Christian is an economist whose work can help answer the question: how might economics become an emancipatory social science?
Christian holds a PhD in economics, is a professor at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, a former advisor to the alternative bank of Switzerland, and was a long-time researcher at the Belgian National Science Foundation. He's the author of Critical Political Economy and Full-Spectrum Economics, among other books on political economy with an existential and ecological focus.
As an economist unafraid to venture into questions around spirituality, or the evolution of consciousness, his works are highly interdisciplinary, including a fusion of Ken Wilber's integral philosophy with post-neoclassical economics, and a dialogue between Max Horkheimer and Friedrich Hayek.
Our conversation is about emancipatory social science. What is it, and how might economics move in its direction. More broadly, we cover:
11:45 – What does ‘emancipatory’ mean in the context of emancipatory social science?
24:40 – What is missing from economic theory, from capitalist society, that prevents us from realizing the emancipatory potentials that the development of the means of production and technology make possible? In short: what are critical and existential reflection?
32:50 – A critique of complexity economics, and more generally, of all modeling-first approaches to economics.
49:00 – What does an economics beyond computational modeling look like? On the return of field work, sociology, and anthropology as bases for economic work, as well as philosophy, and existential psychology.
1:06:10 – What is a society’s ‘critical spirit’? It can act as a parallel to price signals in a market economy, but rather than calibrating supply and demand, it calibrates the ‘normative atmosphere’ in which humans form their existential aspirations.
1:12:35 – Variety as a key leverage point in how we can consciously change the trajectory of complex market economies. From “disordering potentialities” to “rational non-conformism”, how can we use variety to change the course of complex market economies?
1:21:20 – What actual policies – like a basic income for example – might play a role in actually creating a society that supports deep, existential experimentation, rather than endless variations on the same capitalist form of life?
1:35:57 – What role might the reduction of ‘socially necessary labor time’ play in empowering a more emancipatory economy?
1:42:20 – On the tension between legibility and diversity. How should we think about using centralized governments to provision resources, when governments have a built-in incentive to maintain the ‘legibility’ of its population, or to prevent from too much decentralization?
Erik Olin Wright's presentation outlining 'emancipatory social science', and his book Envisioning Real Utopias where it's elaborated
Stephanie Kelton's The Deficit Myth
Danielle Carr's piece in the NYT on reification
Martin Hägglund's This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom
* Transcript is auto-generated using Whisper, without a human hand combing through to fix errors, so take with a few loads of salt *
All right, Christian, welcome to the podcast. Thanks so much for being here.
Thanks for inviting me. How are you doing?
I'm good. How are you doing?
I'm good, thanks.
So the way that I first came across your work, as we spoke about a bit, was you wrote a book in 2010 called Full Spectrum Economics, which is this really fascinating fusion. You use kind of Ken Wilber's integral philosophy. You mix it with some of your previous work on critical political economy, and you put together this framework that introduces a lot of ideas. So I wanted to start here, and maybe for anyone who isn't familiar, I'll let you kind of give a little overview of Ken's work. But he's a really fascinating figure. Weaves philosophy, spirituality, consciousness studies, but in a very analytic and holistic fashion. I'd love to start here and touch on this, on what you found using kind of Ken Wilber's framework was able to do for your own thinking, and why you chose to write a book in dialogue with it. What did that kind of add or unlock for you?
Well, I mean, I came across Ken Wilber's work in a different context, in a personal context. I was interested in his overall kind of spiritual holistic approach to everything, as he calls it himself, like a theory of everything. And I'm German, so we Germans, we tend to genetically gravitate towards grand authors who say everything about everything. So Ken's work was kind of appealing to me in that way, but it was also appealing to me because of the framework that he was offering, which the so-called AQL, A-Q-A-L, all quadrants, all levels approach, which is basically a way of trying to describe what's going on in reality at every moment in terms of different dimensions of reality and different streams of evolution. And I found that fascinating from the beginning. I liked the way it allowed me to put some order onto the mess that is mainstream economics. And what it helped me do mostly, I mean, we can get into it, I guess, more in detail, but in a nutshell, is to realize that as a young economist studying in mainstream economics departments, I had been told a super reductionist approach to social reality, which basically looks only at what Wilbur calls the outer aspects of society, but also of humans as economic agents. And so the neglect of the interior dimensions of the collective and of the individual suddenly struck me. So Wilbur's approach basically helped me to put into words what I had already kind of intuited when I was studying economics and feeling kind of alienated and happy.
It's interesting, as I was reading your work, I found myself constantly thinking back to an idea that was actually outlined by the sociologist Eric Olin Wright. His rough attempt at defining what he called emancipatory social science. And I think his outline is a really nice reference point, both as a lens to look at your work, but also as a field and a vision that I think your work develops in really fruitful ways, it did for me at least. And at a bird's eye level, he defined it like this. He wrote that emancipatory identifies a kind of central moral purpose in the production of knowledge. And he specified that purpose as the elimination of oppression and the creation of the conditions for human flourishing. He defined science as recognizing the importance of systematic scientific knowledge and how the world works in achieving that emancipatory task. And then he defined, he used social as implying that emancipation depends upon the transformation of the social world, not just the inner self, not just the individual, something that in Ken's work, I found he's very good too at integrating those two dimensions. Note for listeners that your book, Full Spectrum, was actually subtitled Towards an Inclusive and Emancipatory Social Science.
I want to start by dwelling for a moment on that term, emancipation. We have social sciences already. We have plenty of them. They're proliferated across university departments. What we don't have are a lot of social sciences that explicitly engage either with the term or even the sentiment behind emancipation. And that's always struck as profoundly strange. And interestingly, it's also historically strange. Science used to be a branch of moral philosophy in Adam Smith's day. In the 20th century, we had the Frankfurt School and their critical theory, which you've done a lot of work with. But it kind of fizzled out in the 20th century. And in reading your work, it seems to me like maybe you've had a similar experience of finding the absence of anything that might be labeled as emancipatory interest within social science, somewhat strange. So I want to ask what this term emancipation means to you in your context over the course of the conversation. We'll develop specifics and ideas. And you've done a lot of rigorous work here. But I want to start at a higher level view. What does adding that term emancipatory onto social science mean to your mind?
Well, it means basically drawing inspiration from, broadly speaking, Marxian traditions, Frankfurt School in particular. It means, first of all, that you as an intellectual, you're going to be aware of the fact that your task as a, let's say, an economist is to work with categories and ideas and concepts that are geared towards describing the world in such a way that you can help your fellow society members become aware of the structures that oppress them and us, oppress us. Emancipation is about, for me, is about not only fighting the outer aspects of society in the standard Marxist way, or in general, progressive fashion, which is to say, you stand up against power, you tell truth to power, you tell people about the power structures in which they're embedded without being aware of it necessarily. You can even go and tell people about the power structures that actually alienate them and so on. That's one aspect. And it's super important.
What I think I added to that, and again, Wilbur's perspective helped me spell it out in a way in a nicer way than I had the intuition of before, is that we also need to emancipate from our inner servitude, the way that our psyche, our emotional impulses, our emotional habits, our habits of thinking, of talking to ourselves and so on, are also ways in which we are oppressed. We can be oppressed by our need to fill an inner void by consuming, for example. It's not just that, of course, advertising and capitalism and so on, you know, impel us to consume and need us to consume and overconsume, but we're also, at least in the modern West, we're also complicit of that in a certain way because our culture and our inner construction as individuals has led us to need consumption in a very significant way to fill an inner void or a form of inner despair that we're not necessarily aware of.
Modern psychoanalysis, but psychology in general, existential psychology is brought to the foreground in a very helpful way. And so, for me, emancipatory social science tries to do all that, which is a mouthful, but Wilbur's four quadrants, which kind of juxtapose the outer dimensions, which kind of Marxism takes as the objects of emancipation and the inner or interior dimensions of the individual and culture and the cultural habits and the spiritual postures that we have and the way we react to emotions and how we repress them and all that is also present in Ken's work in a very interesting way together with the outer dimensions. And so, I really like the way in which it allows to envision a kind of holistic social science that looks at emancipation from all angles, if you like.
