By David Parkinson
Beautiful, practical, self-regenerating, self-regulating... the natural economy is everything the human-made one is not.
The problem is, of course, that not only is economics bankrupt but it has always been nothing more than politics in disguise… economics is a form of brain damage.
The economy is falling apart. Why? When will it hit bottom? Can we get back to normal?
I don’t want to get back to normal. The economy which surrounds us, and which we accept as inevitable — although it isn’t — is a shambles. Even when it’s operating as it’s supposed to, it produces endless amounts of waste, destruction, and misery. And the smart-ass comeback to complaints like this is supposed to be something along the lines of “Well, let’s see you do better”, or “But the only alternative is communism, and look how that turned out”, or similar platitudes.
The fact of the matter, as far as I’m concerned, is that what we call ‘the economy’ is best seen as a huge and sprawling system of social networks which dictate how wealth is created, stored, and transferred. The economy is intimately connected to a similarly huge and sprawling political system which determines how power is created and deployed. Political power roughly means the ability to make decisions about who gets what share of wealth created in the economic system and always comes backed up with a monopoly on the use of violence to enforce its decisions.
The people who are attracted to power — which is to say, the people who enjoy being on the inside, in the backrooms where the real decisions are made — end up being the people in charge of deciding how the economy is configured. And so naturally the economy becomes a tool for consolidating their power. If that sounds like a conspiracy theory, try to imagine how it could work out any other way. You don’t need a conspiracy to make the inevitable happen; you just need time. It’s a simple recognition of the truth of political power. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, in his 1983 book The Anatomy of Power, describes three types of power:
- compensatory power, which asserts itself by purchasing submission;
- condign power, which asserts itself through violence or the threat of violence;
- conditioned power, which asserts itself through persuasion.
According to Galbraith, power originates with personality, property, or organization. So, for example, the power of a government is expressed largely as condign and conditioned power, since it has the ability to threaten to punish those who go against its wishes (the wishes of a government are called ‘laws’), and it uses conditioned power in the form of patriotism, allegiance to local norms and ‘decent behaviour’, and so on.
But a government also expresses its power — to be more precise, the power of those who control that government — in the form of compensatory power. Access to power is access to the rules by which wealth is generated. And therefore, without serious checks and balances, this is a classic positive feedback loop: those who have the power to determine how the economy functions can steer it to their advantage, thereby creating more wealth and more power for themselves. Again, not a conspiracy theory so much as an honest observation of the how the world works.
What we’re seeing lately, in the ongoing implosion of the economy, is that some of the more interesting and creative ways for wealthy and powerful individuals and groups to turn wealth into even more wealth were simply bogus. And as time goes on, we see the extent to which governments were colluding in this fictional economy. I don’t find it very useful to consider the government as separate from the corporations and other parts of the economy: increasingly over the last few years the two have merged more and more. Governments are really the public-relations and enforcement sector of an all-encompassing economy which takes everything in and leaves less and less space for people to live simply, according to ancient and honourable traditions. The right to gather and produce food and plant medicines is hemmed in by laws and regulations which are supposedly there to protect us, but which always end up favouring large centralized corporate interests. (As if by accident.)
Even worse, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the preferred solution to this potential catastrophe is simply more of the same. As long as the people who stood to gain from this massive fraud are the same people who control the mechanisms of condign state power, there will be no real punishment, no stock-taking, no accountability. Ask yourself: if you were powerful, would you allow the law to come down on your head just for doing what everyone else is doing? Not bloody likely.
And the real problem is that even when the economy is working it’s a nightmare for much of the planet. Everyone knows that we are devastating natural systems like fish stocks and aquifers. Everyone knows that human activity, much of it frivolous, contributes vastly to greenhouse gases. Everyone knows that species are going extinct at ever greater rates. Everyone knows that the food supply is threatened by climate change, changes in weather patterns, and disruptions often caused by wars and other man-made conflict. Everyone knows that we are in danger of running out of easily extracted fossil fuels, which will be simultaneously a tragedy and a godsend. The scale of human activity cannot be sustained by the natural world.
