What Should We Do Now?

EDITORIAL, 23 Jul 2018

#544 | Howard Richards – TRANSCEND Media Service

My suggestion is that the answers to the question my title poses will depend on how we understand cause and effect.  Acting intentionally entails the belief that the action(s) will cause, or at least tend to cause, the results intended.   The truth or falsity (or mixed truth and falsity) of that belief (or set of beliefs) depends on the causal powers that move events and move history.  It also depends on our own causal powers (if we have any) to make a difference.   The “beliefs” that spell the difference between our actions being part of the solution, or being part of the problem, or being an irrelevant spinning of wheels going nowhere, may be collective or unconscious or both collective and unconscious. They may be examined or unexamined.

The subject of my question is how to get the world back on track toward human flourishing in harmony with nature.   It is not just about new policies, programs, projects and ideas. All over the world thousands of people are already active doing things and thinking things they believe will help.  Some of them really do help.  My question asks, “Which ones?” If my inquiry inspires some new bursts of efficacious energy, that will be frosting on the cake.

The answer to my question –that is to say, my proposed criterion for choosing actions that really make a difference for solving the decisive bottleneck problem—is:  cultivate social and cultural structures of solidarity.   Alternatively: build caring communities.  The reason for saying “social and cultural” instead of choosing just “social” or “cultural,” is not that the two words name two different kinds of structures.   It is simply that I do not want to stop using either word. I cannot define either word, but I love them both.  In a given context one seems more appropriate than the other.

The reason for not just using my alternate formulation “build caring communities” and forgetting about structure altogether, is that I find myself unable to describe the bottlenecks that keep the poor poor and keep nature on the ropes without calling their causal powers “structural.”  “Structures” oppress us.  From excessively individualistic “basic structures” (or basic ethics) we need to be liberated.  Cultivating “structures” of solidarity is what we should do now.

There is no way I can give a complete justification for my answer in the space available, but I can give an example.

Alexandria, affectionately known by its diminutive “Alex,” is a poor district of Johannesburg. As is unfortunately also the case in too many other locations on this planet, the majority of the young people are unemployed and unhappy.  Many sink into drugs, into indiscriminate sex leading to AIDS and to gender-based violence, into hustling suckers and mugging those who resist, and if they are female roaming the streets looking for a man who will give them money for favours.  But if you visit a certain old church building on the main avenue of Alex on a weekday afternoon you will find twelve young people who are employed and happy.

They are practicing their song and dance routines: like Black Motion by Imali and Babes Wodumo by Wololo; as well as oldies like Cat Daddy and Bird Walk.  They had to audition to get into the troupe.   Once they are in, they need discipline and self-discipline to learn their steps and their lines and to do them right; as well as the self-discipline required to show up for work, to be on time, to arrive sober, and to stay clean in more senses than one.  Taking the liberty of expressing general agreement with Aristotle, in spite of possessing little hard evidence regarding this specific case, I say that discipline makes virtue and virtue makes happiness.

Chiming in with Abraham Maslow, I observe that their performances in public spaces, mostly schools, satisfy their needs for recognition and their needs for self-esteem.  Their pay checks give them the dignity denied to the millions who are structurally humiliated because they are rejected by labour markets where for structural reasons supply perpetually exceeds demand.  And, of course, a little money in the pocket gives them food, drink and clothing they are not forced to beg, borrow, and steal for.

The services the dancers provide for the school children who are their main audiences are more than entertainment.   They provide role models of drug-free youth who are having fun.  They keep alive the hope that perhaps, after all, employment might be a real possibility for the children in the audience when they grow older.

A main reason why I call the song and dance troupe practicing in the old church on the main avenue of Alex a cultural structure of solidarity is that it is paid for by sharing the surplus.  Money and other resources are moved from where they are not needed to where they are needed.   As Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze emphasize, markets are one way to generate resources and move them to where they are needed, but they are not the only way and often not the best way.    It does not take a genius to see that markets are working in nearby Sandton, but they are not working in Alex.   But thanks to public and private donors, non-market provision of services, made possible by sharing the surplus is working for twelve formerly unemployed youth in one building on one street in Alex; and then it spreads its benefits around the city as the dancers fan out to entertain the kids in the schools.  It is a pilot that demonstrates the principle.   It helps me –does it help you? —to imagine the New Civilization of the future when robots will do the work and artificial intelligence will do the thinking and labour will cease to be a major factor of production.

Sharing the surplus is not a new idea.   In the 13th century St Thomas Aquinas wrote that your property was not yours alone.  It also belonged to the people you could aid with your surplus.  When Pope Francis incessantly repeats the same message, he can be credited with courage but not with originality.   But in the 13th century sharing the surplus was already an old idea.   It had already been practiced for hundreds of years from the villages of Africa to the igloos of the Arctic and everywhere in between.

