No Future: how ethical and post-colonial concepts can save the world economy

    06 Nov 2021

    The following article is part of a larger debate around the headline “Capitalism is killing the planet,” for example, by such an influential Western media as The Guardian. At the same time, we remember very well that our website and the well-being of the Persian Gulf countries exist precisely thanks to capitalism. How to balance its rampant growth and environmental demands?

    Some of the answers are given below by the Knife author.

    By the way, users of the free operating system Ubuntu (based on Linux) will be curious to know why it is called that way.


    Liberal mainstream, sustainable development, and socialism – despite the dominance of these doctrines, there are plenty of alternative ideas on the intellectual map of the planet today. How to rebuild the world following ethical and environmental principles, challenging Western universalism, and abandoning the usual formulas?

    The constant talk of economic inequality and environmental degradation has become a daily occurrence, but no serious action has yet been taken or foreseen to tackle these problems. Nevertheless, there are several ideas, the authors of which call for the return of an ethical and environmentally oriented basis to modernity. For all their marginality, these programs may well become much more popular than they are now.

    Looking at the complexity of today’s global problems, many like to repeat that the “end of history” (a concept developed by American political scientist Francis Fukuyama Ecolife) has failed: instead of the harmonious integration of countries in a single and free-market impulse, we are experiencing a forced balkanization of minds and ideologies. Economic inequality is growing, and the global climate is changing.

    But a structural response to these troubles of our time requires the intellectual elaboration of new and, possibly, radical socio-economic methods, which not everyone likes.

    The latest such large-scale approach is the prevailing neoliberal universalism today, with its extremely clear recipe for happiness: cutting government spending and restricting government regulation, progressive privatization, and the delights of a free market that has already swept Earth’s orbit.

    And it cannot be said that the project ultimately failed – some powers, especially the Asian ones, benefited from globalization and economic liberalization: a new middle class was formed there, inequality between countries decreased, which Serbian economist Branko Milanovic well illustrated.

    Another thing is that the same process led worldwide to an even greater enrichment of the notorious “one percent” and concentration of capital “at the top.” In contrast, in developed capitalist countries, this was accompanied by stagnation or a decrease in the incomes of the middle class.

    After undermining the welfare state in the West and establishing somewhat predatory capitalism beyond its borders, neoliberalism suddenly found itself under blows from both the left and the right.

    Leftists like Jeremy Corbyn and Jean-Luc Melanchon, who are back on the topic of inequality, are making noise in the political arena and throwing old Social Democrats off the steamer of modernity for their friendship with capital. On the horizon again looms the specter of socialism, this time renewed and enthusiastically embraced by those who are not satisfied with the prospect of paying off loans for their studies all their lives, exchanging one temporary job for another. At the same time, the new ultra-right and center-right parties in Europe are also trying – and often successfully – to ascend in the field of social ideas, albeit with their own ethno-religious face control. Somewhere between these two fires, respectable men and women wander in the offices of the UN and suggest, on the one hand, not to get used to the role of gravediggers of capitalism, and on the other, to moderate appetites and embark on the path of “sustainable development,” that is, to leave everything roughly like is, but to make public institutions more environmentally responsible and stable.

    While these ideas for improving our lives are born and mature in Western minds, and their authors are incessantly polemicizing with each other, the scale of possible and urgent socio-economic and environmental problems continues to grow. On the one hand, society is aware of the seriousness of the challenges it faces; on the other hand, he understands that the proposed options are not effective enough or even flawed. They are often just trying to slip us old recipes. This feeling is becoming a symptom of the practical and intellectual crisis of our time.

    Problematic modernity

    “82% of income last year went to 1% of the richest people on the planet, while the wealth of the poorer half of the population has not changed,” – BBC quoted Oxfam, an international organization dedicated to the fight against poverty. Today we have to deal with excerpts and headlines of this kind almost every day.

