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To know what to do is not enough

2013 January 2
by Ian Welsh

For the past year I’ve been writing a book on prosperity, by which I mean widespread affluence. It’s been slow going, not because I don’t believe I know the general technical requirements of prosperity (I do, if I didn’t, I shouldn’t be wasting anyone’s time, including mine, writing the book), but because the real problem isn’t the technical details like eliminating bottlenecks, or redistributing income, or setting up positive feedback loops, or avoiding fraud, or stopping financialization, or any of the dozens of other subjects I either visit at chapter length or touch on briefly.  The problem as with, say, stopping smoking, isn’t so much what to do, it is how it comes that we do it.  When do we make the decision we’re willing to do what it takes, sufferer the negative consequences of getting to a better place, and then push ourselves through those consequences?

This is a huge problem in individuals, as the weight loss, addiction, psychology, psychiatry and self-help industries attest.  There is, generally, more money in  not solving a problem, as drug makers with their palliatives understand, than in solving it.  The people who have power and money and influence in the status quo are not sure that in a new world, with a new economy, and the new ethics which must undergird that new economy, they will be on top.  They are right to believe so.  They are creatures of the current world, and in being created, have created the world they are unsteady masters of.  Their ethics and morals, their way of business, of living, of apportioning power and influence and money must go if there is to be widespread affluence.  Their methods have been tried for 40 odd years now, and if measured against the human weal, have failed.  They will not, they cannot adapt, not as a group. They were not selected for the skills it takes to create a new type of affluent society, they have not even been able to maintain the mass affluence of the old society, and not just because they have not wanted to.  They would be a different elite, made up of different people with different ethics, talents and skills if they did want to.

Ordinary people also have the wrong ethics, the wrong morality.  Much is written about why consumerism is bad, but the ultimate problem of consumerism is not how it makes us feel but that the consumer passively chooses from a menu created by others, not to fill the consumer’s real needs, but to benefit those who created the menu.  Such a passive people cannot understand that choosing choices without creating choices is not choice, it is the illusion of choice.

So while my book has a lot of general principles of the sort which books on prosperity often have, such as about trade, and productivity and technological change, that isn’t the most important part.  The part that matters isn’t about the technical requirements of prosperity, it’s about why and when people do what is required to achieve prosperity, and when they don’t.  And when, having obtained it, they throw it away.

Our society is ours.  A tautology, but one we forget too often.  As individuals we often feel powerless, as a mass, we have created our own society.  There are real constraints, physical constraints on what society we can have, based on the resources we have, the technology we have mastered and what we understand about ourselves and our world, but those constraints are not, right now, so tight as to preclude widespread affluence, to preclude prosperity.

They are, however, tight enough to preclude continuing to do the same thing, led by the same sorts of people, and expect anything but decline, repeated disasters and eventual catastrophe.  We can be affluent and prosperous, we can spread that affluence and prosperity to those who do not have it now, but we cannot do it if we insist on keeping the current forms of our economy, including our current forms of consumption.  This does not mean doing with less, it means doing with different things, valuing different things.  Those new values will be better for us, objectively, they will make us both happier and healthier, just as most addicts are happier once they’ve broken their addiction, or rather once they’ve gone through withdrawal and rebuilt their lives.

We can choose not to do so.  We have, in certain respects, already chosen not to do so, as with our refusal to do anything about climate change until it is too late (the two problems are combined, climate change is a subset of the political and economic problems we have).  We can, also, choose to make the necessary changes, not only to avoid the worst catastrophes (disasters are now inevitable, there are consequences to failure, stupidity and greed), but to create an actual, better, world, a world in which the vast majority are healthier, happier and doing work they care about.

The monster facing us, as usual, is us.  The monsters are always us, our brothers and sisters, and the one in the mirror.  And it is those monsters I’ve been wrestling this past year.

38 Responses
  1. Lurker the Third permalink
    January 2, 2013

    Looking forward to the book.

    When writing it, remember you are creating a time capsule. You’re sending a message not just to the audience of today, but perhaps more importantly, for the day after everything falls apart.

