); Joseph Stiglitz Globalization and its Discontents (2002). Adam Smith. Wealth of Nations (1776) Book I, Chapter Two. ‘A liberal society is one that has no ideal except freedom.’ Richard Rorty, The Contingency of Community. London Review of Books, 24 July 1986.
7 Maine, Ancient Law. However, in explaining modernity, Maine gives almost equal attention to property, contrasting the modern West with other property institutions, virtually all of which were more collective and less individualistic. André Orléan, L’Empire de la Valeur (2011) p. 165. Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins, Food First (1974).
8 Keynes devoted about a third of his General Theory (1936) to the chronic weakness of demand, and the consequent ubiquity of unemployment, under employment, and low wages; and about a third to the chronic weakness of the inducement to invest. He glimpsed but did not grasp that these are not in the last analysis economic or psychological discoveries. These are consequences of social structure, and of the basic cultural structure that constitutes the social structure
9 Jurgen Habermas, The Legitimation Crisis. (1975)
10 Milton Friedman remarks in Essays in Positive Economics (1953) that anybody in business who is diverted by other concerns from maximizing the accumulation of profits will not be in business for long. Marx writes in the preface to the first edition of Capital (1867) that however much a capitalist may rise subjectively to a higher moral level, he remains a creature of objective social relations he cannot change Numerous studies cast doubt on their reasoning, but it remains worthwhile to keep their point in mind.
11 Alfred Marshall, Principles of Economics. (first edition 1890); Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk, Capital and Interest. (1884)
12; Gavin Andersson, Unbounded Governance: A Study of Popular Development Organisations. (2018) (A 2004 doctoral thesis in development studies at Open University UK. Gavin Andersson and Howard Richards. Unbounded Organizing in Community. (2015) (a practical step by step guide.)