Economics in a different flow

So Obama and the other high Priests/Priestess have declared a solution to our economic demise: more jobs and growth to be the focus. If our obsession with growth has brought us to this point of multiple crises, where will more growth lead us? Is the word re-distribution still in our vocabulary? Is it not time to wake up and re-measure and weigh up our economic system?

In the 1980’s (note the period) I attended an ecumenical gathering in Brazil on the theme `Democracy in Crisis and the New World Order: A Challenge to the Latin American and Caribbean Churches’. Capitalism and its high priests were running rampant creating penury for a whole region. What was known as Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP – true to the word) was the mantra of the financial institutions to “soften” a heartless system through which impoverished human beings and whole nations were seen as necessary collateral damages. Nothing much has changed with the state of Greece and the Spanish economies.

At that gathering voices from the grassroots (victims) and those in power were brought together at an open hearing and at the heart of the findings was the greed and inhumanity of the financial institutions, noted especially in the re-payment of massive external debts which resulted in the `mortgaging of the future‘, as country after country were handed over to the IMF, the World Bank and the International Development Bank. And if you are wondering, payment meant adjustment policies, reduction of wages, changes in labour laws, mass lay-offs, fewer investments in social programs, export oriented production, more flexible investment laws, price de-regulation and the selling off of state assets. All the so-called socialist governments were either destabilised or overthrown, and not the least by successive US governments’ fear of communism!

Have we learnt anything? Nothing actually and now that the demon has come home to haunt us the only response is more jobs and growth. We refuse to scrutinise the “economics” that actually shape our life together. We continue to insist on our worship of the idol of economic growth at all costs, the cult of `always more’, which must be pursued with absolute and ruthless devotion. The illogic of capital and market continues to battle with the logic of life. While the former emphasizes, competitiveness (survival of the fittest), money over human beings, and, as one of the new idols of the age, demands human blood and lives, the other, inspired by gospel values, places the human person and the whole of creation as the supreme value.

I recall Eric Fromm’s, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, in which he takes up the phrase of the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno and suggests that “necrophilia” is characteristic of modern human beings. So, “The world becomes a sum of lifeless artefacts; from synthetic food to synthetic organs, the whole [hu]man becomes part of the total machinery that (s)he controls and is simultaneously controlled by. (S/)He has no goal, no plan for life, except doing what the logic of technique determines him(her) to do…The world of life has become a world of no life; persons have become nonpersons.. a world of death and decay”.

And whose fault it is that we are here? I think Shakespeare in Julius Caesar offers the answer: “the fault dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Indeed! And it is not as if there are not alternative voices. All the way back into the 70’s (and before that) there were voices calling for different ways of organising our economic life together. There was the Dutch economist Bob Goudzwaard who employed two metaphors to point us to some concrete ways of change. He suggested that our present predicament is like that of a busy tunnel where vehicles have to move at the highest speed to ensure a continuous flow of traffic. Slow cars and trucks are excluded and the traffic flow is in one direction. Likewise in our societies (in market and planned economy) the basic orientation is to a flow. The goal is not the preservation of stocks, but the maximum flow of production and consumption at all costs -including people.

However, our societies need not follow the “rat race of tunnel life”. It can also function like a tree suggests Goudzwaard. A living tree does not grow endlessly. It reaches maturity when it has grown to a certain height, for its ultimate purpose is not to grow but to bear fruit. It will not overuse the soil on which it stands, and it can include all its cells in a living participation. Similarly, a society can give priority to the needs of the marginalised, to the preservation of the environment or to the meaningful employment of all if and only if it is willing to abstain from the desire to reach maximum production & consumption. This would mean the radical restructuring of society which does not eliminate markets but it does deprive them of their significance as the ultimate criterion. Then we can start experiencing a new heaven and a new earth!

jagessar© may 19, 2012

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