From homo economicus to convivial economics
We live in a time in which the raison d’ etre as a human is to participate in economic life. The theoretical Homo economicus is a human actor whose sole assumed aim is to optimize consumption and maximize wealth. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, for example, the president implored us to go shopping. To be clear, this trend – perhaps we can call it total economic rationalization of life – is the dominant moral view, certainly in western society, and increasingly throughout the world. If Christianity – protestant work ethic and all – was the dominant ethos of colonialism and western life between the end of feudalism and the rise of capitalist ideology, economic rationality has become the dominant ethical arbiter in our highly-advanced capitalist society. On the personal level, this cultural value system is evident in personal questions like, “is this decision profitable?” or “what is the best and highest use for my labor in the market?” In public policy decisions, our politicians myopically focus on job creation and economic development with limited regard for local environmental impact. Or, perhaps even more radically, we have US senators browbeating journalists for causing the stocks of corporations based in their state to go down for exposing unethical business practices.
Within the political realm, we could look to money in politics as an explanation for this behaviour, as so well explained in Sheldon Wolin’s book Democracy Inc. The book explains how US politics maintains the facade of citizen representation while actually representing corporate and business interests regardless of the impacts on citizens, the alleged constituency. One issue that Wolin does not address is the degree to which the population supports and buys into this economic ethic, which could be considered a gentler form of fascist thinking in some regards (e.g., only centralized economic activities are valued, all other forms of activity are dealued and those actors are generally excluded from making a living). I am concerned that many individuals, including myself to some degree, have internalized this ethic of economic rationalization to the detriment of our personal humanity, our communities, and the environment.
What is the personal cost of economic rationalization in one’s life? If individuals sacrifice their lives and autonomy to getting ahead professionally and/or economically, this may serve the economic health of their employing institution, the country’s GDP, and the government’s tax revenues quite well, but what is the consequence on that whole human being? Erich Fromm’s book “The Sane Society” addresses the personal pshychological cost of being alienated from one’s own spontaneous acts of creativity in service to economy, “sucess,” and institutions. More recently, folk singer and psychologist Lucy Kaplansky’s song “End of the Day” tells the story of a folk singer in the lower east side who abandons his singing career for the allure of a job in finance, and the man’s ensuing dead face and inability to see a way out of his newfound life. She raises an age-old question, and answers affirmatively: yes, there is a way to make an authentic, autonomous life in our super-rationalized economy.
I will not spend a tremedous amount of time on issues of macro-economy and public policy, as I don’t have space and am not equipped to address these issues. I will, however, raise a few questions. How much of our economic activity (measured by GDP) is truly useful to our citizens? How much economic activity is wasted on either advertising, or consumption of junk that is advertised and which is misallocated or not used at all (e.g., undervalued holiday gifts)? Does the massive US military machine serve US citizens as well as similar appropriations of federal dollars to direct citizen use-value (e.g., renewable energy, education, healthcare, energy efficiency remediation)? How much economic activity is based on wasted energy (e.g., gas guzzling trucks and SUVs, uninsulated houses, unecessary travel, etc.)? How much economic activity is created by polluting the air and then providing expensive treatments for resiratory disease? Under the traditional economic models, all of these activities are measured as equally beneficial as they all contribute dollars to GDP. The real question should be: do these activities improve our quality of life?
I suppose it is obvious where I stand on this issue. I believe that many, if not most, people are engaging in activities that do not necessarily serve their personal ends or the ends of society because they must make a living. If economic activity based on what activity produces the greatest returns does not have a moral framework (it doesn’t), then many of us are working towards ends that do not benefit us as individuals (self actualization, spontaneous expression of ourselves, etc.) or as a society (mutual aid, progression of our civilization and species, etc). When one faces such a problematic moral position, the obvious question is how can one extricate themselves from the position?
This is the point where the marxist calls for social revolution, or the communist calls for nationalization of the means of productions. I’m not going there. I think our society’s system of governance is built to prevent such changes, and I don’t think there is the cultural will for such a change. Things would have to be wildly more desperate for a majority of people for such a change to occur. However, what does exist here in the US is a profound ability to exercise autonomy as a consumer and economic actor, and to recognize the consequences of those decisions.
