Who Are We? Where Are We Going? How Will We Get There?

EDITORIAL, 22 Mar 2021

#685 | Howard Richards – TRANSCEND Media Service

It may help to precede my answers with a methodological remark, starting from Heidegger`s Jedes Fragen ist ein Suchen (Every question is a seeking. Sein und Zeit [Being and Time], on or near p. 5 in every German or English edition I know); I seek to articulate a vision, a guide to action. Also to choose some words and to put them together in ways that are brief enough to be readable, clear enough to be intelligible, and true enough to be adaptive.

My answers are:

  • Who are we? We are the species whose ecological niche is the creation of cultures.
  • Where are we going? We are going to a global mosaic of green and open societies.
  • How will we get there? We will get there by transforming capitalism.

Who are we? We are the species whose ecological niche is the creation of cultures.

The same natural sciences that deconstruct pre-modern stories that facilitated social cohesion in centuries past, construct ecological worldviews facilitating social cohesion in centuries to come. They give a rational basis and an emotional basis for creating functional communities.

The physical necessity of ties that bind is demonstrable.  Hard-wired tendencies of human emotions favour cooperation.

Tom Berry and others have proposed the earth story as a community-building story for the diverse global community

The earth story is a comprehensive metanarrative that honours diversity, includes everyone, and makes sense of rational progress.   It has the simple virtue of being true.  It is what really happened.  We, humanity, are, in fact, creators of cultures.  We have always been creators of cultures.   We are biologically coded to be culturally coded.  We have the capacity to invent cultural codes that can be passed on to a next generation that will modify them as they learn them.  This capacity has given us an evolutionary advantage over other species.

Where are we going?  We are going to a global mosaic of green and open societies.

A global mosaic

Whatever improvements we may make to meet human needs better, to include the excluded, and to harmonize with nature, we must start with what is. We do not make history on our own terms.  We make it on terms previous history has dealt us. Previous history has dealt us a diverse world.

The premises of transformation must necessarily be working hypotheses tailored to a particular here and a particular now.

As Aristotle observed – more than two millennia before Emile Durkheim made the same observation – the result of the wholesale sweeping away of the existing norms is anomie.   Anomie, also known as social disintegration, leads us away from, not towards, the social cohesion needed to cope with humanity´s physical challenges.

It is not feasible to challenge the rise of the extreme liberalism that Frédéric Vandenbergh has called pathological autonomy by crafting a new global communitarian moral code to which the bulk of humanity could pledge allegiance.  Miraculously, we do have a global consensus (on paper at least) on basic human rights (which now include the right to an identity and to a culture).  We have an earth story. Both must be supplemented with a post-colonial ethic of mutual respect for diversity.

To get from norms to actions we need what Catherine Hoppers calls “discourse coalitions.”  For example, a Muslim, a capitalist, a socialist, a Hindu, and so on, can work together manos a la obra (putting their hands to the task) –  articulating what they are doing each in their own terms. The physical bottom lines – such as clean drinking water and reversing desertification—are the same.  The discourse coalitions respect identities.

Consequently, if we are going anywhere, we are going to an inclusive global mosaic of diverse cultures each functional on its own terms and in its own way.


The reason why we are going to a green future is that we cannot possibly go to any other future.   Failing to maintain the delicate equilibriums of the biosphere is not an option.

Human cultures whose constitutive rules and basic norms drive capital accumulation incompatible with the laws of physics, the laws of chemistry, and the facts of biology are not sustainable.


In his book Collapse (2005), Jared Diamond relates how several traditional societies destroyed themselves without knowing what they were doing.  Modern societies seek to avoid collapse due to ignorance by deliberately organizing themselves to   criticize themselves.  They are, in principle, open societies.  Every act of government is scrutinized by opposition parties that may become the next government.   Institutionalized science is self-governing through peer review.  A free press and freedom of speech guarantee that no news of predictable disasters will remain hidden.  The unintended bad consequences of good intentions educate.  They teach the experts and the public not to repeat the same mistakes.  The classic case advocating an open society is The Open Society and its Enemies (1944) by Karl Popper.

However, I employ “open” not in a Popperian sense, but rather in a hyper-Popperian broader sense.  For two reasons.

First, Popper was often dogmatic and sometimes clearly wrong about what science is and what it is not.

Second, in his later years Popper fell in with a tough crowd known as the Mont Pelerin Society.  Milton Friedman, another member, in his speech accepting the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics (1976), saw inflation and in the long run greater unemployment as unintended consequences of attempts to construct a welfare state with full employment.  Popper´s philosophy became identified with a school of thought which held that the verdict of science was that social democracy failed.    In the words of another member, Friedrich von Hayek, it would be “fatal conceit” to try it again.

But if Popper had followed the advice he himself had given as a younger man, he would not have given up on liberté, égalité et fraternité.  Instead he would have considered treating as variables some of the parameters unsuccessful social democracies had treated as constants, such as free trade, growth measured by GDP, and what Bowles and Gintis call “the exit power of capital.”

Consequently, I use a hyper-Popperian sense of “open,” when I conclude that the future we are going to, if we are going anywhere, is an inclusive global mosaic of green and open societies.

How will we get there?  We will get there by transforming capitalism.

I will develop this thought as a gloss on a line borrowed from Amartya Sen:

“Capitalism can generate mean streets and strained lives unless it is restrained and supplemented by other –often nonmarket—institutions.”  (Journal of Economic Literature Vol. 41 [2003] p. 1247)

I have italicized three words and slightly altered others to disentangle them from a context irrelevant here.

By restraining capitalism

When we restrain, we impose conditions. The government decrees for example that firms must negotiate wages and working conditions with labour unions, or close.  Or reduce their ecological footprint, or close.