    People will be angry, hungry, and looking for answers. We will be fortunate if the suggestions you provide are seen and followed.

    As always, a new year brings new hope.

  2. Rob Grigjanis permalink
    January 2, 2013

    The monster facing us, as usual, is us.

    Shades of Forbidden Planet! Good luck, Ian.

  3. tsisageya permalink
    January 2, 2013

    The title. Can’t. Read. Beyond. That.

  4. magekillr permalink
    January 2, 2013

    Do you plan on making it for sale, or releasing it for free in e-book format? Either way I’d like to read it; we disagree on plenty, but I love your writing and thought.

  5. Ian Welsh permalink*
    January 2, 2013

    Ideally, a formal book through a publisher. If not, I’ll probably charge something, but won’t get an ISBN or anything.

  6. Michael Roe permalink
    January 2, 2013

    Evolution is fundamentally a competition. If has rewarded those organisms that exploit their environment most effectively. It isn’t a goal it is just the result of the way things work. I agree that we have the tools to create a better existence, if we can modify our basic nature of individual self-interest. Unfortunately, I doubt that we will avoid descending into a really bad place before we realize that we must change. Today’s winners aren’t going to relinquish their privilege voluntarily. I doubt that any movement is possible to displace them. But the trends are clear, we are descending into chaos and that will level all of us– then it may be possible to create a better world.

  7. Celsius 233 permalink
    January 2, 2013

    Ian Welsh *
    January 2, 2013
    …, but won’t get an ISBN or anything.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Just curious; why no ISBN number?
    As an aside, they’re almost free here; one just needs to deliver 2 copies of the book to the National Library in Bangkok after printing.

  8. January 3, 2013

    ” just as most addicts are happier once they’ve broken their addiction, or rather once they’ve gone through withdrawal and rebuilt their lives.”

    Yes, most addicts are happier once they have rebuilt their lives, but most are vastly more unhappy during that process, which is why so few actually do it. Your point about abandoning our present form of consumerism for one which valued different things and which would be more friendly to our planet being a change which would lead to a more contented society is, I think, entirely valid, but the process of change would be intolerable to those who are accustomed to this form of consumerism. Which is, of course, your point, phrased differently.

  9. Ian Welsh permalink*
    January 3, 2013

    If it isn’t published through a publisher it won’t sell squat, and in that case making it a formal book simply damages my future publishing prospects (I have a fiction book under way as well.)

    That said, I do expect it to be published, but y’know, never count your birds, etc…

  10. Celsius 233 permalink
    January 3, 2013

    Ian Welsh *
    January 3, 2013
    If it isn’t published through a publisher it won’t sell squat, and in that case making it a formal book simply damages my future publishing prospects (I have a fiction book under way as well.)
    That said, I do expect it to be published, but y’know, never count your birds, etc…
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Hmm, that’s a very interesting comment coming from you; a bit surprising actually.
    But each to their own and all that.
    Cheers and I wish you and your book well…

  11. Ian Welsh permalink*
    January 3, 2013

    Surprising? It’s how the industry works these days. The big book stores don’t know books, they just go by prior sales in decisions about shelf space, so if your first book bombs (and an e-book only format almost always “bombs”) you’re done.

  12. Celsius 233 permalink
    January 3, 2013

    ^ I just spent 10 minutes trying to address your reply and I’m done for the evening.
    I’ll better express my thoughts tomorrow. Cheers Ian…

  13. John Puma permalink
    January 3, 2013

    Without any definition of affluence from you, I’d suggest that “in a new world, with a new economy, and the new ethics which must undergird that new economy” we aspire, instead, to universal comfort without the current institutionalized mass misery. If affluence can later be realized, fine, but only after food, clothing and shelter with plumbing for ALL.

    Please aim to prove in your book that affluence for many, as we know it, and as you propose for the future, does NOT require concomitant misery for many others.

    I couldn’t agree more about the illusion of choices and the illusion that society belongs to the psychopaths who keep telling us just that.

