Selectively Unwalking the Path of History
EDITORIAL, 19 Oct 2020
#663 | Howard Richards – TRANSCEND Media Service
I would like to help you out. Which way did you come in?
I would like to suggest a way to make the impossible possible, starting from the premise that the basic juridical principles and cultural premises of the global economy now make it impossible for humanity and the biosphere to survive the crises they generate much longer. If we get past today s calamities, I assume the same causes that generated them will generate more calamities unless human institutions are radically altered. They will generate more incompetence coping with new and worse virus attacks, more wildfires, more extreme inequality, more desperate economic refugees crossing borders as illegal migrants and more hostile reactions against them, more extreme weather, more violence, more insane politics, more racism … As a methodology for radically altering them I suggest selectively unwalking the historical and social construction of reality that led us to them.
It is not that I am unaware of the horrors of the past, or ungrateful for the blessings of modernity. Among those blessings I count the lessons we learn, and the motivation we feel, because of the perennial failure of modernity to keep its promises – its liberté, égalité, fraternité (1789); its government of the people, by the people and for the people (1863); its treaty outlawing war (1928); its universal declaration of human rights (1948); its Paris Agreement on Climate Change (2016)….. If the promises had never been made, we would feel less inspiration and less indignation. We would know less about how the world works.
Meanwhile, modernity has also brought concrete achievements to be grateful for. Its achievements counsel us to avoid solving our not-yet-solved problems in ways that unsolve problems that have already been solved –like the problem of how to stock a supermarket with quality goods at affordable prices.
My focus below is on the Judaeo-Christian tradition, because it is my own, and also for a more important reason. The modern world system began as the European world system. European religion was its interlocutor. Starting from Europe and to some extent from the original 13 United States, it expanded to include the rest of the world mainly by force of arms. The social construction of the basic jurisprudence, economics, and civil religion that constitute the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD, the stock exchanges, and banks etc… has been path- dependent. Indeed, all the world’s organizations existing today, legal and illegal, public and private, military and civilian, are endpoints, for now, at least partly, of processes that began in Europe. Europe itself is not a true continent, but a peninsula of Asia that first took on an identity of its own as a separate quasi-continent because it was “Christendom.” The institutions of today s hyper modern globalized world, invariably have origins in capitalism´s long struggle to be born in the place where it was born.
Below I advocate unwalking paths to today´s hypermodernity that started in Europe´s pre-modernity and reach back to Europe s own roots in the Near East. I happen to know people whose nations first experienced Europe by being conquered by it. And who also strive to achieve the best of both worlds by synthesizing the best of the old with the best of the new. Their traditional contexts are African, Pre-Columbian American, Muslim, Hindu and Chinese. Judging by his remarks in 1978 when he was invited to give the commencement address at Harvard, Alexander Solzhenitsyn pursued a similar synthesis for Russia. He seized a commencement day to diagnose an overdose of modernity crippling the United States. Too many Americans had swallowed whole Denis Diderot s 18th century definition of liberty: Liberty means you are free to do whatever the law does not forbid.
Unwalking from Contract to Status
My Christian (with Jewish roots) unwalks are parallel to their mostly post-colonial unwalks. Mine start by unwalking the path from status to contract that according to Sir Henry Maine is the path leading out of a traditional society and defining a modern society. Unwalking the historical path, selectively dismantling the path from status to contract which, according to Sir Henry Maine’s famous theory, first published in 1861, made us modern, we find that every victory for human social rights is a victory for status. It brings us closer to the day when we can say to every just-born child, whose first impulse is to nurse at its mother´s breast, “Yes dear, your mother´s message is true. You really are safe and secure here in this world where you have arrived. You are not destined to grow up to be a human resource who may or not have value in the labour market. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a promise humanity made to itself, and it is keeping its promise. You will grow up to have dignity, to have the status of a person, and therefore you will have health care, you will have employment, you will have education and an adequate pension in your old age”.
As the Bishops of Chile have proposed, true liberty is not the liberty of the emancipated slave, free to offer herself or himself for sale in the labour market, who may and may not find a buyer who calculates that it will be profitable to offer them an employment contract. And who may and may not have a bed and a bedroom to sleep at night, who may and may not have medical attention when sick or injured, and may or may not have support sustaining them beyond retirement age; depending on whether they succeed in selling themselves in the labour market at a high enough price to earn enough money to rent or buy a dwelling, to pay health insurance premiums, and to save for old age. True freedom is the freedom of the member of the family who is loved with unconditional love.
Unwalk Property as Domination Back to Property as Responsibility
To help us unwalk the historical path from property as domination to property and talent as gifts, to be administered to serve others (Luke 12:48; 1 Corinthians 4: 7), we call on the historians and anthropologists who demonstrate with facts that there is nothing universal or natural about the absolute right to property many today assume to be universal and natural. Not only is it not universal. It is not even our own western tradition.
