Paradigm Meltdown and Opportunities for Peacebuilding


Howard Richards – TRANSCEND Media Service

A question that it would seem to be reasonable to ask is how to raise wages and employ everyone who wants a job, without raising prices, without militarism, and without damage to the environment.    Buckminister Fuller famously said about this sort of question that from the point of view of ecological design it is not hard to give good answers.    The question calls for no physical impossibility.   On the other hand, I take the question to be one that calls for a social impossibility, given the basic structure of the world we live in.     It  asks for an ideal normal world where ideal normal people grow up and get jobs and live happily on their incomes.   It imagines history up until now as a series of distortions preventing normality.   It is a hangover from the Age of Keynes after World War II when the industrial democracies seemed for a time to have learned to combine full employment with stable prices, and to be teaching what was then called the underdeveloped world what they had learned.   I take current events to be shattering naiveté.   Current events create  opportunities for creating a broad consensus in large populations that normality so imagined will only become  possible when there is an economic system and an economic science radically different from those presently prevailing.

I call these opportunities for peacebuilding because the currently receding goal of a peaceful world can only be achieved when the world becomes a mosaic of cultures that physically work  by sustainably meeting people’s needs.

Current events are already producing structural changes.   It appears to be certain that from now on the public sector will play a larger role.  It already has.  When the federal government ponied up 29 billion dollars of taxpayer money to rescue Bear Stearns it kissed free market fundamentalism goodbye.   Bipartisan support for plans brewing in congress to rescue homeowners facing foreclosures shows that there is now a consensus that one Herbert Hoover was enough.

The ongoing collapse of yesterday’s complacencies under the pressure of facts creates opportunities for people I will take the liberty of calling enlightened minorities.  They are people who see that modernity’s fundamental organizing myths need to be reconsidered.   They realize, in one way or another, without necessarily stating the point as I do, that this world  exchange value built is an inhuman world;  that homo sapiens sapiens is an animal who evolved over several hundred thousand years living in tribes, whose social relations were during prehistory and most of history kinship structures subject to norms of reciprocity and mutual gift-giving.   They realize that it is inhuman, contrary to emotional tendencies built into the human body, to live in a world  where in principle if there is no contract there is no obligation.    And further, they realize that it is dysfunctional; it does not work.   They are not deterred by the conventional wisdom that defends our  prevailing organizing myths on the ground that all known alternatives do not work either.  They bravely act on the premise that the world could be better than it is.   They believe  things we can do can make it better than it is.

(I do not deny that on the whole modernity is better than pre-modernity, but I do not mention here the latter’s well-known drawbacks because my present purpose is to encourage overcoming the former’s limitations.)

Current events are troubling, but they are enlightening.    They are enlightening in the precise sense, a bit of a pun, that they reveal the “abyss below” where the promises of the Enlightenment remain unfulfilled, and also the “starry heavens above” where the stones our 18th century builders rejected continue to inspire us with cosmic flame  enigmatic and compelling.   Although  there are still people who believe that there is a mortgage crisis because “we built too many houses;” or who believe that there is a known right way to do things that would prevent hard times if bad and stupid people did not do things the wrong way; or who believe in general that every problem can be reduced to an elementary puzzle which competent economists know how to solve (and therefore every persisting problem has been caused by a mistaken calculation in elementary economics); but every day they are fewer.    The enlightened are more.

I propose a rather specific interpretation of what it is about the ancient and traditional wisdoms that modernity omitted that makes our “civilization” (if, pace Gandhi it deserves to be called a civilization) inhuman and unworkable.   The bottom line, which marks modern civilization as fundamentally defective, as distinct from incidentally troubled, is, as Anthony Quinn, author of Ishmael, tells us, is whether people share food.   Amartya Sen corroborates Quinn’s point in his study of famines and entitlement.  In the modern world people starve not because there is no food, but because there is no norm prescribing its sharing, while there are norms separating ownership from need.  This is a bottom line that illustrates a key point; it describes not so much what we think as what we presuppose; not so much our scientific conclusions as the mythic normative framework that constitutes the paradigm within which mainstream social scientists do normal social science.   It is part of the meaning of those non-western thinkers who refer to the West as “satanic,” although, as Gandhi wrote, it is not really a bottom line that distinguishes West from East, but rather one that distinguishes the best of tradition from the worst of modernity.

