Economic Justice and Process Philosophy John Cobb and assorted others
1. If we are among the privileged and powerful, we must be suspicious of ourselves.
I am repeatedly impressed how quickly I, and other well-meaning Christians, turn from impassioned statements about the evil of oppression and hunger on a global scale to talk of our need for better salaries, our hopes for economic security in retirement, and our boats or summer cottages. This is not to say that we are insincere in our profession of concern for the poor. It is to say that the bulk of our activity responds to other urgings and binds us more tightly into the system that produces and depends upon oppression. That this is true of intellectual work, including our theology, is to be expected.
My point here is that we need to take our social location very seriously, to be suspicious of ourselves, and to work constantly to correct for the bias that our location introduces.
Much of our Western conceptuality has made it difficult to understand this solidarity of mutual involvement of human beings. The individual mind or the individual organism is often conceived ontologically as self-contained and as related to other individuals only externally. That is, the relation is viewed as incidental to the being of the individual. The individual exists as what he or she is and then, without any essential change, relates to other individuals.
This individualist ontology has been challenged in some forms of idealism, including the Hegelian form which influenced Marx. In this way of thinking, Mind as a whole or, better, Geist, is the fundamental reality. Individuals exist through participation in this totality. It is humanity as a whole, that is, Geist, which is the fundamental subject of historical development. Or, since individuals differ in their degree of participation in Geist, the true history of Geist can be traced through those in whom it has manifested itself most fully. In the Marxist transformation the proletariat, in so far as it is conscious of its mission, constitutes the true subject of history.
-- John Cobb, Process Theology as Political Theology
3. Collectivist images of self are misguided, too.
Neither the individualist ontology nor the collectivist one expresses the Biblical sense of the solidarity of individuals who participate in one another. Whitehead’s conceptuality is more helpful. For Whitehead the ultimate individual is a moment of experience. Such an individual does not first exist and then enter into relations with others. On the contrary, it is constituted by its relations and has no other existence than as a creative synthesis of these relations. The richness of its experience is the richness of its relations.
The idea of an individual apart from community is nonsensical. Even if we extend the term individual to its usual designation of personal existence from birth to death, the idea of an individual apart from community is meaningless. Persons are communal beings. Rich experience is possible only in community with others whose experiences are rich.
4. We are creative, relational selves who are responsible to, and enriched by, the lives of others.
Christian teaching falls heavily on the side of human solidarity. It has been the merit of the social gospel and of political theology to emphasize this point in the twentieth century, but it is certainly not new. It was dominant in the Old Testament. In the New Testament Paul and John may be viewed as accentuating the individualist element, but in his image of the church Paul speaks of us as members one of another, and John’s gospel employs the imagery of the vine and its branches. We are individuals, but we are individuals who participate in one another and cannot be saved in isolation....
-- -- John Cobb, Process Theology as Political Theology
5. Competition for scarce resources is not the primary fact of life; sharing is as fundamental as competing.
Unfortunately, most economic theory is based on individualist and collectivist views of human beings. The collectivist view encourages the ruthlessness of which Heilbroner wrote, liberal society is somewhat restrained by its commitment to individuals, but it has paid a high price for its individualist economic theories.
We all know at a common-sense level that we human beings exist in families and communities whose welfare matters greatly to us. A person who is insensitive to the interests of other members of the community or of the community as a whole and seeks only to obtain private wealth is a monster. Yet it is something very much like this monster who is taken as the model of homo economicus. Economic activity is viewed as the competition of such persons for scarce resources. Of course, as economists know, homo economicus is an abstraction, but we cannot think of human beings in general without abstraction. Further, it has been a highly successful abstraction, illuminating much of our human behavior. Nevertheless, it is an abstraction from which theory and practice alike have suffered greatly.
It would be idle to question that competition is a fact of life, but it is damaging to elevate it into the fact of life. The implication of such an elevation is that the gains of one person are inherently at the expense of others. This is qualified by the confidence of most theorists that as we all behave rationally, that is, seek competitive advantage, the total pool of goods and services will so increase that all will improve their condition. But this does not erase the fact that the theory describes and encourages the quest for competitive advantage.
6. Economic thinking can be redirected toward community, the environment, and a sustainable future.
If instead we view the economic situation from the perspective of relational thinking, we will focus on different examples and derive different principles. Consider a professor who is a member of a faculty. He or she may gain some satisfaction from success in competition with other members of the faculty, for example, from gaining a larger salary at the expense of others. But this cannot go very far. The satisfactions of the professor will depend more on the general quality of life in the institution than on a competitive superiority in income. The quality of the students, the intellectual stimulus from colleagues, the general morale of the community are more important factors in the richness of the professor’s experience than the competitive advantage over colleagues. Thus it is more rational for the professor to seek to contribute to the general health of the community than to seek a competitive advantage within it.