This is something that I really loved about your work. The way that you provide a rigorous basis to introduce a focus on interiority, subjectivity, phenomenology, consciousness into the language and orientation of the social sciences. And it's interesting because it seems to me that this theme of trying to reorient our focus from the reductively objective to a more first-person sensitive analysis of what life is like, of whether progress is taking place, this is happening across the board in a variety of places. I mean, I'm thinking back to the philosopher of mind, Philip Goff's book, Galileo's Error, just a couple years ago. He argues that Galileo, in order to make the world tractable and legible to mathematical sciences and objective analysis, he literally said that he had to bracket out subjectivity, bracket out the sensory world. And in so doing, he laid the tracks for a modernity that left subjectivity behind, left it in that bracket where Galileo placed it, and carried on with our objective methodologies, forgetting that if we're going to reject the dualism between matter and spirit, that we'll have to reconcile the exterior and the interior, as Ken Wilber tries to do.
And this is also happening in places like 4E or an act of cognitive science, where the theory of value, the idea of what value is, is fundamentally phenomenological. Value there is first and foremost an embodied dynamic. It's enacted in perception, which kind of forces this reckoning between cognitive science and phenomenology. And even in economics, I mean, certainly in Wright's notion of emancipatory social science, it's predicated on flourishing. And I don't really think he developed that enough, the question of what flourishing actually is, but across the heterodox economic space, there is this kind of growing push for this more holistic idea of well-being to constitute progress.
And even, I mean, this is breaking from the theme of reintroducing interiority a bit, but more about that broader idea of what emancipation looks like in practice. I just saw the other day, there was a piece in the New York Times by Danielle Carr, and she did something I thought was really admirable, which is that she tried to introduce and define the term reification in the New York Times. Oh, wow. Which is really difficult, you know, I think to do, but I thought she did really well. And on this idea of emancipation, one thing that resonates with me is she was defining it as the way in which social constructions come to appear to us, and we perceive them as solidified objective facts. We take them as our given environments that we cannot change, whereas in fact, they are malleable. They can be constructed, deconstructed, reconstructed. And I think this notion of emancipation has a lot to do with showing us that which is more malleable maybe than we initially habitually perceive it to be.
Exactly. And to that point, it actually resonates so much with part of the work I've been doing more recently on, you know, ecological economics and existential economics, where I talk about the other side of reification, which is that we also take, often take as given our own inherited culturally, emotionally, psychologically inherited way of being a human being. What it means to be reasonable, rational, what it means, you know, what has meaning, what doesn't, what's a good way to live, what's a bad way to live, what's the right way of hiding your emotion in the Western case very often, or expressing it too much, or whatever. And we take all these things, these images of the human also as given structures, and they also turn out to often contribute to our alienation. And so, one important concept that I work with in my research is what I call anthropological malleability, not just the malleability of structures, outer structures, you know, like institutions, mechanisms, technologies, whatever, which is what Wilbur would call the right hand side of the matter, which is super important, but also the malleability of ourselves as humans, which, you know, the whole human potential movement of the 60s and 70s brought to the foreground, existential psychology and others have also tried to bring to the fore.
And it turns out that, for example, by looking at how other cultures of the present or of the past have done things, you know, anthropology becomes not just a way of studying interesting, weird other populations. Anthropology then becomes a way of looking at, I mean, you know, I'm not talking about cultural appropriation, I'm talking about the fact that once you realize that other human beings are doing things so differently, also from the inner point of view, the way they are, they experience themselves as humans, the way they give meaning to things, the way that they are talking to themselves in their head or not, or whatever the images that come up and the symbols that are being mobilized and the archetypes and all that, all that stuff, you know, is also can be looked at as really looking at the way indigenous populations, for example, just show and carry and bear witness to a different way of being human, which is actually in some ways much more congenial to what we need, for example, ecologically, for example, you know, socially, it shows us that our inner structures are also malleable. And I think, again, emancipation has to do with both at the same time.
Yeah, I really like that. The bringing of these two perspectives together is the theme I want to harp on today. And it's interesting, you have me thinking back to, I had a conversation on this podcast a couple months ago with Chris Letheby, who is a philosopher of cognitive science, and he focuses on psychedelics. And one of his kind of main angles that he's done a lot of work on, if he kind of summarizes the import to the experience was, it gives people a first person sense that things can be otherwise, in very much this interior way that you're talking about. And it's one thing to be told that, to hear it, to read about it, but to have the experience oneself can be a very jarring, liberating or terrifying experience. It's disorienting, maybe is the way to put it.
And you know, I'm thinking back to Eric Olin Wright in the way that he talks about emancipatory social science, his kind of core critique of capitalism there, which is really just an echo of the Marxist idea that capitalism can create potentials for this kind of universalized human flourishing, right? It develops the means of production and technology, and it might make it look like we'll be able to extend this particular standard of living across the board to everybody, despite even whatever that might neglect about what happens internally. And yet, something within its structure, within the logic of capitalism kind of prevents and blocks the realization of those potentials, right? So it creates potentials and simultaneously obstructs their realization. And one interesting note that I find here is that the obstruction is kind of painted almost as an active process, that there's a feature of capitalism or a tangle of features that have this kind of causal force that prevents that realization of potentials. And I find that compelling and interesting. And you know, you can get into the contradiction between value and wealth.
But in reading your work, I actually got the opposite sense, which I really enjoyed, which was that what I felt you were trying to do is point out not some active force that is preventing us from realizing our emancipatory potentials, but rather that there's something missing in the structure and methodology of economics, the absence of which is what perpetuates this failure to realize a more emancipatory system. It's like trying to plant a garden in a spot that doesn't get much sunlight. You'll be missing a critical component. And to be more specific, what I have in mind here is your emphasis on critical and existential reflection. These kind of two ingredients are both critical to your picture of what human beings are or can be, and what most, if not all, kind of current forms of economics are missing. So I wanted to ask you about these two capacities, critical and existential reflection, and their role in this kind of evolutionary dynamic of realizing emancipatory potentials.
It's a bit of a complicated story, but basically what started me thinking about these things was the following. I was always very uneasy about the way we economists, like we, the mainstream economists into whose tribe I was being co-opted as a student, were looking at the agents whom we were studying. Okay, so basically the stance of the economist is to say, in order to tell you how to improve society, I need to build formal models that portray economic agents. So my fellow society members, in fact, but economic agents as kind of brainless, witless, reflectionless, idiotic billiard balls, whom we're going to be pushing around in a well-meaning way. We really think we want to improve society, but we're going to do it in a kind of super technocratic way where we assume away all of the economic agents' capacities to think by themselves and to formulate what they want. We're going to kind of monopolize all these capacities just for us economists.
We're going to build a theory of what a good society should be while ignoring our own blind spots, like major blind spots. We're going to build an economy that's a market economy and not something else. We're going to build an economy where labor is sold for wages and not something else, and so on. And so we're going to have all these assumptions, and then we're going to try to devise an incentive system like taxes and price mechanisms and what have you, which are going to steer this bunch of billiard balls into the right direction, which means basically we're going to move the billiard table in such a way that the balls roll in the right direction. And by doing that, we're kind of assuming that the worst thing that could happen is that the agents, the people that we're studying should look up and tell us, hey, this is not at all what we want. We want something else.
And so I just noticed that the way social science was being done in economics was to kind of have a strong dualism where the economist is the seat of reflection and criticism and the ability to formulate what's meaningful, and the agents are just kind of executing the program of the economist. This is really kind of the way that mainstream economics is working. And once I became aware of that, I thought, oh my God, I can't stand working like this. I've got to venture into domains of knowledge where we economists could lend, I mean, could realize that these billiard balls are not billiard balls, they're human beings, they're agents in society who have critical capacities, who have the capacity to think about what's the meaning of their lives, why their lives are meaningless right now, how they could be made better. And we should study the way in which these critical and existential capacities for reflection could be mobilized by the agents in order to make society better from the bottom up, not just from the top down. And that led me to thinking about the notion of critical performance of the economy.
