Democratic EcoHumanism

Democratic Eco-Humanism, “Market Civilization” Essay, Research Paper

In an effort to dramatize his neo-Polanyian critique of neo-liberal global capitalism, Stephen Gill questions the tenability of his own term market civilization, proposing it as oxymoronic in that a market civilization qua the neo-liberal order contradicts Gill’s view of civilization qua democratic eco-humanism (i.e. representation, civility, social well-being and inclusion). In this formation, Gill’s argument is essentially circular in its reliance on his own subjective standard of civilization, (democratic eco-humanism), to prove the uncivilized nature of the neo-liberal order. By adopting a more objective, (and necessarily more general), definition of civilization, we can disband with Gill’s tautology, allowing us to embrace the term market civilization as a precise definition of neo-liberal global capitalism. In doing so, however, we merely adjust Gill’s propensity for grandiose formulations; what remains is his well-reasoned explication of the inherent contradictions of neo-liberalism, an explication that underscores the ways in which Anglo-American neo-liberalism departs from a certain aesthetic of civilization as democratic eco-humanism. Though he fails to prove the system uncivilized in the broad sense, Gill’s arguments make a strong case for the rise of a Polanyian double movement that would address the critical excesses of the neo-liberal order.

To understand Gill’s claim about the oxymoronic nature of market civilization, one must understand the differences between the two relevant definitions of civilization. In Gill’s words: “civilization implies not only a pattern of society (def. 1) but also an active historical process that fosters a more humanized, literate and civil way of life, involving social well-being on a broad and inclusive basis (def. 2). (Gill, 422)” Gill’s claim regards only the second definition, a version of which the American Heritage Dictionary pictures as: “An advanced state of intellectual, cultural, and material development, progress in the arts and sciences, the extensive use of writing, and the appearance of complex political and social institutions.”(American Heritage) Though Gill’s version of civilization mirrors closely the story told by the dictionary, both claims about the parameters of civilization are so problematically subjective as to add little or nothing to Gill’s analysis of neo-liberalism.

The fallacy of both definitions of civilization is rooted in a subjective set of truth claims masked in an ethos of democratic eco-humanism that is as guilty of attempting to proclaim the end of history as neo-liberalism itself. The embedded nature of these claims makes them initially hard to penetrate; broader political participation, literacy, civility and wealth distribution all function in a sort of Hegelian determinism where humanity appears to be progressing towards ever-deeper understanding of civilization qua democratic eco-humanism. And yet this very determinism, though perhaps satisfying in that it situates Gill’s rejection of neo-liberalism within a certain sociopolitical philosophical system, dissolves when outside Gill’s limited context. In other words, what does Gill’s definition allow us to make of past “civilizations” like the Romans, where a slave class existed, the Hebrews, where religious tolerance was subsumed under a telos of religiopolitical election, or the Mayans, where the state sanctioned human sacrifice? To claim that these civilizations were mere stepping-stones to our more enlightened version of civilization is to refuse to treat their participants as self-conscious agents and to lapse into cultural chauvinism.

Gill’s subjective aesthetic of civilization is equally problematic if we turn our eyes in the other direction. What effect will artificial intelligence and the creation of cyborgs have on Gill’s definition of democratic eco-humanism? Will these new beings be included in the franchise? Will the depletion of natural resources create a future civilization where it is more humane to denude the earth in order to save humans? Even with the neo-liberal straw man as a foil, Gill’s idea of civilization rings hollow; after all, while one ideological pole would have us include plants as neo-sentient beings deserving representation in society, another would proclaim human dominion of the earth (a la Genesis 2) as the paradigm for rational human interaction with the planet. Where Thoreau might call a cabin in the wood civilized, Donald Trump sees a new apartment building. Though we can prefer one model to the other on a subjectively aesthetic basis, it seems artificial and indeed impossible to create a salient line of progress that could possibly reconcile drastically different worldviews and material realities.

To replace Gill’s self-congratulatory historical determinism, we must be far more careful about our definition of a civilization. At the risk of being overly vague, I would posit the following: “Civilization is characterized by the self-conscious actualization of a systematic ethos defining the relation between self and community.” In other words, all that is truly required of civilization is a certain self-consciousness, (as a civilization), and a certain level of complexity characterized by the desire for progress towards a goal or set of goals other than survival. By distilling the most general aspect of the dictionary definition, namely social or political complexity, this new definition allows us to avoid the sort of subjective aesthetic of civilization that underlies Gill’s democratic eco-humanism. Though the result may be less satisfying, the more cautious, general nature of this new approach allows us to avoid confusing the ought of civilization, (that which we think it should be), with a useful objective claim about the is of civilization, (a common standard on which to judge all civilizations).