  14. Everythings Jake permalink
    January 3, 2013

    I feel like a significant contributing factor is a problem of the leadership on the progressive left, unions especially that themselves adopt heirarchical models and have foregone methods and approaches to organizing and negotiating that essentially segregate rather unify. This is of course an old complaint/debate (IWW vs. AFL-CIO), but I note two recent items that make the case eloquently:

    Article:

    http://www.tnr.com/blog/alec-macgillis/111488/the-man-who-tried-save-organized-labor

    Doug Henwood radio interview (12/06/12):

    http://www.leftbusinessobserver.com/Radio.html#S120612

  15. someofparts permalink
    January 4, 2013

    Hope you and the monsters managed to enjoy the holidays a bit.

  16. S Brennan permalink
    January 4, 2013

    …and now for something completely fascist:

    “FBI documents just obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) … reveal that from its inception, the FBI treated the Occupy movement as a potential criminal and terrorist threat … These documents also show these federal agencies functioning as a de facto intelligence arm of Wall Street and Corporate America.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/29/fbi-coordinated-crackdown-occupy

  17. January 5, 2013

    What an insightful view of our world. Came here via the link on Naked Capitalism and so pleased to have made the connection.

  18. January 5, 2013

    Hi Ian – Your book sounds interesting. I got to your web site by chance, following a link on Naked Capitalism which is one of my daily reads, otherwise I’m not much of a politico. But I was struck by your comments about self-publishing. You should not be so pessimistic about your prospects for making money and distributing a book by self-publishing. Book publishing industry is in crisis state which, as political scientist type you should know means it is a time of great opportunity. Writing your blog & publishing your own e-book, you can make tremendous headway without courting any favors from the likes of Simon or Shuster. Economics of e-book published on Amazon are far more attractive for an author than what would otherwise be available through a traditional publisher. In other words, it sounds to me like you need to take some of your general theorizing about the obstacles to prosperity and put them into action yourself. By the way, this is not just about the money – prosperity as I see from your brief post may require individual engagement and dropping the veil of passivity….

  19. WorldisMorphing permalink
    January 5, 2013

    Good post and a definitely good incentive to read your book. This being said, I’m tackling Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” right now, but considering the pace I’m going at and the strain it puts on my time and energy, I say in two to three months time I probably will have a taste for more contemporary writings…

  20. January 5, 2013

    I blog about the need to change and open our minds about public education and love this quote: “… choosing choices without creating choices is not choice, it is the illusion of choice.”
    As you probably realize, “choice” is one of the “reforms” beloved of political conservatives. Yet “choice” as it is defined by the conservatives is “choosing choices without creating choices”… it assumes that parents enrolling their child in another version of “school” are making a “choice” when the only parents making a “choice” are home school parents and “un-school” parents… parents who are engaging in DIY schooling that reflects their personal values and sensibilities or the values and sensibilities they share with another group of parents.

    One reason it is difficult to change the way we “do school” is also touched on in your essay. It is because “The people who have power and money and influence in the status quo are not sure that in a new world (i.e. in a new form of schooling), with a new economy, and the new ethics which must undergird that new economy, they (or their children) will be on top.”

    Here’s the real dilemma in my mind: can we make the changes in people’s thinking that you (and I) desire through the political process…. or must we experience a disaster first? We can only increase affluence if we intervene early in the lives of children born in poverty— but are we willing to increase our taxes to make that happen? Or do we need to have some insurrection involving the underclass to get people’s attention and engage their common sense?

  21. Alejandro permalink
    January 5, 2013

    “Our society is ours”. This is a very powerful affirmation. Why neutralize its power, by referring to it as a tautology? Repetition is the root growing agent of belief and belief compels action (or inaction). This is one that deserves to grow into a tree of visceral conviction.

    Why do we refer to ourselves as consumers (tautology?) instead of citizens? Consumer conjures up images of a resource depleter. Citizens are engaged members of our society, working individually and collectively to improve our society for all.

    My intent is not to criticize but honest feedback for your noble purpose. I sincerely look forward to your book.
    P.S. Thanks to Ives Smith for the link.

