Theories of Civilisation

Stuart Mills on 2019-07-23

We need to put society back in the economy.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

I don’t agree with Friedrich von Hayek. While I appreciate his logic and will defend the deep intellect behind his ideas, I am of the opinion he frequently makes assumptions about society which aren’t accurate. For example, he seems to prioritise the pace at which society can advance over the purpose, desire or equity of advancement. The climate crisis is a key example of this, with the pursuit of economic growth superseding legitimate questions about how we consume and why…

Kind of. For Hayek, freedom gives society the best chance of advancement, but does not in itself guarantee advancement. The climate crisis in the neoliberal sense is, thus, a bastardisation of Hayek’s conception of freedom, only dumber. Neoliberal economic policy has yet to realise arbitrary growth can’t hold back the ocean.

This article isn’t about Hayek, or about global warming. It’s about society and civilisation, or their lack thereof, within our current discourse. My thesis is simple: when Thatcher said there’s no such thing as society, the world believed her, even though she was wrong. With the death of society, economics and the political establishment married to it is not able to imagine a way forward through crisis. This was evidenced during the global financial crisis of 2008; it is being evidenced now with the looming crises of aging, of climate and of automation.

We need to put society back into the economy.

Digging Holes

In Geoff Mann’s excellent book In the Long Run We’re All Dead, he examines Keynesian through a Hegelian synthesis, tracing the roots of Keynes’ thought to that of the French Revolution. Keynes is a key figure in the history of economics and society; it is often remarked that Keynes was not trying to save capitalism when he published the General Theory in 1936 — he was trying to save civilisation itself.

Taking the story back to the French Revolution, Mann provides an excellent discussion of Robespierre, Kant, and the so-called iron law of necessity. In what would be considered a remarkable (and socialist) idea today, Robespierre argued that the only law of civilisation was to those things which individuals needed to survive. For the starving Frenchman, he argued, the cause of the revolution was the ability to provide all with what they required (i.e. food) but the choosing by the aristocracy not to. French society collapsed under revolution because of the force of the only law that mattered, necessity, and France could only be rebuilt when necessity was satisfied.

Mann argues this is the 18th century equivalent of Keynes’ 20th century economic policy. For Keynes, it was the ability of the economy to reach equilibrium while still having involuntarily unemployment that put civilisation in peril. For example, it is claimed Keynes once quipped, “the government should pay people to dig holes in the ground and then fill them up,” if that was required to ensure full employment.

What Doesn’t Kill You Kills Everyone

Keynes and Hayek famously disagreed. But they both retained a starting point from which their economics and policies emerged: society is not certain, is not destined to advance, and may collapse if handled wrong (of course, both conflated civilisation with capitalism, and thus socialism or communism were not — by definition — civilised, but that’s largely beside the point!).

We have forgotten this invaluable lesson. Whether Thatcher sincerely believed that there is no such thing as society, or whether this was written as a soundbite, we may never know. At best, her words confused the point Hayek was making, conflating the statement, “society is not certain to advance,” with the statement, “therefore, society is a construction.” At worst, she had not thought this deeply, and she saw the elimination of society as a means of propagating the concept of the individual into the zeitgeist.

But as Freud (of whom Keynes was a big fan) once remarked, “no one believes [their] own death.” If there is no society, only individuals, we become disconnected from the reality of our own annihilation. It is almost like hearing a tragedy on the news and remarking, “that will never happen to me.” But just because something doesn’t happen to oneself doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Only in a world where there is society, where people can be connected on an economic/social/human level does this statement emerge.

Global warming is an excellent example of this phenomenon. We live in a world where global warming is happening, but could be prevented, all be it a tremendous, ‘cost,’ to our economic growth. It matters very little whether one believes in global warming or not. A sceptic might remark, “why should I have to change?” while a believer might respond, “I’ll recycle more and drive less.” Both are individual statements, and both miss the point. Individual actions will not prevent global warming. Only society-level shifts away from reckless consumption and carbon-based energy will achieve that. But in a world where society doesn’t exist, and even if it did, in a world where we have abandoned the possibility of our own regression, these shifts cannot happen.

Forget forgetting how fragile the ecosystem is — we’ve gotten how fragile everything is.

Game Over?

We need to put society back into economics. We new theories of civilisation. Much of this will be established in specific policy — an approach I’m a big fan of, but one that doesn’t easily give itself to brevity — but a general attitude-change in economics could also be advantageous. For example, in the short-term we should stop gaming economic growth. Tax cuts for economic growth… Investment for economic growth… Neither answer the social questions of why invest, or why cut taxes?

Economic policy should shift to seeing economic growth as a welcome but secondary by-product of sensible, socially-responsive policies. For Keynes, growth was secondary to the issue of unemployment. Digging and refilling holes solved unemployment — growth came later.

In the longer-term we should abandon the concept of economic growth entirely. It’s not simply that growth’s tendency towards infinity is dumb, or that it operates as a panacea which leaves treasuries around the world beyond scrutiny, or that economic growth which relies on resource extraction will kill the planet. It’s that economic growth does not necessarily prevent, and may even cause, the fragility of our society.

The recent decision by the New Zealand government to abandon economic growth as a target in favour of wellbeing should be welcomed. In the future, we should consider what else we might measure which embeds society into our priorities. For example, a measure of economic participation might capture what percentage of the population is able to participate in society given various economic ambitions.

But whatever we do, we desperately need to remember that we are part of society, and society is fragile.