Restraint gives business a choice.  Obey or quit.  Although there are usually intermediate penalties short of closure, like fines, the principle is that a firm may not operate in a territory without the consent of that territory´s government.

Companies often choose option two.   They quit.    Or they move to another place where there is less restraint.

There is an elephant in the room.  However many academic discussions there may be about whether market failure justifies government intervention, a government has little power to intervene.   As Jeffrey Winters puts it, major economic players choose which laws they will obey when they choose where to locate.

Sen´s suggestion that we could transform capitalism by restraining it, turns into the question, How can territorial governments restrain global capital?

I would submit that the first thing we must do to find an answer is to cleanse our minds of mythologies that portray globalization as brotherly and sisterly love, as if big were beautiful; as if every new common market and every ceding of national sovereignty to the universal principles enforced by the World Trade Organization were a victory for universal human solidarity.  The opposite is the case; small is beautiful; human scale is beautiful; a global mosaic of open societies capable of governing themselves and choosing their own paths will be beautiful when we achieve it.

Second, I feel gratitude for spiritually and ethically enlightened self-restraint among capitalists.   In recent decades, as the power of democracies to restrain capitalism has been dissolving, there has been a  remarkable increase of self-restraint by  capitalists  It has been demanded and monitored more by civil society, consumers, and institutional investors than by governments.  The stars are intelligent capitalists.  They see the handwriting on the wall:    Unrestrained capitalism is taking everybody directly to where nobody wants to go:  to injustice, violence, chaos, uncontrollable pandemics, and ecological disaster.

Karl Marx, in the preface to the first edition of Capital made it clear that he was not blaming capitalists for capitalism.  Capitalists, like his dear friend Friedrich Engels, were quite capable of having good intentions.  But capitalists, like everyone else, were prisoners of social relations they did not create.

If Karl Marx could believe that some capitalists sincerely desire to transform a system that holds them and everyone else captive, why can’t we?

By supplementing capitalism

Given that globalization has weakened the capacity of governments to restrain capitalism, let us consider supplementing capitalism.

We could  rely more on municipal water and light companies, public banks, non-profit hospitals and schools, state-owned and province-owned enterprises, families,  public-private joint ventures,  worker-owned enterprises, permaculture, mutual insurance companies, pension funds owned by their participants,  public ownership of minerals and other natural resources, unions, nature preserves, eleemosynary foundations, public parks and beaches, community currencies,  community development,  cooperatives,   monasteries, and the people´s economy,  to name a few.

The people´s economy (the economia popular of Jose Luis Coraggio) consists of small enterprises whose main purpose is to support a household and whose main resource is the labour of its owners.  It is a supplement to capitalism, not a species of capitalism.

For Sen and his co-author Jean Dreze, markets are among the instruments that can be used to promote human capabilities. Their ideal is not a bounded two-toned world, where markets organize most human activity, backed up where necessary by governments.  It is a full colour unbounded world.

Many people  have plausible reasons to fear that change may dismantle existing institutions that have brought prosperity and freedom to many people.  Change might again –as it sometimes has—break what works more than it fixes what does not work.

An unbounded open approach responds to their concerns.  It creates and makes visible so many options that the number of situations where the only possible way to fix what does not work is to break what does work approaches zero.  Sen and Dreze appear to have had some such point in mind when they rejected two-option models, market or government.  L´imagination au pouvoir!

By creating more nonmarket livelihoods

Markets not sufficiently “restrained and supplemented by other –often nonmarket—institutions” inevitably mass produce losers.  To win in a market receivables must exceed payables.   Buyers must buy whatever one has to sell.  They must buy enough of it at high enough prices to produce revenues sufficient to cover expenses and to provide an income to live on.

But for reasons that are not anybody´s fault, or the fault of any social class, but simply the fault of logic, not everybody can be an economic winner in a marketplace not supplemented by sufficient nonmarket employment.

Not everybody can sell more than they buy. A sale and a purchase are the same thing seen from two points of view, that of the seller and that of the buyer.  Not everybody can have more receivables than payables.  Summed over the whole market, receivables must equal payables; so, if some people are winners whose income exceeds their purchases; others must be losers.  Many losers sleep in their cars or on the sidewalk; many try to cross the Mediterranean in leaky boats, many walk on foot from Honduras to the US border.

There are many useful ways people can contribute to society without generating revenue from sales.  There are not enough paying customers to produce revenues sufficient to justify hiring everybody who needs a good job and paying them good wages.  This does not mean that the unemployed, the precariously and irregularly employed and the underpaid are not persons.  The economy should be serving then, not rejecting them.

To take practical steps toward including people the market excludes, one might review one´s own budget to see what, if anything, one is able to contribute to funding non-market employment.  It merits priority.  Without dignified livelihoods for all, it is hard to imagine an end to racism, or war, or fascism, or the dying of the biosphere –or any of the evils whose underlying causes include the humiliation of economic losers.

If one is an entrepreneur one can define one´s vocation as creating social surplus to contribute to society.  This can usually be put in writing by changing just a few words in a business plan.

If one identifies with two centuries of struggle of working people for social justice and/or with the achievements of anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-sexist movements, etc etc; and whatever one´s identity may be or may become; one can find a way to join a discourse coalition whose members have in common that they care, they understand, and they are activists transforming the system.


Prof. Howard Richards teaches in the EMBA program at the University of Cape Town and is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. His new book, Economic Theory and Community Development: Why Putting Community First Is Essential to Our Survival, with Gavin Andersson and Malose Langa as co-authors, is expected to be published in July 2021 by Dignity Press. 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 EconomyThe 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 22 Mar 2021.

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