So basically the way economists see the economy right now and still do is basically in terms of material performance, GDP growth, the accumulation of wealth, technology, technological progress, and so on and so forth. What about critical performance of the economy, which is, does the way in which the economy is organized today allow everyone in the economy to have the time, resources, energy, capacity to think about what a better economy would look like and how we want to get there? And what about existential performance of the economy, which would be just to ask, does the economy, the way it's organized today, with all the stress and anguish and so on, does it even allow people to actually think, reflect on the meaning of their lives and why they feel their lives are alienated or meaningless and what they would like to do to make them more meaningful? And the answer is in all economic models, certainly in the neoclassical ones, those two potentials for reflection are assumed away. So we're basically assuming that we're already in an economy where those capacities, see that's a very human potential kind of way of putting it, but I like it in a way. It's where those capacities for critical and existential reflection have been, by assumption, cut out of people. They're not exercising them, they're assumed to not even know that there's an economy, not even want to think about the meaning of their lives. And so it's our task as economists to do it for them. And that dualism has now become totally unacceptable for me. The way of doing social science as a kind of technocratic, abstract discipline seems to me complete. I'm not saying that macroeconomics or some knowledge about how the economy works can't be helpful coming from an economist, but should never be like this dogma that you kind of make descend upon people whom you assume know nothing and are ignorant and stupid and just need to be steered and guided.
And it's interesting because you kind of show how this is grounded or at least confined justification in the work of someone like Frederick Hayek, right? Or Hayek, his whole idea is the economy is this vast complex system that certainly no centralized organization can have total information on and certainly no individual agent. And since it is so difficult or impossible in his view to do that, no agent should even try that you shouldn't think about the economy.
Except himself. Except himself. Well, that's a very significant exception, isn't it? It's the most significant exception which shows the underbelly of the way positivist social science works. You deny everyone the capacity that you as a scientist or economist or intellectual keep for yourself, which is the capacity to think about society and about the meaning of life. And you kind of decree that it shouldn't be exercised by anyone else because if it does, then there's disturbance and unrest and the economy becomes very unpredictable and people might even want to have a non-market economy instead of a market economy.
My God, where are we going?
Yeah. So, yeah, and Hayek and the whole – and it's translated towards into the – I mean, it's kind of seeped into the neoclassical position in economics, although it's more discrete there. I mean, I was never told that explicitly, but I kind of teased it out over the years. There's this anti-theoretical stance, basically, which sounds strange because economics is so theoretical. But what I mean by that is just like Edmund Burke had this idea that the people – that no one should be doing theory because theory is a way of pretending that you can have a vision of the whole while being only a part. And that's illegitimate for Burke and also then later for Hayek because it makes you as an individual into an allegedly totalitarian thinker because you think you can look at the whole economy or the whole of reality, even worse, with Wilbur. And then somehow you're going to impose it on others, which is total bunk. Just because I have a theory of all of society doesn't mean I'm going to impose it. I mean, I'm going to be annoying to other people who have other theories, but I'm not going to impose it.
But they really – I mean, the whole neoliberal mindset is averse to normal people theorizing and thinking deeply about their lives. Everybody should just be going on, going about their little local business and should shut up about protesting for a different economy or for less work or more meaning for life. But these are the topics that are so important and we see it now, how huge the yearning is in every western and every population almost for more meaning, less drudgery, more ecological gentleness and all that. And it comes from you and I, from the people who are economic agents, not just from the theorists who are supposed to be making up these grand schemes for us. That's just this way of doing social science is kind of – yeah, I no longer subscribe to it at all if I ever have.
So would it be fair to summarize critical reflection as the capacity to articulate one's critique of the system on the whole, this kind of negative dimension, and then existential reflection as the positive vision for the system on the whole, a kind of normative vision
of what would be better? That could be one way. I would put it more – I mean, also as critical reflection being about the system and existential reflection also being about yourself as a human person that's inside a system and the way the system allows you or doesn't allow you to formulate what's meaningful to you and to understand how your quest for meaning could impact the way you want to work or the way you want to consume or not consume and so on.
Yeah, that makes sense. And I think I want to draw these ideas out a little bit. And one way to do that I think would be to look at a critique that you've made of complexity economics. One of the things I really enjoyed about your Full Spectrum book was that it wasn't just a critique of neoclassical economics. You then say even the post-neoclassical bundle of traditions like behavioral and neuroeconomics and institutional and complexity all kind of reproduce the same basic flaw. So in regards to complexity economics, even though they can model disequilibrium systems and they use agent-based modeling and they assume dynamic evolutionary systems and there's bounded rationality, still there's this absence at the heart of how complexity economics models humans and the economy and that this absence is consequential enough that there's still an imperative to develop a new framework that even complexity will reproduce the same kind of toothless paradigm where agents lack that capacity to exercise and realize those potentials. So I wonder if you could tell me a bit about your critique of complexity economics a little more.
You pretty brilliantly set it out right there. I'm not sure I can formulate it better. But what I do want to make explicit is how Wilbur's four quadrant approach allowed me to put that into words and to realize literally the location of what's wrong with even those glorified neoclassical branches where, like you said, complexity, behavioral and so on, which are within mainstream economics are considered people like Beinhocker and stuff like that. And they consider this like the new promised land of economics in the sense that finally we're not just doing equilibrium atomized process-less economics. We're also doing process and we're understanding how error comes in and so on and so forth.
And I understand all that and it's all great and it makes for full careers and Nobel prizes and so on. But as you said, it perpetuates one particular flaw, which is, again, in Wilburian terms, if you like, is the absolute reduction of all the objects of social science and economics to what he calls the right hand quadrants, which is the exterior aspects of societies and individuals, the surface aspects, the behavioral and systemic and mechanical and even biological, but in the sense of neutral subjectivity-less processes. And so just because you introduce complexity, and I agree it's fascinating and I was fascinated by it, I think it's no happenstance that Hayek himself ventured into complexity science and was interested in that because I think he clearly saw that you could have a kind of cybernetic view of the economy that was still neoliberal and market oriented. And indeed it is, most of it is, not all of it. So what Wilbur's framework helped me realize is that even though you can endlessly improve and extend the realm of the study of exteriors, if you like, you're still going to be on a very fundamental level missing at least half of reality. And the problem with that is that in that half of reality. So what Wilbur calls the left wing quadrants, which are basically the interior of the collective. So culture, values, democracy, discussion, muddling through messy, symbolic aspects of collective life and the interior of the individual, which is subjectivity, emotions, again, values, spirituality.
But by neglecting all that, it's not like you're neglecting something secondary or whatever, optional. In a way, you're neglecting all the aspects of reality where suffering is located, where yearning is located, where hope and pain and joy and everything that counts in our lives in the end is located. And you're only studying the tools and the machines and the systems that are supposed to help alleviate suffering and bring about joy and happiness and so on, but you're never looking at whether they do. And in that sense, Marxism was perfectly right. That's the way in which then those machines and mechanisms and systems and even biological evolutionary models and all that can be co-opted very quietly by capitalism. And they have been totally and used only for the privilege of a certain class of people to make more money, not caring at all whether all the tender, subjective interior dimensions of reality are being shot, destroyed or not. It doesn't matter to that paradigm because it's not looking at that.
I do wonder what this would look like in practice for an economic methodology to take this kind of critical and existential rationality seriously. So for example, let's say you gave a talk at the San Fe Institute tomorrow and Beinhocker is there and you just critique them, you lay everything out and they agree wholeheartedly. And the question is, how could complexity economics do this better or can it? Can you represent critical reflection, for example, as a computational parameter within agent-based modeling? Can you write an equation that integrates into the calculus that economists use or is this domain of critical rationality inherently somewhat qualitative, which I think might make the critique not so much of complexity but really of any computational, mathematically grounded method that uses that first. When I ask this too, I'm thinking of my last conversation on this podcast. I had the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson on and his critique of neoclassical was exactly this, that it begins with math which precludes a certain degree of fidelity to human life.
And he contrasted this with Darwinian evolution as a body of work which begins not with math or computational theory but with a qualitative, just linguistic idea begins with words, the idea of variation, selection, replication. And from that basis evolutionary science has then come to use computational and mathematical models in specific contexts but not as the kind of general baseline approach to modeling the system. So I'm curious if this reflects what you're thinking, whether it's possible for an approach like complexity to integrate these dimensions or if there's kind of a methodological impasse there.