The point here is simply that since the richness of our individual experience depends upon the richness of the experience of others with whom we associate, the growth of our good is a function not primarily of competitive advantage but of communal well-being. I have not focused on the economic advantages of the communal approach, but these are not lacking. The same sum of money can accomplish more if its use is planned with a shared sense of the diverse needs of the community. Further, the institution as a whole is likely to increase its resources more if a communal spirit prevails.
This trivial illustration can be magnified by reference to a comparison between German and British industry in the years since World War II. In Germany a more communal spirit prevailed between capital and labor and both have profited. In Britain the mood has been competitive and confrontational, and the British economy has suffered. A realistic economy theory needs to take account of our normal sense of being parts of a larger whole whose welfare is important rather than treating us as self-enclosed individuals whose relations to others are primarily competitive.
7. When economics is in service to community, trade-off thinking can be replaced by both-and thinking.
The model of competition has dangerous effects in other ways as well. It is expressed in the important role played by the idea of the trade-off. The assumption is that if individually or collectively we satisfy one desire, this will typically be at the expense of satisfying another. It is often argued, for example, that if we satisfy our desire for a clean and healthful environment, we must pay a price in terms of fewer goods and more unemployment.
No one supposes that such a competitive relationship exists between all the goods we desire. Arthur Okun, for example, notes that an increase in equality of opportunity for all can contribute to an increase in efficiency of the economic system. There is no trade-off there. But the basic economic model encourages us to think of tradeoff relations as primary and normal. Okun makes his point about equality of opportunity and efficiency in a book entitled Equality and Efficiency: the Big Tradeoff.In general, he insists, approximation of equality can only be obtained at the expense of decrease in efficiency.
If we shift to a relational/communal model we cannot do away with all of the oppositions which lead to trade-off thinking. It is often the case that we must sacrifice some goods for the sake of others. But we will look primarily for ways in which both desirable variables can be increased in mutually supportive fashion rather than quickly settling for the trade-off. For example, we will challenge the easy assumption that the goals urged by environmentalists can only be attained at the expense of shortage of goods and unemployment. Amory Lovins has argued in detail that an environmentally desirable energy policy will also employ more persons in more desirable ways and produce as much usable power as we need.35 If we redefine the goal of efficiency as the enhancement of human experience, we are likely to find that most of the oppositions identified by Okun between equality and efficiency will disappear. It may also turn out that more policies can be devised to increase equality in ways that even increase the production of material goods.
8. Our sense of community can be extended to world loyalty.
The healthy future of the world depends upon a still further extension of the sense of community. We have begun to speak of a world community, and there is an emerging sense of co-humanity with all people. The teachings of most of the world’s great religious traditions encourage this recognition of the interconnectedness of all people. One motivation for the limited aid that is now made available by the industrialized nations to the poorer ones is this sense of a global community.
Economists may well say that any such sense of community is too weak to enter into their picture of how individuals and nations operate. But they need to recognize that the model they use works against the strengthening of this community. Since every model helps to shape the events it intends to describe and predict, it is important for the economic model to encourage the growth of the sense of world community. Our existing experiences, and even more our destinies. are bound together. A model of human reality that cannot express this fundamental fact is too abstract and too distorting to be acceptable as a guide to economic behavior.
9. The nation-state system can evolve into multipolar world that is a community of communities of communities.
Increasingly throughout the world people are hoping for a different kind of order, one based on multiple poles of influence rather than a single pole of influence. In the words of John B. Cobb., Jr., they seek to "seize an alternative" that is more relational and sustainable, more just and peaceful, more conducive to the flourishing of life in local settings. Indeed, they yearn for a world that is a community of community of communities rather than a world that dominated by Empire; riddled with war and the threat of nuclear war, poverty, deprivation, inequality, and disease.
What is clear is that, if hopes for a post-imperial world are to be realized at all, foreign and domestic policies alike must be based in a worldview that values relational power over unilateral power. At least this is how those of us influenced by the relational perspective of Alfred North Whitehead see things. It seems to us that we've gotten into the mess today, in part, because we have been governed by a false notion of power and a false image of what the world is really like.
10. Economics and politics alone cannot solve the problem; a new kind of culture is needed.
Current development can, in fact, be described as the process by which the rich and more powerful reallocate the nation’s natural resources in their favor and modern technology is the tool that subserves this process.
