If we want the world order to change for the better, a world that is fit for humanity and our fellow creatures to live in, or indeed one where it is possible to live in, then everything we do and think has to be conducive to that end. We need to spell out our goal in life very clearly: know what we are trying to achieve; we have to develop the right technologies and the right practices – farming, building, and the rest; and we have to have the right mindset, and in particular cultivate an attitude of kindness, cooperativeness, and compassion, as opposed to the ruthless competitiveness that now prevails and is apparently supposed to be both necessary and virtuous.
But right in the middle of all our thinking and action is the infrastructure: the way we organise our affairs: the nature of governance – top down or bottom up; the law; and, holding everything together, the economy. The economy in practice is played out as a game of money, or as a whole complex of interacting games of money, and since money is the universal currency, the instantly understandable symbol of material worth and the most convenient medium of trade, that is perhaps inevitable. In truth, though, the economy is much more than that. It is the mechanism, the means, by which we, humanity, seek to translate our aspirations into practice and hence into reality. In practice then, the economy is the matrix, the context, of our lives – and indeed, since human beings are such an influential species, it is the context of all life on Earth. We have to get it right: to ensure that we have the right aspirations in the first place, that we are trying to do good and appropriate things; and that the economy is structured to enable good and appropriate things to come about.
In practice, very few societies have ever managed to install an economy that works as well as it should and surely could – for the benefit of all humankind and the biosphere (where ‘biosphere’ means ‘the living world’). The system that now prevails worldwide – the variant of capitalism known as neoliberalism – is a disaster, even though its principal architect, Milton Friedman of Chicago (1912–2006), was awarded a Nobel Prize for his efforts; and so too was Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992) who first inspired Friedman. (Has the idea of the Nobel Prize past its sell-by date? How can we predict the long-term effects of innovations, however ingenious or well-intentioned?). Coupled with uncritical technophilia, the conviction that high-tech can solve all our problems and that nothing else can, the neoliberal mindset is threatening to kill us all.
To put things right we first need to ask what’s gone wrong, and why. In truth the problem lies not simply with the present economy, or indeed with any particular economic system, but with the entire discipline of economics.