Well, that's the next question. It's also very difficult because I mean, my spontaneous answer would be, who knows? I would be willing to be open-minded. I mean, I'm kind of skeptical as to the possibility of reducing. Let's take a phenomenon that I mentioned earlier. This is going to sound a bit quaint the way I put it too quickly but we can maybe come back to it. I work on what I call existential economics in which, for example, there's the insight that and it's supported by lab work and experimental psychology and so on that when our fear of death and our fear of suffering and fragility is made salient, is particularly present in our minds and hearts and guts. We tend to gravitate towards things that are going to help us alleviate that fear and that pain. And so, for example, we will tend to, at least in the modern West, which is always a caveat that I introduced because that theory is probably itself kind of historically situated and culturally specific. It's not a universal theory but the subjects in, let's say, in the United States or Europe broadly are going to gravitate towards consuming more, wanting to earn more money, wanting to secure themselves through possessions.
So there's a link between things that help capitalism establish and solidify itself and the way in which, subjectively, in the interior of our souls and hearts and so on, we deal with the fear and the pain of being mortal and fragile and finite. So let's take that, for example. I don't know whether we could ever put that kind of idea into a mathematical expression or equation or something. I strongly doubt it, which means that, basically, I guess we could work on models that reproduce some of the characteristics that come with that kind of phenomenon. So we could probably introduce into our consumption functions some variables that could represent or approximate the effect of ecological or existential angst on consumption, maybe. I don't know.
And so there might be some distance that could be covered. But in the end, what Wilbur is saying in his later work, and Wilbur and his colleagues doing work on integral stuff, is that we're going to need a multiplicity of methodologies. We can't just have one reductive way of always approaching something, even in the way you just stated. Like, okay, we have phenomena that are initially described by words, but then we somehow want to put them into equations. Why? Because we're like the guy who's looking for his keys under the street lamp. That famous story, like, why are you looking for your keys here? Someone asks him, and he said, well, they're not here. They're over there in the dark. But over there, it's dark. So I'm looking here because there's light. And the general stance of modeling economists, and I don't mean this to be derogatory. I know, I mean, I've been there. I've studied that for years, and I know the good intentions it comes from.
And it's not like a war. But I'm just really insisting on the fact that as well intentioned as it is, this kind of funneling, this reduction of what matters to equations is only there because we want to be able to somehow prove our points and formulate our advice about the economy from a position of expert knowledge, where we somehow want to be able to show graphs of trajectories of variables and predictions and so on. And that might be part of the game to be played. And so I guess I would answer the people at the Santa Fe Institute. Well, if you think you could approximate some of the processes I've talked about with some variables and the outcomes of your models would capture what's essential, then, OK, why not? I mean, I'm not sure you're going to be able to do that, but why not? But my point is more that once we take into account critical reflection and existential reflection on the part of persons, not just agents, but persons who are living in the economy, who are living, hoping, loving, suffering, dying in the economy, worrying about their retirement, having their rights taken away, whatever, and being outraged and all these aspects, it just makes economics into an intrinsically political science. And I think even complexity in Santa Fe people probably wouldn't like that so much, in the sense that it would seem to them then, OK, well, then we're going to go to journalism or something. I'm actually quoting some professors of mine. If you don't do formalized modeling, you're just going to do journalism and you're just going to be blah-blah-ing about general ideas about the economy and writing pages and pages of nice ideas which are not grounded in so-called science, by which they mean right-side quadrant quantitative aspects.
Well, that's exactly it, right? If we have this sense, this kind of epistemological era where we say, to really do economics, you have to have the models to back it up. The kind of consequence of that is we're disempowering folks who don't know how to do those models from contributing their own opinions, their own voices into that conversation.
Exactly. And it means that basically at some point, part of economics has to go back towards sociology, field work with actual people. And ecological economics, for example, is very strong in that way. Ecological economics has totally relinquished the hope for a kind of positivistic, scientistic modeling approach and is going back towards actual communities of people and trying to be very careful about spelling out its own ideological presuppositions. There's a lot of guardrails you have to bring with you and so on, but you basically go back to the field and to real people and you work with them towards solutions that come from them, which is basically Horkheimer's and the Frankfurt School position about organic intellectuals in a way, even though he formulated it in a Marxist framework, but it's the same kind of idea. And on the other hand, economics also needs to go more towards philosophy and phenomenology and existential psychology and disciplines that are really geared towards first person accounts of what people are going through as they live in the economy and trying to make sense of it. So there's an interpretive dimension.
You need to have hermeneutics. You need to have... And of course, even as I'm saying it, I realize how cumbersome it feels to the standard economists who think she can study four years of math and then have basically the tools to answer questions about should we raise the interest rate or should we lower it and stuff like that. But it's a whole different world of what science is for and about. And it is a rift and unfortunately it comes down then often to... The dialogue then with economists, with mainstream economists breaks down. They either tell you in spite of everything that you've been saying and calling for, they're actually already doing, or that you're not doing science and they don't want to talk to you. It's all about power games within the university. Who gets the most funding and just to hell with epistemology and dialogue and discussion. But it's really often like that.
I really resonate with this idea of kind of elevating or re-elevating the status of things like sociology and anthropology as a kind of...
Well, I didn't even mention anthropology, but you're right. Of course, obviously.
Obviously. Yeah. I think you mentioned that earlier. And one of my favorite examples here that I think still doesn't get enough play is Elenor Ostrom's work. Yes. Where she had... Before Eleanor, there was this idea, right? Tragedy of the commons, which I've spoken about enough on this podcast. This idea that basically we can't manage resources as a commons because we're so self-interested that we'll just deplete them. And so what Ostrom does is she says, well, let me actually go where this is happening on the ground and live with the people and see how it looks. And in fact, it's much more complicated, right? It turns out that if you follow particular design principles, you have certain institutions, we can do with that very well. So this basis of seeing on the ground what's actually happening totally contradicted the theory in a way that I think we need more of.
Yeah. But you see, then there's the other direction that I mentioned towards more philosophy, phenomenology, and so on, where actually also you can... You can't question Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons in the same way as Ostrom did, but you can also question it just from a purely philosophical common sense point of view that why do we need to assume that everyone is so selfish? Because it's an assumption. He states it as a fact. But of course, as soon as you do like a modicum of epistemology, you of course realize that it's a starting point for discussion. It's not like some eternal truth. And so you can bring in the idea of holistic consciousness and ecological awareness and then go into fields of psychology where you talk to people not so much on the social field, but in context where they're able to tell you about why they don't think about nature so much.
But actually, then when they tell you that they don't think about nature, they suddenly become aware that they don't, and they get sad or they get mad at themselves or they get angry at the way they were brought up and so on. But what matters indeed is bringing the first person voice of the human being back into science, which is precisely what neoclassical and even complexity economics for all its virtues and strengths and so on doesn't do. It's this bunch of speechless silent particles interacting and being modeled as interacting. The only one who speaks is the economist who's modeling it. And the billiard balls or the particles or whatever they are, the agents or the cellular automata and so on don't talk. Never. They never do because that's the one thing modeling cannot reproduce is speech and first person subjectivity, at least for now. I mean, who knows? But yeah, I'm highly skeptical.
So we're talking about whether it's possible for computational mathematically grounded economic orientations to assimilate and adopt this idea of critical rationality, to make it a fundamental tenet in their world. So maybe we can devise better models that have higher fidelity to the unruliness and expansiveness of what a human being both is and can become. But I share your sentiment. I'm pretty skeptical of that, though I'm curious. But to your point, I don't think that amending the existing modeling methodologies in economics is the most impactful way forward.
And if we take this idea of critical reflection seriously, I don't think that including it in our models is how we go about devising a society where it comes into fuller expression in this kind of emancipatory fashion. And instead, I think that the more important lever here is the question of, you know, are ordinary people in their everyday lives able to express that critical reflection so that it doesn't remain a fleeting feeling? But if we feel it strongly enough, it can become a causal force on our behaviors, on our forms of life. So to show what I mean here, let's go back for a moment to the kind of human beings that all the current economic modeling approaches kind of take us to be, they model us to be. In your Full Spectrum book, you put it this way, you wrote, in particular, such an agent has no ability to form a judgment about what is wrong with her life in the ongoing economy, or about what aspects of that economy should be changed if her life is to be truer to what through her religion, spirituality, and or culture she views as her fullest human potential.
