Wednesday, July 01, 2009

From Self-reliance to Collaboration: Economic Interdependence

From Self-reliance to Collaboration: Economic Interdependence

Imagine the state I would be in if others were not growing food, making clothes, and, developing the technology to publish this post. I would likely have to dig my own Victory Garden, or live as Henry David Thoreau did at Walden Pond in the nineteenth century. I would have to become self-reliant. This American Transcendentalist value runs deep in the American identity along side the more entrepreneurial attachment to marketplace opportunities. This could be seen as a bifurcated identity until one considers that self-reliance is linked to the freedom of spirit and individuality, while enterprise is tied to an economic precept that recognizes the need to meet others’ material needs across the spectrum of social life. Thus, the individual that provides solely for herself is not economic at all. As soon as an individual begins to provide for others based upon productive capacities, she becomes an economic citizen. This does not mean that the individual leaves her spirit behind. Rather she brings her spirit, her capacity for insight and innovation with her to serve others in an economy.

The relationship between the individual and the whole of economic life is complicated. For example, if what Rudolf Steiner articulated, here simplified, in the early twentieth century as a basic economic principle is operative—that the degree to which we are working to meet the needs of others’ our own needs will be met—then Adam Smith’s eighteenth century concept of self-interest as a prime economic motivator is no longer appropriate. Smith’s theory, as articulated in The Wealth of Nations, is an economic philosophy that lives on as myth in laissez-faire economies and more recently in so-called free markets. As an evolutionary stage, self-interest seems removed from what is called for now.

From an economic perspective, we live in a completely interdependent world. We can know the global economy just by looking at the labels in our clothes, but we have not yet transformed the deeper human dimensions of interdependence that would compel us to alleviate global poverty or preclude the abuse of our financial system. In some ways, the social technology of money and financial systems, reduced as they are to electronic currents (or currencies), has evolved beyond our moral and ethical capacities to work with it in a healthy way. Competition that pits me against others in search of limited resources is basically anti-social. This is the mindset, and I would say soul condition, awaiting transformation.

Consider the research of evolutionary biologist Elizabet Sahtouris. In 1997, in “The Biology of Globalization” (Perspectives on Business and Global Change), she wrote: The Globalization of humanity is a natural, biological, evolutionary process. Yet we face an enormous crisis because the most central and important aspect of globalization—its economy—is currently being organized in a manner that so gravely violates the fundamental principles by which healthy living systems are organized that it threatens the demise of our whole civilization. What she is pointing to, based upon her research, is that organisms achieve healthy sustainability only after they have passed through the competition stage to one of cooperation, or collaboration. Yet our economics still remains fundamentally about competition. The myth of self-interest, and the cogent arguments made for perpetuating that myth seem to ring hollow in light of Sahtouris’s findings.

The technology of economic collaboration, built instinctively into the fabric of intact communities, needs to be rediscovered as part of new or emergent communities. This technology depends upon understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each community member. However, here is the challenge. Our culture has taught us well (through the constructs of self-reliance and self-interest) how to project our strengths. But, it has also taught us how to protect our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities in preparing for a competitive winner-take-all economic environment. When we see our own vulnerabilities personified in others’ poverty or homelessness, it can be a painful awakening. To truly collaborate with another person, no less one organization with another, to have power with the other partners requires that we acknowledge and embrace the full economy of strengths and weaknesses, and further recognize that it will call upon the power of compassion in a non-linear exchange process. This imagination then begins to look and feel like an economics for the twenty-first century, an economics that requires new social technologies, capacities, consciousness, and means of exchange that complement the strengths and failings of our national currencies. We are not only interdependent in our economic world, but we are also thoroughly entangled in it. We need an art of economics that imagines this complex reality, and a science of economics that can comprehend the humanity in it.

John Bloom©2009


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