20. What we can learn

Ch 20

What we can learn from our recent history

The final chapter of the first Part looked at the likely and future scenarios for humanity based on its current state and trajectory.

This final chapter of this Part begins to look at what we need to do to avoid the most catastrophic results of our current trajectory, by addressing the immediate causes of our current situation.  I describe them as “the immediate causes” because they are the systems humanity has developed and is currently operating with.  These systems are changeable – we humans built them, and we can unbuild them and build new ones.

The immediate causes of our current state – a summary of summaries

As a brief recap of the last 7 chapters, there are a number of immediate causes of our current situation, many of them linked and mutually reinforcing.

The Western “enlightenment was characterised by “reductionism”, a way of thinking which is still predominant in the world of power, politics, and economics.  In that world, reductionism leads inexorably to extractivism”, the idea that we humans are masters of Nature, and can extract what we want from it at will.

The rise of mercantilism and capitalism enabled the wealthy world to perpetrate four great thefts over 400-500 years, of resources, land, liberty and opportunity.  And the rise of the United States has given great power to the forces of toxic individualism, conservatism, and neoliberalism.

Our modern economic system, capitalism, is underpinned an incompetent discipline, neoclassical economics, which claims for itself scientific objectivity and rigour, but is little more than pseudo-religious dogma.

Capitalism has a number of undesirable features and outcomes.  Notable among these are its drive to externalise costs and to commodify goods and services; concentration of ownership and wealth; and social and economic instability.

The two most powerful instruments of capitalism are the large corporation, which, if it was treated as a person, would be diagnosed as psychopathic; and the financial system, which has become little more than a giant casino.

All the elements of our modern economic system are weighted in favour of the wealthy at the expense of the rest of human society.

The result of these developments – the “market society”….

Karl Polanyi was very early to see where these developments have led us, and dubbed their result the “market society”[i] – a society in which the governance sphere (primarily the nation-state) and economic sphere (the market economy) have become indistinguishable, and economic behaviour – production and consumption – predominates.

“Economic person” – the producer and consumer of goods and services – is in charge, and society is at the service of the markets.

And our political systems in the affluent world support this.  The insistence on growth (via increased GDP), the unthinking support for corporate power, rapidly expanding trade, “austerity” based regimes for countries under financial pressure, and the high and often invisible levels of corporate subsidy accompanied by reduction in social spending – these are all indicators of governments which have been suborned by the attractions of the capitalist vision of endless growth and increasing consumption driven by “the market” and corporations.

This struck home to me in a new way when I heard a news item in December 2015 that described how the New Zealand government was about to scrap the “healthy foods in schools” rule, and also ceasing to fund an anti-obesity organisation.  The amounts involved were trivial by whole-of-government standards, the increasing social problem with diet and obesity was obvious, but it was more important to the government that the “market” (ie the junk-food lobby) was allowed to operate its magic than that low-cost health initiatives remained[ii].

Terry Eagleton puts it like this[iii]:

“Marx’s once scandalous thesis that governments are simple business agents for international capital is today an obvious fact on which ‘liberals’ and ‘socialists’ agree. The absolute identification of politics with the management of capital is no longer the shameful secret hidden behind the ‘forms’ of democracy; it is the openly declared truth by which our governments acquire legitimacy.”

And Naomi Klein summarises the overall impact of the market society as follows[iv]:

“Each new blast of statistics about how a tiny band of global oligarchs controls half the world’s wealth exposes the policies of privatization and deregulation for the thinly veiled license to steal that they always were. Each new report of factory fires in Bangladesh, soaring pollution in China, and water cut-offs in Detroit reminds us that free trade was exactly the race to the bottom that so many warned it would be. And each news story about an Italian or Greek pensioner who took his or her own life rather than try to survive under another round of austerity is a reminder of how many lives continue to be sacrificed for the few. The failure of deregulated capitalism to deliver on its promises is why, since 2009, public squares around the world have turned into rotating semipermanent encampments of the angry and dispossessed.”

I’ve always been a sucker for alliteration, and this little piece of it came to me as I was recovering from a convivial night celebrating the finish of the first draft of this book, and my birthday.

A rough summary of this Part would be that our current affluent society, dominated as it is by capitalism, has taught us to value the wrong words beginning with the letter “c”:

  • Consumption over conservation – through teaching us that our consumption is what really matters, and offering us the ability to consume beyond our means through too-readily available debt.
  • Competition over cooperationachieving things for ourselves at the expense of others, regardless of the mutual and greater benefits we would usually receive from working together.
  • Condemnation over concern – by blaming the poor for their situations, and mocking those who are different or who have been tempted to demean themselves for our “pleasure”.
  • Comfort over citizenship – by influencing those of us who are lucky enough to earn or inherit enough to take our ease (via consumption) instead of engaging with our community – more on this in chapter 23.

