The Sickness Before the Infection, Part 2: Preservation or Carrying On?

Part 2

To take on such a work of the imagination (the refashioning of normal), we must be willing to do some spring cleaning. When we spring clean, we discard many things. We clean out the dust bunnies. We preserve and re-purpose some of those valuable pieces in our store of goods.  We also have those things which get put into boxes and get carried on, with the hope that someday we can use them. Often putting them into a box just puts off the difficult decision of whether to discard them until another day. 

After the COVID 19 virus has faded, like so many viruses before it (the Black Plague, the Spanish Flu) what will be preserved and what will be carried on?  The intentionality of preservation contrasts with the unintentionality of carrying on.  People who have striven to preserve dying energy industries like coal, and like oil and gas, are in fact also preserving something which can and does kill us all.  They are, in fact, committed to an old business fallacy called escalation of commitment.  They are committed to ways of generating usable energy (through historical economic commitments, through embedded jobs, through the artificial connection of employment and care) which need to change, and which will change whether they believe it or not.  This is a mere recent example of the escalation of commitment. Religious congregations in North America who believe that the locus of religious activity happens in the church building are also guilty of the escalation of commitment. The passing of the virus in the church in Daegu, South Korea, or large churches in Florida have been newsworthy examples.  My home church, in my youth, had that vision for its physical facility in the early 1980s, and now there exists this monolith of a building – designed like a factory warehouse – surrounded by a beautiful town. The Protestant Reformation, which decentralised the role of the minister, has gone even further; it has decentralised the location of worship. But for those who adhere to no religious denomination, we might ask ourselves whether we might benefit from a little spring cleaning.  Let’s shed that stuff, those behaviors and attitudes, that no longer serve us very well. Let’s examine the habits of our work and personal lives and keep and cherish those things that we value and that work for us. Let’s get rid of all the other stuff. You know the stuff, the long commutes, the needless energy waste, the binge watching, the needlessly expensive habits of TV-watching, news-dwelling, over-eating, and addiction that control us more than any temporary government regulation. 

Discovery as Preservation; Carrying On as Avoidance 

I recently read an interview with a Thai artist who used art to tell the stories of history to generate interest into the long and storied mythologies and events that shaped the early Rama period in Thailand.  The point was made that those who view and create art must understand the difference between something being preserved and something being carried on. In his example, the content of the stories that fill Wat Arun (The Temple of the Dawn) in Bangkok must in fact be preserved, but the generation of interest in them must be carried on. In the context of the most recent viral pandemic, what is the sickness that has been revealed to us?  And in understanding that, what should we intentionally preserve that existed before the virus? And what will we unreflectively carry on?

Economic Preservation

Trump has wanted the US economy roaring in a couple of weeks – by Easter at the time of writing this. Many people share his hope.  That misses the point of Easter. It is death without resurrection. It is a preserving of an economic system which is no longer serving us in a time of need.  Certainly, if economics is going to “ground” any type of life, it certainly should serve us in a time of need. That is the core of economics. However, “the US economy” is not acting as a ground in the time of need.  It acts as a ground for increased profit margins, not as a ground of human need. Trump represents a party that used to believe in individuals’ ability to help themselves in times of need. By not putting out the government’s recent approval of $2.2 trillion to the small- and medium-sized business in terms of wage subsidies, and instead funneling the money into unemployment insurance, Trump has actually cut the American population off at the knees, so to speak.  The economy, as acted upon by Trump, has in fact created a situation where what government supports are not individual resilience, but rather, increased dependence on a debt-ridden government that could not possibly sustain the relationship.

In fact, it is this very US-style economy which doesn’t need to be preserved.  It has focused on the increasing importance of transactions and investments which prop up people currently in power, at the expense of a body politic that was built to be healthy.  The US economy should not be the focus of preservation, and yet, in the current stream of events, will carry on. Without deliberate and concerted work to repair the economic illness, it won’t matter if the economy is resuscitated by Easter, or a year from now.  The new life sought will have been conquered by death. Increasing our margins is not an economic principle of the first order; meeting human needs is.

So, economically, what needs preserving? Prosperity. I hope you will forgive me for both delving briefly into the history of economic thought and tasking your imagination at this point. Since the Industrial Revolution, Western societies have experienced great prosperity.  By prosperity we should understand that people have enjoyed longer life spans, increased work-life balance, sufficient convenience, healthier food and water, an awareness of our inter-connection to each other and the Earth, and sheltering and clothing rates unprecedented in human history.  Individuals have greater access to education, and have more technological advantage to deal with the needs of the human body than hitherto in history. It isn’t just a point that capitalist economies have been the ones to guarantee these aspects of prosperity. Communist and authoritarian regimes have equal access to these benefits.  