    The established narrative – the development of global capitalism leads to an increase in social inequality – is gradually consolidated in the public consciousness as a new “common sense,” so that even The Washington Post, which belongs, by the way, to the richest man on the planet, Jeff Bezos, invites its readers to “try socialism. “meanwhile, according to the Paris agreements to combat global warming, countries around the world need to limit carbon dioxide emissions so that the average temperature is no more than 2° C higher than pre-industrial levels. If nothing is done, then by the end of the 21st century, it will grow by 3° C. This means, for example, that the sea level will rise by more than a meter, and we will have to say goodbye to cities like Amsterdam. To reach rather modest “Parisian” indicators, it is necessary to stop oil and gas production now, but hardly anyone from Russia, Turkmenistan, or Saudi Arabia will be happy about this. And despite the boom in green energy, there are a few reasons for optimism: according to some estimates, to avoid warming, industrialized countries need to reduce emissions by 8-10% annually, which can seriously slow down or even stop industrial growth. Humanity may have to revise and change the existing economic models as a whole.

    Against the general background of these figures and forecasts, the universalism of neoliberal dogma turns out to be deceiving. And even if it is retouched and presented as a strategy for sustainable development, it does not change anything.

    On the one hand, global environmental problems require skillful coordination of actions in the presence of many local approaches, and here you cannot simply take and reduce everything to economic indicators. On the other hand, we continue to praise a special type of subjectivity – a kind of cosmopolitan wolf from Wall Street, who always acts rationally according to market needs and maximizes profit, thereby benefiting everyone else and realizing his personal rights.

    But this is a reduced scheme; it does not consider several parameters – cultural, ethical, and subjective. The economic waste is interesting, but not the broader social context, which, as it were, will correct itself if the GDP indicators are at the proper level and there are no problems with investments. Today, these dogmas are being questioned, and we find ourselves in a world of alternatives (sometimes contradictory!) That allows parameters to overcome the narrow economism and (pseudo) universalism of the dominant ideology.

    Common goods

    “The common good is no longer a fashionable idea,” says economist Robert Reich sadly in his new book,  The Common Good. In his opinion, this system of values ​​shared by society has been replaced by naked selfish interest, the most striking embodiment of the “most hated man in America” ​​Martin Shkreli. The common good must be interpreted as a kind of moral horizon. Roughly speaking, it is about the connection between ethics and economics. And since today they are separated by an almost impenetrable wall (by the way, it is curious that the father of classical economics, Adam Smith, was a professor of moral philosophy), so the focus on the common good should become an antidote. The moral economy of the 21st century – what will it be, and where should we strive?

    Community of all communities. How pre-colonial Africa got along without states

    One of the most obvious answers is not universal. The cultural and political-economic hegemony of the West with its modernization project today raises more questions than ever before and is being questioned, including in the region itself. Local leftist criticism often builds its identity on the rejection of this doctrine. The renaissance of the right with their ideology of cultural war only emphasizes the uniqueness of the Western project, with the advent of postmodernism entangled in its Judeo-Christian roots.

    On the other hand, emerging from the colonial hassle and successfully taking advantage of the fruits of globalization, the Asian countries, thanks to their successes and sometimes muscles, form a sketch of a new hegemony. The leitmotif, in this case, is the undermining of Western-style intellectual universalism. So, the local ideological traditions of the Global South are beginning to be fancifully intertwined with the modern attitude towards getting out of the vicious circle of poverty and everyday suffering. If the World Bank cannot, then a good neighbor will help.

    As a result, we have two vectors: one point to the common good as opposed to selfish interest, and the other – away from the universalist political and economic behavior models with their “structural reforms” under the watchful eye of international capital and the IMF. So it makes sense to arrange a kind of cognitive mapping of various trends and ideas, the authors of which, if they do not offer a set of institutional measures to reform the political economy, then at least try to formulate several alternative principles of modernity restructuring.

    Sustained anti-growth

    The concept of sustainable development is an excellent example of the mainstream approach to globalization, the leading tone of which is frustration in this process, associated primarily with environmental problems. A UN resolution adopted in 2015 identified the following as crucial targets: at least 7% economic growth in the least developed countries; raising the incomes of the poorest 40% of the population to above-average levels; a significant reduction in the volume of waste generated through preventive measures, recycling and reuse. All these steps should be aimed at solving the problems of environmental degradation and inequality. Still, their realism raises serious doubts – if only because the question of systemic changes is not raised. It is understood that the noble goals declared in the resolution can be achieved only by slightly adjusting global capitalism, but for many, this thesis is far from obvious.

