Is It Still Possible to Reverse Humanity’s March toward Self-Destruction?

EDITORIAL, 20 Sep 2021

#711 | Howard Richards – TRANSCEND Media Service

Yes.  Today the conflicts of interest that created today´s unsustainable world no longer exist.

The coming into existence of the institutions of capitalist modernity might be seen as the result of rhetorical victories convincing the classes and the masses of the validity of the arguments of their advocates.  These are chronicled by Albert Hirschman and others.  But they might also be seen as the triumph of institutions and their accompanying ideologies serving the interests of the stronger.   Extending the conclusions of Michel Foucault´s Society Must Be Defended,

  • liberal ethics, prescribing that bogus rights trump flesh and blood goods,
  • jurisprudence setting property rights in stone,
  • irresponsible freedom, and
  • orthodox economics are, all four of them, conceptually based on mythologies immune to revision in the light of experience and evidence.

They became dominant because of the military victories of the stronger (for examples, the New Model Army of Oliver Cromwell, the parliamentary army led by William of Orange, and the superior military technologies deployed by the East India Company in India, by the British and French in the opium wars against China, by the American commodore Perry to open Japan to foreign trade, and generally by Europeans and North Americans on all continents).

Gandhi, of course, and peace philosophy generally, take a different stance, claiming that the power of military force has been greatly overestimated, while the power of truth has been greatly underestimated.

Today there is a new reason to believe that truth has a chance and that the deathward course of history can be reversed. It is that the existing world economy no longer serves anybody’s interests. Continuing on the path of social disintegration and ecocide that we are now on does not serve the interests of even one human being, no matter how rich that human being may be. No not one. We can now speak of unbounded organization, aligning across sectors for the common good, doing what works for the good of all without being partisans of one class against another class, while achieving what the partisans of the working class have always wanted. All classes have the same interest—namely survival in harmony with nature in a society with a high degree of equality. A dignity economy.  As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, a world house where the human family lives in beloved communities.

Today, nothing would better serve the true interests of the rich than an end to poverty.

Yesterday´s burning question of the exploitation of the surplus value produced by labour and appropriated by capital addressed a problem J.T.  Kumarappa (“Gandhi´s economist”) set out to aufheben (solve and include in a higher synthesis.  Kumarappa framed the progress or regress of economics in terms of moral development or moral decay.  Thus, he transcended both Marx´s critique of the private appropriation of the social product and Rostow´s Stages of Economic Growth. But today the stealing from labour of what it produces –a concept ultimately derived from John Locke´s concept of property, which in turn was part of European modernity´s rejection of Europe´s own traditional communitarian ideals– is ceasing to be a question. Labour is ceasing to be the main factor of production.  Today when investors want to increase productivity and so increase production, they invest in technology and dismiss redundant employees.   The fate of the mine workers of South Africa is an emblematic example.

The burning question is now, who will get the benefit of advanced technology?  A care ethic or a solidarity ethic answers:  everyone, including the other species that share the planet with us. Psychology, epidemiology, and other sciences are learning that the privileged classes would be healthier and more secure in a more equal and more caring economy.  Everybody would be happier in the “good society” as Abraham Maslow conceived it, where basic security would lead to Erik Erikson´s basic trust for people of all ages.

Capitalism, conceived as domination by an overwhelming need to create favourable conditions for capital accumulation whatever might be the social and ecological costs, is not in anybody’s interest. Capitalism conceived as freedom to engage in business, where freedom itself is conceived as responsibility and business itself is conceived as a social institution intended to serve society, can be in everybody´s interest.

Thus reforming capitalism by redefinition would grant the point Gandhi made when he pointed out to his dear friend Nehru that if we are doomed to fail in achieving the moral reform of people in business, we would in all likelihood  also be doomed to fail in achieving the moral reform of people in politics.  It would acknowledge the research findings of the neoliberal economist Gary Becker showing that persons in the public sector who in principle are serving the public often are no less self-interested than people in the private sector.   And it would grant (with some reservations) Fredrich von Hayek´s epistemological  point: the world is too complex for public planning to be a substitute for the countless decisions private actors make every day managing limited pieces of the global economy.   It would call for the cooperation of all sectors, private, civic, and public for the common good

Those who, like Gandhi himself, prefer the word “socialism” to the word “capitalism” would be entitled to  call redefined capitalism socialism (to praise it, not to condemn it)  Those who find that both capitalism and socialism are obsolete words that can safely be dropped from today´s vocabularies would get a free pass.

There is a precedent for allowing such linguistic flexibility—allowing the same thing to be called either capitalism or socialism– in the varying descriptions of the Swedish Model back in the days when it was a great success.  Partisans of capitalism took Sweden to be proof that capitalism works, sometimes calling it “mature capitalism.”  Partisans of socialism like Gunnar and Ava Myrdal and their friends Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru, viewed Sweden as an early pioneer of the shared prosperity that was destined to be all of humanity´s social democratic future.

Whatever you call it, there is a pressing necessity is to create the surpluses that will make it possible to achieve shared and sustainable dignified livelihoods for all, and then to transfer surpluses from where they are generated –the huge surpluses of Apple, Google, and Facebook are samples of more to come—to where they are needed.  The common good requires, as a first social priority inseparable from first ecological priorities, the social integration of the excluded.  It requires welcoming the excluded –the people walking barefoot from Honduras to the Mexican border, and the people crossing the Mediterranean in leaky boats are samples of more to come.  Whatever you call it, organizing human life to make it sustainable will require sharing prosperity with tomorrow´s majorities who will be redundant in the labour market.  But the contemporary imperative to produce enough to meet everyone´s needs is subject to contemporary constraints.

