The Movement To Teach The Economy What It Is Doing

EMAIL to disinfoIn an essay penned over a decade ago titled “In Distrust of Movements”, farmer, author, and critic Wendell Berry beautifully summed up the nature of and need for an Occupy movement. Via the irrisistible fleet of bicycles:

One way we could describe the task ahead of us is by saying that we need to enlarge the consciousness and the conscience of the economy. Our economy needs to know — and care — what it is doing. This is revolutionary, of course, if you have a taste for revolution, but it is also a matter of common sense.

People in movements…often become too specialized, as if finally they cannot help taking refuge in the pinhole vision of the institutional intellectuals. They almost always fail to be radical enough, dealing finally in effects rather than causes. Or they deal with single issues or single solutions, as if to assure themselves that they will not be radical enough.

And so I must declare my dissatisfaction with movements to promote soil conservation or clean water or clean air or wilderness preservation or sustainable agriculture or community health or the welfare of children. Worthy as these and other goals may be, they cannot be achieved alone. I am dissatisfied with such efforts because they are too specialized, they are not comprehensive enough, they are not radical enough, they virtually predict their own failure by implying that we can remedy or control effects while leaving causes in place.

Let us suppose that we have a Nameless Movement for Better Land Use and that we know we must try to keep it active, responsive and intelligent for a long time. What must we do?

What we must do above all, I think, is try to see the problem in its full size and difficulty. If we are concerned about land abuse, then we must see that this is an economic problem. Every economy is, by definition, a land-using economy. If we are using our land wrongly, then something is wrong with our economy. This is difficult. It becomes more difficult when we recognize that, in modern times, every one of us is a member of the economy of everybody else.

The Captains of Industry have always counselled the rest of us to be “realistic”. Let us, therefore, be realistic. Is it realistic to assume that the present economy would be just fine if only it would stop poisoning the air and water, or if only it would stop soil erosion, or if only it would stop degrading watersheds and forest ecosystems, or if only it would stop seducing children, or if only it would quit buying politicians, or if only it would give women and favoured minorities an equitable share of the loot? Realism, I think, is a very limited programme, but it informs us at least that we should not look for bird eggs in a cuckoo clock.

We are involved now in a profound failure of imagination. Most of us cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history beyond the farm. Most people cannot imagine the forest and the forest economy that produced their houses and furniture and paper; or the landscapes, the streams and the weather that fill their pitchers and bathtubs and swimming pools with water. Most people appear to assume that when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their obligations.

Undoubtedly some people will want to start a movement to bring this about. They probably will call it the Movement to Teach the Economy What It Is Doing — the mtewiid. Despite my very considerable uneasiness, I will agree to this, but on three conditions.

My first condition is that this movement should begin by giving up all hope and belief in piecemeal, one-shot solutions. The present scientific quest for odourless hog manure should give us sufficient proof that the specialist is no longer with us.

My second condition is that the people in this movement (the mtewiid) should take full responsibility for themselves as members of the economy. If we are going to teach the economy what it is doing, then we need to learn what we are doing. This is going to have to be a private movement as well as a public one. If it is unrealistic to expect wasteful industries to be conservers, then obviously we must lead in part the public life of complainers, petitioners, protesters, advocates and supporters of stricter regulations and saner policies.

My third condition is that this movement should content itself to be poor. We need to find cheap solutions, solutions within the reach of everybody, and the availability of a lot of money prevents the discovery of cheap solutions. The solutions of modern medicine and modern agriculture are all staggeringly expensive, and this is caused in part, and maybe altogether, because of the availability of huge sums of money for medical and agricultural research.

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  • Illhumanati

    Down with single minded ideologies! Up with all encompassing ones!
    I am all for clean air, sustainability, and proper land use. Most people are. Her argument started strong. However, by the end she had fallen into her own trap of ideology. What is sustainable? Who decides? The land we farm in the midwest today was once old growth forest. Do we return the land to the earth?

    In a society rich enough to afford food CHOICES, it is a shame that any child anywhere else in the world should starve. Human innovation will solve this problem. A garden in your yard will not.
    Can people make more informed choices? Yes.
    Sometimes we have to learn first.

  • Amilcar

      Any initiative that rises from mistrust and is defined by opposition, is doomed to sterility. This article could be entitled “Blueprint for an antimovement” understanding “antimovement” as immobility. The fundamental solutions exclude attempts to alleviate the symptoms? Do you let the patient experience pain, so he is not distracted by painkillers from reaching true health?
      If I didn´t knew that ideologies can be self-destructive, I would think that the author of this article works for the oligarchy, how else would one explain his requiring to his hypothetical antimovement to avoid using money? How is an organism expected to operate without a power source?
      I beg to the author of this article and anyone who reads it, to be realistic and recognize both the needs to address urgent problems and structural ones, and in the process, to not reject any resource which may be used to make this a better world.

    • Andrew

       Money is not a power source.  The only power it has is that which we give it.

      • Eric_D_Read

        Money is THE power source precisely because of the power it (or those that wield it as it were) has taken from us.

        Also, I hate the notion that power is something we “give” to other people or institutions. It is complete and utter psychobabble bullshit. 

        Power is never “given”. It can only be taken. 

        If I “give” you power, it isn’t really yours since I can take it back anytime I think you might use it in a way I don’t like. The only way it will ever really be yours is if you take it from me; either by force or cunning. 

      • Amilcar

         Well, money ISN´T a power source, but it is a symbolic representation of energy: one that 100% of society recognizes, wether we like it or not, anytime we exchange our work force for it or we exchange it for products and services.

  • HEC Force Ointafo

    I agree with Berry’s vision. I only take exception to the third of his requirements, that the movement be poor. As a whole the Economy should indeed learn to do more with less, but one must remember that it is fundamentally an entropizing entity like terrestrial life forms and stars. That is, it exists only due the fact that it burns potential. Attempting to address its existential crisis while overlooking this fact will be fruitless.

    Regarding individuals, I do not think that the relentless drive to separate ourselves from the other oxyrhine apes by our extravagance is anything but wasteful. On the other hand, The ascetic denial of money assumes that money is real. That is to say it is a real substance which is intrinsically separable from social power. A movement which is to be powerful must therefore be rich in the most basic sense. One thing that the economy needs to learn is that a more even distribution of power with appropriate safeguards for diversity leads to a more vigorous expansion of capability. With this added capability, the economy may become more deeply aware of the threat posed by its current potential exploitation practices. Only when this occurs, do I believe that the economy will achieve the transcendent state of libertine austerity which will cause it to flourish existentially.

  • Kenvallario

    finally i hear a voice that speaks to the existential approach…the only approach we have left ourselves with because of the amount of time we have let these environmental/social/economic problems fester…like a few of the other commentators, i am not happy with a return to poverty, however, that is the point, very well made, of the article…we are addicted to excess, so much that we have lost an appreciation for the balance that nature requires…

    the most miserable people i’ve ever met in this world have been wealthy…make all the arguments you want about how ‘money can be good’ blah blah blah…i have only seen it do horrible things to people and social relations…it creates a false inequality and gives us powers we ought not have…this writer sees that, and sees we have to do a spiritual thing, which is to stay away from illusions and focus on the earth, our home…

    as somebody who has watched, as a participant, the Occupy movement struggle lately…i am happy that some are beginning to speak to what i can only call the spiritual needs of progress…

    • Amilcar

       The problem is not money, but the lack of other means to create value – or their devaluation in our society -, wich makes money the only power source, and money makeing the only empowering activity.

  • Promisesofforever321