The issues are global, but they seem to be coming to a head now in the United States.   Furthermore, the United States has  become a nation that fascinates the rest of the world, to the point where the upper classes of many nations (including the one I live in) regard any criticism of America or Americanism as a criticism of themselves.   I am writing somewhat indifferently about America and the world, as if they were the same, with the rather lame excuse that I am not the only one to conflate the two.

With all due respect to those who hold that the prevailing American (or world) myth is the myth of redemptive violence; I find that a myth even stronger is that of the economically independent individual.   I regard the enlightened minorities who now have opportunities to convert more people to their ways of thinking as people who see through both myths.      Americanism, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, is not like the old patriotism of the Japanese or the French; it draws less on spirit of place, less on shared blood, less on common ancestors and history; and more on Enlightenment liberalism.  Enlightenment liberalism looks at the bright side of individualism and promises in principle to supplement it and correct it with fraternité and with what De Tocqueville called “associations.”   One can, like Richard Rorty, take America’s 18th century founding principles as a point in America’s favor,  a point which makes America a nation qualified to be the world leader, the model for every other nation.  One can regard Enlightenment liberalism as a fully adequate set of ideals.  One can attribute our present troubles entirely to our failure to put Enlightenment ideals fully into practice.  But one can also find in those ideals the glorification of the autonomous individual, and one can regard the autonomous individual as the root of a suboptimal ethic and a suboptimal society.    Looked at through Rorty-colored glasses, the ideals that inspired the new American republic created in the 18th century, were those classically expressed in Kantian ethics.   From the principle of autonomy alone flow all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.   But the same 18th century spirit inspiring the then new Republic can be regarded as having been concisely summarized by Thomas Paine in Common Sense and the Crisis when he wrote “Our plan is commerce.” The Enlightenment philosophers glorified the independent juridical subject, and therefore they glorified the buying and selling that takes place in markets governed only by the civil law, and therefore they glorified, as E.F. Schumacher put it, “institutionalized irresponsibility.”

Voltaire, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson played a trick on us.   Writing in the aftermath of the religious wars of the  16th, 17th and early 18th centuries, they called for secular societies framed by civil laws as a framework for toleration.   Toleration within a framework that organized market exchange was supposed to lead to peace.   Paine thought so too;  America, just because it was devoted to commerce, would need no army and would be at peace with the rest of the world.   But the duty to serve one’s neighbors, a duty prescribed by many cultures including those of traditional Europe, was not prescribed by the civil law, also known as (as Emile Durkheim tells us) the lex fori, the law of commerce.   Under the influence of  what history has shown to be a disastrous illusion regarding  peace, the Enlightenment writers slipped in an anti-social principle (no contract, no obligation) regarding an issue that the warring religions had not disagreed about.  It was not logically necessary, in order to stop religious wars, to jettison the Gemeinschaft and to accept uncritically its opposite, the autonomous individual who lives by selling and buying.   From the true premise that a strong sense of community is likely to lead to communal violence, they deduced  a discourse that allows the false conclusion that as long as we have freedom we do not need to be sources of security for one another.

The shadow side of the Enlightenment was clear to those who almost destroyed it in the twentieth century.  It was clear to Hitler who almost won World War II, to the Japanese who set up in opposition to the West a co-prosperity sphere in Asia, and to the Communists who came close to world domination.  Having narrowly escaped destruction in the twentieth century, Enlightenment ideals are now threatened again, from within and without by pre-modern religiosity, by old-fashioned looting (e.g. Halliburton), by ancient (classically described by Thucydides) suppression of liberty on the pretext of defense against enemies (the Patriot Act), and by the chronic instabilities of markets.  Markets are always unstable, and the economists with all their intelligence and learning cannot make them stable, because markets are places where people either buy or do not buy, either sell or do not sell, as they may or may not choose.   In particular, the labor market is unstable; as Keynes put it full employment is rare and when it occurs it is temporary.   Unemployment is not going to go away no matter how much the numbers of the unemployed are reduced by taking people out of the labor market and putting them in jails, armies, schools, and mental hospitals.   It is the last of these current threats to our reigning myths, the chronic instability of markets, which, when added to the others, seems most likely to persuade the most people to recognize that, to again quote Anthony Quinn,  “…what we need are not new programs but new paradigms.”

