The human economy: a strategy in the struggle for happiness

An earlier essay, ‘Manifesto for a human economy‘, deals explicitly with the object, theory and methods of a human economy approach. Here I examine some of the precedents for such an approach in the history of modern revolutions.

‘Human economy’ is one way of taking forward the great conversation about making a better world. Here I will mention a few individuals who have helped me to find my own voice in this conversation, all of them participants in the revolutions that made the modern world.  I focus on two historical sequences – the Western liberal revolutions of the 17th to 19th centuries and the anti-colonial revolutions which displaced European empire in the 20th. The American Revolution was both liberal and anti-colonial. A similar combination undermined the Soviet Empire two decades ago and now fuels resistance to the American Empire in North Africa and the Middle East today. After three decades of neoliberal globalization, we are entering a new phase of the struggle for a world fit for all people to live in. Emergent world society is the new human universal – not an idea, but the fact of our shared occupation of the planet crying out for new principles of association. So the context for a human economy approach is this unfinished attempt to remove unequal society, a process that has often been shaped by war and revolution.

Immanuel Kant summarized “philosophy in the cosmopolitan sense of the word” as four questions:

What can I know?

What should I do?

What may I hope for?

What is a human being?

The first question is answered in metaphysics, the second in morals, the third in religion and the fourth in anthropology. But the first three “relate to anthropology”, he said, and might be subsumed under it. Anthropology for him was the practical arm of moral philosophy. It is indispensable to understanding any interaction involving human agents, being “pragmatic” in a number of senses: it is “everything that pertains to the practical”, popular (as opposed to academic) and moral in that it is concerned with what people should do, with their motives for action.

How then might human beings find a more secure foundation for self-knowledge as individuals and as a species? Kant held that the political project of building a just world society was necessary for human development in the long run. His anthropology, however, refers more to his vision of individual subjectivity and is a branch of humanist education. There are two prerequisites for being human: we must each learn to be self-reliant to a high degree and to belong to others, merging our identities in a bewildering variety of social relations. Much of modern ideology emphasizes how hard it is to be both self-interested and mutual. Yet some societies, by encouraging private and public interests to coincide, have managed to integrate them more effectively than ours. Twentieth-century civilization erected strong barriers between each of us as a subjective personality and society as an impersonal object. Transcending this division must be intrinsic to a human economy, one of whose premises would be to aim for unity between self and society, to be at home in the world.

The object of a Kantian anthropology therefore would be to discover whatever we need to know about humanity in order to build a more equal world fit for everyone. This project could be embraced by students of history, sociology, geography, political economy, philosophy and literature, as well as by some anthropologists. The idea of ‘development’ has played a similar interdisciplinary role. The human economy programme is thus an extension and synthesis of anthropology and development.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Thomas Jefferson wrote in a tradition of liberal Enlightenment launched by Locke, extended by Rousseau, transformed into economics by Smith and brought to a philosophical pitch by Kant. They all envisaged a democratic revolution to replace the inequality of the Old Regime. A constitution guaranteeing equality to citizens should be based on knowledge of what all human beings have in common, their ‘human nature’. Government by and for the people is incompatible with social inequality in the form of entrenched privilege. Human beings have a right to a full life, to free will unconstrained by arbitrary rules or by masters – that is, to metaphysical, anarchic and personal freedom – and to ‘happiness’.

The Trinidadian writer and revolutionary, C.L.R. James (author of a history of Haiti’s slave revolution) drew heavily on this idea in American Civilization (1993 [1950]). James took from America the idea of happiness as a revolutionary goal to be added to the European legacy of freedom and equality. Happiness appeared repeatedly in James’s writings, from asserting that Marx and Hegel “believed that man is destined for freedom and happiness”, to emphasising the centrality of happiness to American society and culture, in contrast to Europe’s sense of the tragic. The notion of happiness lay too at the heart of his Modern Politics, but there he called it “the good life”.

Conventionally, ‘happiness’ has been understood as a trivial thing, a moment of pleasure that is necessarily fleeting. The notion now often means just material satisfaction. In the eighteenth century, however, the pursuit of happiness in this life was contrasted with religious passivity in the face of earthly suffering. James held happiness to be as essential as the desire for freedom and equality. It was the desire of the modern age, “what people want”, expressive of complex and deeply rooted needs of human beings for integration, to become whole, to live in harmony with society.

For James then, happiness had two facets, the freedom to be a fully developed, creative, individual personality and to be part of a community based on principles conducive to that aim. This was the unity of private interest and public spirit which Alexis de Tocqueville had found in the early American democracy and which James believed was still the palpable goal of the American people. James used “the struggle for happiness” as a title for his chapter on the workers. The integration of individuals in modern society requires a fundamental reorganization of how people experience work. The United States contributed the idea of happiness to our understanding of civilization itself. Today it has become a universal goal; and the peoples of the global South serve as the potent symbols of the collective force of humanity in our opposition to the forces of oppression. Happiness is inseparable from the active struggle for its attainment.

Both Tocqueville and James visited the New World after the political landscape had been transformed by a major event, the French and Russian revolutions respectively. Each thought that democracy is the moving force in modern history and that America has played the leading role in that movement. Their faith was not grounded in laws and formal institutions, but in the common people, in their pragmatic political sense. They saw ordinary Americans’ customs and attitudes to life as the safeguard of democracy’s future. The structure of both Democracy in America and American Civilization reflects this outlook. Each has two parts, the first dealing with the ideas and outward appearance of America’s public institutions, the second with the inner life and social practices of the American people themselves. Each book contains a movement from form to content that mirrors a historical contrast between European civilization and its American successor.

