Dr Howard Richards – Surviving Today´s Crises
Requires the Transformation of the
Basic Cultural Structure of the Modern World.

Richards profile Dec 2020

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Live Encounters Magazine Volume Two December 2020

Dr Howard Richards (born June 10, 1938) is a philosopher of Social Science who has worked with the concepts of basic cultural structures and constitutive rules. He holds the title of Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College, a liberal arts college in Richmond, Indiana, USA, the Quaker School where he taught for thirty years. He officially retired from Earlham College, together with his wife Caroline Higgins in 2007, but retained the title of Research Professor of Philosophy. A member of the Yale class of 1960, he holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of California, Santa Barbara, a Juris Doctor (J.D.) from the Stanford Law School, an Advanced Certificate in Education (ACE) from Oxford University (UK) and a PhD in Educational Planning, with a specialization in applied psychology and moral education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto, Canada. He has practiced law as a volunteer lawyer for Cesar Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association, and as a specialist in bankruptcy. He now teaches philosophy of science in the Doctoral Program in Management Sciences at the University of Santiago, Chile, and co-teaches “Critical Conversations on Ethics, Macroeconomics and Organizations” in the Executive MBA program of the Graduate School of Business of the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is founder of the Peace and Global Studies Program and co-founder of the Business and Nonprofit Management Program at Earlham. Dr Richards is a Catholic, a member of Holy Trinity (Santisima Trinidad) parish in Limache, Chile, and a member of the third order of St. Francis, S.F.O


Amazon fires satellite image taken by MODIS
Amazon fires satellite image taken by MODIS

Over a million hectares burned in the Amazon forests in 2019.  An even larger –although harder to determine- number of hectares burned last year in African forests and savannahs.  The media often mention that the Australia and California fires of 2020 continue a negative feedback cycle. There has been worldwide a steadily increasing loss of vegetation to flames that has been accelerating for several decades.  Less vegetation means less rainfall means less vegetation.

It is in the news that millions of people around the world –inspired by a Swedish teenager so honest that looking at a picture of her will cure a headache—have taken to the streets demanding that something must be done.  I will here offer an open-ended answer to the question what must be done: The basic cultural structures of the modern world must be transformed.   I will wait until I have set out more context before defining ´basic cultural structure, ´ but I will say now that many people say essentially the same thing I am saying using different words.   In principle anything true can be said in many different ways –would you not agree?

Walking back in time to 1990, when I wore a younger man’s clothes, I imagined I could contribute to saving the world by selling my car. The train of reasoning leading to my fantastic belief began more with nausea than with logic.  Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, where I was then living, was the Chair of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee.   The first U.S. invasion of Iraq was about to begin.  I read in a newspaper that Senator Lugar had threatened that if the French would not join in the invasion, then we would not share the petroleum with them.  Gasping for air and trying not to vomit, I did a little research. I learned that the number of people in the world driving automobiles was then a little under one billion.   The number of people living in extreme poverty was nearly equal. Then I imagined that all the cars and all the poor people were lined up in pairs, with each car matched with one poor person, that is to say one loser in today´s economic game whose goods and/or services offered for sale had remained either unsold or sold for too little to live on.

At that time, in 1990, at the equilibrium point where supply equals demand leaving some people unemployed or underpaid; that is to say, at the point where the number and the identity of the losers were determined, the number of extremely poor people, was about a billion. That number was about equal to the number of people who owned a car.  Rounding off, there were a billion very poor people and a billion owners of private automobile. Then if the pairs (x, y) where x is a car and y is a poor person were lined up, they would have formed a line stretching several times around the earth. The last x and the last y –as a close approximation — would have been located at the same place.  If that place turned out to be over an ocean, then you would have to imagine that the car and the person were held above the waves by an angel or by a helicopter.

I reasoned that I could use the money I saved by selling my car and then walking, bicycling and using public transportation, to lift one person out of poverty. If I could explain the simple math to everyone else, then all other car owners would do the same.  The outcome would be no private cars, no extreme poverty, less CO2 in the atmosphere, fewer wars like the first Iraq war (because petroleum would be less valuable), and (because people would walk more) fewer heart attacks.

