Thursday, July 7, 2011

Toward a new economic system

Interesting interview with Tim Jackson, author of the acclaimed Prosperity Without Growth (which expands on this free earlier publication put out by the recently eliminated UK Sustainable Development Commission) . (Yes, the irony of trying to cut the deficit in order to get a sustainable economy by axing the Sustainable Development Commission is, indeed, palpable.) Here are some of the more interesting bits:
The European: When did that psychology come into existence? For much of human history, economic activity was not intimately tied to the idea of growth.

Jackson: That’s a very interesting question that I cannot fully answer. I have written on that topic in the past, and my sense is that our idea of progress derives somewhat from the ideas of the Enlightenment. In the 18th century, you see the emergence of the science of rational discovery and the project of improving man’s condition. And that was accompanied by shifts in religiosity and spirituality. By the time the Enlightenment met Darwin in the middle of the 19th century, established religion had become secularized at least in the protestant countries. That was a very potent mix in which our sense of spiritual progress disappeared.

The European: We began to think of our lives as finite existences?

Jackson: Right, the idea of the immortal soul lost its influence. That obviously placed a huge importance on our physical existence. So progress came to be framed within the context of those finite existences: Future generations deserved better lives, they deserved more than we had. We secularized the original idea of the progress of the soul. And in the process, it became very much tied to material possessions.


The European: Change is uncomfortable.

Jackson: It requires us to engage in a dialogue about power, about who we are and who we want to be in the world. For example: We are confronted with the question of what is defined as success: A big car? Material wealth? If we reject those norms, we have to accept the potential loss of social standing that comes with it. That is the paradox of transformation: People desire change but they are hesitant to pursue it because of the potential pitfalls and structural constraints. So for me the lesson is that agency is insufficient by itself in the context of mainstream change. I find it critically important that we reshape the framework itself.


The European: Still, we are left with the question of what such a structure might look like…

Jackson: We don’t quite know. It would do more to align rights with responsibilities. It would place less emphasis on private ownership over the returns of public assets. It would encourage investments into public goods. It has company structures that code social and ecological returns into the structure itself. It focuses on bridging the sharing gap between the individual and the community.

The European: There’s a lot of Marx in that statement. First came feudalism, then came capitalism, then we threw off the shackles. How would your idea differ from the very illiberal manifestations that grew out of Marxism?

Jackson: It is explicitly post-Marxist and post-capitalist. The Marxist critique of capitalism was probably right in many of its elements but wrong in its outcomes. The idea that the alternative to the market is simply state control fell foul for several reasons: Totalitarian states are suffocated by a large bureaucracy that surrounds the state. And they encouraged the animal spirits that Adam Smith originally regarded as the basis of capitalism. The idea of rights and responsibilities got lost in the process: People didn’t enjoy many rights and didn’t really care about the things that they were supposed to own collectively. I don’t want to return to that.

The European: So this is another attempt at pursuing a Third Way, but without the focus on growth?

Jackson: At any point in history you are a product of ideas and systems that came before you. I would argue that both capitalism and communism have failed as systems of social organization. There is a vacancy right now that demands new ideas. And if we are successful, we will achieve a genuinely different fusion of ideas.


  1. I had an Idea for an economic system where, idealy, the most important Jobs in the countrie would recieve the most finacal backing. All the countries wealth would be collected then redistributed, where to the most important sectors would recive the most money. The most Important sectors would be decided by popular vote on an anual basis. Then perhaps each sector would have a commite to decide how to spread the money to each instatution,the institotions would present a case for funds and the commite would decided how to divy up the funds. The comitte would be voted in. The diving of funds and determining of the commite would also be done annually. I call it Importantism. Some examples of sectors are Educational, Agricultural, entertianment, arts, science and technology, military, transportation. You could even include sectors for dealing with global issues such as global warming and famine.