  22. January 5, 2013

    @Everything’s Jake
    The article on labor activist Jerry Tucker is inspirational and needs more exposure. He walked the walk and was the kind of person that Ian is talking about who is the opposite of the kind of people we have in leadership positions now. He ruffled feathers but not as much as anti union corruption writer, Bob Fitch, who is discussed by Doug Henwood in your second link to Henwood’s “Left Business Observer”. Dimitry Orlov at Club Orlov writes eloquently about the anarchist model i.e. anti-hierarchy and how it is often the most efficient way of getting things done. You may choose a temporary “leader” to get the project or task done, but then for the next task you may have another head of your project. http://cluborlov.blogspot.ca/2012/10/in-praise-of-anarchy-part-i.html
    While surfing “Left Business Observer”, be sure to listen to Doug’s latest interview with Sasha Lilley on her collection of essays “Catastrophism” and “why basing politics on disaster scenarios isn’t such a good idea.” According to her not much gets changed in times of crisis as far as left goals of economic equality i.e. prosperity for all. The exception seems to be the 1930s. (She points out though that the number of lynchings went down in the South in the 1920s and went up in the 1930s.) In the prosperous 1960s, we got the civil rights, women’s rights, and peace movements. That’s why the fascists hate prosperity for all. It brings out the best in us and that includes not wanting the fascists to be on top anymore.

  23. Ian Welsh permalink*
    January 5, 2013

    I will put the book out even if there is no publisher, I will just do so in a way that doesn’t make it very difficult for me to make a living writing books in the future. This is a book I feel an obligation to write and it is as much for the future as the present. That said, I am moderately optimistic that it will find a publisher, I just prefer not to assume such before it’s inked. Call it superstition, call it experience. :)

  24. Elizabeth permalink
    January 5, 2013

    Ian, I wish you much success on your book. I’m very pessimistic about our future, and I think the only thing that will wake us up is if some kind of catastrophe occurs that affects all of us – even the oligarch psychopaths that are ruling this country. Granted, more people are waking up to the realities of climate change, kleptocracy, propaganda and the nature of our foreign policy killing machine, but too many are still in denial. (It couldn’t happen here!)

    So many people feel powerless to do anything about making our society a better one, and I think this is due in part to what the mainstream media propaganda feeds us. “Things are getting better” – so no need to worry about doing anything to change it. I think we’re addicted to denial.

    Your message, and others like it, need to be broadcast loud and clear. I could go on and on, but you do it better.

  25. Jeff W permalink
    January 5, 2013

    Your post The Golden Laws of Prosperity is one of my favorites, Ian—so I am really looking forward to your book! (I realize your book won’t be just a compendium of general principles.)

    The part that matters isn’t about the technical requirements of prosperity, it’s about why and when people do what is required to achieve prosperity, and when they don’t.

    I’ve often thought that that was the central question, if there is such a thing, of society. (Maybe that’s too obvious to state.) I can’t wait to see your take on it. Best of luck with the book!

  26. tsisageya permalink
    January 5, 2013

    Off topic: Did you know that the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama is anti-Muslim?

  27. January 5, 2013

    Like other readers I came here via naked capitalism. I very much look forward to reading your book when it come out. Your posting moved me, whether it moved me enough to rightly act, I don’t know, but I remain hopeful. The world of today is so different from the world I imagined and hoped for in my youth, and more different still than the world I wanted my children to face now as young adults. Contemplation of current politics, of our economy, our place in the world and our impact on the world gives me great sadness. If we cannot change our culture and society as a whole, the least we can do is to continually make the attempt to effect larger changes but also change what with will we can change, ourselves.

  28. tsisageya permalink
    January 5, 2013

    Change of subject: http://muslimvillage.com/2013/01/06/33744/tens-of-thousands-rally-with-fatah-in-gaza/

    I have suddenly become confused.

  29. Mary Bess permalink
    January 6, 2013

    No one can predict how far a society can be pushed before it explodes. The Pentagon is reportedly screening “The Battle of Algiers” for clues.

  30. Elzorado permalink
    January 6, 2013

    A good piece Ian –very thoughtful — and I wish you well with your book. A few comments…
    “people who have power and money and influence in the status quo ……are creatures of the current world, and …. are unsteady masters ….. Their ethics and morals, their way of business, of living, of apportioning power and influence and money must go if there is to be widespread affluence.”