However, there are counter-forces at work here, and these counter-forces are operating simultaneously. In philosophical terms, a dialectic operates where the “negation” of this prosperity is produced out of the prosperity itself. I will call this negation, wealth acquisition. It emerged in the debates of 18th century British economists: Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and John Locke. The debate centred on what the state’s role should be in respect to private property. Smith’s and Locke’s views were aligned with the idea that the purpose of the state was to preserve private property, which is to assure wealth acquisition.  Ferguson thought that progress was characterized by the convergence of social prosperity and nature.  In other words, while wealth acquisition (Locke and Smith) forcefully, often violently, assured progress, Ferguson advocated social prosperity as central to the idea of progress.  In Lockean economics, fewer and fewer people own more and more resources, so much that the criticisms of capitalism by Marx (19th century) and critical theorists (20th century) should be taken seriously, and not just marginalized in academia.  The counter-awareness concerning the excesses and structural illness of capitalism can no longer be stifled to poor artists and humanities majors. The science and the spirit of this counter-awareness needs to be released. We cannot continue to thrust our bright and impactful millennial generation into a corporate world that is still trying to preserve a central economic prejudice of increased margins.  The margin has increased so much that the majority of the population can fall through the gap. Just look at New York, building four new 1000-bed hospitals (and an equal amount of morgues) to testify that increased profit margins are not a response to human need.

But we need to say a little bit about prosperity.  For too long, prosperity has been under-represented in economic thinking.  And we need to understand that there are large swaths of the population that understand that prosperity and wealth are categorically different concepts.  Wealth, if understood in traditional ways, is generated from primary (land and physical environment) and secondary (production originating in primary wealth) sources.  Tertiary wealth (e.g. investments, hedge and mutual funds, retirement plans) is instead a claim on the primary and secondary wealth. Primary (land ownership) and secondary wealth (labour and means of production control), in other words, was acquired (forcibly or otherwise) and passed down to future generations via heredity.  The action of acquiring wealth transcends generations!

We know this very well today. Further we are acutely aware of the so-called “negations” we experience because of wealth acquisition. The seeming inability of recent generations to purchase either home or land is known to be a first-order symptom of this historical sickness of wealth acquisition, like having shortness of breath and a fever are first-order symptoms of having acquired the coronavirus.  Further symptoms include the gentrifications of core areas of urban infrastructure in an attempt to rescue “downtowns” from the idea that they were becoming black holes. We know this from the exorbitant costs of higher education. We know this from the need for the acquiring of skilled and professional labour through immigration because nations no longer have natural access to these resources without seeking external solutions.   

Prosperity, on the other hand, is markedly different from wealth acquisition.  There are numerous examples of systems of prosperity not based in wealth-acquisition that exist.  Consider the Anabaptists (Hutterites, Amish, Mennonites) Consider the micro-loan systems of South and Southeast Asia  Consider the prosperity enjoyed by places like Bhutan, and by movements such as permaculture farming, community land and production in Laos and Thailand, and in communities that live within cities like anthroposophical societies, L’arche communities, and co-operative collectives.  These communities are structured around the idea of prosperity in distinction from wealth acquisition.

The idea of prosperity adjusts two fundamental concepts mentioned above: what prosperity is, and how it is passed down.  In all these cases, prosperity consists in the communal effort to care for the sources of primary and secondary wealth. It is not governed by acquisition.  Instead, it is governed by the collective care for the thriving of that being cared for, such as land and production. In each case mentioned above, there is a sacred attitude for the primary or secondary object.  Land, water, labor, production are considered as part of a sacred order, and they would be spoiled if they are attempted to be acquired.

Prosperity then is a community that engages with, meaning enjoys and nurtures, the sacred bounty of nature and the sacred exercise of productive labour. This orientation towards prosperity requires an attitude towards labour and land that holds their sacredness, but also consciously adopts the community, not the individual, as the locus of action.  Notably, the individuals who thrive the most are those who emerge from such communities and are grounded in sustainable prosperity. Further, in terms of passing prosperity onward, it would seem that what is passed down is not so much wealth as it is a structure of life into which individuals are born and raised.  It is a structure of life which produces people grounded in sustainable prosperity. In other words, it is the ability to infinitely thrive within a finite world. 

What should be preserved? This idea of prosperity should be preserved.  The practice of wealth acquisition should be discarded. One cannot even object that wealth acquisition is necessary for prosperity to occur.  These counter-examples demonstrated clearly enough that wealth acquisition is not only unconnected to prosperity, but in fact, often destroys prosperity.  The finiteness of individual wealth acquisition (despite its ability to transcend generations) should be replaced with the communal locus of prosperity generation.

An interesting feature of prosperity is its ability to be participated in now, during the isolation of the coronavirus, rather than in being “handed a fish for a day”.  We do not have to sit at home wondering when we can finally resume the idea of wealth-acquisition wondering where the next fish will come from. We can involve ourselves in communities focused on prosperity, and learn how to fish.

Preservation of prosperity now means we must stop trying to acquire wealth.  It means we must focus on our communities and to participate in the social structure of our shared experience of the sacred. It means that the shared experience of the sacred is, in all practicality, the source of our ability to thrive.

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