Surviving capitalism: ideological reflections on a meaningful economy
The neoliberal system is receiving more and more criticism because it pretends to be neutral, while it actually enables only a small establishment to enforce their meanings on others. Instead, the aim of a meaningful economic system is to enable the largest number of individuals to live a meaningful life, via work consumption and freedom, without enterprises markets or governments structurally manipulating what individuals experience as meaningful.
What would a meaningful economy require? Let me fantasize (we will speak about the feasibility later):
1. Developing a new economic paradigm;
2. Meaning as economic progress: Assessing the economic progress of a country in terms of the number of individuals who are able to live a meaningful life (like Bhutan, but they focus only on happiness which is much more superficial and more prone to commercial and governmental manipulation);
3. Economic focus on meaning: Focusing economic activities on long-term meaning instead of superficial happiness; someone’s sense of meaning is more than success or a manipulatable sense of quick happiness, but it is about their intuition of their long-term motivations and sources of well-being in life;
4. Meaning as development: Acknowledging that individual meaning is the main driver of economic progress and prosperity as individuals do only commit in economic activities because of the meaning that they experience in these activities, and the internal motivation that drives them (‘the baker of Adam Smith’ does not bake bread merely because of economic self-interest for getting rich, but because of the meaning that baking has for him, including being able to feed his family, implying that the meaning of his family is the primary driver of his contribution to the economy; this is ‘meaning as development’ and not merely ‘freedom as development’ as Amartya Senn writes; the Maslowian ‘hierachy of needs’ and Marxist ‘historical materialism’ may need to be inverted, to start with our perceived meaning); a meaningful economy is a productive and resilient economy, resistant to shocks;
5. Meaning manipulation is unethical: Acknowledging that forcing or manipulating others to follow our meanings is unethical, and that by imposing external meanings, individuals will be less innovative and productive;
6. Different meanings: Accepting that different individuals experience different things as meaningful: for example, some individuals experience work and money as important, and others friendships, caring for others and higher goals; equally valuing and rewarding different types of contributions to the economy as meaningful, including care and being-cared-for;
7. Materialised meaning: Acknowledging that perceived meaning is primarily material-embodied, and only theoretically reflected and verbalised when it fails; therefore, we should examine differences in material conditions for realising different meanings by different individuals, and examining which and how material conditions could be realised to enable the largest number of individuals living a meaningful life; that is, enabling individuals to develop their own meaningful paths in career and life, for example via basic income or a developmental bursary from the government (‘micro-credits’ or ‘stakeholder grants’), which may be partially donation and partially a repayment system; research have shown that these activities are more cost-effective than the current benefit systems, increase productivity and self-efficacy as individuals are able to make meaningful life changes;
8. Meaningful education: Continuous re-educating individuals in what they experience as meaningful and how they could achieve that in their professional and social life, and the balance between both; teaching how to find their own meaning despite the influences from others marketing and media; focusing education on professional and life skills to survive the economy, including creative, collaborative, logical and critical thinking; as many individuals have lost their intuition of what is meaningful for them and for society; realising this for example via education and training; acknowledging that individuals at different points in life have different learning needs, and creating a ‘learning society’, based on free life-long education; education and academic research should be value-neutral and not influenced by commercial interests;
9. Meaningful innovation: Stimulating innovation via independent universities, and commercial research and development, for instance via subsidising and partial public ownership of research, inventions and start-ups; minimise bureaucratic hindrances to develop new products or services and start new economic initiatives;
10. Mental health: Rethinking mental health to include pressures from individual’s socio-economic circumstances; invest in meaningful mental health care to support individuals live a meaningful life despite society’s pressures;
11. Work/life balance: Optimising the balance between work and leisure time, so that the largest part of life is dedicated to meaningful activities; for some individuals this could mean working more hours than others if these activities feel meaningful;
12. Right to meaningful work: Enforcing companies to offer the right to meaningful work to employees, and forbidding meaningless work activities, such as specialised repetitive activities in a factory line, and replacing workers with robots for meaningless work; minimising the role of meaning-less activities in the financial sector, for instance decreasing the creation of bubbles and derivates, and focusing financial sector on supporting concrete visible economic activities such as in the construction industry (‘stones for finances’);
13. Non-manipulative marketing: Rethinking the role of marketing and Public Relationships that we allow in society; forbidding and controlling radical manipulation and structural spreading of ‘alternative facts’; minimise monopolies in news and media; creating and controlling public broadcasts which reflect the broad perspectives and lifestyles in the population;
14. Representative government: Minimising governmental interference in how individuals define their meaning and how they live their lives. This implies developing a transparent democracy, with parliamentary proportional representation reflecting the different opinions of different individuals in the population, transparency over governmental policies and negotiations, forbidding politicians to spread ‘alternative facts’, restricting donations and information sharing by lobby groups, reinstating of independent researchers and academics in evaluating governmental policies, and using well-designed representative population surveys as one of multiple sources in policy development.