And so I can speak from very direct experience here that most human beings I know absolutely form judgments about what is wrong with the shape of their lives in the economy, right? We all have these moments where we look at the overall landscape of what kind of life the structure of the economy tends to promote and incentivize, and we can feel the kinds of possibilities that both presents and withholds from us, and feel that something is deeply wrong with the shape it's giving to our lives. And this is where the problem is, where I think the block is, right? If critical reflection is going to play a role in the shaping of our economy, and the shaping of our lives, we need to not only feel that there's something wrong, but we need to have the real resources and capacity to act on that feeling that our lives are misaligned with our own interior values. And to act on that in a way that makes that preference legible to the system, we need a certain amount of resources, right? A baseline assurance that our survival won't be threatened, that we'll be existentially okay, right? I'm not going to just spring into a different way of living if it means I might not have health care, or might not have health care for my children, or I might not earn enough to live a basically dignified life in terms of prevailing social norms, which is the minimum baseline that Adam Smith himself looked towards as what a market economy should always provision for everyone no matter what. And if people had that baseline, they could signal this critical preference through enacting different ways of living without that kind of disproportionate cost.
And if enough people signal that, if it's scaled, it could acquire causal power to actually shift the system to force it to respond. But I mean, for so many people, the sentiment can arise, and we can feel it deeply and painfully. But then all we can really do is just go back to our same shitty jobs the next day, because most people don't have the resources to just change their lives at a whim in a way that suits them better. And we don't have social structures that mitigate that process for people either.
Well, exactly. And yeah, and it's already what the Marxist intellectuals in the 19th century were experiencing. They saw their main, I mean, Marx himself, but others as well, saw their main task not so much to model capitalism with equations. And then, I mean, that was done later in the Soviet perversion of so-called communism, which is complete, you know, it's another version of the same right-hand reductionism. It's not better by any stretch. Communism at its best was not about predicting the trajectory of certain variables in the economy or planning from A to Z how the economy should work. It was more about freeing the capacity of workers to think about their own predicament by offering. And that's what I think intellectuals do have a task to do as professors and scholars and so on is to formulate categories and ideas and concepts in such a way that suddenly people who were caught, including ourselves, okay, who were caught in situations of non-emancipation, we suddenly think, oh yeah, wow, okay, you know, Eureka, tilt, wow, aha, that's what's going on. Okay, I see. And the same is true nowadays, for example, for modern monetary theory in a completely different area, which is, I was very enlightened by Stephanie Kelton's book.
Kelton's kind of genius is to put everything in such plain but rigorous terms that you think, oh my god, I had never thought of it this way. And now that I do, it's not like reality has suddenly changed magically, but I know where to look for levers or points of pressure, or at least I know where to look for, if I want to understand what's wrong. And if I want to get a sense of what I could do, maybe together with others to change, or at least I understand the oppression. I mean, it might be small comfort, of course, because like you said, then you still need to go back to work and pay your mortgage and so on and so forth. But at least you can start sharing awareness with others and so on. And that's what emancipatory social science is fundamentally about, which is, for example, why I tend to give very few purely academic talks. I mean, apart from the fact that I'd probably never be invited to the Santa Fe Institute. But the kind of talk I would give there, I would almost feel, to be honest, I mean, sorry Santa Fe people, if you're listening to this now, I probably feel it's a waste of time in a sense.
Because I would know we'd be standing there talking endlessly about methodology and concepts, and I agree, I don't agree, this and that and so on, which is an interesting aspect of academic life. But I'm more interested in talking to non-academic audiences. And I know that that's viewed by many of my colleagues as a kind of complacency, you know, yeah, you just go talk to non-academic audiences because it's easier.
It's a journalism thing.
That's right. You don't get challenged. You're just there with your discourse and everybody nods. There's this prejudice or preconception that only by speaking with other academics can you really make your work more relevant. And that's not my experience at all. But, you know, for example, the point you raised earlier about could we model some aspects of critical and existential reflection through some mathematical or other expression. It's interesting. And if there were progress to be done, I'd welcome it. But I think it's more urgent to take those insights from the work I do and kind of try to convey them to quote unquote normal people. And I was actually asked that once in an evaluation interview with my faculty. One of our vice deans asked me, well, so, you know, I look at your CV and you're mostly giving talks to like citizens associations.
So are you an activist or are you a scholar? And I looked him in the eye and I was thinking of the two books that we're talking about now. And I said, you know, I'm a scholar and I write about activism in a particular way. And I wrote three books about it. If you want, I could give them to you. He kind of, okay.
That almost lays bare this assumption. That lays bare this assumption of kind of the cleaving of a normative vision. You shouldn't have normative aspirations within the academic realm of economics. It's not the place for it.
Well, okay, wait. I mean, you could have normative. I mean, I have lots of colleagues who work with mathematical models of normative issues. See, it's not even that. You shouldn't work in a way that presumes that you need to communicate your work to the actual people who are being talked about in your work.
Yeah. See what I mean? It's more like a, I mean, it's changing a bit now. Like I said, you know, the new heterodox currents and schools are moving away from that. But in my whole upbringing as an economist, I'm 56 now. I studied like 35 years ago. And back then it was really like that. I mean, I had a colleague who said he was a labor economist, bless his soul. And he was working on unemployment and poverty and the working poor and on really progressive subjects. So that was not the issue. The issue was, he said, I would never present my work to actual unemployed people because they don't know anything about economics. So they would just critique my approach knowing nothing about it. So he was actually kind of afraid of the idea that some random unemployed guy could sit there and say, you know what? Your model, I don't get it. This is not me. Who are you talking about? Are you talking about us? I don't live like those agents I, you know, X that you're modeling in your paper. But his reaction was, well, that's because you don't understand. You know, you don't get it.
You haven't done the lit review.
Something like that.
Yeah. You know, it's interesting. This kind of delivers us, I think we've been talking around an idea of yours that I really loved, which you gave a nice French name that I would butcher, but we can crudely translate it into English as the critical spirit of a society. Or less pre-critique. And you know, this idea, I loved how you frame it. It's a parallel of, or it can be at least, of how prices work in a market economy in relation to critical rationality. And we have, you know, Hayek expands this idea of prices as these information signals that emerge from the activity of rational agents who make their voluntary transactions in a market economy and markets kind of process this information and calibrate for efficient, optimal outcomes. And in a world where people could actually express their critical rationality in a way that registers, you write that these would operate similar to how prices do.
And I actually want to bring in a quote here because I thought you described it just beautifully. You wrote, In the same way as market prices are a key emergent property of a complex adaptive system of narrowly instrumental rational individuals, a key emergent property of a complex adaptive system of critically rational individuals is the social system's critical spirit. Critical spirit is not meant as a metaphor for some fuzzy or elusive spiritual entity. It's not a set of numerically measurable quantities such as prices, but it nevertheless designates something quite definite, namely the overall normative atmosphere of the society which allows individuals to form their initial aspiration for a better society and to flesh out this desire with critical theories which change through contacts with other similarly active individuals. Just pointing to that conversation piece you were pointing out. But I think that's such a fascinating way to frame this as a parallel to the Hayek's notion of prices.
Yeah, well, thanks for that quote. It's always a very good feeling to have one's work read back to one and by somebody who gets it. That's great. Thanks. I mean, in the book you're quoting from, which is critical political economy, I try to do a weird thing which is to bring together Horkheimer and Hayek by claiming that there's such a thing as left-wing Hayekianism. So you can agree with Hayek on emergence, the virtues of free emergence in a free society. And I do agree with that. I think anyone who's even a bit left-wing and anarchical realizes how important it is to let things emerge from the bottom up. Otherwise, we're not really free.
We're kind of constrained by ideas like religions and church doctrine or whatever. But Hayek was completely wrong in the way he restricted the scope of emergence. And indeed, I think in a society where we would be free to think and debate and form our critical views and change them in dialogue with others and so on, which incidentally, and I find that fascinating, is actually the core of the Enlightenment. In that sense, capitalism, and of course that's not a novel insight, but capitalism is utterly opposed to Western civilization and the Enlightenment. When the American right nowadays harps on and on, not only in the US, but right now I'm following, I'm very Americanophile and I'm following the whole political process very closely. God bless you. It's maddening to see this constant conflation of Western civilization values apart from the racism and the white supremacy and so on, which is horrible. But even just from the social science and economics side, the conflation of Western civilization and Western rationality with capitalism.
