The Crisis (or Crises) of Civilization

Recently the Polish sociologist Krzystof Wielicki has made a case for regarding the democracies of the world as in a civilizational crisis.   Somewhat less recently, Susan Strange of the London School of Economics proposed the idea that in our times a global business civilization shapes both democracies and non-democracies.  Below I will suggest (1) that business civilization is in crisis too, and (2) a way forward.

The word “crisis” draws its meaning from medicine.  When a patient is in crisis, life and death hang in the balance.  When the crisis is over, although the patient may not have recovered yet, the prognosis is that she will recover.

For Wielicki, it is democracy itself whose life-or-death hangs in the balance.

Democracy is in crisis because its core values have been betrayed.  When, in the USA, Abraham Lincoln spoke of government of the people, by the people, and for the people, or when Franklin Roosevelt spoke of four freedoms, they expressed a democratic ethos where power and prosperity were supposed to be shared.  For Wielicki the emblematic case of what he calls “mature capitalism” was Sweden in the first part of the second half of the twentieth century.  Today, in Poland, in the USA, in Sweden and in most of the nominally democratic world, mature capitalism –others call it social democracy— is on the ropes. Wielicki writes of poles who are second or even third generation unemployed while others amass wealth not justified by any major contribution to society.  The social contract has been breached.  The bonds that made democracy sustainable are strained and stressed.  As in the case of a patient lying in agony on what may and may not be her death bed, whether democracy will live or die is in doubt.

The word “civilization” since it was coined in the 18 th  century, has often been a synonym for “culture,” as in E.B. Tylor´s classic definition of “culture or civilization.” “Civilization” tends to be the word chosen when institutions are more complex and on a larger scale. Arnold Toynbee was not alone in resisting the tendency to write history as histories of nation states, and in finding it more meaningful to focus on civilizations built around the common values and practices of populations inhabiting several nation-states.  Samuel Huntington, in The Clash of Civilizations, was not alone in treating “modern western civilization” as common to many nations and as clashing with an
Islamic civilization also common to many nations.

Most civilizations have been religious.  Max Weber´s studies of four of them, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Confucianism, reveal, perhaps somewhat unwittingly, their author´s opinion that secular modern western civilization is a superior “more civilized” civilization.  I agree with Susan Strange that key components of modern western civilization have morphed into a global business civilization.  Many of its participants hold “dual civilizationship.”  As businesspeople they are more individualistic.  Simultaneously, as Japanese or Arabs or Chinese they are less individualistic.

We can justify saying there is now a global business civilization, despite dual civilianship, by attributing a shared common sense, a shared worldview and other attributes that constitute a civilization, to today’s global business elite. We can add many of their collaborators in the public sector.  We can regard as integral parts of the global business civilization organizations like the OECD, the World Trade Organization and the World Economic Forum.

Nevertheless, we also need to consider the broader and a few centuries older entity that is called modern western civilization.   One of its important characteristics is that its basic norms are rigid. They are so rigid that the emblematic philosopher of western modernity, Immanuel Kant, declared his own neo-Roman jurisprudence and  ethics, along with Newtonian mechanics, to be a priori truths valid everywhere and always.

Thus, a certain version of law makes individualism formal and official.  It organizes and authorizes the accumulation of capital that separates the wealthy people from the common people and both from the indigent. Modern western civilization was and is the general fertile soil where more specific and often more nuanced individualisms, like the viewpoints typical of the Mont Pelerin Society, and of Davos, LSE and Harvard Business School have found inspiration and support.  A general occidental modernity underpins the specifics of business civilization.

So, what is mostly established today, and what is most in crisis requiring revisions, has several layers and versions.  It is in mega-crisis because over and above its own survival as a civilization, the survival of human beings as a species and of the biosphere is at stake.   On its watch the human species has so far not shown itself to be capable of responding effectively to at least three existential crises:
1. The ecological crisis.
2. The crisis of the absence of sufficient numbers of good jobs, providing decent pay, meaningful work, and dignity – an absence with many well-known intolerable consequences.
3. Militarism, understood as a force capable of destroying any and all civilizations. Strategic nuclear weapons are its most extreme expression so far. The way forward that I suggest is called unbounded organization. (UO)

I write this while accepting that the UO label is not the only possible label for the realities it identifies.  Readers may find that UO describes what they are already doing under a different name.
Unbounded thinking is pathbreaking and innovative.   At the same time, it is reconciliatory and peacebuilding.  It adapts to new realities.  It is about game-changing challenges.  It is about game-changing opportunities.