Subsequently, when my mathematical model was tested using myself as a one-person empirical sample, the money saved by one person not driving a car proved to be enough to lift more than one person out of extreme poverty.   But when I attempted to enlarge the sample, it turned out that nobody else understood my math.  Or if they did understand the math, they preferred to continue driving, while leaving in poverty the people they could have promoted to the lower middle class by walking and sharing.

Or –perhaps more likely—everyone else understood my math perfectly well.   They would have given up their cars if they had believed that walking would save the world.  But everyone else was smarter than I was. They always knew my reasoning was invalid.  They always knew that the auto industry was indispensable to keep the economy going, and that long before advocates like me of the slogan ‘live simply, that others may simply live’ succeeded in shutting down most of its factories, dealerships, repair shops, service stations, insurance agencies, oil refineries, and other auto-dependent sources of employment for workers and profits for owners; whatever it takes –a fascist coup if necessary—would be done to keep the automobile industry going.

Everyone but me also knew from the beginning that the more people got out of poverty the more they would become drivers of cars.

They also already knew more realistic solutions to the climate crisis. For example, all cars could be electric and non-polluting. All electricity generation could be non-polluting too.  Electricity generation could be from renewable sources. The production of new green technologies could be made so labour-intensive and so profitable, that nobody would miss the demise of all the polluting industries.

Contrary to my 1990 fantasy of frugal peace, but also contrary to other people’s perhaps more realistic plans for mass technological and economic conversion to sustainable lifestyles, the last thirty years have brought little encouragement.   While extreme poverty has declined, conventional automobile ownership has increased. Every victory for economic growth has been a defeat for mother earth. The use of non-polluting technologies –here it must be mentioned that more are in the pipeline[1]— like electric cars and wind-generated electricity has increased; but as the human population has grown and economies have grown, worldwide pollution has increased even more.

Bottomless violence and deceit and muddled thinking have gone baroque.  The climate crisis has gotten worse.  As we speak, many of the small gains of green policies are being erased by political movements led by figures like Trump and Bolsonaro. The Trumps and the Bolsonaros are supported by elite donors and by working class voting publics who view green policies as threats to their profits and jobs.

Also, during those same forty years I, co-authors and allied authors (hereafter ‘we’) have demonstrated in detail in numerous mostly unread read books, chapters in books, and papers that surviving the climate crisis (and other crises) requires the transformation of the basic cultural structure of the modern world.[2]

Let me try again.  I might suggest a more precise definition of the problem and more effective ways to solve it even to somebody who already understands that the chaos and destruction all around us has deep structural causes that do not appear in the media or in academic orthodoxy.

God help me to be clear.
What is the basic cultural structure of the modern world?
In one word: Sales.
In two French words: séparation marchande.[3]

The French phrase –literally ‘merchant separation’ or ‘commercial separation’—corresponds to what is sometimes called in English ‘the exchange relation’ which might also be called ‘the exchange non-relation,’ or ‘your problem is not my problem’ or ‘what’s in it for me?’   It corresponds to the point Adam Smith makes when he writes that to get our bread from our baker we appeal entirely to his interests and not at all to our needs or to any family or social or ethical ties that bind us; and to the similar point the Pie man makes when he says to Simple Simon, ‘Show me first your penny!’

Remember that twelve paragraphs above I identified the poor people with the people whose goods and/or services had remained either unsold or sold for too little to live on.  I was relying on Keynes’ point that supply usually equals demand (so that everything supplied is sold and if more were supplied it would not be sold) not when all needs are met, or when any kind of optimum is achieved but when the ´revealed preferences´ of people with money and a desire to spend it have been discovered.[4]

Transposing to an ethical key, the game is set up in such a way that some people lose even when they play by the rules and try as hard as they can. There can be a duty to work, or at least a duty to be willing to work, but there can be no duty to earn an income by working.   Being employed requires finding someone able and willing to buy your work.  There can be no duty to buy, hence no duty to employ, and hence no duty to be employed.  (Gandhi provides an example of a different ethic: the able unemployed should volunteer; there needs should be met by the sharing of those more fortunate.[5])

Given the dominant modern ethic supporting sales as the basic structure, history and logic tell us that over time, inevitably, investing in order to produce for sale for profit will become essential.[6]   It will become essential to ‘create employment’ by investments that hire people to make something to sell.  Without investment many (normally most) people’s physical needs will not be met.   As happened in Chile in 1973, and as is happening in Venezuela now, ‘the economy comes to a standstill.’