And meanwhile, as always, there is a smaller and quieter economy ticking away, doing what it does in harmony with its natural surroundings. Wendell Berry has a lovely essay about this where he refers to the ‘Great Economy’, by which he means the Kingdom of God, although he observes that other notions such as the Tao cover the same meaning. He makes the point that we can never hope to create a truly lasting human economy which does not respect the laws and ways of the Great Economy. Berry points to five principles of the Great Economy:
- Completeness: “It includes everything; in it, the fall of every sparrow is a significant event”;
- Orderliness: “Everything in the Kingdom of God is joined both to it and to everything else that is in it”;
- Ineffability: “Humans do not and can never know either all the creatures that the Kingdom of God contains or the whole pattern or order by which it contains them”;
- Autonomy (in the literal sense of creating and obeying its own laws): “Though we cannot produce a complete or even adequate description of this order, severe penalties are in store for us if we presume upon it or violate it”;
- Infinitude: “We cannot foresee an end to it”.
I believe that many people, and more all the time, are starting to understand that we cannot continue to tinker at the margins of an unsustainable economy, serving the needs of a blind and swinish political culture. We need to work our way back to the fundamental principles of sustainability, only now we must do this as a conscious choice, and against powerful forces in the political and economic systems. And a genuinely sustainable society must revolve around a genuinely sustainable economy, and that economy must rest on principles as lofty and as all-encompassing as Berry’s. Sorry, but that’s just the way it’s gotta be now.
Traditional cultures lived according to Berry’s notion of a Great Economy because they had no choice; they respected the implacable laws of the world because not to do so meant needless suffering and death. We have created an economy which is the wonder of human evolution, which makes possible unimaginable technical feats, which is able to reduce and in some cases eliminate deadly diseases, hunger, and the other traditional sources of human misery. But the downside of these advances is the massive over-consumption of resources; the buildup of toxic wastes which threatens our air, water, and food; worsening resource wars; famine; poverty; early and preventable death. Our technical abilities are amazing, but we have no clear sense how to use them to advance the cause of all life on earth.
We have been faced all along with tough choices, but we haven’t had to recognize them as choices. We didn’t know that we could choose not to pull all the oil out of the earth’s crust and burn it up. We didn’t know that we could choose not to build cities in deserts and bring water in from hundreds of miles away, depleting watersheds and draining aquifers. We didn’t know that we could choose not to covert forests to grasslands to monocultured farms in order to produce more meat than was healthy for us or for the planet. Etc. Well, some of these choices are becoming clear in retrospect; and we will always be faced with future choices. Perhaps we can start to recognize them for what they are, and not blindly rush into anything that looks likely to make the powerful more powerful and the wealthy more wealthy.
How can we get from here to there? How can we create a functioning local economy which takes advantage of our increased technical abilities and yet does not endanger all life on earth? How ca we learn to recognize real choices and decide wisely?
Of course, I don’t have the answers to those questions. I’ll do my best to think through them in future columns, and I’ll report on some of the cutting-edge thinking going on out there. My personal preference is to look for answers in the last places where the technocrats and bureaucrats and well-paid consultants would have us look: in the practices of traditional cultures; in the pasts of the various cultures which make up North American industrial society; in the odd corners of the alternative universe where things like permaculture and gift economies are slowly but surely proving their worth as ways of organizing human labour and creativity and producing genuine (not phantasmagorical and life-destroying) wealth.
It’s funny (if you like gallows humour) to see so much fuss and fervour about sustainability these days, as though this is something that only we — the highly evolved citizens of the greatest society ever known — could have devised; when in fact it is this culture which has devised the need to talk about sustainability as though it is something to be added onto what one already does, like a condiment for industrial capitalism to make it yummier and more healthful. And that is because it is we who have strayed from the path of human history by inventing and practicing unsustainability on a massive scale, making it synonymous with prosperity, and letting it spread throughout the world like a virus.