    The exact opposite of the mainstream is the so-called anti-growth strategy, which its proponents have presented as the only possible way to reduce the harm done to the environment. The term coined by the French sociologist André Gorcet should be understood literally – as a rejection of economic growth, that is, one of the dogmas of modern political economy, focused primarily on GDP indicators. According to the proponents of the theory, “sustainable development” is an oxymoron, and it is absurd to talk about the stability of planetary ecosystems and the continuation of economic growth at the same time. They are convinced that the expansion of production will inevitably lead to an increase in the number of energy resources used (although their opponents argue the opposite and claim that such a division – decoupling – is possible and economic progress, thus, achievable without harm to the environment). Moreover, the adherents of this concept believe that one should deal with the distribution (and redistribution) of scarce resources, and not the production of new needs that can be satisfied only through economic development.

    Anti-growth turns out to be the complete opposite of modern economism also in the sense that it requires a change in consumer habits and the development of a new type of sociality – the creation of a more responsible and frugal society that does not storm shopping malls on Black Friday and New Year’s sales. At the same time, welfare can be ensured through a competent redistribution policy, the introduction of new local credit systems, an unconditional basic income, and other popular grassroots measures.

    While anti-growth has been highlighted by politicians such as Beppe Grillo, the recent triumph of the Italian parliamentary elections from the populist 5-Star Movement, and the French socialist Benoit Amon, the strategy seems counterintuitive – and not only because of its antipode mainstream and contrary to common sense. First, what to do with population growth in the least developed countries, where it continues to grow steadily (and there is no reason to hope that this will change in the foreseeable future)? Second, how can this population be lifted out of poverty if anti-growth becomes a global phenomenon, not just a Western phenomenon? In addition, growth and growth are different: it is one thing when this happens due to the development of the digital economy and green technologies, and another thing when a similar effect is achieved thanks to the development of the Ruhr coal basin. Moreover, the political potential of the idea itself is highly dubious: it is not clear, for example, how to sell it to the crumbling western middle class or their “colleagues” in conditional Malaysia, where this social stratum has grown noticeably.

    Common (good) and cooperation

    Today’s popular social imagination often finds itself locked between two traditional alternatives: the continuation of the right-wing privatization approach with curtsey towards the free market or stricter government regulation with the renationalization of crucial resources and industries. This post-war scheme, however, does not suit everyone, and it is in the space between the two indicated general lines that the third arises – the concept of the common.

    Considering the collective action problem, the Nobel laureate in economics, Elinor Ostrom, concluded that the famous “tragedy of the commons” – when, without the institution of private property, resources are depleted and used irrationally – is not really a tragedy. Through cooperation, more active exchange of information, and third parties’ involvement (but not private capital or bureaucrats), effective self-regulation and collective management of common property can be achieved.

    Typical cases are groups of fishermen and, in general, those in whose life natural resources play an essential role, which is not in anyone’s personal possession but belongs simultaneously to all members of the collective. There is an opinion that it is the general that should become the new role model of management. At some point, the digital revolution added optimism: many texts about the digital commons appeared. The most familiar example is, of course, Wikipedia. Another thing is that the utopian pathos and enthusiasm associated with technology has noticeably diminished – today, instead of them, we have large-scale pessimism, scandals around Facebook and Cambridge Analytics, and the notorious capitalism of platforms.

    However, the idea of ​​common use and management continues to be implemented at the local level in the form of cooperatives, where employees simultaneously act as owners of the companies. The already mentioned Branko Milanovic says bluntly that inequality can hardly be overcome without qualitative changes in capital ownership structure. Today, there are about 350 cooperatives in the United States. Although the number of their employees is not impressive – only 7000 people – the leading “evangelist” of this model, economist Richard Wolff, is confident that this path will ultimately lead us to a radically new economic policy, which will pay more attention to issues of ethics and morality.

