Thinking about better future

Is It Still Possible to Reverse Humanity’s March toward Self-Destruction?

Howard Richards

Yes. Today the conflicts of interest that created today´s unsustainable world no longer exist.

The coming into existence of the institutions of capitalist modernity might be seen as the result of rhetorical victories convincing the classes and the masses of the validity of the arguments of their advocates. These are chronicled by Albert Hirschman and others. But they might also be seen as the triumph of institutions and their accompanying ideologies serving the interests of the stronger. Extending the conclusions of Michel Foucault´s Society Must Be Defended,

liberal ethics, prescribing that bogus rights trump flesh and blood goods,

jurisprudence setting property rights in stone,

irresponsible freedom, and

orthodox economics are, all four of them, conceptually based on mythologies immune to revision in the light of experience and evidence.

They became dominant because of the military victories of the stronger (for examples, the New Model Army of Oliver Cromwell, the parliamentary army led by William of Orange, and the superior military technologies deployed by the East India Company in India, by the British and French in the opium wars against China, by the American commodore Perry to open Japan to foreign trade, and generally by Europeans and North Americans on all continents).

Gandhi, of course, and peace philosophy generally, take a different stance, claiming that the power of military force has been greatly overestimated, while the power of truth has been greatly underestimated.

Today there is a new reason to believe that truth has a chance and that the deathward course of history can be reversed. It is that the existing world economy no longer serves anybody’s interests. Continuing on the path of social disintegration and ecocide that we are now on does not serve the interests of even one human being, no matter how rich that human being may be. No not one. We can now speak of unbounded organization, aligning across sectors for the common good, doing what works for the good of all without being partisans of one class against another class, while achieving what the partisans of the working class have always wanted. All classes have the same interest—namely survival in harmony with nature in a society with a high degree of equality. A dignity economy. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, a world house where the human family lives in beloved communities.

Today, nothing would better serve the true interests of the rich than an end to poverty.

Yesterday´s burning question of the exploitation of the surplus value produced by labour and appropriated by capital addressed a problem J.T. Kumarappa (“Gandhi´s economist”) set out to aufheben (solve and include in a higher synthesis. Kumarappa framed the progress or regress of economics in terms of moral development or moral decay. Thus, he transcended both Marx´s critique of the private appropriation of the social product and Rostow´s Stages of Economic Growth. But today the stealing from labour of what it produces –a concept ultimately derived from John Locke´s concept of property, which in turn was part of European modernity´s rejection of Europe´s own traditional communitarian ideals– is ceasing to be a question. Labour is ceasing to be the main factor of production. Today when investors want to increase productivity and so increase production, they invest in technology and dismiss redundant employees. The fate of the mine workers of South Africa is an emblematic example.

The burning question is now, who will get the benefit of advanced technology? A care ethic or a solidarity ethic answers: everyone, including the other species that share the planet with us. Psychology, epidemiology, and other sciences are learning that the privileged classes would be healthier and more secure in a more equal and more caring economy. Everybody would be happier in the “good society” as Abraham Maslow conceived it, where basic security would lead to Erik Erikson´s basic trust for people of all ages.

Capitalism, conceived as domination by an overwhelming need to create favourable conditions for capital accumulation whatever might be the social and ecological costs, is not in anybody’s interest. Capitalism conceived as freedom to engage in business, where freedom itself is conceived as responsibility and business itself is conceived as a social institution intended to serve society, can be in everybody´s interest.

Thus reforming capitalism by redefinition would grant the point Gandhi made when he pointed out to his dear friend Nehru that if we are doomed to fail in achieving the moral reform of people in business, we would in all likelihood also be doomed to fail in achieving the moral reform of people in politics. It would acknowledge the research findings of the neoliberal economist Gary Becker showing that persons in the public sector who in principle are serving the public often are no less self-interested than people in the private sector. And it would grant (with some reservations) Fredrich von Hayek´s epistemological point: the world is too complex for public planning to be a substitute for the countless decisions private actors make every day managing limited pieces of the global economy. It would call for the cooperation of all sectors, private, civic, and public for the common good

Those who, like Gandhi himself, prefer the word “socialism” to the word “capitalism” would be entitled to call redefined capitalism socialism (to praise it, not to condemn it) Those who find that both capitalism and socialism are obsolete words that can safely be dropped from today´s vocabularies would get a free pass.

There is a precedent for allowing such linguistic flexibility—allowing the same thing to be called either capitalism or socialism– in the varying descriptions of the Swedish Model back in the days when it was a great success. Partisans of capitalism took Sweden to be proof that capitalism works, sometimes calling it “mature capitalism.” Partisans of socialism like Gunnar and Ava Myrdal and their friends Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru, viewed Sweden as an early pioneer of the shared prosperity that was destined to be all of humanity´s social democratic future.

Whatever you call it, there is a pressing necessity is to create the surpluses that will make it possible to achieve shared and sustainable dignified livelihoods for all, and then to transfer surpluses from where they are generated –the huge surpluses of Apple, Google, and Facebook are samples of more to come—to where they are needed. The common good requires, as a first social priority inseparable from first ecological priorities, the social integration of the excluded. It requires welcoming the excluded –the people walking barefoot from Honduras to the Mexican border, and the people crossing the Mediterranean in leaky boats are samples of more to come. Whatever you call it, organizing human life to make it sustainable will require sharing prosperity with tomorrow´s majorities who will be redundant in the labour market. But the contemporary imperative to produce enough to meet everyon´s needs is subject to contemporary constraints.


TRANSCEND Media Service

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