…and what we need to do about it.

The conclusion to Part 1 (chapter 12) painted a grim picture of humanity’s overall trajectory, focussing on the likely impacts of global warming and food scarcity.

This Part has discussed the thinking and systems (primarily economic) which have put us on this trajectory.  There is enormous force and power behind these systems, in both the economic and the governance spheres.

Capitalism as a system is probably past its use-by date.  Capitalism has offered benefits, notably its ability to commoditise goods and services (that is, to find efficiencies of production), but these are now outweighed by its disadvantages (externalisation of real costs, commodification of social values, concentration of wealth, and destabilisation of communities and societies).

We are heading for a failed growth-based economy.  The physical limits imposed by our living on the Earth are beginning to bite.  But our financial system puts us on a treadmill of increased production and consumption through an ever-increasing cycle of debt, which must sustain itself or collapse, throwing even more millions into poverty.

We must change our financial and monetary system radically.  This system, of ever expanding debt money on which interest is charged, supplemented by gambling through stocks and derivatives, leads to unfair concentration of wealth, increasing inequality, pressure to increase consumption, and increasing boom-bust cycles.  It must be redesigned from the ground up.

As a first step towards this, the banks must be far more strongly regulated, and stripped of their power to blackmail the rest of human society through their position as intermediaries, and through the claims of some to being “too big to fail”.

Corporations must be reined in.  Their psychopathic behaviour in pursuit of profit is not the boon that neoliberals have claimed it is, but an ever-growing stain on human dignity.

Neoclassical economics must be abandoned.  The original meaning of the term “economics” was “household management”.  Neoclassical economics has been an unfortunate experiment in pseudoscientific thinking which was little help in this regard, and blindly favoured those with wealth and power.  It needs to be abandoned in favour of economic thinking which is able to describe how the world actually is, and which supports fairer, more equitable, and more sustainable types of behaviour.

Income and wealth must be redistributed more equally.  The affluent world has consumed, and continues to consume, far more than its reasonable share of the world’s resources, through plunder, theft, and misuse of power.  Capitalism has held out the false hope that all can aspire to high levels of affluence, while moving wealth and income from the poor to the rich.  In the limited material world that we now inhabit, extremes of affluence must be abandoned, and extremes of poverty must be ameliorated.

To achieve all of this, in the affluent nation-states our governments need to relearn their core function of working with the people to optimise social as well as economic outcomes, rather than simply operating as tools of capitalism, capital, and consumption.  They need to get their democratic mojo back.

And they will not do this without the people telling them, loudly and clearly, that they have to.  Many people in the affluent world have shown their disenchantment with politics and society through alienation, through turning off.  Some because it seems to offer them nothing, or less than nothing, and little or no hope.  And some because they are baffled by it all, and feel helpless – they know that something needs to be done, but are unclear on what, and how.

Part of the black magic of the capitalist system is that it has damaged, and even sometimes broken down, our sense of community.  By turning more and more things into items for purchase rather than exchange or sharing; by emphasising – indeed, glorifying – individual consumption; and most recently by teaching us to undervalue and despise government.  This has all been based on the “social Darwinist” creed held in common by American conservatives, neoclassical economists, and most capitalists (“Greed is good!” and “Devil take the hindmost!”).

We need to regain our sense of community and, with it, our collective voice and voices.

If the conservatives, the economists and the capitalists are right, and at the deepest level we are all just out for ourselves, then there is little hope that we will find those voices.  But everything I see outside the greed-sphere tells me this is not the basic human driver.  That mutual support and cooperation are far more profound expressions of our true humanity than selfishness and greed.  If they are not, then we are doomed as a species.

What has happened is that we have been taught bad habits over the last few hundred, and particularly the last 30 to 40, years.  We need to unlearn them.

Part Three looks beyond the societal systems and ways of thinking which have brought us to where we are, to the deeper human impulses, behaviours and conditions which have contributed to this.  Even when we have reformed the capitalist system to something more sustainable, these deeper drivers will need to be better managed, as they represent our more-or-less permanent human condition.

Part Four then draws the conclusions of Parts Two and Three together to describe the new place where we need to stand – what I see as the key prerequisites for a truly civilised society.

Read on, about “The underlying causes…”>>
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[i] “The Great Transformation”, 1944

[ii] Radio New Zealand National Programme news, 11 Dec 2015

[iii] In “Why Marx Was Right”, 2011

[iv] “This Changes Everything”, page 154, loc 2799