Who or What Will Do What Must Be Done?

EDITORIAL, 9 Oct 2023

#817 | Howard Richards – TRANSCEND Media Service

In a previous editorial (What Must Be Done TMS 11 Sep 2023), I made the point that public discourse may not manifest underlying objective facts that play a key role in causing it.

For example, something that I am calling an objective fact, namely the objective need to spend public money to compensate for a chronic insufficiency of effective demand, may put wind in the sails of a belligerent discourse that vilifies a foreign power as an enemy and calls for a costly military intervention.  This paradox appears in a different light if it is considered that the logic of the system implies that increasing public debt one way or another is required.    Until there is a different system with a different logic it is the way to save jobs and to allow continuing, as distinct from stopping, producing for the purpose of selling.

Randall Wray has recently demonstrated that, consistently with the theoretical claim that there is a chronic failure of effective demand in the private sector, that the private sector as a whole can only run a surplus when the public sector as a whole runs a deficit.

There thus arise opportunities to create employment in the armed services and in private firms that make weapons with political arguments whose appeal is strengthened by an unmentioned appeal to the general principle that public money must in any case be spent one way or another in order to try to stabilize and to grow an economy with an inherent tendency to falter for lack of demand — to stop when it needs to go– in order to keep employment and profit up.

The same people who bemoan the cost of a welfare state, may advocate more public funding of a military state. Some families may become accustomed to living generation after generation on the largesse of the military fraction of the public sector.  Others may see a military career as the best option for young people with limited opportunities in the private sector.    In both cases the case for an aggressive posture toward real or suspected enemies may find its reasons strengthened, and even become unquestionable, because of an unmentioned, and perhaps unconscious, personal interest.

It follows that pacifists and non-pacifist peacemakers should not pay excessive attention to the surface features of pro-war discourse.  It may be tempting to reply when peacemakers are attacked as cowards or traitors or mocked as naive idealists.    The patient reasoning of the peacemakers may be answered by absurd or post-truth arguments, like the argument that it is Vladimir Putin´s secret intention to follow up his conquest of Ukraine by invading Poland and then Finland. Such arguments may be easy to refute –if at an advanced stage of political polarization anybody still cares about truth– but they conceal more than they reveal the causes that explain why they are made.

Peacemakers should devote more attention to less visible but more powerful causes of war and of war rhetoric, like the chronic shortages of effective demand, and the consequent shortages of civilian employment providing dignified livelihoods, and like the massive humiliation of those who are regularly rejected by the labour market or kept on short leashes as part time employees and/or as tenants on short leases who can barely afford, or cannot afford at all, to pay the rent.  Meanwhile, others enjoy the unstable comfort of those who are doing well in a war economy. The latter want to believe that they are serving their country and defending just causes worldwide.  They are likely to become angry when the worldview that underpins their livelihood and their self-esteem is threatened.

On the other hand, among the peacemakers there are economic optimists like Bob Reuschlein and Kenneth Boulding who believe that less public spending, on the military or on anything else, will not slow down economic activity at all. It will simply free up resources now wasted on useless spending.  The freed-up resources will quickly be used in the private sector to create new jobs making useful products.

In his History of Economic Analysis Joseph Schumpeter classifies such economists as “hitchless economists” while he calls those who read the logic of markets as implying that sales tend to lag behind the need for sales to generate jobs and profits “hitch economists.” Theoretically, the argument between hitchless and hitch can go on forever, as it did in an endless debate between Friedrich von Hayek (hitchless) and John Maynard Keynes (hitch) that ended only on Keynes´ untimely death.

I am suggesting that the hitch economists are right, that military spending is a major but usually semi-conscious or unconscious or disguised way to use public deficits to try to stabilize an inherently unstable (and inherently unjust) system, and that peacemakers should not be distracted by today´s highly polarized post-truth public discourse.  Instead, they should focus more on –for one thing– how to pay for dignified livelihoods for all in compliance with social human rights.  Indeed, I think it is an ethical duty of everyone who has more than they need to share with those who have less than they need –and specifically by donating to nonprofits, thus helping create good jobs that are paid for more (if not entirely) by donations and less (if at all) by sales; or by quietly providing support for efforts of people rejected by the labour market to organize and to solve their problems themselves (as in Asset Based Community Development, unbounded organizing and in innumerable other ways.)

