Embrace Communities to Save Humanity and the Planet

EDITORIAL, 28 Dec 2020

#673 | Howard Richards – TRANSCEND Media Service

Now is a time to emphasize what we should always do anyway, namely: align across sectors for the common good.   The unbounded idea includes sharing surplus, moving resources from where they are not needed to where they are needed, following the ancient principle Pope Francis is now repeating in one form or another almost every day: our property belongs not only to us but also to those we can help with our surplus. It is about peace by peaceful means; education, ethics, and practical applications; more than about playing hardball with people who choose to live by a different philosophy.

In this editorial I refer especially to the United States, where the future of democracy now hangs in the balance.   Surely similar considerations apply at least to some extent elsewhere.  Recently the University of Chicago historian Kathleen Belew and others have been meticulously documenting how widespread, well-organized, and well-armed anti-democratic movements are.   When their members are arrested and brought to trial (so far only in red states) they are regularly acquitted because juries share their values.  The Trump presidency emboldened them.  Her main publication, based on her doctoral thesis, is Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.  Harvard University Press, 2018.  She and other specialists update it and relate it to current events in frequent statements that appear in the press and online.

I will discuss two priorities in today´s situation.  A first priority is rescuing the Republican Party from Trump.  That party should revert to its old trademark: the business-friendly party but emphasizing a corollary:  The government is business-friendly, and business is community-friendly.  This formulation acknowledges what has always been true: modern republics were not designed to solve social problems and cannot solve them.     It is a point that was emphasized by Joseph Schumpeter when he resigned as Minister of Finance of Austria in 1918.  It was re -emphasized in The Legitimation Crisis by Jurgen Habermas in 1974, and demonstrated in a cross-cultural study of the failure of seven social democracies The Dilemmas of Social Democracies by Joanna Swanger and myself in 2006.

Given that centrally planned command economies do not work either, many people are pinning their hopes –without necessarily expressing them in our vocabulary—on what a group of us call unbounded organizing.  We and others are finding that the likely candidates for saving humanity from its civilizational crisis in the USA and elsewhere are alignments across sectors –public, private, civic, labour, education, faith communities etc.—for the common good. The alignment across sectors in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa is an important precedent.

On the need for cross-sectoral collaboration the World Social Forum (with its emphasis on organizing territories) and the World Economic Forum are reaching similar conclusions.

Given that in the USA and in most places during Covid and post Covid nearly all businesses are relying on some form of government bailout or stimulus to survive, it is an opportune time to make an ethical point with which few would disagree: business friendly government and community friendly business go together.

At ground level, community-friendly business is nothing new in the USA.    In every town business people whose main objective is to support a family and leave something to their kids (who form what the Argentine economist Jose Luis Coraggio calls the people´s economy) join service clubs like Kiwanis, Rotary or Lions; while the kids join the Girl Scouts or the Boy Scouts and often attend schools that require community service to graduate   In many cases the whole family attends a church that still remembers that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

But how can people who are not Republicans at all contribute to separating the Republican Party from Trump?  If they try, will they not unintentionally persuade that party to keep Trump because it will appear that his magnetic vote-getting attraction is what the Democrats most fear?

My suggestion is to bank on the momentum community service already has, and apart from that not to approach politics directly.   Instead volunteer for activities that build healthy communities where violence in general recedes and positive peace in general proceeds.  Community-building is what we have to do anyway to make homo sapiens a viable species and earth a viable planet, with or without the threat to democracy in the USA existing today and not likely to go away soon.  Now is an appropriate time to showcase it.   Plentiful practical easy-to-follow advice on how to go about community-building, supported by credible research, is available from the Search Institute.   The focus is on youth, but the outcomes affect all ages.

Although this particular source of practical guidance may and may not be applicable in a culture different from the one where the research validating it was done, I would assert the following general principles: humanity and the planet need more community and less economy.  In many cases there exist experience and evidence to provide rational guidance when devoting resources to achieving that end. (Another humble example, Andersson and Richards, Unbounded Organizing in Community, 2015)

But what about the stratospheric level, as distinct from the ground level?   What about  multi-national corporations, Silicon Valley, the fourth industrial revolution, globalization, the concentration of wealth in the top 1%, the unprecedented levels of unpayable public and private debt worldwide, megabanks, massive tax evasion, the military industrial complexes, the  endless wars and the rise of China?    In this world where everything depends on everything else, none of this is unrelated to the crisis of democracy in the United States.  But I only have room for two priority points, so I must set the stratospheric level aside for now.  My second priority point is that something must be done to relieve the pain, conceptual errors, and humiliation that drive the crisis.  Trump had black supporters and named blacks to posts in his administration, but nevertheless he did not clearly distance himself from white supremacy.  The millions who voted for him still exist. Their motives for supporting him–including the motives I am calling pain, error, and humiliation– still exist too.