I breifly mentioned advertising as an economic force earlier, and I treated it in more detail in this post. In brief, my point is that many Americans are spending their hard-earned resources on buying services, good, or experiences for which the demand is created by sophisticated advertising campaigns that manipulate our pshychology to create profit. The result is profits for corporations, high consumption, and a precarious economic situation for so many people, even those with solidly middle-class and upper-middle-class livlihoods.
One of my favorite intellectuals is Ivan Illich, who popularized the concept of “conviviality” – activity that joyfully embraces the social and fulfills use values for ordinary people. Illich argued that we need “convivial tools” to allow humans to fulfill their own use values to the greatest extent possible (e.g., rather than serving a global economy at their own cost). Illich’s social critique was developed primarily in response to international development efforts when Illich was serving as a Catholic priest in Mexico (he was later kicked out of the church). In the spirit of this thinking, I think that we must shift our economic thinking to “economic conviviality.”
We must examine the consequences of our economic actions from a global ethical perspective. For example, by overconsuming petroleum through gas-guzzlers, overheated homes, and overuse of air travel, how does that affect the poor farmer who purchases fuel for subsistence level farming? If we understand basic supply and demand, we realize that by collectively minimizing our fuel consumption, we reduce total demand which has the effect of lowering the price of fuel on the global market. That helps all of us, including the global poor. It also reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Those changes benefit everyone but fossil fuel company executives and shareholders, and all it requires is collective personal change in consumption behaviour.
Economic conviviality also would entail a shifting of our actions and consumer behaviors to fulfilling use-values for ourselves whenever possible. When we intensively garden in our back yards, we save money, reduce our environmental impact, and get an extra boost personally through the confidence we gain by exercising and developing competence and self-reliance in producing our food. If we garden comunally, we gain social benefits too. The same goes for maintaining our homes, cooking from scratch, or building furniture. These are inherently human activities that can super-charge our lives: self-reliance makes us feel confident and competent, we reduce our market income needs, the activities provide exercise without going to the gym, and they are often healthier or of higher quality than store-bought solutions.
I have written at length in this blog on the topic of middle and upper-middle-class Americans’ ability to get on this track of fulfilling their own needs, casting off status products, investing their surplus savings, and achieving financial freedom. I’m certainly on board. However, the benefits of conviviality are apparent, if not more so, for those in more precarious financial situations.
As we face more precarious markets for labor and earned income, I think it will become more important to get back to the roots of fulfilling our own needs with basic, readily available comodities. Here I’m referring to:
- Learning to cook from scratch with available, affordable plant-based ingredients. Indian food, for example, achieves delicious flavor with cheap ingredients and several key spices when properly prepared. There are many other alternatives.
- Learning to repair one’s own home, or even in some situations rennovating a home or building an affordable home from scratch. I was recently in Detroit and Flint, Mi, and there is no shortage of affordable housing stock that industrious young people could buy for less than $20,000 and rennovate/rehab affordably themselves with the right knowledge.
- Learning how to minimize electricity consumption to be able to use 10% to 20% of current consumption. For example, I use about 10% to 15% of the electricity that my neighbors do and I work from home. This requires just some simple tweaks to behaviour and usage.
- Learning to garden intensively to produce significant amounts of healthy produce. Most cities have agricultural extensions to provide affordable training and soil testing. If these resources are used, in combination with hoop houses, raised beds, and other intesive techniques, it is possible to provide significant amounts of produce for personal consumption in a back yard plot.
- Learning to use open-source computer software. Today you can get an entire operating system (ubuntu) with an office suite (libreoffice), high-power graphic program (gimp), browser (mozilla firefox), and audio editor (audacity) all for free. Such free software turns a used $100 computer into one that is just as powerful in many respects as a new $500-$1000 windows or mac system.
All of these actions require active engagement in one’s own life, in contrast to the passive pleasures that we are conditioned to participate in: TV, movies, social media, video games, etc. I recognize that some of these comments might be perceived to be somewhat individualistic, and I must admit that some of my early interest and inspiration in these topics was inspired by my conservative, individualistic uncle in West Virginia who’s family for generations built their own houses and farmed potatoes ever year. However, these acts can also be social and communal, joyful and sustainable. If we can colectively get back to addressing our direct needs as individuals and our local social problems, we may even be able to make our local communities more resilient. All this requires is a personal commitment, learning, individual action, and social collaboration. Most of the information is already out there on the web on blogs, youtube, and open-source websites. We just have to put it to use.