Who are we? Where are we going? How will we get there?

24.03.2021 - Limache, Chile - Howard Richards

Who are we? Where are we going? How will we get there?
(Image by Roberto Palumbo)

It may help to precede my answers with a methodological remark, starting from Heidegger`s Jedes Fragen ist ein Suchen (Every question is a seeking). (Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), on or near p. 5 in every German or English edition I know):    I seek to articulate a vision, a guide to action.  I seek to choose some words and to put them together in ways that are brief enough to be readable, clear enough to be intelligible, and true enough to be adaptive.

My answers are:

  • Who are we?  We are the species whose ecological niche is the creation of culture.
  • Where are we going?  We are going to a global mosaic of green and open societies.
  • How will we get there?  We will get there by transforming capitalism.

Who are we?  We are the species whose ecological niche is the creation of culture

The same natural sciences that deconstruct pre-modern stories that facilitated social cohesion in centuries past, construct ecological worldviews facilitating social cohesion in centuries to come.     They give a rational basis and an emotional basis for creating functional communities.

The physical necessity of ties that bind is demonstrable.  Hard-wired tendencies of human emotions favour cooperation.

Tom Berry and others have proposed the earth story as a community-building story for the diverse global community.

The earth story is a comprehensive metanarrative that honours diversity, includes everyone, and makes sense of rational progress.   It has the simple virtue of being true.  It is what really happened.  We, humanity, are, in fact, creators of cultures.  We have always been creators of cultures.   We are biologically coded to be culturally coded.  We have the capacity to invent cultural codes that can be passed on to a next generation that will  modify them as  they learn them.  This capacity has given us an evolutionary advantage over other species.

Where are we going?  We are going to a global mosaic of green and open societies.

A global mosaic

Whatever improvements we may make to meet human needs better, to include the excluded, and to harmonize with nature, we must start with what is. We do not make history on our own terms.  We make it on terms previous history has dealt us. Previous history has dealt us a diverse world.

The premises of transformation must necessarily be working hypotheses tailored to a particular here and a particular now.

As Aristotle observed – more than two millennia before Emile Durkheim made the same observation – the result of the wholesale sweeping away of the existing norms is anomie.   Anomie, also known as social disintegration, leads us away from, not towards, the social cohesion needed to cope with humanity´s physical challenges.

It is not feasible to challenge the rise of the extreme liberalism that Frédéric Vandenbergh has called pathological autonomy by crafting a new global communitarian moral code to which the bulk of humanity could  pledge allegiance.  Miraculously, we do have a global consensus (on paper at least) on basic human rights (which now include the right to an identity and to a culture).  We have an earth story. Both must be supplemented with a post-colonial ethic of mutual respect for diversity.

To get from norms to actions we need what Catherine Hoppers calls “discourse coalitions.”  For example, a Muslim, a capitalist, a socialist, a Hindu, and so on, can work together manos a la obra (putting their hands to the task) –  articulating what they are doing each in their own terms. The physical bottom lines – such as clean drinking water and reversing desertification—are the same.  T he discourse coalitions respect identities.

Consequently, if we are going anywhere, we are going to an inclusive global mosaic of diverse cultures each functional on its own terms and in its own way.

Green

The reason why we are going to a green future is that we cannot possibly go to any other future.   Failing to maintain the delicate equilibriums of the biosphere is not an option.

Human cultures whose constitutive rules and basic norms drive capital accumulation incompatible with the laws of physics, the laws of chemistry, and the facts of biology are not sustainable.

Open

In his book Collapse (2005), Jared Diamond relates how several traditional societies destroyed themselves without knowing what they were doing.  Modern societies seek to avoid collapse due to ignorance by deliberately organizing themselves to   criticize themselves.  They are, in principle, open societies.  Every act of government is scrutinized by opposition parties that may become the next government.   Institutionalized science is self-governing through peer review.  A free press and freedom of speech guarantee that no news of predictable disasters will remain hidden.  The unintended bad consequences of good intentions educate.  They teach the experts and the public not to repeat the same mistakes.  The classic case advocating an open society is The Open Society and its Enemies (1944) by Karl Popper.