A key constraint is that high tech must not crowd out but rather supplement human scale agriculture and industry: for examples urban agriculture on vacant city lots and rooftops, permaculture, home-grown fruits and vegetables, the rice farmers of Bali.   The purpose is to feed everybody, yes, but it is to feed the soul as well as the body.    Biophilia (“the urge to affiliate with other forms of life” –E.O. Wilson) is a part of human nature that will not be satisfied by a nutritionally adequate diet produced by distant industrial processes replacing conventional agriculture.  Another constraint is a sine qua non: the sustainable human institutions of the future must resolve the deadly conflict between the economic necessity of growth and the ecological necessity to reverse consuming every year more resources than the earth can renew.

Dare I say that this requires stabilizing or reversing the sheer numbers of people on the planet?

At this point, where I mention the need for liberation from “the economic necessity of growth” in order to “reverse consuming every year more resources than the earth can renew” I am tempted to change my answer to my initial question “Is it still possible to reverse humanity’s march toward self-destruction?” from yes to no.  Why? Because as we speak most governments are fighting the economic impact of Covid by promoting growth.   They try to keep the economy going and growing by funding consumption, by keeping banks solvent, and by subsidizing business.    All is done, ostensibly at least, to get people back to work as soon as possible.  After the crisis the same mental model will be employed to try to raise growth rates that in most of the world were already lagging before Covid, attempting to bring down the numbers of those who were even then rejected by the labour market.

Why does this policy response of governments to crises tempt me to change my answer from yes to no?  Because there is no possible way to create consumer demand sufficient to bring into existence employers who will find it profitable to hire everyone in the world who needs a job, and to pay them good wages out of the revenue derived from the sale of the products the new hires contribute to making.   Simplifying, the wage funds produced by sales of the products made by the wage-earners cannot possibly fund dignified livelihoods for everyone.  If we are ever going to be a human family living in a world house, some of the sisters and brothers doing useful work will have to be paid by tapping profits and rents.

Mother Teresa was literally telling the truth when she said, “Poverty will end when we learn to share with the poor.”  But since (as witnesses testify) she would run from the room when the other nuns began to talk about social structure, it would appear that she did not understand the full meaning of her words.  In their full meaning, they mean that if the poor ever become not poor, it will be for the same reason that the rich are not poor now.  It will be because surpluses will be channelled their way.  Their work can be funded by income flows derived from assets like, to give just two examples, real estate and shares in corporations.  And it is not necessary for tomorrow´s poor to imitate yesterday´s idle rich by also living without working, living on handouts.  The ex-poor can enjoy the dignity and self-respect of people who do useful and intrinsically valuable work.  Their dignity can come from making contributions to the common good that markets left to themselves do not reward with wages.  Examples would be work that nurses our poisoned and sick biosphere back to health; and, as King suggested, work providing loving care for people who, for whatever reason, need loving care and are not getting it.

I wish I did not have to say the following, and I will happily stand corrected if I am mistaken: To reverse humanity´s march to self-destruction, we must do everything Greta Thunberg says we must do, and we must do it in ways that avoid short term collapse when the old way ceases to exist, and the new way does not yet exist.  Immanuel Kant´s categorical imperative, ‘So act so that everybody acting as you act is a logical possibility’ (and not a logical impossibility, like –to use Kant´s favourite example—a world where there are debts but nobody ever pays them) must be replaced.  It must be replaced by a new categorical imperative: So act so that if everybody acted as you act, life on earth would become sustainable.  Is anybody but Greta seriously contemplating doing this?

None of this is impossible from a technical point of view.  Gandhi´s affirmation that there is enough for everyone´s needs but not enough for everyone´s greed is true today in spades.  We still have a chance.  The more people understand why the odds are against us, the more our chances improve.

At this moment in history, in spite of the odds, we have a chance to put ideals of truth and solidarity into practice quickly on a massive scale. Because we are living a mega crisis so intense and so terrifying that even the blind can see the system is not working.  Because honesty and caring do work.  Because in principle we have nobody against us. We are only opposed by people who do not understand. Yet.


Prof. Howard Richards is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is a philosopher of social science and Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, USA. He was educated at Redlands High School in California, Yale, Stanford, University of California at Santa Barbara, University of Toronto, Harvard and Oxford. He currently teaches in the University of Cape Town`s EMBA programme. His books include: The Evaluation of Cultural Action; Letters from Quebec; Understanding the Global Economy; The Dilemmas of Social Democracies; Gandhi and the Future of Economics; Rethinking Thinking; Unbounded Organizing in Community; and The Nurturing of Time Future. His new book, written with the assistance of Gavin Andersson, Economic Theory and Community Development: Why Putting Community First Is Essential for Survival, is scheduled to be published in July of 2021.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 Sep 2021.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Is It Still Possible to Reverse Humanity’s March toward Self-Destruction?, is included. Thank you.

If you enjoyed this article, please donate to TMS to join the growing list of TMS Supporters.

Share this article:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

Comments are closed.