Tocqueville wanted to know how Enlightenment ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity had been incorporated into the new society. He found the principle of equality to be a more fundamental and durable feature of democracy than liberty; but he recognized their relationship to be close and complex: “Men cannot be equal without being free and equality, in its extreme form, must merge with freedom.” For Tocqueville the essential feature of American society was its people’s pursuit of worldly prosperity (happiness) under conditions of general equality. Accordingly, the central paradox facing American civilization was the unequal treatment of blacks, “the most formidable evil threatening the future of the United States.” Moreover, the pursuit of happiness channelled the restless energies of the population into commercial and industrial activity. Yet Tocqueville saw here the possible growth of a manufacturing aristocracy. The drive for greater efficiency in America was achieved through increasing specialization which resulted in a devastating dehumanization of the work process: “What is one to expect from a man who has spent twenty years of his life making the heads for pins?” The greatest threat to a democratic society, however, was posed by despotism which is part and parcel of the growth of democracy itself. Equality was linked to individualism; but, in isolating individuals, democracy weakened the connections between them and undermined their resistance to encroaching centralization. The power of society in a democracy was likely to be oppressive; the only counterweight in Tocqueville’s view was the ability of citizens to form free associations.

James’s own study, begun a century later, builds on Tocqueville’s. In American Civilization he takes up the themes of liberty, equality and the forms of association; and he examines their meaning in a mid-twentieth century America where the pursuit of material wealth had reached its fullest expression in the system of mass production pioneered by Henry Ford. For James in 1950 the society’s original ideals of freedom and equality had by then been sacrificed to an oppressive work regime that paradoxically made it feasible for many people to aspire to the material means of achieving these goals. Whereas Tocqueville made equality central to the new democracy, James was preoccupied with freedom or rather with the awareness of its loss that permeated the consciousness of Americans in his day. Moreover, the worldwide struggle of popular forces against totalitarian bureaucracy had brought Tocqueville’s prediction of rivalry between America and Russia to the nightmare conclusion of the Cold War.

For James there was a growing conflict between the concentration of power at the top of society and the aspirations of people everywhere for democracy to be extended into all areas of their lives. The struggle was for individual freedom within new and expanded conceptions of social life (democracy) or a fragmented and repressed subjectivity stifled by coercive bureaucracies (totalitarianism). The intellectuals were caught between the expansion of bureaucracy and the growing presence of people as a force in world society. Unable to recognize that people’s lives mattered more than their own ideas, they oscillated between an introspective individualism (psychoanalysis) and service to the ruling powers, whether of the right (fascism) or left (Stalinism). As a result, the traditional role of the intellectual as an independent witness standing for truth had been compromised. Their absorption into bureaucracy as wage slaves and pensioners not only removed the intellectuals’ independence, but separated their specialized activities from social life.

Thus, for both writers, the pursuit of happiness can only take root in a democratic society whose institutional forms and cultural content are conducive to self-expression on the part of equal citizens. Subsequent experience of modern capitalism has shown that, while mass production of cheap commodities contributes to popular emancipation, reliance on formal politics alone leaves the engines of economic inequality untouched. A human economy approach foregrounds economic democracy as a goal, while retaining the struggle for freedom and happiness as its larger context.

At the core of such an approach is the pressing need to overcome the ruinous split between individual personality and impersonal society that became entrenched in the 20th century. On the one hand, we wish to return the study of economy to ordinary people’s concerns, to the level of human beings themselves; but being human also means learning to live together on this planet, what I have called the new human universal. Another giant of the 20th century’s anti-colonial revolutions has inspired my own attempts at bridging these extremes of the human condition. Mohandas K. Gandhi preferred to start from the humanist end of the spectrum, arguing that “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world — that is the myth of the atomic age — as in being able to remake ourselves.”

Gandhi’s critique of the modern state was devastating. He believed that it disabled its citizens, subjecting mind and body to the control of professional experts when the purpose of a civilization should be to enhance its members’ sense of their own self-reliance. His vision of humanity was based on two universal postulates: every human being is a unique personality and is part of an encompassing whole which humanity shares with other life forms (the individual and the species in Kant’s terms). Modern social science has tended to occlude both extremes in favour of investigating the proliferating associations and social divisions that mediate them – race, class, nationality, religion, locality etc. These are intrinsic to living in society, but we have to identify which social forms are best suited to spanning the gap between self and world for most people. As an Indian, Gandhi settled on the village and therefore on agricultural society as the most appropriate social vehicle for human development in that context.

The problem Gandhi confronted has been largely ignored by social theorists. If the world is devoid of meaning, being governed by remote impersonal forces known only to specially trained experts, each of us is left feeling small, isolated and vulnerable. Yet modern cultures tell us that we are personalities with significance. How do we bridge the gap between a vast, unknowable world, which we experience as an external object, and a puny self, endowed with the subjective capacity to act alone or with others? The answer is to scale down the world, to scale up the self or a combination of both, so that a meaningful relationship might be established between the two. Gandhi chose the village as the site of India’s renaissance because it was where most Indians lived, but more importantly because it had a social scale appropriate to self-respecting members of an agrarian civilization. Moreover, he devoted a large part of his philosophy to building up the personal resources of individuals. Our task is to bring this project up to date and that too is one aim of the human economy project.


July 2013


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Category: Human economy