    It is not just the individual but institutional /corporate entities which make both the rules and impose them, and these rules/actions have both a life and responsibility of their own –a collective ethic and morality which owe much to the values of constituent individuals but also develop an on-going life and ‘moral’ existence of their own. Some might say a dominant position. Individuals find themselves adjusting/relinquishing/subordinating their views in tiny amounts as they become acculturated to that of their employer or primary commercial influence. They become part of an unthinking, certainly more callous and self-serving, process.

    “They will not, they cannot adapt, not as a group. They were not selected for the skills it takes to create a new type of affluent society…… and not just because they have not wanted to. They would be a different elite, made up of different people with different ethics, talents and skills if they did want to.”

    Then to change the situation we need to find/create/breed people with ethics and capacities able to create “a new type of affluent society”. The key problem facing our society and time is the old economic distribution problem which has exercised the likes of Marx and a host of others. It is not simply a case of personal choice and right intent. The best of intents are wasted by organizational, societal, political constraints, to say nothing of personal and societal inertia. Social and economic organization is not smooth and the best allocator of resources we have been able to invent to date, the perfect marketplace, is both wasteful and destructive as it is creative and efficient. I fear we are condemned to the process of muddling through life and opportunity, both individually and collectively. In-exactitude and adverse relativities within and between societies is likely to be the best we can do, despite the best of intentions.

    “Ordinary people also have the wrong ethics, the wrong morality…….. the ultimate problem of consumerism is that the consumer passively chooses from a menu ….. to benefit those who created the menu. Such a passive people cannot understand that choosing choices without creating choices is not choice, it is the illusion of choice.”

    The consumer does not choose passively; by exercising choice collectively, he/she channels and directs resources and changes the menu –future consumption depends on current market receptivity as do patterns of tech development and innovation. Surely, choice is limited by the parameters of what is possible/available from within ( and pleasing to ) the existing system and its controllers, and those groups and individuals which comprise the other side of the equation…ordinary people and consumers. If we are to bypass the illusion of choice, then we are seeking people with perfect knowledge or an external omniscient force able to allocate resources perfectly.

    “The part that matters isn’t about the technical requirements of prosperity, it’s about why and when people do what is required to achieve prosperity, and when they don’t. And when, having obtained it, they throw it away.”

    Do people know when they are prosperous in an absolute sense? Surely they will know if they are really better off than in some prior time or when they have ‘more’ than their neighbour. But prosperity is a numbers game and “ prosperity for all” is—in my book — to challenge the human condition of basic self-interest and security. And those constraints you mention are sufficient ( in the current paradigm) to preclude widespread affluence –both now and in the future. Of course, we could “start again” and that may be forced upon us all –as wealthy countries and as a world—as a result of intractable, ego-driven politicians and prosperity-destroying, elite-driven, policies — but we will then likely build on what’s already there in a scramble of narrow self-interest. To change this authentic rat-race, what is needed is a deliberate objective process of re-thinking all the facets of the economic problem ….and surely we have come some way beyond “from each according to their capacity and to each according to their needs”.

  31. January 6, 2013

    …and surely we have come some way beyond “from each according to their capacity and to each according to their needs”.

    One would hope.

    The problem with the Marxist prism is that it capitulates to capitalism’s frame of reference. The cold equation that transforms labor into capital lies at the heart of the dysfunction of the left. “Productivity,” “success,” “ambition,” and the quest for economic security are all psychologically yoked to this framing of human social arrangement.

    “What would you replace it with?” is the knee-jerk question that is prematurely raised, and raised from within this very frame, so it is a useless and offensive rhetorical query. I will be quasi-mystical and very Krishnamurtian in responding that one has to truly understand the nature of one’s own psychology and circumstance (“know thyself” writ collectively), and then perhaps we leave space for something original to manifest.

    “To know what to do is not enough” is the title of Ian’s excellent post, and I would posit that part of the reason of this bankruptcy of will is the bankruptcy of the system from within we are trying to operate. There is something wrong in there, and we’ve not yet understood, or at least acknowledged, what that “something” might be.