A game-changing challenge is the impossibility, the literal impossibility, of continuing on the path of economic growth.  Continuing to rely on economic growth to provide new employment and new financial resources has become a march toward collective suicide.  And yet, it is as if these facts were too big to fit in the human brain.  Every day in the press and the media, news about growth is broadcast as if nothing had changed, as if the old world still existed, as if more growth were good news and less growth were bad news.  The major global economic think tanks –like the World Bank and the OECD– have all endorsed green growth.  But after that they seem to have gone numb, as if they could not process the fact that green growth, to the extent that it might exist, so far has had no measurable impact on measures of environmental damage.

A game-changing opportunity: the world is now awash with enormous quantities of accumulated capital.  Most of it cannot find any profitable use in the world economy.  We live in what the same Susan Strange who named business civilization named the casino economy.  Day after day, of the total amounts of money that crosses borders flowing from one country to another, more than 97% is devoted to speculation.  Less than 3% plays a role in the real economy that hires people and produces goods.  Much of the speculation is harmful, worse than useless.  Massive buying up of real estate, betting that its market value will increase, has driven the prices of homes and the rents of apartments higher and higher, forcing some people into homelessness, and others into debt.

Ever since Adam Smith, economists have been predicting that the days of surplus accumulated capital would come.  Now those days have arrived.  The existing huge capital surpluses could be used to pay the unemployed and the underemployed to work on saving endangered ecosystems. This is a not-to-be-missed game-changing opportunity.

A bit of history will help us to see how UO contradicts in principle, and corrects in principle, today´s status quo that was constructed before any of us were born.  Thomas Piketty explains in detail in Capital and Ideology, that implementing liberté, égalité, fraternité was far from the minds of the men who reorganized France after the revolution of 1789.  The American Thomas Paine, in his pamphlets Common Sense and The Crisis, succinctly expressed the aims of the American revolutionary war and the nation building that followed the war when he wrote, “Our plan is commerce.”

The USA and other modern republics were not designed to be welfare states.  As Joseph Schumpeter wrote when he resigned as finance minister of Austria in 1918, a government with carefully limited powers, relying on taxes for its income, cannot be a sustainable welfare state.

UO forgives the past and builds a sustainable future.  It proposes collaboration across all sectors for the general good. It practices a care ethic.  It calls for mobilizing resources to meet needs in harmony with nature.  If it can be called an “error” to prefer one´s own economic interests and those of one´s class to the good of all and to the long run requirements of physical reality, UO corrects historical “errors” while it rises to a higher ethical level where souls are empowered to forgive the unforgivable.

UO can be described as a direct approach to provisioning and to sustainability. What makes it direct is that it moves directly from identifying needs, to mobilizing resources to meet needs.  It minimizes giveaways, for the simple reason that human needs include needs for dignity, respect, self-respect, freedom, and self-realization. But it does bypass the bottlenecks imposed by the common sense of business civilization.  The rule that needs will be met only if somebody can find a way to turn needs into profit opportunities has never been strictly enforced.  Now that robots are better workers than humans and AI is smarter than humans, it is a good time to repeal it.    People are not human resources.  The purpose of an economy is to enable people to live better. What else could it be?

A direct approach starts with a point frequently made by Gracia Navarro, a psychologist at the University of Concepcion specializing in the study of moral development and social responsibility.  Her flagship point is, “Solidarity is a choice.”  Each of us can choose to live guided by a care ethic of solidarity.  After we make that choice, if we do, we will find it natural to take a direct approach.  Do what you can to solve the problem; plant trees, include the excluded, be peace, think, think and then think again.

Hyman Minsky illuminated negative aspects of today´s economic reality, when he wrote, “What cannot be financed, cannot happen.”  But, of course, every day many things that are not financed do happen.  For example, nursing mothers give milk to babies.  Minsky´s point is that within the bounds of economic rationality anything not financed cannot happen.  And what follows from his point is that economic rationality is often dysfunctional.  It does not follow, however, that economic rationality is always dysfunctional or that entrepreneurs and managers big and small should change careers and take up dentistry or bartending.  Concerning how to separate the wheat from the
chaff, on these issues I would recommend the voluminous writings of Peter Drucker (1909-2005).

The history of UO dates to Paulo Freire´s methodology for consciousness-raising and literacy training.  His friend, colleague and sometime cell mate in prison, Clodomir Santos de Morais, believed that the peasants of northeast Brazil needed something more than literacy and consciousness: they needed to learn to organize.

De Morais developed a methodology that facilitated learning organizing by doing organizing.  A large group (maybe 300 people) was offered pay for completing a task.  It was given all necessary tools and technical advice.  But they had to organize themselves.

They were given complete freedom to organize in whatever way they thought might work.  It usually took several iterations before they succeeded in organizing themselves in a way that accomplished successfully the task at hand.
Moraisian methodologies are now used on three continents.   Gavin Andersson, a native of Botswana, first learned how to use them there and in Zimbabwe.   His tutors were two Chilean disciples of De Morais, Isabel and Ivan Labra.  Later, in his 2004 doctoral dissertation for the Open University of the UO.

Howard Richards