15. Meaningful work in communities: Stimulating bottom-up economic activities and community building, as most economic activities happen in relatively small communities, and individuals in all times and cultures perceive a strong sense of meaning in communities;
16. Meaning in times of crisis: Interpreting the downward spiral of an economic recession and financial crisis in terms of the perceived meaning by stakeholders; acknowledging the role that public announcements by experts and government have on the meaning and trust that individuals experience in the market; acknowledging the perceived meaning of commercial and governmental investment on the meaning and trust that stakeholders experience in the market;
17. Realism: Acknowledging the economic, financial and societal restraints to a meaningful economy, such as awareness of limited resourced and finances.
18. Phases: There could be several phases in the development of a meaningful economy, starting with identifying for ourselves how we can live a meaningful life within the existing system (‘building meaningful islands of anarchy and energy within the capitalist system’), building alternative communities, public awareness raising activities, and if needed directly opposing the existing system. Different individuals may find different activities meaningful at different moments, as individuals engage in political activism for different reasons (e.g. not everyone wants to protest, etc); the cycle of activism and societal change should acknowledge these personal meanings (see ‘meaningful activism’ on activistwiki.net )
The history of economics sees a slow trend towards meaningful economics. Classical economists focused on our survival, and assessed products and services on the basis of their utility to fulfill the needs of individuals. This has led to an obsession with goals and growth in business, governmental policy and also our personal lives. However, the primary survival needs of individuals have not significantly changed, while economic productivity has exponentially increased during the last centuries. This seems to have been caused by the fact that the focus on needs has been replaced by desires and wants, and enterprises and governments seem to be more and more manipulating what consumers and citizens want, via Public Relationships and marketing: we live in a nudging economy in which we want more and more. Several sociologists and economic theorists go one step further, and claim that we live in an emotion economy, where the value of a product or service is not based on needs or wants, but on the nice experiences that the product or service provides. This has created a ‘happiness industry’, where individuals are continuously told that they should be happy and that buying certain products or services will make them happy. This has created two new classes in society: the manipulators and the manipulated. The manipulators define what we should experience as meaningful, and the manipulated are tricked into following these meanings. This is what economic theorists have called ‘The Establishment’ (Owen Jones), ‘Shock Doctors’ (Naomi Klein) or ‘Economy of good and evil’ (Thomas Sedlacek). There are inherent meanings in our economic system, but the discipline of economics seems to pretend as if these meanings are not there (‘ceterus paribus’), and they ignore to emphasize the error and variation in their economic models which hide the meaning-making by individuals. Economics has in the past focused on functional models, and even psychological-economic models such as developed by Kahneman and Tversky, focus on behavioural activities and manipulation of behaviour. Economics have ignored a positive/existential psychological black box, which consists of the subjective experiences, meanings and motivations of individuals; these are ‘hot experiences’ which we can for instance experience when we are in the flow of doing something meaningful, and these are the opposite of the ‘cold behaviours’ that economic models have looked at. Nassim Taleb has for instance shown how hot meanings contributed to the financial crash of 2008-2009. Economic behaviour can be described by the underlying hot meanings of individuals, and economic models could be improved by adding a meaningful focus (although meaning-focused behaviour seems to act more like chaos theory and complex systems theory than simple linear models). I would go one step further, by not only describing but also prescribing a meaningful focus on economy and politics (of course while acknowledging the limitations of this vision, as multiple meanings will be needed to understand the complexity of economic activities). This is the perspective of “psycho-anarchism” (see my entry on activistwiki.net): giving individuals freedom and capability to live a meaningful and satisfying life, while acknowledging the economic and societal constraints of our society.
-How do you feel about this reinterpretation of economics?
-How do you feel about meaningful economics as aim?
-How do you feel we may be able to develop meaningful economics?
About this text
This text is copyrighted by myself. This text is developed as part of my long-term project “Surviving capitalism: how to live a meaningful life in a meaningless system”. Anyone interested in brainstorming and contributing: very welcome (just PM me!). Suggestions for publishers welcome! More scientific articles, books and projects will follow soon.
Relevant background reading:
– Sedlacek: Economics of good and evil;
-The real utopias project: Redesigning redistribution;
-Skidelsky & Skidelsky: how much is enough;
-Csikszentrmihaly: Good business;
-Oliver James: Affluenza;
-Benjamin Barber: The infantile consumer;
-Joseph Stiglitz & Bruce Greenwald: Creating a learning society;
-Richard Sennett: the craftsman; neoliberalism;
-Michael Lerner: politics of meaning.
-Erik Olin Wright: Envisioning real utopias;