Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Human Economy: A Citizen's Guide (November 2010)

(Thanks to Literaghost for telling me about this book. I just assigned this book for my Spring Peace and Conflict Studies.)

Building the Human Economy
The Memory Bank



...

Why a human economy?

Humanity is a collective noun; it is a quality of kindness, of treating all people as if they were like ourselves; and it is a historical project for our species to assume stewardship of this planet. There are two prerequisites for being human: we must each learn to be self-reliant to a high degree and to belong to others, merging our identities in a bewildering variety of social relations. One goal of the new human universal will thus be the unity of self and society.

In order to be human, the economy must be at least four things:

1. It is made and remade by people; economics should be of practical daily use to us all.
2. It should address a variety of particular situations in all their institutional complexity.
3. It must be based on a more holistic conception of everyone’s needs and interests.
4. It has to address humanity as a whole and the world society we are making.

The human economy is already everywhere. People always insert themselves practically into economic life on their own account. What they do there is often obscured, marginalized or repressed by dominant economic institutions and ideologies. Whenever we speak of “capitalism” or “socialism”, we are referring to just part of what goes on in an economy. But there is a lot more going on and economies are a lot more like each other in practice than polarised ideal types might suggest. Any program to make an economy more human is not in itself revolutionary. It builds on what is there already and seeks to gain recognition and legitimacy for what people do for themselves. The economy could take on a new direction and emphasis through many initiatives that are already established, but could do with more room to grow. But the potential of what we propose, when taken together, is a revolution.

The object of an economy was always the reproduction of human life and beyond that the preservation of everything that sustains life. It has become to make money through producing and selling things, with human life secondary, a means to that end. Traditional African societies supported economies whose object was the production of life embodied in human beings. The fastest-growing sector of world trade today is in cultural services such as entertainment, education, media, software and information. The predominant focus of the world economy may be reverting to the production of human beings.

We must rely on practical experience for information and analysis. Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi showed us a concrete road to “other economies” based on the field of possibilities already open to us. The human economy is a vision more than a social recipe, or many social recipes articulated by a unifying vision. It embraces at once what each of us does in daily life and what all of us might become as a species. Economy ought to be capable of spanning these poles in a fluid way.

Some political principles

First, market society sustained by a concern for individual freedom generated huge inequality; then submission of the economy to political will on the pretext of equality led to the suppression of freedom. Each of these Cold War protagonists called democracy itself into question. We must seek out new institutional forms anchored in social practice with a view to reinserting democratic norms into economic life. The goal of democracy in a complex society remains to reconcile freedom and equality. The market economy is legitimate, but a market that knows no limits poses a threat to democracy. We reject an over-determined view of our societies as being merely “capitalist”.

We identify three principles:

1. The economists’ view of human beings as calculating machines over-estimates the market’s ability to allocate resources, with devastating social and ecological consequences.

2. There is a need for solidarity within and between generations: horizontal and vertical. We have to tackle inequality now and care for the future.

3. Practical and theoretical work must be closely articulated. Democracy and science are the twin pillars of modern civilization.

Neoliberalism is reductive: the market was withdrawn from the domain of political action (even as it invaded public life); and the modern economy came to be confused with capitalism. Contemporary politics also sustains economic inventiveness based on a premise of democratic solidarity. This book is an exploration of that premise.

We should avoid the two pitfalls of progressive politics. The centre-left has adopted neoliberal economic policies, moderated only by less restrictive social policies. The far left wants to break with capitalism, but has no definite programme for the transition. The social rights of citizens guaranteed by the state must be consistent with encouraging forms of self-organization where solidarity has a greater role. Market contracts are not the only way of delivering equality and freedom. These also come from people living together, from the mutuality and egalitarianism of everyday life. We also need to curb the power of the capitalist corporations. This requires a new alliance of public policy aimed at regulating capitalism and coordinating redistributive institutions with grassroots movements, harnessing the voluntary reciprocity of self-organized groups.

To Read the rest of the excerpt, to see the contents of the book, and access more resources

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