Slow the economy!

By David Parkinson

Beautiful, practical, self-regenerating, self-regulating... the natural economy is everything the human-made one is not.

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.
(Hazel Henderson)

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:

  1. Completeness: “It includes everything; in it, the fall of every sparrow is a significant event”;
  2. Orderliness: “Everything in the Kingdom of God is joined both to it and to everything else that is in it”;
  3. 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”;
  4. 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”;
  5. 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.


10 Responses to “Slow the economy!”

  1. 1 Gianni April 21, 2009 at 10:51

    Great article! I especially like the reference to how the sustainable tag is added on “like a condiment” to help sell … more stuff. It’s the inevitable result of capitalism to take anything, even the most vicious attack upon it, and transform it into a value-added jingle for a new green-coloured soda.

    There really is almost no mention at all in the corporate media of cutting back on anything, ever. That would hurt the (old)economy, after all. Reminds me of GW’s prophetic “go shopping” in the midst of 9/11 chaos. It’s the answer to all our infantilized woes, apparently.

    Yet people are cutting back on at least some of their extravagances, almost instinctively — even despite the sales we are seeing on everything from air travel to jewelry. It’s a long way ahead, and the road is short, as a proverb I am probably misquoting goes.


  2. 2 after oil April 21, 2009 at 16:55

    this article reminds me of how futile voting is. apropo in this election time. this election is particularly confusing when it comes to environmental issues and sustainability of electrical generation(both economically and environmentally). whom ever you are voting for is either not talking about scaling back, or is powerless to do anything to encourage it when capital and politics is intertwined. perhaps berry’s great economy is unfolding before us, but not because of elections. traditional cultures didnt vote either, and everything was just fine (around here anyway) until the colonists came around and imposed electoral systems on the indigenous. now look, elected cheifs are selling whole watersheds and calling us racists for opposing that!
    only by rejecting the status quo and creating our own system, an “other” system
    can we repair the damage and carry on with the great economy, the one that is complete.

  3. 3 David Parkinson April 21, 2009 at 17:33

    Thank you both for the kind words. Yeah, there sure is some irony in wanting to learn from the people who were here before us Europeans, when some of them want to take on our resource-extracting and wilderness-spoiling ways in the name of progress.

    We’re taught that the very worst thing that could happen is to go backwards and have to adopt cultural practices that we left behind in our supposed wisdom. But it’s going to be evolve or die… forward into the past!

  4. 4 A.B. Hansen April 21, 2009 at 18:32

    I had to repeat an economics course in college when I disagreed with the prof on this subject and was failed. Vindication is sweet, but useless; now I advocate Zero Economic Growth as probably the only way we can possibly survive.

  5. 5 David Parkinson April 21, 2009 at 22:30

    Dear A.B.,

    So many things in life, like vindication, are sweet but useless. Cherish that F, and know that the angels have given you an A++.

  6. 6 Oscar April 22, 2009 at 00:24

    Parkie –

    It’s interesting to think about what can be done to return to traditional ways of the great economy, but what is more interesting is to act on these thoughts.

    My wife and I have taken the small steps of growing our own food. Today we planted strawberries, tomorrow salad greens, the day after that, spinach, the day after that, tomatoes, and so on and so forth.

    I’ve talked to folks about exchanging food that we grow, and I’m met with awkward looks and hesitation, which I can only assume comes from fear of either depleting their own resources or a fear of being punished (by the state) for engaging in non-state regulated exchanges.

    It’s gotten so bad that not only the people that make the laws, or people who pursuade those that make the laws that use conditioned power to instill fear and inaction in the population. The population itself propagates this control over one another. Where does this stupidity come from? Fear of change? Fear of losing comfort? Laziness and apathy.

    I have to be honest – when I look in the mirror I also see a face of fear and laziness. Why? I can think and do. There are so many distractions to keep me from focusing on what is really important. We, I, You need to cut through the frivolousness and get to work.

    Change will not happen over night, but it will happen, whether by our action or our inaction, the Great Economy will continue to grow, to be, with us or without us, as it has done in the past and as it will do in the future.

    I’m heartened by folks like you and others who have broken the cycle of fear and power and make your own way. Thank you for your thoughts and actions.

  7. 7 David Parkinson April 22, 2009 at 07:08

    Hey Oscar! Thanks for reading and writing!

    It seems to me that we are entering a period when it will be more and more acceptable to be skeptical about the way things are. Lots of things are perfectly configured to support a growth-based economy, right down to the isolation and lack of community solidarity that you are talking about. But the large institutions are visibly failing, and people might end up having to think for themselves again. That can only produce good results, since we are now living in something like a ‘monoculture of the mind’, where what takes root is what serves someone else’s purposes.

    Kill your TV! Go outdoors! Start a project in the community! It’s all waiting for us.

  8. 8 Julie April 22, 2009 at 08:01

    Right on David
    (Now back to the garden the beach the forest)

  9. 9 Tom Read April 22, 2009 at 20:31

    Hello David,

    Thanks for asking the right questions:

    “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?”

    I don’t have the answers, either, but I’ve got a feeling we need to base our local economy on food and energy because we won’t feel secure doing anything else until we take care of basic survival for ourselves.

    We’ll learn how to recognize real choices when our communities have real choices to make, that is, when we stand the current governmental structure upside down: local self-government at the top, then province, last and least, national.


  10. 10 John Steinsvold October 5, 2009 at 18:20

    An Alternative to Capitalism?

    The following link, takes you to a “utopian” article, entitled “Home of the Brave?” which I wrote and appeared in the Athenaeum Library of Philosophy:

    John Steinsvold

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