I say “with facts¨” to draw a contrast with the fictions of the modern jurisprudence that triumphed in 17th and 18rh century Europe. Today, as we struggle to cope with Covid, stalled economies, and mass unemployment likely to be permanent, the early modern inflexible fictions compete with functional and pragmatic philosophies that try to make law part of the solution and not part of the problem. An example of inflexibility: the fiction that our distant ancestors were noble savages (or once there was pure reason, or self-evident truth, or founding fathers) in whom Nature had already instilled the principle of absolute property rights. They came together to found a society. They did so signing a contract that provided that the absolute rights of property owners were eternal and could not be changed by their descendants. As Michel Foucault has shown, modern jurisprudence has been based on the fiction that the basis of law is such a contract only because the partisans of that ideology won the civil wars.
If we unwalk European history just a few decades back beyond the French Revolution of 1789 and the British Revolution of 1689, we will find that European traditions themselves, and not only post-colonial peoples recovering their identities after liberation from European domination, support caring and sharing. In the West itself, today (2020) there are waves of support for communities of solidarity, social entrepreneurship, green new deals, sharing by connecting extra stuff with somebody else´s need by internet, free software, and businesses serving all stakeholders –including the natural environment. There are waves of support for rebuilding social safety nets, undoing the capture of productivity gains by the 1%, and outlawing all the many unethical but legal rackets like stock buybacks and hiding money in secret trusts.
Unwalking history, we find that the West itself, like the post-colonial East and South, is recovering its identity. Neither Jean Calvin nor Martin Luther (and certainly not his namesake Martin Luther King Jr.) would disagree with Saint Thomas Aquinas when he writes: whatever you own is not only yours; it also belongs to the needy whom you can help with your surplus. (Summa Theologica, 2da Question 32, Art. 5. Answer 2)
Unwalking the Path from Money-Driven to Mission-Driven
This last proposal jumps on a bandwagon that is already rolling. It has been rolling for a long time, and it has recently taken centre-stage as a psychological insight capable of solving the unsolved problems of economics. It was ready to roll when Moses said to the Lord “Here am I.” (Exodus 3:4) It rolled when the Lord sent Moses on a mission to free captive Israel from bondage in Egypt, saying “Certainly I will be with thee; and this shall be a token unto thee, that I have sent thee: …) (Exodus 3:12) The mission of Moses became the central theme of the Torah, and therefore a fundamental component of the Christian Old Testament, and an integral part of the common heritage of the People of the Book recognized by Islam. In the twentieth century it was the centrepiece of Liberation Theology.
Earlier, when western scholars had begun to take the East seriously, some had already hypothesized s that perhaps Hindu and Buddhist concepts of dharma performed similar social functions and were older. But it does not stop there. The more science learns about human beings, the more it learns that we are creatures who need answers to the questions: Who am I? and Why am I? Victor Frankl was able to show that people who live for a purpose beyond themselves are more resilient. They are more likely to survive and remain sane even in the extreme hardship and humiliation of a Nazi Concentration Camp.
Other psychologists link motivation to identity. The news is not always good. Although human genetic potential is biologically coded to be culturally coded, and cultures are unendingly varied, some outcomes are more likely than others. Under favourable conditions most humans whatever their culture feel empathy for those who suffer and are loyal to the conventions of the clan or nation they identify with. Nevertheless, they may feel indifference or hostility toward people unlike themselves. The concept of universal human rights is not an instinct. It must be learned. We should look at proposals like those of some African philosophers to teach ancient principles of Ubuntu (“I am because you are”) as contributions to universal human rights education.
The practice of Saint Paul the Apostle, the author of the first Christian texts, makes a special contribution to today´s bandwagon carrying numerous versions of mission -driven responsible and green economics. Paul´s business was making tents. When he had made enough tents to earn his own living, he deliberately went on making more tents to create a surplus to share with those in need. (Acts 20: 33-35) As to himself, Paul did not covet luxuries. Nowadays what Paul did making tents has morphed into managing to create social value.
Unwalking the historical path that led us to where we are, we humans should seize the day, carpe diem. Mass unemployment, plus today´s bandwagon for ethical and purposeful living, plus a continuous stream of super- productive technologies coming on line, add up to opportunity. We should transition to the day when humans will spend their time doing intrinsically valuable activities (sports, music, science, philosophy, dance, religion, studies, gardening , yoga, etc.) while advanced technology produces more and better goods and services, and creates more surplus to share.
Prof. Howard Richards teaches in the EMBA program at the University of Cape Town. He 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. Undergraduate work at Yale. J.D. Stanford Law School, MA and PhD in Philosophy from UC Santa Barbara, Advanced Certificate in Education-Oxford, Ph.D. 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 in PDF on line), The Evaluation of Cultural Action, Following Foucault: The Trail of the Fox (with Catherine Hoppers and Evelin Lindner), (on Amazon as an e book), Unbounded Organizing in Community (with Gavin Andersson, also on Amazon), Rethinking Thinking (with Catherine Hoppers), Hacia otras Economias co-edited with Raul Gonzalez, Solidaridad, 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 19 Oct 2020.
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