However, I employ “open” not in a Popperian sense, but rather in a hyper-Popperian broader sense.  For two reasons.

First, Popper was often dogmatic, and sometimes was clearly wrong, about what is and what is not science.

Second, in his later years Popper fell in with a tough crowd known as the Mont Pelerin Society.  Milton Friedman, another member, in his speech accepting the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics (1976), saw inflation and in the long run greater unemployment as unintended consequences of attempts to construct a welfare state with full employment.  Popper´s philosophy became identified with a school of thought which held that the verdict of science was that social democracy failed.    In the words of another member, Friedrich von Hayek, it would be “fatal conceit” to try it again.

But if Popper had followed the advice he himself had given as a younger man, he would not have given up on liberté, égalité et fraternité.  Instead he would have considered treating as variables some of the parameters unsuccessful social democracies had treated as constants, such as free trade, growth measured by GDP, and what Bowles and Gintis call “the exit power of capital.”

Consequently, I use a wide hyper-Popperian sense of “open,” when I conclude that the future we are going to, if we are going anywhere, is an inclusive global mosaic of green and open societies.

How will we get there?  We will get there by transforming capitalism.

I will develop this thought as a gloss on a line borrowed from Amartya Sen:

“Capitalism can generate mean streets and strained lives unless it is restrained and supplemented by other –often nonmarket—institutions.”  (Journal of Economic Literature.  Vol. 41 (2003). p.  1247.  I have italicized three words and slightly altered others to disentangle them from a context irrelevant here.)

By restraining capitalism

When we restrain, we impose conditions. The government decrees for example that firms must negotiate wages and working conditions with labour unions, or close.  Or reduce their ecological footprint, or close.

You get the picture. Restraint gives business a choice.  Obey or quit.  Although there are usually some intermediate penalties short of closure, like paying fines, the principle is that a firm may not operate in a territory without the consent of that territory´s government.

Logic and history teach us that companies often choose option two.   They quit.    Or they move to another place where there is less restraint.

There is an elephant in the room.  However many academic discussions there may be about whether market failure justifies government intervention, in reality a government has little power to intervene.  As Michael Kalecki puts it, capital has a veto power over public policy because it has the power tol cause an economic crisis.  As Jeffrey Winters puts it, major economic players choose which laws they will obey when they choose where to locate.

Sen´s suggestion that we could transform capitalism by restraining it, turns into the question, How can territorial governments restrain global capital?

I would submit that the first thing we must do to find an answer is to cleanse our minds of mythologies that portray globalization as brotherly and sisterly love, as if big were beautiful; as if every new common market and every  ceding of national sovereignty to the universal principles enforced by the World Trade Organization were a victory for universal human solidarity.  The opposite is the case; small is beautiful; human scale is beautiful; a global mosaic of open societies capable of governing themselves and choosing their own paths will be beautiful when we achieve it.

Second, I feel gratitude for spiritually and ethically enlightened self-restraint among capitalists.   In recent decades, as the power of democracies to restrain capitalism has been dissolving, there has been a  remarkable increase of self-restraint by  capitalists  It has been demanded and monitored more by civil society, consumers, and institutional investors than by governments.  The stars are intelligent capitalists.  They see the handwriting on the wall:  Unrestrained capitalism is taking everybody directly to where nobody wants to go:  injustice, violence, chaos, uncontrollable pandemics, and ecological disaster.

Karl Marx, in the preface to the first edition of Capital made it clear that he was not blaming capitalists for capitalism.  Capitalists, like his dear friend Friedrich Engels, were quite capable of having good intentions.  But they, like everyone else, were prisoners of social relations they did not create, whose imperatives they were compelled to obey.  If Karl Marx could believe that some capitalists sincerely desire to transform a system that holds them and everyone else captive, why can’t we?

By supplementing capitalism

Given that globalization has weakened the capacity of governments to restrain capitalism, let us turn to supplementing capitalism.

If we depended on it less, we could  to restrain it more, not only by government action  society but by everything Sen and Dreze call public action, carried out by a variety of actors including thought-leaders in the busines world itself.