Public employment (for welfare not war) will always be fundamental, but never enough.  Given that funds sufficient to solve the employment problem cannot come from sales, and cannot come from taxes, the necessary funds must come from surplus where surplus can be found.

Another side of my argument is that it does little good simply to insist that public policy pay more attention to economic issues and not be distracted by culture wars.  Why not?   Because mainstream thinkers, and also the well-known dissenting schools of thought, do not know how to construct a just society that is ecologically sustainable even if they decide to make sustainable shared prosperity their goal.  Nobody does.  Not even no-growth economists who make the valid point that continuing growth indefinitely would not be possible even if it were desirable.

If it is agreed, then, that the hitch economists are right, and that dignity for all cannot be paid for by the income generated by sales of products; and if we can give examples of other ways to pay for dignity and security, then still there remains the question “who or what will do what must be done?” One of the great disappointments of the twentieth century was learning from the experience of social democracies that shared prosperity cannot sustainably be achieved by taxing and spending either. I first raised the questions who will do what must be done, and how will it be paid for (in my September 11 editorial) in connection with what must be done to reverse global warming.  Global warming and the humiliation of millions by the labour market are just two of a number of issue areas where humanity is now called to reinvent itself.  One of the greatest challenges I have not yet mentioned: it is probably the case that the earth can continue to support human life indefinitely only if the number of humans on the planet is much smaller than it is now.

It is not likely that any individual or group can come up with realizable solutions to humanity´s existential challenges – and even less likely that someone will discover a way to solve   them all simultaneously.  In the mid-1940s, however, the philosophers Karl Popper and John Dewey advocated more promising approaches.  They can be read as suggesting that larger organized societies, nations, or humanity, might organize themselves in ways that would systematically facilitate collective problem solving.  In both cases a philosophy of democracy is integrated with a philosophy of science, and in Dewey´s case with a philosophy of education.  Popper adds a philosophy of enemies that is best disregarded.

In Popper’s open society social innovations are tested in pilots before going to scale.  Science guides practice as it does in Project Drawdown.   Freedom of speech protects investigative journalists and the autonomy of universities.  Those of us who do not agree with Popper´s version of the scientific method are free to participate in academic discussions devoted to improving the practices of science by improving its theories and methods.  For Dewey, every social institution is an experiment.  It is to be judged by its results, and amended when ways are found to get better results with better institutions.

At about the same time, others were calling for reviving the study of the great books of the western tradition, going back to Socrates and Plato.  For some, studying old classics was taken to be a pretext for keeping today´s institutions as they are. For others, it was an opportunity to revive Great Conversations now more than two thousand years old – conversations that, as Paulo Freire put it, create a different kind of truth.

The spirit of dialogue –launched by Socrates´ idea that participants should not be unconditional advocates of their own point of view, but rather seekers obedient to the guidance of the logos wherever the logic of the argument might lead— ends up creating truth more than it discovers it.  It criticizes existing norms in the light of reason and leads to understandings that facilitate working together to transform oppressive and dysfunctional institutions.

The revival of the Great Conversation idea can be extended to revive the study of the Chinese classics, of Ubuntu, Dharma, Buen Vivir, kinship worldviews, and so on; and further extended to encourage contemporary new thinking, as in the feminisms and the ecologisms.

A society as a whole, deliberately organized as a learning society that systematically encourages criticizing itself for the sake of improving itself, might well be the kind of society most likely to adapt and to survive in harmony with –not in conflict with—mother nature.

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Prof. Howard Richards is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment. He is Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College and he also currently teaches in the University of Cape Town`s EMBA programme. He was educated at Redlands High School in California, Yale, Stanford, UC Santa Barbara, University of Toronto, Harvard and Oxford. His books include: The Evaluation of Cultural Action, a study of an application of Paulo Freire´s pedagogical philosophy in rural Chile (London Macmillan 1985); 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 our Survival, is available from the publisher, Dignity Press, and from Amazon and other major booksellers, as a print book and as an eBook. Email: howardrichards8@gmail.com and howardri@earlham.edu