    New York and Austin authorities took an interest in this format and launched incubator programs for young cooperatives. However, even with such support under the conditions of the institutionalized Darwinism of the market economy, such organizations, with their orientation to profit and values, remain a marginal phenomenon. Moreover, in the event of expansion, the hierarchy will almost inevitably grow and the difference in wages – which happened, for example, with the most significant Spanish cooperative Mondragon, despite its really successful experience.

    Truly large-scale attempts to build a workers’ democracy at the national level have not yet been very successful. In Yugoslavia, such a project went to the bottom due to illiterate management decisions. In Sweden, the funds of hired workers did not achieve their goals mainly due to class and political contradictions and insufficient democratization of property rights.

    Participants of the pan-European project Economy for the Common Good took a different path. It is a social movement, an international public organization, and an auditor called upon to instill ethics in the corporate world. They declare themselves apologists for the idea of ​​the common good (as can be seen from the name). They attract private companies under their banner, which voluntarily subscribe to the code of ethical principles. Among them are five main ones: human dignity, solidarity, democratic transparency, environmental sustainability, and social justice. Representatives of Economy for the Common Good, in turn, conduct an independent audit of companies to ensure that their activities comply with the stated principles. Although the network of partners involved mainly covers the German-speaking part of Europe, we see a typical example of a crusade for the common good, organized by capital and its owners. Given this diverse nature of the modern ethical-political economy, it may well encompass both cooperatives and movements like Economy for the Common Good at the same time.

    Postcolonial alternative

    Suppose we stop equating the economy with the concept of growth and look away from Western patterns. In that case, if desired, we can trace how progressive economic policy begins to penetrate local cultures in several regions of the Global South. As a result, very bizarre combinations are formed. And here we are not talking about glocality, when, in the conditions of inexorable globalization, the conventional McDonald’s in Cairo acquires Arab features, but rather a postcolonial expansion of space for concepts of the common good, which cannot be reduced to good-natured European modernity.

    New utopianism: what future can await us the day after tomorrow

    One of the most famous among them is buen vivir. In various variations, it is found in the cultures of Latin America, primarily in Bolivia and Ecuador. Buen vivir (translated “to live well”) is a kind of folk knowledge, a system of ideas about combining economic interests with a culture of the common good, local traditions, concern for ecological balance – and without the wild growth of consumption. If the dogma of global economism says that social well-being requires integration into a single market space, an increase in GDP, and consumer demand, then at the center of buen vivir philosophy is the ethics of common prosperity, which in economics is usually called a new and gaining popularity term wellbeing.

    At the same time, one cannot speak of buen vivir as a kind of reactionary doctrine of returning to the roots. Nobody calls to abandon the economic benefits that have become possible thanks to technological progress, the ideas of modernity – you just need to make sure that they are harmoniously combined with local cultural traditions and do not harm the environment.

    The buen vivir principles were integrated into the relatively successful economic program of the Ecuadorian government, which took as a basis a concept borrowed from the Quechua Indians. The results are impressive: between 2006 and 2012, the poverty rate fell by 12%, and investment in the education system increased more than eightfold. Similar reforms were carried out in Bolivia.

    Although some regard such appropriation of buen vivir by government structures as a perversion of philosophy, actually, such measures allow creating the necessary feedback between local communities and the administrative apparatus. The problem, however, is that this is not a codified program of economic transformation but rather a set of egalitarian principles. Consequently, with sufficient ideological dexterity, buen vivir can be tailored to fit your particular needs.

    Something similar happened with the pan-African counterpart of this concept – Ubuntu (free GNU/Linux-based operating system has the same name – Ecolife), a value system, as well as buen vivir, based on ideas of the common good, solidarity, and respect for the environment. The term was translated into English in different ways: “a person is a person only thanks to others,” “the spirit of good neighborliness,” etc. This philosophy is strikingly different from market individualism, which, however, did not prevent the adherents of South African neo-liberalization from selling ubuntu to investors as evidence of their benevolent relationship, attachment to the place, and personal responsibility – to investors, of course.