The culture exported from the so-called developed countries, which we are adopting unthinkingly is at the heart of the crisis. We never ask the question: developing towards what? This growing multinational culture must be destroyed because it leads to economic chaos, increased social disparities, mass poverty and filthy affluence in coexistence, environmental degradation, and ultimately civil strife and war.
"To get a balanced, rational development and to preserve the environment, a new development process is needed. The biggest intellectual and political challenge of our times is to articulate and demonstrate this new kind of development.
". . . Women invariably suffer more from unbalanced development and environmental degradation. As our understanding of both the feminist and environmental concerns grows, we find that women are more interested inthe restoration of the environment, which provides the family with its basic needs, than their cash-hungry men. Especially within families where basic needs are gathered, it is women who are left to fend for the family. The new development process will demand that women and men share equal power in society.
"Thus an environmentally enlightened development process necessarily demands a new culture, which will be: egalitarian, with reduced disparities between rich and poor and power equally shared by men and women; resource-sharing; participatory; frugal, when compared to the current consumption patterns of the rich; humble, with a respect forthe multiplicity of the world’s cultures and lifestyles; and, it will aim at greater self-reliance atall levels of society."
(This is taken from "The State of India’s Environment 1982 -- A Citizens’ Report," prepared by the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi. The quotations are taken from Anticipation, July 1983, p. 33f.)
11. The world is not an aggregate of information but rather a republic of stories.
"We are in the midst of seismic cultural change.In the old paradigm, priorities are shaped by a mechanistic worldview that privileges whatever can be numbered, measured, and weighed; human beings are pressured to adapt to the terms set by their own creations. Macroeconomics, geopolitics, and capital are glorified. . . . In the new paradigm, culture is given its true value.The movements of money and armies may receive close attention from politicians and media voices, but at ground-level, we care most about human stories, one life at a time.”
---Arlene Goldbard, The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists, and the Future
"Growing up through the cracks of the broken worldview we call modernity are verdant green shoots we call stories—human stories built of words and images and feelings and connected threads of subjective experience. We see them everywhere, not only in film and literature, but in the daily lives of regular people telling their own stories about where they come from and what makes them happy or sad, about people they love and animals that make them laugh or weep. About what makes life meaningful.
These are the messy, imperfect bursts of life that modernity views with suspicion. After all, stories lack “objectivity” and precision; they can’t be tested and measured—-or trusted. Unless stories can be marketed for big profits, they are devalued and walked over without a thought. But they just keep shooting up through the cracks—all these human stories on the internet, in faith communities, in murals and memoir and songs—living, fresh, personal stories that don’t quite jive with a mechanistic worldview.
And along with the spurting up of verdant stories comes a little Cosmic Irony. For all our modern advances, a sustainable future may depend on what we have left behind long ago: the stories and myths that birthed us into being. We need to replant ourselves in stories as we move into a new, organic stage of human consciousness—one that just might save the day in the eleventh hour of our questionable future on planet Earth.
Stories circle back to the past, to ancient peoples, story-tellers and shamans who told their hair-raising and comedic tales of creation around warming fires—or painted their stories on damp, cool cave walls. Stories in sacred texts are like this, too. But sacred texts are old and cracked like cave paintings, and not many people pay attention to them anymore. But as constructive postmodernists, we do pay attention. We have to. We need to read, listen, watch, and feel the stories all around us, for stories teach us about empathy and connect us to the world and to God and to God's body, the earth. "
A sustainable community is a community that is creative, compassionate, participatory, equitable, ecologically healthy, and spiritually satisfying...with no one left behind. In such a community, people recognize that, once basic needs are met, the purpose of life is not to have more possessions, but to become a wiser and more creative self. Conspicuous consumption is replaced by creative frugality.
Beauty is another name for richness of experience as enjoyed through creative and cooperative relations with others. Love is a form of beauty, and so is justice. Thus beauty is not primarily an aesthetic category appropriate to the arts, but a social and existential category descriptive of a certain quality of life which is enjoyed when we share in the experiences of others in compassionate and creative ways. Understood in this way, beauty can and should include the wisdom of moral obligation and ethical regard, which means that justice is a form of beauty. But beauty also includes an element of satisfaction, of joy, in being with other people in caring ways.
Beauty can be enjoyed by groups of people as well as by individuals, as they participate in each other's lives in caring ways. There are many forms of beauty in human life, among which a just and peaceful community, filled with listening and storytelling, is primary.