The fact that Gill’s claim that market civilization is oxymoronic is essentially a stylistic excess renders the above inquiry academic; even without assuming his version of civilization as democratic eco-humanism, Gill’s neo-Polanyian critique of neo-liberal capitalism exposes the inherent tensions and contradictions of the neo-liberal model. To summarize Gill’s analysis in his own words: “The structure and language of social relations is now more conditioned by the long term commodity logic of capital. Capitalist norms and practices pervade the gestes repetes of everyday life. . . so that it may be apposite to speak of the emergence of what I call a ‘market civilization’.”(Gill 399) Gill’s debt to Polanyi is quite evident. “Ultimately, that is why the control of the economic system by the market is of overwhelming consequence to the whole organization of society: it means no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market.” (Polanyi, 57) But though he draws off of Polanyi’s schematic, Gill contributes a subtle understanding of the current state of neo-liberal capitalism as could only be possible from an author publishing during the ascendancy of the neo-liberal order. To understand his analysis, we can work from Gill’s perspective of democratic eco-humanism, not as a synonym for civilization as such, but as a benchmark that crystallizes the most problematic tensions of the neo-liberal system. Therefore, we now look to understand Gill’s claim about the uncivilized nature of neo-liberalism within his own framework of democratic eco-humanism.

Gill locates the essential basis for declaiming the neo-liberal order as uncivilized in the system’s miserable record on the egalitarian distribution of resources, its history of environmental degradation and its general willingness to subjugate the needs of the many to the needs of the few. ” For the 800 million or so affluent consumers in the OECD, there is a counterpart number starving in the Third World, with one billion more that have no clean drinking water or sufficient food.” Or later: ” Any significant attempt to widen this pattern of motivation [of fear and greed]. . . .would tend to deplete or to destroy the eco-structures of the planet.” (Gill, 419) These neo-Polanyian observations are in fact so patently obvious to Gill that he spends little time exploring them in his paper, though they nevertheless form the backbone of his materialist critique. Looking to other authors helps fill in the rather bleak picture: from Vandana Shiva we learn of the impact of industrial agriculture “As a result of these non-sustainable activities, an estimated 70 percent of the world’s marine fish stocks are over fished or fully exploited” (Shiva, 38), while Kim Moody gives us a more humanistic perspective, looking at the inevitable effects of the neo-liberal order on the workplace. “[Conversations with workers from dozens of plants] reveal an identical tale of what happened when lean methods were introduced: substantial job elimination, faster and harder work pace and increased difficulty in handling grievances related to production or working conditions” (Moody, p. 92) It behooves us in the end to return to Shiva to help us abandon the environmental/ humanistic dichotomy in order to realize the essential interconnectedness of these two arenas, so that when Shiva describes the over fishing of the shrimp beds off of the coast of India, we are reminded that the costs are equally felt in the environment and the dissolution of local fishing cultures. (Shiva, 37-54)

Because the priorities of the market, (namely continuous development and wealth generation for the small minority which sits atop the neo-liberal hierarchy), are radically opposed to eco-humanistic ideal which we can assume are basically shared by the resource-poor majority of the world, the neo-liberal system is forced to manufacture consent in a manner that Gill finds equally uncivilized. Put another way, if the non-egalitarian result of the neo-liberal order defies Gill’s eco-humanism, the non-democratic mechanism for maintaining this order contradicts his ideal of democratic political participation. In Gill’s words, neo-liberal capitalism results in a system of political supremacy. “By a situation of supremacy, I mean rule by a non-hegemonic bloc of forces that exercises dominance for a period over apparently fragmented populations. . .”(Gill, 400) This crisis, as Gill calls it, arising from what Gramsci calls ” a rift between popular masses and ruling ideologies” (Gill, 400) results in a system that necessarily circumvents popular support, not because the populous is too ignorant to understand its best interests, but rather because the interests of the system inherently contradict the interests of the populous. This lack of real participation is inherently uncivilized according to Gill’s democratic/ egalitarian principles, but before we can even examine this idea, we must understand Gill’s analysis of how such non-participation is engendered through the two complimentary procedures of [manufactured] consent and coercion.