As Michael Kalecki wrote: ‘Under a laisser-faire system the level of employment depends to a great extent on the so-called state of confidence. If this deteriorates, private investment declines, which results in a fall of output and employment (both directly and through the secondary effect of the fall in incomes upon consumption and investment). This gives to the capitalists a powerful indirect control over Government policy: everything which may shake the state of confidence must be carefully avoided because it would cause an economic crisis.’[7]

The result is that whatever else happens, investors must be pleased.  They can shut the system down for any reason or no reason.  Jobs depend on them.  Food depends on them.   Normally (and as aggravated in cases like those just mentioned where political motives are major factors) everything depends on sales being large enough at high enough prices to keep the motor that drives the system going.  Some people call such a way of life a ‘regime of accumulation.’   This phrase has come to mean that everything about a culture, all its institutions and all its behaviour and beliefs and ideals, must be –whatever else they are—conducive to investors making profits.  Is this clear?

This does not mean humans do not do other things that cause problems—like spending their free time having fun in ways that multiply the human population beyond the carrying capacity of the planet. Or like—as mentioned above—poor people when they stop being poor wanting to live like rich people, making ecological and other problems (like traffic) worse.

Governments do not always succeed in attracting all the investors they need to get the growth alleged to be necessary to create employment that they (misguidedly) want.  Indeed, to repeat if they do get the growth they want, economic victory is ecological defeat.

Thus until there is a culture shift of minds and hearts –nothing less– all governments are compelled to play a game only some governments can win.  Even the winners only win some of the time.  Each has 195 other governments competing with it.[8]   Usually all or most of the profitable business niches have already been found and occupied by someone else. When– beating the odds– a nation achieves a high rate of growth, mother nature suffers while the benefits that trickle down to ordinary people are often not just small but negative –negative, for instance, by driving up the price of real estate.  Then fewer people can afford to own, larger portions of incomes go to rent; and more people sleep on the sidewalk or in their cars.[9]

The greed of the rich, or some fraction of them, no doubt explains some of the persistence of untenable ideologies that t (falsely) appear to serve their interests.  Greed explains some of the concentration of wealth in their hands and some of the physical dependence of life on their decisions.  But the main factor is not greed.  I personally do not happen to know any business people I would call greedy, but I know many who stress out meeting payroll, paying taxes, and paying banks. Reality makes them less generous than they would like to be.

The forces that make society conform to the requirements of investor confidence are appropriately attributed to cultural structures, to separation marchande. The necessities of business structurally depend on investing to produce for sale to customers who have money to buy.  This is a fact about the rules of the game –namely the rules that govern sales. The cultural rules constitute the material positions that constitute the system.[10] (The material positions, for example buyer and seller, employer and employee,  landlord and tenant are constituted by the rights and duties of the persons who occupy those positions.)  Is this clear?  Do you see how ethics –one could also say culture—is at the root of law that structures human relationships in ways that create economic necessity?

The force driving modern governments to strive as hard as they can to attract investors is not a fact about psychology.  It does not depend on who wins the elections.  It is not created by self-serving ideology or by original sin. Redistributing wealth, and other necessary changes, on the scale necessary to achieve governability to cope with today’s and tomorrow’s mass unemployment, global warming, virus attacks and other existential crises, call for making the basic legal-cultural-social structure more susceptible than it is now to ethical change and amendment in the light of physical facts –physical facts like people sleeping in their cars and jungles burning.

In more detail: the reason why the main cause of inequality, exclusion, and paralysis in the face of climate change and other existential threats is structure, not greed, is this:  The poor person gets a job (…the consumer finds a well-stocked supermarket, the government gets a tax base… etc.)   only if the investor gets a profit.  Therefore, people who already have money must end up with even more money, in order for the penniless to get anything.

These things do not happen because people break the basic rules of the game. Once ethical individualism sets in– the forgetting of traditional community values, the forgetting of religious practices like confessing the sin of avarice and doing penance– it is inevitable, as a matter of history and as a matter of logic, that life will come to depend physically on the confidence of investors.