    It is in such times that the “lunatic fringe” should be heeded more soberly than is customary.

  32. Ian Welsh permalink*
    January 6, 2013

    Consumers do, in fact, passively consume, especially as individuals. In groups, the idea that “needs” or “wants” are found, then filled, is contradicted by volumes of studies of how marketing and advertising create, rather than fill, “needs” which did not exist. The perfect market does not exist and we are particularly far from it right now. Markets require a remarkable amount of forcible intervention to keep free. The idea that a free market is one free of government interference is not just wrong, it is exactly wrong.

    Largely agreed on institutional pressures, though it is also a selective process.

  33. Wat permalink
    January 6, 2013

    Have you read Manufacturing Consent and Shock Doctrine?

  34. RayS permalink
    January 6, 2013

    Re making difficult changes:
    We will never change our society until we change our understanding and view of ourselves. We have accepted and internalized a worldview which limits what we can/should/will do.
    We didn’t create that worldview ourselves. It was carefully crated and promulgated by those who benefit from the world as it is – the world with them on top.
    When we change the way we think about ourselves, we will change our behavior and our world.

    Example:
    Most people who have quit smoking are just smokers who don’t smoke anymore, like alcoholics on the wagon. It’s difficult, requires a lot of self-discipline and vulnerable to relapse. I ‘quit smoking’ half a dozen times over a 40-year period, sometimes for months at a time. What finally worked for me was when smoking became ‘ego dystonic’ – it no longer fit with my self-image. I simply stopped being a smoker.

    When consumption no longer fits our image of what we are and what we want out of life, our habits will change.

  35. Formerly T-Bear permalink
    January 7, 2013

    Have been trying to picture Ian’s concept of prosperity, this from BBC reporting about a Greek isle and its inhabitants is about as close as may be possible:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20898379

  36. January 7, 2013

    Re: Your New Book

    Have you investigated a subscription model? You undoubtedly have a large readership, and I suspect that many of them would be willing to contribute generously for an inscribed hardcover. BTW, BoP was a great blog and I still miss it.

  37. Morocco Bama permalink
    January 7, 2013

    Lisa,

    You’ve got them pissed. They must have followed your e-mail and are surveilling every address to which you sent it. My Yahoo account is all wonky today and I can’t access my e-mails half the time. Yes, Hedges is correct, the FBI and all Intelligence Services are divisions of the Corporations. In otherwords, Scumbags. Can you imagine how decayed these people must be? How permanently damaged their psyches are to engage in this kind of activity for a living? Think of the Millgram study or the Stanford Prison study, except this is not a study….it’s the REAL DEAL. I’ll never forget my last job in corporate world. I received the following response from the corporate attorney when I attempted to receive my fair severance. The funny thing is, I wasn’t threatening anyone or anything. It’s just that now, corporations know full well they are beyond any type of reproach, and if you diss them and find yourself on their radar in any way, they will seek to destroy you, and the State, its enforcement division, will be used as part of that process to include the FBI, the NSA, DHS and all the other nefarious intelligence agencies none of us have ever heard of, but we know they exist off the books.

    Mr. Morocco Bama:

    This is to inform you that your harassing, intimidating and threatening behavior against XYZ Corporation and its directors and employees is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. This is to demand that your harassment, intimidation and threats must CEASE AND DESIST immediately. Should you continue to pursue these activities, we will not hesitate to exercise all of our legal rights which could include, without limitation a civil action against you for monetary damages and/or criminal complaints. GOVERN YOURSELF ACCORDINGLY.

    Regards,

    Wei Will Screwya
    Vice President, General Counsel & Corporate Secretary

    XYZ Corporation
    2013 Weowntheworldbythe Way
    Inurface, Bitch 86753-09

  38. Celsius 233 permalink
    January 9, 2013

    @ Formerly T-Bear
    January 7, 2013
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Re: your link.
    Gave me a chuckle it did. Coincidentally, I had also watched it and came to the same thoughts.
    We’ve lost, totally, what this life is all about. *Sigh*…

Comments are closed.