When You Get to the End of the Road It Is Time to Think Outside the Box

EDITORIAL, 15 Apr 2019

#582 | Howard Richards – TRANSCEND Media Service

I admit that I enjoy mixing metaphors just to fool around and have fun.  This particular mixing of metaphors is deadly serious.

We really are at the end of the road.   A small but growing percentage of the population knows it.

Some proofs:  The best the progressive left can come up with to counter the wacky right and the clueless centre is one or another Green new deal, hoping to include the excluded by reactivating the economy. But the economy is the problem!   Green growth is in practice a contradiction in terms (even though it is a mathematical possibility because growth is measured in money value, not physical output). There is even a hue and cry complaining that birth rates are falling in too many places.  Ecology tells us that the more birth rates fall the better, but the bogus ‘science’ of economics tells us more babies are needed to earn wages to transfer into the pensions of increasing numbers of octogenarian retirees.

As if the untouchable wealth of the wealthy were not already enough –if it could be touched—to care for the octogenarians.  As if the main employment problem were not already too many workers for too few jobs.   In the medium term, and starting already, for the majority of people working for a living is on its way out.  Temporary gigs and ‘internships’ are increasingly the fate of youth.  The market value of most labour-power is falling toward zero.

Face it: yesterday’s world based on the assumption that most people will earn a living by working is over.  Over!  Taxing the rich to subsidize the poor–proposed with the best of intentions by some on the left– is impossible because if you try to tax them, they move.  Besides, nobody really knows how much money is hidden in trust funds in tax havens under fictitious names, or how much is spinning around the world in speculative split-second mega-buck transactions that dwarf the real economy.  It can’t be taxed if it can’t be found. The casino economy money could at any moment swamp the real economy in runaway inflation –as is already happening to some extent as some casino mega-bucks move into real estate driving prices up into stratospheres where ordinary people can neither buy nor rent.

There is a surplus of capital finding nothing useful to do, while making mischief by creating homelessness.  There are private banks and central banks ready willing and able to create even more money out of thin air to finance even more useless mischief –like corporations buying back their own stock to raise share prices and trigger executive bonuses.  Profitable useful investment opportunities are few and far between.   And yet the ‘left’ talks of governments borrowing money and paying interest on it and/or raising taxes to finance ‘green investments’ that supposedly will earn profits that will pay back the loans, generate a surplus for the public purse, finance the impoverished remnant of what used to be welfare states, and pay down public debts that are obviously too great to ever be paid.

I admit that the proposals of the left are more complicated and more imaginative than what I am mentioning.  But what I am mentioning is a big enough part of the overall picture to show anyone who has eyes to see that the left, as well as the right, the centre and the general public, do not yet comprehend that humanity is at the end of the road.

There is no option on the table that stands a ghost of a chance of achieving full employment at good wages, currency stability, paying off crippling debt burdens, and reversing the destruction of the biosphere that may be already past the point of no return.   Believe me:  plagues that are epidemics in major parts of the world, although not yet in the entire world, like immigration strife, extreme poverty, ethnic violence, racism, depression and insanity with or without drugs and alcohol, criminal gangs, war and militarism have no solutions without economic solutions.  And today there are no economic solutions.

When you are at the end of the road, it is time to think outside the box.  Let’s start by thinking about the meaning of the statement that today there are no economic solutions.   According to standard textbook definitions of economics (like that of Lionel Robbins) this statement cannot possibly be true: there is always some allocation of scarce resources, even if, as in Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, it is an allocation that allots food to those who have money and no food to those who have no money.  But, as Sen meant to demonstrate, historically and today economics requires and presupposes a legal framework. Economic logic does not come from nowhere.  As Max Weber shows in Economy and Society, a modern economy became possible when the revival of Roman Law (he could have mentioned the similar principles prescribed in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England) made the consequences of economic decisions predictable (kalkulierbar).

Now what if:  The law prescribes that whoever does not have enough property income to pay for basic necessities must work for a living.  And add the premise:  Most goods for which there is effective demand can be produced and marketed by capital + intellectual property + technology + natural resources with little labour –far too little labour to employ at a living wage all those who need to work for a living.

Now (2) what if:  the government attempts to fix this problem by taxing those who have property to fund welfare for everybody.  But: the law provides that if the wealthy do not like paying taxes, or paying union wages, they can move themselves and/or their property elsewhere.  Net result:  The Rolling Stones move to the French Riviera to avoid British taxes; they record their albums in Alabama to avoid paying union wages to Hollywood musicians.   As Jürgen Habermas points out in The Legitimation Crisis and in other writings, private law is incompatible with social rights.