Of course, there have always been counter-currents existing alongside séparation marchande:  mothers, neighbours, people marching to the beat of a different drummer.   Nevertheless markets –which Habermas called modernity’s primary institution,[11]  dominate us.  We get tragic results like:  humanity is marching lockstep to a place not one human being wants to go, namely to making planet earth uninhabitable.   Like the recent wave of corporate commitments to racial justice which commit to hiring more blacks inevitably implying that there will be fewer good jobs for anybody who is not black –because corporations can only hire a total number of employees justified by their volume of sales.

Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg

Bottom line: the long series of failures to achieve social justice and to live in harmony with nature in the twentieth century and so far in the twenty first calls on us to widen our options by being more open-minded, to learn more from history and anthropology, to be more imaginative, to try social innovations, to question ourselves doing what E.F. Schumacher called ´inner work´ and Saint Francis called ´penance. ´ And to be less angry.   The world is not in a catastrophic state because people are being bad by breaking the rules.  It is the other way around:  the rules are breaking us.

Greta Thunberg has said that to keep the carbon in the ground and to keep global warming from going past or beyond the 1.5 Celsius mark we need to change the rules and change the system.[12]  But what new rules and what new system or systems would accomplish such goals?  Let´s be honest:  We do not know.  This is where the idea of unbounded organization comes in[13].  Unbounded organization is not a theory.  It is an attitude.   It is an ethical commitment to work together across sectors for the common good. Starting with the cultures that exist –which is the only place we can start— we work with cultural zones of proximal development (growth points) through mission-driven organizations.  We have to find the growth points in practice.   We have no one size fits all theory telling us in advance what they are.

The bottom line is ethical: meeting needs because they are needs.  That is what community means.  That is what solidarity means.  I cannot say more here.  I have tried as hard as I can to communicate clearly what it means to say that the basic cultural structure leads to physical dependence on the confidence of investors.  It is unreliable.  It is ungovernable.  It is on a collision course with nature.

[1] Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler,.  Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think.  New York: Free Press, 2012.

[2] For example, volume two, letters 26-50 of my Letters from Quebec.  San Francisco and London:  International Scholars Press, 1995 is titled ‘Methods for Transforming the Structures of the Modern World’.   More of our writings can easily be found on Amazon, Google, ResearchGate, www.unboundedorganization.org ,here in Live Encounters, in Transcend Media Service, Journal of Critical Realism, Pressenza.Com, and Divyadaan, the journal of the philosophy institute of the Salesian province of India

[3] André Orléan. L’Empire de la valeur : refonder l’économie.  Paris: Seuil, 2011. The expression is introduced at Position 328 and then woven into an account that expresses better than I can how the relationships –and absence of relationships—it describes are fundamental for economic theory and for economic society.

[4] E.g. General Theory, p. 209. there agreeing with Hobson

[5] See   Howard Richards and Joanna Swanger, Gandhi and the Future of Economics. Lake Oswego OR.  Dignity Press, 2013:  and also Summa Theologica, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 32, Article Five, reply to objection two:  Martin Luther´s essay on the freedom of a Christian, and so on and on one could make an unending list of basic cultural structures different from the one currently dominant.

[6] This point is explained in more detail in Howard Richards. Moral (and Ethical) Realism.  Journal of Critical Realism.  Volume 18 (2019) pp. 285-302.

[7]  Michael Kalecki. Political Aspects of Full Employment. Political Quarterly. Volume 14. (1943) Pp.322-331. P.325.  Paul Krugman makes a similar point in his The Return of Depression Economics. New York: W.W Norton, 2009. P.111-114.

[8] Jeffrey Winters, Power in Motion: Capital Mobility and the Indonesian State. Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1996.

[9] Michael Hudson, Killing the HostSan Diego: Target Books, 2015.

[10] Douglas Porpora, Cultural Rules and Material Relations.  Social Theory Vol. 11 (1993) pp. 212-229.

[11] Jurgen Habermas, The Legitimation Crisis.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1975.  Karl Polanyi called modern society not capitalism but ‘market society’.   Any number of mainstream scholars like Alex Inkeles have made up any number of lists of indicators defining the variable ‘modernity.’

[12] In her TED talk of January 28, 2019 and repeatedly.

[13] www.unboundedorganization.org

© Howard Richards