Capitalism is the epitome of the denial. I'm sorry, but Marx was entirely correct in that. And I'm not a Marxist in the sense of, I don't necessarily adhere to what's been done with Marxism afterwards, with Marxist thought and so on, but he, as a humanist, was absolutely right in pinpointing the fact that capitalism destroys both natural resources and human resources. It destroys nature and the worker together for the same purpose of extracting value and surplus.
And by doing that, it just stifles and eventually just destroys the ability for discussion, debate and so on, although not completely. There's been fascinating work by French sociologists in particular who excavated very interesting 19th century stuff on how workers in the midst of oppression and alienation and exploitation would read and learn and form collectives to talk with each other at night. It's just amazing that the resources that some people try to mobilize at the height of capitalist oppression anyway. But it's true that if we were free to debate, if we were a truly free enlightened society in the Western sense, here I'm being very Western, okay. Well, what would emerge is obviously not just a set of prices and probably not mainly, but a set of frameworks and ideas, what Charles Taylor calls strong evaluative frameworks, which would help us to progressively shape our ideas about what we want to do in the future together.
We debate and talk and fight and that's what democracy is for. We'd vote occasionally and maybe even very often, including inside businesses and have democratic firms and so on. But this whole dynamic of the emergence of the esprit de critique or the critical spirit of society is indeed something that I've never seen mentioned anywhere in this way. And I think it is helpful because it kind of shows that the whole talk about a free market is such an incredibly reductive notion of what a free economy could actually be.
So when you're writing about the economy as a complex system and given that complexity, the question of how we can take action to intervene and improve and change outcomes, you referenced a book titled Harnessing Complexity by Robert Axelrod and Michael Cohen. Yes.
Oh my God, that's been a long time.
Yeah. But I thought it was really interesting what you brought in, right? In their work, when thinking about the strategies available to us as a collective, as a society to intervene, one of the leverage points that they look to that we can use to affect change is the amount of variety in that system. And in particular, they're writing to kind of help readers think through how to influence and change that amount of variety, which as they describe, then changes the balance between exploration and exploitation. It alters the structure of interactions within the system and it adjusts the way that the success is measured and amplified. And all those outcomes are affected, according to them, by this level of variety in the system. And so if we feel that today the system is over-indexed on exploitation, on structuring interactions in a way that is not producing an acceptable basis for human or planetary flourishing and is measuring or amplifying the kinds of success that do not really align with our kind of critically reflected values, this question is, okay, how do we inject more variety? And in your work, and I think your review of Horkheimer's, you talk about these kind of injections of variety that can alter the path of a system under a number of really fun labels. There's disorder potentialities, there's rational non-conformism, even conscious disadaptation. But I'm curious if you could tell me a little more about the role that kind of variety and disordering potentialities play in all this.
Right. So that actually refers also to stuff that I've been doing more recently, which I'm still working on, which is what I call the perma-circular society.
I saw that in French, by the way.
I looked for the English one, I said, no, not yet. No, it's not yet, no, unfortunately. Right. So the idea of variety is, and again, what I've tried to do seems to be like a pattern in me, which maybe I should investigate that through some therapy, I don't know. I take stuff from kind of conservative literature, because basically that book, Harnessing Complexity, is not really progressive. Most complexity theorists have very strong potential ties to business spheres and consulting. So they will use those tools for, I don't mean to just say that wholesale, but there's a tendency in a lot of the complexity literature to go Hayekian in a way, to use those tools to show businesses how to accumulate fitness credit and to be more efficient and more competitive and so on and so forth. So I tend to take ideas like that and actually turn them towards progressive uses. And so indeed, you can see this idea of diversity and rational law and conformity and so on purely in terms of business innovation and thinking outside of the box and all those things that business consultants routinely churn out.
You can make a lot of money on those reports.
That's right. And that's part of the internal dynamics of capitalism itself. It's very good at recuperating, at kind of sterilizing interesting ideas. But I guess I try to de-sterilize them in a way. And so my idea is more to say in line with Roberto Unger, who's this great Brazilian American philosopher from Harvard, who talked about democratic experimentalism. This point being that a democracy is more flourish, is all the more flourishing, the more there is a spirit of experimenting inside society. If we want to have an innovative society that goes towards progressive goals, we need to free the potential for social and as it were ecological experimentation. Okay, communities, new ways of life and so on and try to support that in a way through what have you, basic income and other means. The idea is, especially given the ecological predicament now where we really don't have the solutions yet, we have technical solutions. We have some ideas about how to build a stationary economy and so on, but we don't have the societal solutions about what is actually going to work as we descend energetically and as we simplify and de-grow our economies.
So the idea is that the census and disagreement and peaceful juxtaposition of different experiments is going to be very important, just as a kind of search engine for society to find the ways of life that are going to work with less energy, less consumption, less money and so on. For that, you need to just let pioneers go out and try it. The diversity you need to generate is a diversity of different critical and existential frameworks that people have worked out and want to put into practice as experiments, alternative communities, eco-villages, what have you. So the main idea here is that all of these experiments, of course, are going to take place within the still dominant system. So that's what I call rational disadaptation or critical acceptance. It's a way of being in the system while being outside of it. A really free economy would be one that would allow that experimentation to happen, that would even welcome it, as opposed to making it as hard as possible, which is basically what our governments and systems are doing right now.
It's funny, whenever I get on this theme, I always think of a dialogue between Milton Friedman and an imagined dialogue between Friedman and Theodor Adorno.
Yeah, that's another one. Hayek and Horkheimer or Friedman and Adorno. You're right. That's another one.
What do you imagine there? You can imagine Friedman is very associated with this phrase of capitalism giving us the freedom to choose. It's the freedom to choose. I wish he had said this directly, but Adorno has this phrase, it gives us the freedom to choose what is always the same. There's a boundary that grows invisible.
Well, and George Monbiot, the British ecological columnist and writer, he wrote a few decades ago that capitalism gives us a huge amount of small choices and no big choice. The large choices are all made for us. We have all supermarkets and we don't have a choice about that. We have no choice about the big orientations. We're not asked to express choices about big orientations. That's the idea of an absence of critical performance of the system. Even schools, there's very little of that. But we have huge choices in which brand of cereal to buy or something. Yeah, exactly.
It reminds me of the way I was just reading Charles Taylor has this book, The Malaise and Modernity. I don't remember just right, but he has this idea he sketches out where essentially a lot of the freedom that is generated is freedom around choices an individual can make. A lot of the freedom that is withheld is the freedom that a collective can make where you need coordination, collaboration.
The frame of life, the big framing conditions are usually withheld by elites from the people. The people are given crumbs of, I don't mean to be demagogic, but there's an aspect of that. Again, I'm being a bit facetious. I do want to get, I think, concrete about this for a second. I want to talk about the specific ways and policies that can maybe fit this bill of promoting variety. You already mentioned this a little bit, but you co-authored an essay on the role that a guaranteed income can play in helping move us towards a social system that actually supports agents and, as you mentioned, expressing their critical reflections. I like to think about it as living their critiques, not just feeling them.
Exactly. Living them.
That's right. In that essay, you write about how if we're really committed to a deep value pluralism and not one that remains confined within the capitalist mode of production, the Adorno critique, if we're really committed to supporting variety in our forms of life, then the choice between various forms of life needs to be accessible to citizens without carrying disproportionate costs like massive income loss or losing access to healthcare, a pension, and so on. People need to be able to experiment with living differently without getting buried in deprivation. I think there's something crucially important here in this idea of variety or lack thereof in the kinds of lives that are not only theoretically possible but pragmatically. Tell me a little bit about the role that you see something like a basic income or any other policies in this space playing in making that possible.
Well, actually, to me, the basic income is the most salient there. I did my thesis in Louvain in Belgium with one of the main proponents of basic income, who's Philippe van Parijs. At the time, I collaborated with him on the newsletter of the Basic Income European Network. Very early on, I was plunged into the basic income literature. I wasn't a great fan at the time. I found it interesting. He was working on it full-time. Funnily enough, now that he's moved on partly to other topics, I've suddenly come back to the topic of basic income massively but from a pretty different angle. His point back then was to say basic income is basically a real libertarian measure which allows everyone to live in any way they want. Those who want to do nothing but surf should be allowed to do that.