In the context of the presently reigning confusion, there should be opportunities to make clear a point to which  in more settled times people would be less receptive:  The salvation of  Enlightenment-based civilization necessarily passes through a frank  acknowledgment of its shadow side.   It passes, in particular, by the road of frankly accepting that here and now unemployment is normal, not abnormal, and  by the road of deliberately incorporating the unemployed into the life of the community in dignified roles and with adequate incomes.   If our Enlightenment-based western world has been repeatedly attacked,  and several times almost destroyed, and if it is conspicuously failing to deliver basic goods and services, then its critics must have points to make that deserve attention and corrective action.

Of course we should encourage the constructive proposals of political leaders and the economists who advise them to provide help for those who are losing their homes to foreclosure, to those who physically suffer pain and illness because of a profit-dominated health care system, to those who cannot find jobs, and to those who have jobs but still cannot live on their incomes.   But.   But we should support problem-solving within the framework of contemporary common sense with awareness of its limitations.     Contrary to the presuppositions of conventional (un)wisdom, it is not true that there are unlimited opportunities to run profitable businesses and that therefore our collective task is to find them and pursue them, so that in the end every job-seeker will find work at good wages.  It is also not true that a system based on ever-more-rational methods of turning money into more money is compatible with a sustainable biosphere.

The capacity of Americans and of people generally to comprehend such inconvenient truths as these two grows day by day.    Day by day the suspicion  grows that the economic instability manifested in the depression of the 1930s never really ended.  It was masked by war, by debt, and by imperial privileges.    A return to finitude –a return to reality—is day by day  more acknowledged as inevitable because war cannot be endless, borrowing cannot be infinite, and global domination cannot be omnipotent.

I want to believe that we can demonstrate alternatives that work.   In this respect I fear I am usually more optimistic than the facts warrant; but I am  nonetheless confident that the general idea of demonstrating community is valid in principle.   Here in our neighborhood we and others have created a novel food bank that illustrates on a small scale how everyone can work without raising prices.  It guaranteed that nobody here went hungry last winter and it promises to guarantee that nobody will go hungry this coming winter (where I live June and July are winter).   The food bank does not  give away food.  Unemployed people (mostly agricultural workers who are unemployed in the winter) help their neighbors and their neighborhood, and are in turn supported by their neighbors and their neighborhood.  It is sustainable indefinitely because two families (ours and that of Gaston Soublette, a philosophy professor at a university here) can afford indefinitely to pay for the flour that volunteers bake into bread and for other inputs with the money we save by not driving cars.   I get e mails from friends who tell me of functioning alternatives they are involved in, for example agencies that organize healthy and fun activities for people ground down by the system, drawing them out of depression, addiction, aggression, loneliness, and anxiety.  (I have been dwelling on food, as a symbol of basic need, but actually what drives people to despair is most often not lack of food.)

The many traditions, institutions, schools of thought, and networks of persons that organize cooperation to meet needs can be thought of as “cultural resources.”  (I prefer this phrase to “social capital.”)   Whatever the characteristically modern institutions (governments and markets) may do to assure a steady flow of goods and services to people who need them,  and however these modern institutions may succeed in transforming themselves, it is certain that they will not do enough.   They need supplementation from cultural resources that draw on ancient forms of mutual aid that modernity has imprudently neglected.    One might mention Gandhians,  Franciscans, our friend Bernadette’s revival of cooperative tribal customs among women in Africa, community supported agriculture, food-not-bombs anarchists, time banks like Ithaca Hours,  hippies, the Salvation Army, some of our favorite political leaders and union organizers, the Rotarians,  the Methodists from the Chamber of Commerce who sit on the board of United Way….  One might mention many more.  To the extent that they meet otherwise unmet needs I call them “resources.”   To the extent that they see that kinds of thinking fundamentally different from those that currently prevail are needed to make the world work for everyone without ecological damage I call them “enlightened.”


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 1 Aug 2011.

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