We begin this examination with a look at the neo-liberal ethos, (what Gill calls its mythology), which Gill implicates as uncivilized due to its role in engendering a politics of supremacy. The ideological fallacies that Gill points out seem to fall into two categories: the first being the fallacy of the self-regulating market, the second being the fallacy of the inevitability of neo-liberalism. On the first point, Block best supports Gill: “When the growth of the money supply is either too rapid or too slow, the result can be disastrous. Hence, there is a continuous need for a political practice of money supply management to make market societies work. . .But the very existence of this political practice. . .in turn creates a new set of problems, since there is a conflict between the system’s need for political management and its basic ideology that markets should be left alone to run themselves. (Block) On the second point, Gill is supported by the “varieties of capitalism” literature, where writers like Boyer and Kitschlett outline the fact that the Liberal Market Economy (LME) model of the Anglo-American system, (which here is synonymous with neo-liberalism), is at least partially challenged by European Coordinated Market Economies and Japanese-style Group Coordination, both of which include some version of stakeholder capitalism designed to mitigate the negative impact of the market. (Boyer 29-58) (Kitschlett 427-459) Gill links the role of propaganda to the uncivilized nature of neo-liberalism in a tertiary manner as a facilitator of the wealth gap and the politics of supremacy that are themselves directly uncivilized. It is unclear whether Gill is also arguing, as one might, that any civilization whose rhetoric stood in such contrast to its reality exhibits a level of contradiction and hypocrisy (i.e a lack of self-knowledge) that, according to Gill’s own standards, is inherently uncivilized. In either case, Gill’s treatment of neo-liberal mythologies helps us confront Friedman’s vague assertions that, in truth, the world actually wants the neo-liberal order (e.g. the story of Heng Dao) (Friedman, chapter 2)), in that, because the propaganda is itself divorced from reality, the consent manufactured through it has no basis in fact, and thus no factual or moral ground on which to stand.

Following the consent and coercion model, Gill reminds us that when consent cannot be manufactured then it must be secured, a practice that seems more directly uncivilized than the role of neo-liberal mythology. Gill sees the coercive model operating on both the macroscopic and microscopic scales. In the macroscopic view, the G7 nexus, as Gill calls it, uses its control of capital to demand compliance from Third World nations in the form of, among other items, open borders, tax breaks, and the protection of specious property rights including international patents. (Gill 412-415) Actualized through international institutions like the IMF and World Bank, international treaties like GATT and NAFTA and individual participants like the bond rating departments of the Western financial conglomerates, the coercive nature of these macroscopic techniques are, by Gill’s standards, uncivilized in and of themselves (for being undemocratic), as well as being directly linked to the visitation of economic degradation on the Third World states: “The rule and the burdens of market forces are most frequently imposed hierarchically on the weaker states and social actors” (Gill, 421). On the microscopic level Gill sees a pernicious move towards a sort of Benthiam pan-opticism, where surveillance is used to further the needs of the neo-liberal order. (Gill 416-17) For Gill, such a movement is inherently dehumanizing and therefore flies in the face of his democratic eco-humanism, which here seems loosely based on a sort of Kantian kingdom of ends, where as many individuals as possible have the opportunity for self-actualization.

As stated above, the combination of consent and coercion result in a system that is inherently non-participatory; either participation occurs under false pretense (consent) or participation that defies the order is rooted out and destroyed (coercion). One hardly needs to revisit Gill or the other authors to find evidence of this practice, as examples, from the brutal repression of protests in Seattle to the orchestration of business friendly regimes in countless Third World countries (e.g. Mexico, Indonesia) to the on-the-record policies of structural adjustment (shrinking government, export driven economies) of the IMF, surround us everywhere. On a thematic note we can merely reiterate that a system that does not serve the populous must avoid real political participation (or perish), therefore justifying Gill’s claim as to the uncivilized nature of the neo-liberal order on both counts, (that it is not humanistic and that it is not democratic).

Working within Gill’s own framework therefore proves useful, despite its circularity. By applying Gill’s democratic eco-humanism as a litmus test, the Polanyian tensions between society and the market and the resulting approaches to maintaining the system become evident. Outside of Gill’s subjective aesthetic of civilization as democratic eco-humanism, however, we can see how the term market civilization is absolutely ideal for defining the neo-liberal order. Far more drastically than the stakeholder models of Europe or Japan, the Anglo-American style of neo-liberalism approaches the Polanyian asymptote of full submersion of the social within the economic. Utilizing the more general definition of civilization provided in this paper, we can envision neo-liberal market civilization as a civilization that aggressively embraces an ethos of technological growth, development in the purely material (and not sustainable sense) and wealth generation for the oligarchs. In this sense the neo-liberal market civilization seems to be approaching its apotheosis, even as its inherent contradictions encourage the Polanyian double movement that, for writers like Gill, Moody, Shiva, Escobar, Gray and Block, might provide salvation, either through outright revolution or substantial reforms of the current order.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition Houghton Mifflin Co. 1996

Berger, Suzanne and Ronald Dore. National Diversity and Global Capitalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press

Block, Fred. Deconstructing Capitalism as a System Paper prepared for International Symposium on “Approaches to Varieties of Capitalism” University of Manchester, March 1999

Friedman, Thomas L. The Lexus and the Olive Tree New York: Farrar Straus Giroux

Gill, Stephen. “Globalisation, Market Civilisation and Disciplinary Neoliberalism” Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 1995. ISSN 0305-8298 Vol. 24. No. 3. pp. 399-423

Kitschelt, Herbert et al. Continuity and Change in Contemporary Capitalism. Cambridge University Press

Moody, Kim. Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy. New York: Verso, 1997

Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Hill, 1944

Shiva, Vandana. Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply. Cambridge, MA: South End Press


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