He had a dialogue with Rawls about it. Rawls disagreed about that and so on and so forth. Anyway, he was really preoccupied with the maximum diversity and variety of ways of life. But including, I don't mean to dis-surfers at all, so sorry surfers, but mindless ways of life in the sense of, let's put it to the extreme, if you want to sit on your couch and watch TV all day, that's none of the government's business. Just because you live and exist, you should be allowed an income that allows you at least to satisfy basic necessities and have a modest but good social network and safety net and so on and so forth. That was his point. I thought that was interesting but I also thought, well, I don't know. But I came back to the idea of basic income recently more from the Andre Goers, I mean the political ecology.
I love Andre Gorz.
Yeah, the political ecology angle which says, whatever else you do in a society to foster a harmonious descent towards a smaller footprint, you can try to change education, you can try to democratize businesses and so on and so forth, all that's important. And Goers only rallied to this point at the end of his life, he was actually opposed to basic income in the beginning because from a Marxist point of view, I think he felt that it was anti-labor in a way. It risked devaluing the role of work in society. But then he shifted and toward the end of his life, he was much more favorable to basic income.
And his point was to say, well, whatever else you do in a society to make it progress and emancipate, you will not be able to have people actually enroll or be engaged towards the new ways of life that are needed if you don't have a basic income. It doesn't mean that the basic income is the end all and be all of it, you need to do other things in society as well, but it's an essential tool to create a kind of baseline, a level playing field for everyone to know that they can safely, modestly, but safely exit the wage work treadmill and go and experiment with other stuff. And so to me, the emancipatory role of basic income needs to be insisted upon and in that sense it's an essential tool. And the other tool that comes along with it, which is a very different type, is monetary reform. The change of the monetary system, the way that money is being created in our system is deeply problematic.
It's destructive of the environment, but it's also extremely selective in the wrong way. Like loans are being given to businesses that make profits, which means basically don't really care about their workforce and so on and so forth. So the whole, if you want a society where people are happy to experiment and can finally exercise these two capacities that we've been talking about, the critical and existential capacity for reflection, you need to have a way for them, for all of us to disconnect from the prevailing drudgery. Maybe there's a better way than basic income, of which I don't know, but for now my equilibrium rests on basic income as definitely a cornerstone component of a society that creates diversity and variety in the way that we've been talking about.
Yeah, that's really interesting. Basic income also for me was actually the first space. It brought me back into being interested in policy and pragmatics from the critical theory world, and it was Andre Goers who did that. But I heard two things in there I want to draw out that are really interesting. The way that we create money in the economy currently is effectively banks create them when they create a loan. They just write it into existence.
With the support of the central bank.
I think it is what you're saying, because this goes beyond my comprehension, maybe you can clarify for me, are you saying that a basic income could be an alternative way to create money in the economy rather than filing it through banks? You file it through people?
Indeed. So it's the whole topic of the quantitative easing for the people and stuff like that, which is basically very simple but completely heretical. It's simply to say, look, the central bank should not be beholden to the banking system, which is a tall order because it was created to be the arm of the banking system, so oh well. The central bank could just completely, I mean, my friend Yanis Varoufakis has written a book called Another Now. He advocates a basic income being paid by the central bank on accounts that citizens would have at the central bank directly, short circuiting.
We don't need the banking system at all for most purposes. If we had a democratically reasonable, of course we always need checks and balances and there's no naive way of doing this, but if we had a central bank that was really geared towards what we've been talking about, like creating a truly free economy of critical and existentially free agents, the least it could do is the central bank could just create money because, as you said correctly, it can just create it from scratch, especially in countries like the US or Switzerland, which are sovereign in terms of money creation, or the European central bank, any central bank could do it, like free monetary creation and give it to the people as opposed to the banks. The fact of funneling it through the banks is, again, it's one of those structures we talked about early on in our discussion, which is one of those totally reified but intentionally kept reified structures that are actually completely malleable and changeable and arbitrary, not arbitrary, but historically there's reasons for it, but not at all a necessity of nature.
Yeah, right. Exactly. It's interesting too because one of the things that makes basic income such an interesting and both inclusive and contentious terrain of debate is that a basic income is not a particular policy, it's an umbrella and it can be designed a million different ways, and depending on the details, it can be a very libertarian conservative right-wing policy or it can be a very far left, so it's a big space.
That's why I have colleagues who are in favor of other ways of creating that diversity, which we could also talk about. One is the so-called job guarantee in modern money theory, which is basically the idea that the state would be an employer of last resort for anyone who wants to not be working in the mainstream wage sector, that the government could provide all these experimental jobs and new sectors of whatever that we need today for diversity and variety and experimentation, and that's also a possibility. But then the brunt of the problem rests on whether that government itself is going to – what kind of jobs is it going to guarantee? There's never a 100% guarantee that it'll be progressive, but oh well, okay.
And then you could sharpen it even by introducing a so-called economic transition income, which is something one of my colleagues here in Lausanne is working on. She's proposing that we should funnel the funding of this job guarantee through cooperatives at the local level that would themselves know and determine which green and social jobs are needed in the communities, and they would ask for funding from the government. That way we would avoid the fact that a central government is determining for the whole country what's needed at each level.
That can follow dystopian quickly.
That's right. And so these variations that I've just talked about are ways of kind of modalizing – it's the same idea generally as basic income, but it tries to narrow the scope so that there's maybe less risk of it becoming neoliberal, although there's never a 100% guarantee. So I'm open to – the way we create this variety that's going to foster experimentation and critical and existential reflection is a bit still open to debate. But certainly, you see, these are – I mean, if we come back to our discussion before, suppose I say that to the Santa Fe Institute, what are they going to do with that? For them, I don't mean to do Santa Fe Institute bashing, but there's actually great people there, Sam Bowles and very progressive people who are just kind of more interested in modeling, but whatever.
What would they do with that? They could do models where you introduce a basic income as a variable. I don't see how they would catch the question of whether or not the basic income is going to help people experiment or just make them sit on couches. I don't know how you catch that. I don't know how you catch the notion of emancipation in an equation. So here, with this topic, you necessarily need to go into sociology and hermeneutics and psychology and even philosophy to just work out the way Goers and van Parijs and many people have done. I mean, Philippe van Parijs is actually a sociologist and philosopher. He's not an economist. That's why I liked working with him because there was this openness to adding these dimensions of non-formalized – I mean, he was very rigorous. He did a lot of analytical philosophy, but non-mathematical considerations to the discussion because I think when you do policy, the modeling approach is very poor. It can help for a few super macro variables or in environmental matters, it can help, certainly, because we need broad brush numbers of emissions at the world level and so on. I mean, their models do help, of course, and so I'm not against modeling. But when you go into interpreting what kind of policy you need to make society better, I'm extremely doubtful that we can work without what Wilbur calls the left-hand quadrants.
Let me try an idea out on you that I've been turning over for a while. Basic income is one policy that has the potential to broaden people's horizons of actionable forms of life. But as we've mentioned, it's only one example. There are plenty of others that feed the same dynamic of broadening that repertoire, of enabling people to live their critiques and act on their critical reflection, as we mentioned earlier. So I've been thinking about how to name this broader dynamic of which basic income is just one example. The sentiment is this idea of broadening people's fears of actionable forms of life, but that's a mouthful and it's still not quite right, I don't think. I think that if we were to boil it all the way down, the thing that matters most is how our social structures affect our relationship to time.
And specifically, the question of how free we are to spend our time in ways that align with our values, as opposed to only being free to spend our time in ways that the labor market values. And I want to be clear, I'm not just saying that I think everyone should work less. I'm not saying let's just reduce the working week. Because work is one of the primary ways that many people express and live and embody their values. It's not the only way and it's not everyone's way, but I also think this is why you mentioned that Andre Gorz was initially skeptical of basic income, because he didn't want to relinquish the prospect of work as a site of freedom in human life. And I think Hannah Arendt has really good points on this as well. And I think that the philosopher Martin Hagglund, he's actually, he's phenomenal on this point of making this distinction. He has a book titled This Life, which is one of my most strongly recommended books. And he argues for this idea of socially available free time as the way that we would measure value in a truly emancipatory society. And socially available free time is not just leisure time as we understand it today, right?