We could  rely more on municipal water and light companies, public banks, non-profit hospitals and schools, state-owned and province-owned enterprises, families,  public-private joint ventures,  worker-owned enterprises, permaculture, mutual insurance companies, pension funds owned by their participants,  public ownership of minerals and other natural resources, unions, nature preserves, eleemosynary foundations, public parks and beaches, community currencies, neighbourhood food banks, asset based community development,  cooperatives,  monasteries, and the people´s economy,  to name a few.

The people´s economy (the economia popular of Jose Luis Coraggio) consists of small enterprises whose main purpose is to support a household.  It is often lumped with multinational corporations, as if the first were small scale capitalism and the second large scale capitalism.  But their resources and their purposes are quite different.

For Sen and his co-author Jean Dreze, markets are among the instruments that can be used to promote human capabilities. Their ideal is not a two-toned world, where markets organize most human activity, backed up in case of market failure by governments.  It is an open world of innumerable possibilities.

When markets do not work or do not work well, there are many other options.  Some are ancient institutions fallen into disuse that might be revived, like the Jubilee year for forgiving debts (Leviticus 25, 8-13) or the Pharaoh´s system for storing grain as it was harvested and distributing it in winter (Genesis 41).  Some have been used for many centuries and are still used today, like the Subak system for irrigating rice fields in Bali. Others are recent social inventions, like Doctors without Borders; while still others are future social forms that we today cannot even imagine.

Many have good reasons to fear that change may dismantle institutions that have brought prosperity and freedom to many people.  Major change might again –as it sometimes has—break what works more than it fides what does not work.  An unbounded open approach responds to this concern.  It creates and makes visible so many options that the number of situations where the only possible way to fix what does not work is to break what does work approaches zero.  Sen and Dreze appear to have had some such point in mind when they rejected two-option models, market or government.  L´imagination au pouvoir!

By creating more nonmarket livelihoods

The key is to align for the common good.  The hypothesis is that when humans unite in what Martin Luther King Jr. called a beloved community, they find ways to care for each other and to cope with the challenges nature poses.

Markets not sufficiently “restrained and supplemented by other –often nonmarket—institutions” inevitably mass produce losers.  To win in a market receivables must exceed payables.   Buyers must buy whatever one has to sell.  They must buy enough of it at high enough prices to produce revenues sufficient to cover expenses and to provide an income to live on.

But for reasons that are not anybody´s fault, or the fault of any social class, but simply the fault of logic, not everybody can be an economic winner in the marketplace. Not everybody can sell more than they buy because a sale and a purchase are the same thing seen from two points of view, that of the seller and that of the buyer.  Not everybody can have more receivables than payables.  Summed over the whole market, receivables must equal payables; so, if some people are winners; then without sufficient restraining, supplementing, and non-market employment, others must be losers.  Many sleep in their cars or on the sidewalk; many try to cross the Mediterranean in leaky boats, many walk on foot from Honduras to the US border.

There are many useful ways people can contribute to society without generating revenue by selling something.  The fact that there are not enough paying customers to produce revenues sufficient to justify hiring everybody and paying them wages, does not mean that the unemployed are not persons that the economy should be serving, not rejecting.

To take practical steps toward including people the market excludes, one might review one´s own budget to see what, if anything, one is able to contribute to funding non-market employment.  It merits priority.  Without dignified livelihoods for all, it is hard to imagine an end to racism, or war, or fascism, or the dying of  the biosphere –or any of the evils whose underlying causes include the humiliation of economic losers.

If one is an entrepreneur one can define one´s vocation as creating social surplus to contribute to society.  This can usually be put in writing by changing just a few words in a business plan.

If  one identifies with two centuries of struggle of working people for social justice and/or with the achievements of social democracy and the achievements of civil rights movements; or  whatever one´s identity may be or may become; one can  find a way to  join a discourse coalition whose  members have in common that they care, they understand, and they are activists transforming the system.

This article was published also by Transcend Media Service

Categories: Ecology and Environment, Economics, International, Opinions
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