There are no economic solutions (i.e. no pro-life solutions) because economics lives and moves and has its being within the frame of property law and contract law as it developed first in the Roman Empire, later in the successor states of the Roman Empire during the early modern period; and as European law was subsequently imposed on the inhabitants of the Americas, Africa and Asia by force.  (See Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale by Maria Mies)

Thinking outside the box means thinking outside private law and outside the political and ethical philosophies that legitimate what Karl Polanyi called ‘market society’ (market society is a genus of which capitalism is a species).   It means acknowledging that traditional Muslims are not stupid, in the light of their life experience, when they prefer Sharia Law.  Sharia Law with all its faults is at least a possible way to organize human life including everybody (at least ‘all the faithful’) and respecting nature.

Thinking outside the box provides a strong dose of humility for those accustomed to take pride in the drone strikes of western military technology, framing the drone strikes in their minds as fighting the good fight for human rights against an enemy that uses immoral weapons, suicide bombers, to defend an immoral cause, patriarchy.   What can be said of Sharia Law can also be said of the social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.  However much one despises that church’s flat rejection of what Immanuel Kant called the principle of all genuine morality (namely, autonomy) one has to acknowledge that Thomas Aquinas shattered the institutions of the modern world and replaced them with a solidarity economy in one sentence when he wrote:  Your possessions belong not only to you, but also to those you can aid with your surplus.

Contrary to popular belief, if you actually read Jean Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, or Paul Tillich, or the works of the Baptist pastor Martin Luther King Jr. (who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Tillich) you will find that orthodox protestant doctrine is not materially different from orthodox Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, Jain, Zoroastrian, Ubuntu or Confucian doctrine in prescribing stewardship of property and service to society.

Charles Darwin held a similar opinion:

“As man gradually advanced in intellectual power, and was enabled to trace the more remote consequences of his actions; as he acquired sufficient knowledge to reject baneful customs and superstitions; as he regarded more and more, not only the welfare, but the happiness of his fellow-men; as from habit, following on beneficial experience, instruction and example, his sympathies became more tender and widely diffused, extending to men of all races, to the imbecile, maimed,  and other useless members of society, and finally to the lower animals,—so would the standard of his morality rise higher and higher.” (from The Descent of Man)

Antonio Gramsci, a gentleman with impeccable Marxist credentials, maintained that the role of the intellectual was to adjust culture to its physical functions.

Carol Gilligan proposes a ‘care ethic,’ which she defines as ‘attending to and responding to needs.’

Michael Porter, professor of strategy at Harvard Business School, chiming in with the great pioneers of management science (Frederick Taylor, Henry Gantt, Peter Drucker, Herbert Simon) argues that in the present state of the world firms should and must redefine their missions not in terms of profit, but in terms of creating shared value, value for all concerned.  (Porter does not give credit to Andrew Carnegie and the Rotary Club for having coined the same idea sooner.)

We are at the end of the road.  Economics does not work.  It does not work because it requires and presupposes a rigid legal and ethical framework that it inherited from the (European) past.  It is time to think outside that box.  Nothing could be easier, because humans have been thinking outside the box for as long as the species has existed; and because there are hundreds of outside-the-box social innovations springing up today all around the world.  But at the same time, as a matter of practical daily life, nothing could be harder.   When you get your pink slip and no longer have a job and can no longer pay your rent and end up sleeping in your car and dumpster-diving for food, then it is your turn to be a victim of the basic rules of the economic game.   They are tough rules.  They fight back when they are challenged.   Defeating them will not be easy, even though defeating them is in the best interests of every single human being, every plant, and every animal on the planet.

Gavin Andersson, an experienced on-the-ground grassroots community organizer from Botswana, sums up what I am trying to say with his concept of ‘unbounded organization’ (www.unboundedorganization.org).   Unbounded organization has two simple rules:

  1. Align across all sectors for the common good.
  2. Do what works.


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.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 15 Apr 2019.

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5 Responses to “When You Get to the End of the Road It Is Time to Think Outside the Box”

  1. Gary Corseri says:

    Thanks for posting!

    This is one of the best articles, and one of the best “lead-editorials” I have read at the TMS site in the past few years.

    It is wide-ranging in scope, but principally focused on our world’s situation now: “at the end of the road”; i.e., we’re at a parlous crossroads where modern economic theories (actually based on Roman Law and other ancient, now crumbling ideologies) and “categorical imperatives” (Kant’s phrase for a viable moral system) just don’t mesh!

    Despite the breezy style of his writing, Professor Howard’s acumen and intellectual prowess shine throughout this essay. And, unlike most modern commentators, Howard writes from a non-partisan, universal perspective. (As Hamlet said, “‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished!)

    What next, what now, whither?–we wonder with him, as he alludes to and quotes from great thinkers of the past and challenges all of us now to re-think, re-consider our fragile, imperiled, Notre-Dame-is-burning world!

  2. Gary Corseri says:

    Sorry…. Writing fast in our fast-paced world; usually not best. I meant Professor Richards above!

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