08 February 2005

08/02/05. Review of "The Possibility of Progress", by James Robertson

Program: The Commons

Note: This review is by our respected friend and colleague James Robertson whose extensive work and conditions in the area of sustainable development and social justice can be accessed via the website "Working for a Sane Alternative" at http://www.jamesrobertson.com/

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The Possibility of Progress:
by Mark Braund.

Shepheard-Walwyn, London, 2005,
308 pages, paperback, £14.95.
Further details at www.markbraund.com.

This is an impressive, important and readable book, supported by wide-ranging research. I summarise it chapter by chapter in the following paragraphs.

Its definition of progress, based on "clear and recognisable moral values", is "movement towards a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable global social order".

"Science and Humankind" disproves the myth that our biological evolution rules out progress of that kind; the evolution of consciousness in humans can enable us to master biological constraints. The message of "Evolution and Culture" is that, unlike our ancestors, we now have the knowledge and capacity to make decisions about our future. We cannot avoid moral responsibility for what we decide.

"Economics and Morals" concludes that progress cannot happen without fundamental changes in the way we organise the economy. So long as we accept it in its current form, "we condone worsening economic polarisation, we condemn hundreds of millions to misery, and we guarantee that the human race can survive only a few more generations, as the means to life are exhausted and the environment destroyed". How we deal with this has "huge moral implications".

The present "State of the World" should "provoke incredulity and anger, and hopefully a determination to do something about the hideous social injustice that blights our supposedly civilised world". This chapter's lucid account of the role of big business, rich-country governments and the IMF in the shameful Third World debt story drives home "what seems obvious to the impartial observer: that the entire thrust of global economic policy is geared to guaranteeing the privileged position of a small minority through the undermining of the economies of the poor nations. Whether this process was premeditated is impossible to know, but if the rich and powerful of the world had set out deliberately to secure an ever-increasing slice of global wealth for themselves, they could not have planned and executed a more effective scheme".

Since questions of ethics and economics cannot be considered in isolation from each other, the question of "A Universal Ethic" arises. This chapter finds that the "crucial values are the ones we all share... They are the values targeted by our current economic system... They are the only values by which all humans can enjoy liberty and freedom from want". Powerful interests profit from people's failure to understand that a better world is possible. They propagate myths and untruths to limit the moral aspirations of society.

"Perception and Reality" points out two inconsistent trends in the last few decades. In an increasing number of countries gender equality and racial equality have been established and homosexuality is no longer penalised. But in most countries the economic gap between rich and poor has widened. Why are we readier to support the rights of people disadvantaged on racial or 'minority' grounds than the rights of those disadvantaged by an economic system designed to produce winners and losers?

One deliberately cultivated myth is that progress depends on a competitive economy. Another is the myth of scarcity. Another, more ancient myth is that divisions between rich and poor are an inevitable part of God's plan for humankind, and reflect the natural order of things. To combat these myths, we need to understand how the individual human psyche is shaped by society, and work out how a conscious, rational and moral human psyche can shape society.

Chapters on "Psyche and Society" and "Moral Development" stress that education aiming to turn out good citizens in terms of the dominant worldview, can only serve to reinforce prevailing inequities. Moral development is not about producing model citizens conditioned to survive in the contemporary world. It is about becoming aware of the world's immense problems, accepting the possibility and desirability of change, and finding strategies to bring it about. In particular, we must bring our leaders to accept that the dreadful reality of the contemporary world is irreconcilable with our moral aspirations, and that a better social and economic order is possible.

Chapters on "A True Economics" and "Freedom and Justice" focus on today's false understanding of economic laws. A critical mass of people must engage in a popular movement committed to progressive change through an understanding of how the economy works and could work better.

The key to progress will be on lines proposed by Henry George - a complete shift from taxing us on the value we create on to the value of the resources we use. Georgists and ecological economists are beginning to find common ground. By informing the economic and environmental understanding of millions of people, their arguments can generate the necessary political commitment for change.

The last chapter, on "The Politics of Progress", points out that our leaders are prisoners of the economic system too. All today's rich-country leaders assume they have to acquiesce in an economic system which clearly conflicts with progressive values. Tony Blair feels he has to accept that "the determining context of economic policy is the new global market; that imposes huge limitations of a practical nature - quite apart from reasons of principle on macroeconomic policies".

So the prospect for progress depends on large numbers of people seriously committing themselves to understanding the economy in practical, ethical terms, and - with that new understanding - acting through democratic processes to change the way it now works.

My main reservation about this excellent book concerns Henry George's proposal to raise public revenue, not from existing taxes but from the "economic rent" of land.

I strongly support that proposal myself. But, first, it needs to be widened. Sources of public revenue should include, not just the value of land and other natural resources, but also the value of non-natural assets created as common wealth - such as the public money supply.

Second, people find it difficult to understand the concept of "economic rent" - naturally confusing it with the normal meaning of rent. But they won't find it difficult to understand that making people pay for the value of the common wealth they take from the economy is fairer than making them pay taxes on their rewards from contributing to it.

With that reservation, I strongly recommend this book. It meets a great need and should be widely read and studied and discussed.

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