The pain is indicated by many indicators.  The most dramatic is declining life expectancy.   Statistical analysis shows it to be due entirely to earlier deaths related to despair and depression in the sector of the population that voted most solidly for Trump, the poorly educated white males.  Their premature deaths are often due to alcoholism, drug overdoses, suicide, and neglect of medical advice among those to whom it matters little whether they live or die.

Perhaps the most important conceptual error is the unquestioned belief that it is possible for everyone to succeed in a pure free market economy.  Success means making money.  It means receivables exceed payables.  Income exceeds expenses.   Sales exceed purchases.  But summed over the whole economy, receivables equal payables, sales equal purchases, etc; because one person´s receivable is someone else´s payable, one person´s sale is someone else´s purchase.   MLK Jr understood this and other inherent limitations of free market capitalism perfectly, although he was often reluctant to say so in public.  He knew that his people, the historically oppressed blacks, and other historically oppressed peoples like the Native Americans, could only really be free when all were free.  He proposed a radically different economy, which he frequently named (following the philosopher Josiah Royce) as “a beloved community.”

Humiliation happens when you are put down, exposed as not what you pretend to be and are supposed to be.  For example, you are humiliated when you are supposed to be a good mother or father bringing up your children as a good parent, buying them music lessons and Christmas presents, but the services you have to sell the labour market is not buying.

How can we relieve the pain, the confusion, and the humiliation?   I would suggest as a starting point admitting that we do not know, and then committing ourselves – as individuals and as civic, educational, medical, business and public institutions—to trying, doing the best we can do, learning from experience and from lifelong education.

Although Trump lost the election, he and his down-ballot supporters did better than the pollsters predicted, probably because the voters interviewed did not want to confess their racism to the interviewer.  Then in secret they cast a racist vote. That racism still runs deep should not be surprising.  Psychology (e.g. the experiments of Muzafer Sherif) teaches that humans naturally tend to prefer people like themselves.  It is a preference that easily escalates to racism.   As John Dewey emphasized, equal rights for all human beings must be taught and learned.

For the incoming administration, Trump is a hard act to follow.   Trump can claim to have brought about full employment, record corporate profits, and record high share prices on the stock exchanges.

How did he do it?  By borrowing incredible sums, driving federal debt alone above 28 trillion dollars, and, to top it off, creating another 3 trillion by fiat, out of thin air.  He had the good luck to be president when interest rates were near zero.  He was able to cut taxes, pass out money to the public, raise the salaries of the military, and provide corporates with nearly interest free loans that management could use to buy back the company´s own stock. Buybacks drove up share prices and, on that basis, qualified management for bonuses.  Now Trump insists that he was re-elected and was cheated out of a second term by massive fraud.

Indeed, a hard act to follow.   The incoming administration is compelled, like it or not, to continue Trump´s unlimited borrowing, hoping, and praying that interest rates do not return to more normal levels.  Facing physical reality, Biden is also compelled to reverse Trump´s complete dismantling of environmental protection.   He is compelled because the alternative is eco-suicide.   And what if, for example, Biden is unwilling or unable to continue bullying Germany into buying expensive American gas when Russian gas is so much cheaper; thus, causing the loss of even more of the jobs that Trump gained?

Economic growth under Biden and Harris will probably be slow or turn negative.  For peacemakers, what others spin as economic policy failures will be opportunities to demonstrate in practice that eco-friendly low growth, sharing and caring, doing more with less, is a good thing, not a bad thing.  But will the majority pay any attention to us?

In general, the threats to democracy, and other existential threats, in the USA and in the rest of the world are far from over.  Joseph Schumpeter, best known as the father of the theory of innovation, and also known (as mentioned above) for declaring that modern republics were never designed to solve social problems, would be the first to see that  government alone doing what governments usually do, cannot save us.  There must be innovative policies.  There must be innovative contributions from all sectors.  Ascending just once for a moment to the stratospheric level, Big Business must take to heart the words of Peter Drucker:

In modern society there is no other leadership group but managers. If the managers of our major institutions, and especially of business, do not take responsibility for the common good, no one else can or will.”

But big business and big government and the great universities and honest major media and enlightened law enforcement and the major labour unions and the big philanthropic foundations working together cannot save us without the contributions of the lasagne moms, the girl scouts, the boy scouts, the nurses who work overtime, and the third grade teachers.

And the contributions of the poorest of the poor.   How do the poorest of the poor achieve dignity and happiness working together to solve their own and each other´s problems?  This is a question Joe and Jill Biden can easily find an answer to, because two experts on the subject are good friends of theirs: namely Barack and Michelle Obama.  They interned and studied with John McKnight, author of Community and its Counterfeits and other must-reads.  The rest of us, who have fewer opportunities to dine with Barack and Michelle, can google Asset Based Community Development.

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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, 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, ArgentinaAvailable free on the blogspot lahoradelaetica.


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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 28 Dec 2020.

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