It's time where our actions are aligned with our values, where we can own both the means and the ends of what we're doing, which in many ways is kind of antithetical to wage labor. But as I read your work, and in particular about the spiritual damage, the mutilation of what we are becoming, what we're making ourselves, to me, the mechanism of action there, that which is perpetrating so much of the damage is lacking the freedom and the social support to align our actions with our forms of life, which comes down to freedom or lack thereof in how we might spend our time. So I'm curious how this all strikes you and what role you see kind of the selling of our time both as a culprit, but also as a strategic focus moving forward.
Gosh, I mean, obviously, as a professor, I was talking to one of my Belgian colleagues the other day and friends, and we were musing about how, as scholars, we're as close as it gets to being basic income beneficiaries in a wage society. I mean, we have such a lot of time compared to the average person in society to go after our interests and do something that we think is meaningful and so on. So I totally get how, I mean, I've often thought of how I could never, ever have actually lived a life of wage labor, the life that most people around me are leading, to be honest. So I totally concur, and I see exactly what you mean by the fact that one of the most destructive aspects and the most kind of deeply damaging aspects of capitalism is indeed the fact that not only energy, but time, which is a kind of equivalent of energy, but in terms of intensity, is given to sometimes things that are honestly so futile and useless.
Even when they're useful, they're so stressful and destructive that, yeah, definitely the reduction of working time would be one of the main aspects, and all the more so because when we're talking about degrowth and the necessity for ecological re-adaptation and conversion of our economies, it turns out in the research that I see all around that the reduction of productivity and the reduction of working time are the two main factors which are going to help reduce the size of our economies and the damage they do to humans and to the planet. And so, absolutely. I mean, the fact that we'd be able to work less and be less productive, which means produce less in the shorter working time that we do, are two major components. So I totally agree with that.
Basic income would help in that in a sense, because at least if we have a government that prevents businesses from internalizing the basic income and diminishing wages in the same proportion, which would be terrible. But in addition, the reduction of working time is crucial because it simply, as I think you said just before, it just liberates so much potential for experimentation.
I mean, we can't experiment if we're working one or two jobs a week. I mean, the stories I hear from the States are just so incredibly sad and terrifying. People have to having to work 80 hours a week to barely make ends meet. I mean, I don't know how barbaric you can get. And of course, under those conditions, not only do people not experiment because they don't have time and energy or the mental space to do it, but even more, they tend to gravitate towards necessarily quick fixes within the system, not changing it, but asking for higher wages and wanting economic growth to keep on going, which is only fair. I'm not being derogatory here, but I think the possibility for the economy to become much more critically and existentially reflective, you know, reflective in the sense of allowing critical and existential reflection, it really is going to go through a reduction of working time, definitely.
I'm thinking back, I'm recalling this idea of where the amount of variety in the system is a lever we can pull to change the outcomes. And there's an interesting tension here, I think, between, and you've written about this, between the idea of a state or a government that intentionally designs programs and structures that would afford this kind of real diversity in forms of living and the capacity of that state to effectively manage and govern its population. I'm thinking back to James Scott's book, Seeing Like a State, where his thesis is that states have intentionally labored against that kind of real existential diversity, right? Having gypsies and people using forms of exchange outside centrally recognized currencies, it makes it really hard for the state to tax or conscript or just manage a population.
And so the state sought to reduce that diversity and make societies legible to them. And the more diversity in forms of life, and the real diversity, not the facade, the hypothesis is that the more difficult it becomes for the state to control and govern, especially in a time where we're seeing the value of strong state capacity through COVID and pandemic and also the failures of not having it. And you touch on this a bit in your chapter, your vote for convivial futures. You looked at the role that public financing and money creation should play in fostering a convivial society. But given that public financing invokes the centrality of the state, so tell me about this tension between wanting to use those centrally provisioned resources, but also wanting to kind of not lean too much on a centralized mode of provisioning.
That's a complicated question. It's a, I mean, offhand, I would say there's no intrinsic need for a state that provides high level goods, like monetary emission, education, healthcare. So public goods that need to be provided at an umbrella level, because that's where they're the most efficiently provided. There's no need for that to necessarily imply a centralized state. I think both Switzerland and the US are examples of potentially how that could work. I mean, in both countries, you have a federal government that has, in practice, then there's all sorts of corruption and perversions of the model.
So I'm not saying that it doesn't happen in practice, but in itself, there shouldn't be a contradiction between the fact that there is a level of organization of the provision of public goods that coheres with the nature of the public goods in question, and the fact that many other things are being done at the lower levels of governance, all the way down to municipalities and stuff. So I see the point, of course, historically, what I'm saying sounds kind of Pollyannaish and idealistic. So Scott's point is entirely valid historically, because most nation states really solidified in the 18th and 19th century, which was a time where centralization and the destruction of cultural minorities in nation states and so on was a thing. I mean, there was this belief in universal humanity. It was a time of colonialism. It was a time of all those horrible things that Europe basically exported everywhere, and especially England, but not only.
And so, of course, that marked that epoch of the formation of nation states as being both providing goods in a sense, but also being oppressive and centralized and destructive. But I don't see the necessity for that to be the case. I can very well imagine a political philosophy of kind of anarchical federalism where you'd have – it would mean that it would – ideally, the criterion should be at which level is the public good in question or the good in question best provided.
Yeah, that makes sense.
And then for COVID, I mean, my experience also here in Switzerland was that provision at the cantonal level, not so great, because then you had different norms. You drove 20 miles and you had different norms. It's like, I don't know. Maybe for that, for these – and climate policy as well. City climate policy is fine symbolically. It just doesn't really do the job if there's no national and international climate policy to go with.
But if we could be just reasonable – and I realize how kind of optimistic that sounds and almost a bit stupid. But if we could be so reasonable as to just have a roster of, you know, this is the level of governance at which this kind of good can be meaningfully provided. Maybe education is fine at the cantonal or at the more local level because you have cultural differences and what have you. It's all up for discussion. But you would have a possibility for doing both. But fundamentally, it does require a kind of relinquishing the idea that governance and political power are there for the unification of everything. And it just requires that in line with a critical and existential reflection or rationality that we become quietly able to distinguish between things that need to be distinguished. And we're not always very good at that because we either think everything should be done by the state. And I think that's where Scott is right. I mean, if we kind of fetishize the state, then we're in trouble. But we're also in trouble if we fetishize the local community in ways that are happening in the US right now. This whole thing about states' rights or even within states' rights and the problematic religious freedom is very strange to me in the states and the way that some communities are allowed to just completely disconnect from the rest and do whatever they want.
But that's a bug of modernity up to now, the modern nation state. It's not necessarily a feature of any state that one could imagine. If one were to kind of be more receptive to the kinds of ideas we've been discussing, I think we could indeed... I mean, it's interesting that you raised that question because we could indeed have a different political philosophy of the state that goes with everything that we've been talking about.
Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I relate it in my mind to... There's a neuroscientist, Eric Hoel, I had on the show a little while back. And he has this paper on what he calls causal emergence, and he's looking at proteins and biology and all this. But in that paper, he's arguing that there is a tendency within science to want to be as reductive as possible and the proper level of analysis and the most kind of causally efficacious way to intervene into the system is at the lowest possible level. And he tried to show that actually in kind of nested complex systems, depending on what you're trying to do, sometimes this level is appropriate. Sometimes you want to go up to a higher macro scale. And it sounds very similar to here is that contextually, depending on the problem, there are going to be more or less efficacious scales at which we want to deal with it. That makes a lot of sense to me. Yeah. Yeah. I think, wow, I think that's a pretty good place to begin winding down. I wonder if anything is still lingering on your mind that you wanted to bring into the mix?
Oh my God. No. I have to say, I really appreciate the thoroughness of your reading of all this. It's really great. I've, if anything, I've learned stuff about my own work by discussing this like this. It's fascinating. So I'm very happy about this. No, no, no. I have nothing to add for now. I think I've spoken enough.
Yeah. Yeah. Christian, thanks so much. This has been such a pleasure. I really, really had a blast.
Well, I appreciate it immensely as well. It's a very rare thing for a scholar to have their work read that thoroughly and that spot on. I'm very impressed. Anyway, thanks so much for the time you've devoted to my work and thanks to all the listeners