    Nevertheless, today there are more and more calls to understand this term in the original “collective” sense. Initially, the philosophy of ubuntu does not provide for the division into producers and purchasers and, accordingly, excludes unlimited consumption and thoughtless spending of resources. In an era of environmental degradation, which should hit the Black Continent especially hard, such an ethical injection may come in handy.

    By the way, the philosophy of the “spirit of good neighborliness” was often taken as a reference point in attempts to build African socialism in the 1960s and 1970s, but today this, of course, is unlikely to work. But ubuntu may well become a local matrix for resetting the economy following the UN’s declared sustainable development goals – unless, of course, the inhabitants of the continent prefer some more radical project.

    The same postcolonial wave of rehabilitation of traditional folk knowledge and metaphysicians can be attributed to the Indian swaraj – the concept of independent, grassroots economic and political self-government, popularized at the beginning of the 20th century by Mahatma Gandhi. And although he spoke about the agrarian nature of the local economy and rural civilization, today, you can hear calls for the rebranding of Swaraj, which is seen as the path to environmental stability and social justice. Suppose in rational economic theories the main goal is proclaiming the growth of consumption and quantitative indicators. In that case, it is proposed to use swaraj as a semantic structure that more organically connects a person and the world of material objects around him. In this case, the management of the economy becomes democratized, there is a focus on grassroots social ties and general production and access to knowledge and innovation. Instead of copyrighting and sharing like Uber, there is an ethical form of public administration and a rejection of the mantra of unlimited consumption.

    Although buen vivir, ubuntu and swaraj are not economic paradigms like Keynesianism, their significance lies primarily in the fact that they represent an attempt to “synchronize” local ethical views and the economic project of modernization. Nobody says that you need to throw your laptop in the trash and go to the rice fields. Instead, we are talking about the postcolonial rehabilitation of traditions for a broader discussion of pressing economic problems – from the degradation of natural resources to social stratification. In a sense, the adherents of this movement are following a parallel course with the supporters of the ideas of anti-growth, sustainable development, and general management. If we consider the system of their views in the mainstream of economics, then we can say that they show interest in the qualitative concept of well-being. In the terminology of the humanities, they turn to the non-human: ecology, objects, technology.

    Third ways

    The words “turn to ethics and postcolonial inclusiveness” are pleasing. However, even despite the apparent dead-end of global neo-liberalization, such constructions from the standpoint of economic realism will, in any case, seem to be an unattainable ideal. And where there is idealism, the phantom of planning invariably appears – the central boogeyman of mainstream economism. It is another matter that even the principles of sustainable development formulated by the UN allow this – and therefore, it is not excluded that big politics will return to management.

    Although the ideas of the common good, postcolonial discourses on horizontal connections and experiments of cooperation are somewhat damp and have a utopian flavor, they serve as a necessary roadmap that does not allow us to get lost and come to the illusion that the return of the state and the “big government. “

    New political forces are beginning to be guided by similar considerations, for example, the Laborites led by Jeremy Corbyn. And although the latter is constantly portrayed by the tabloids as almost a Stalinist, in its economic strategy, the renewing party focuses not only and not so much on the mantra of nationalization, but on the democratization of production and management and bringing employees out of the shadows as producers of knowledge and value. Simply put, instead of a dull bureaucrat who makes inadequate decisions in managing common resources, the agents of economic activity themselves come into play, transmitting information from below.

    But here, a classic problem arises: how to implement all these noble democratic attitudes in practice and not slip into the Venezuelan scenario? It is difficult to imagine even an insanely vast network of cooperatives that suddenly overwhelms international politics. On this, the famous sociologist David Harvey built his criticism of the paradigm of the general Ostrom: such ideas are challenging to translate into a global context, and planetary problems cannot be solved that way. On the other hand, leaving everything as it is, blindly, as before, fulfilling the “commandments” of realism and economism (which led to the current alarming scenario), seems even stranger. You can say as much as you like that the free market will itself come to the fact that all energy will turn green, the super-rich will simply be wealthy, and tons of plastic will no longer float into the world’s oceans. However, these problems are unlikely to be resolved without collective action, dictated by ethical rather than market imperatives. And any such alternative in the current situation turns out to be appropriate in its own way.

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