Julius Nyerere, the first president of independent Tanzania, frequently pointed out that there was no unemployment in Africa until the Europeans arrived.   Swahili had no word for it. His point helps explain why I need the word “structure.”   The Africans had different social structures.  In their cultures what Michel Foucault would call the historical conditions for the possibility of unemployment did not exist.   In the basic social structure that dominates the world today it does exist.  To move from playing games that always have losers to playing win-win games, we need another basic structure, also called another basic ethic, namely the care ethic commonly associated with feminism.   Carol Gilligan defines a care ethic as “attending to and responding to needs.”  I would claim that it follows as a corollary not just that property should be redistributed from where it is not needed to where it is needed, but that the very meaning of the word “property” should change; in the terminology of Friedrich Nietzsche the meaning of property should cease to be Roman and become Jewish.

It can be argued that an ethics of solidarity can be a private ethic but cannot change social structures for a reason given by Karl Marx and Milton Friedman among others.  It is that whatever the humanitarian intentions of a business owner may be, competitive markets compel her or him to pursue a single goal: maximize profits.   The consequence of any deviation from this goal is that competitors will accumulate more money and use it to drive the idealist out of business.   My answer to this argument returns to the point I made in the first paragraph: our views on what to do depend on our views on cause and effect.  My view is that what Marx and Friedman have done is to highlight an important causal power that must be taken into account.  It is true that bad guys tend to have an advantage because they loot more and share less.  But the social world is an open system.   It does not follow linear laws.  The tendencies observed manifest themselves always other things being equal (ceteris paribus).  Causal powers act in the midst of other causal powers that are also always acting.   Empirical studies of how business owners make decisions, such as those of Herbert Simon and those of Cyert and March, support a multi-factored open system understanding of how the world works.  They do not support the simple recipe Marx and Friedman say business owners are compelled to follow.  Our job: be aware that Marx and Friedman make an important point: other things being equal, there is a tendency for the single-minded accumulators to accumulate more and share less; but then go on to be make sure other things are never equal.

Some critics have misunderstood a book I wrote with Joanna Swanger, The Dilemmas of Social Democracies. They think we simply agreed with the conservatives that social democracy does not work.   Yes, we did show in some detail how it has not worked so far.  But our point was that the reason why it does not work is that it collides with the basic cultural structure of modern civilization.  Ours is a basic cultural structure that has made the upside of capitalism possible at the same time that it makes the downside of capitalism inevitable and social democracy impossible.  Our conclusion is that the basic culture has to change.  Has to should be emphasized because if it does not change humanity cannot cope with technologies that make most workers redundant, and it cannot free itself from living in one or another regime of accumulation.  (A regime of accumulation is a society where everything else the culture does depends on one thing: the confidence of investors that their investments will be profitable.)  In our contemporary regimes of accumulation jobs for the poor have come to depend on accumulation by the rich, not because anybody wants it that way but because that is the way it is.  But it will not be that way much longer: jobs are going to disappear at a rate no amount of accumulation can cure.

There is another reason why having to live in one regime of accumulation or another is unsustainable.  It is because although the physicists, chemists, and biologists have explained to us very clearly what we must do to save the biosphere, we can’t do it.   The causal powers that determine our behaviour are mainly in the social structures.  What happens is not what humans want to happen, but what the structures compel.  Nobody wants the destruction of the biosphere, but nevertheless we are compelled to destroy the biosphere.   It is a systemic imperative to obey the necessity of capital accumulation and to disobey hard science.    That is a bottleneck problem.   If we cannot solve it, in the long run we cannot solve any other problems because we will become extinct. It can be solved because the social and cultural structures that are doing the compelling can be changed.

Perhaps it is now a little clearer why my answer to my question –that is to say, my proposed criterion for choosing actions that really make a difference for solving the decisive bottleneck problem—is:  cultivate social and cultural structures of solidarity.   Alternatively: build caring communities        

I will need to answer their question when they ask,” Can Gulag be far behind?”


Prof. Howard Richards is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He was born in Pasadena, California but since 1966 has lived in Chile when not teaching in other places. Professor of Peace and Global Studies Emeritus, Earlham College, a school in Richmond Indiana affiliated with the Society of Friends (Quakers) known for its peace and social justice commitments. Stanford Law School, MA and PhD in Philosophy from UC Santa Barbara, Advanced Certificate in Education-Oxford,  PhD in Educational Planning from University of Toronto. Books:  Dilemmas of Social Democracies with Joanna Swanger, Gandhi and the Future of Economics with Joanna Swanger, The Nurturing of Time Future, Understanding the Global Economy (available as e-books), The Evaluation of Cultural Action (not an e book).  Hacia otras Economias with Raul Gonzalez, free download available at www.repensar.clSolidaridad, Participacion, Transparencia: conversaciones sobre el socialismo en Rosario, Argentina. Available free on the blogspot lahoradelaetica.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 23 Jul 2018.

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