By: Marco Senatore

In a world where money is the only universal means of exchange, how different would society be if racists had economic incentives to embrace human rights, and the average citizen found it profitable to foster democracy? In this article I will attempt to answer this question.

Last year the neoliberal narrative suffered a major blow in the United Kingdom, with the vote for Brexit, and in the United States, with the election of Donald Trump as President. By neoliberalism here I mean that political and cultural model that subordinates every public decision to economic rationality, and adapts the state and the whole society to the needs of the market. More specifically, I include in neoliberalism the Ordo-liberal School that influenced the architecture of the Economic and Monetary Union, the Chicago School, the so-called Washington Consensus and, somewhat, the Third Way developed during the 1990s. Beyond its economic principles, neoliberalism has also been important in supporting human rights and rule of law, as they facilitate the functioning of the markets.

In the current juncture, highlighting the risks of populism and of post-truth is an important and useful exercise. It is obvious that the manipulation of facts, racism and other forms of discrimination make populists much more dangerous for democracy than most politicians who have ruled the world in the recent decades.

However, in order to change some of the paradigms that are shaping the political debate in America and – to a less extent, after Macron’s election – Europe, it would be essential to deal also with the flaws of that neoliberal order, whose contradictions have helped the rise of populists. After recalling some elements that are shared by populism and neoliberalism, I would like to propose two forms of social interaction, aimed at overcoming these elements.

First of all, both populism and neoliberalism endorse “economicism”, or the prevalence of the economy on every other dimension of life. On one hand, neoliberalism has constantly assumed that material welfare is the main factor behind human actions. Neoliberals have also claimed, at least until the last financial crisis, that free markets automatically foster other forms of freedom. On the other hand, populists try to rely mainly on the economic hardships suffered by the middle class in order to get their consensus. We will hardly hear Trump complain about how the establishment overlooked the spiritual and emotional welfare of citizens, whereas his criticism focuses on the economy, mostly on job destruction caused by delocalization of firms. “Economicism” is also strictly connected with the dominion of instrumental reason that, according to Max Horkheimer in his critique of Enlightenment, enslaved humans.

Populism and neoliberalism also share the assumption that citizens are merely individualist atoms, striving to pursue their self-interest. This assumption is greatly confirmed by the mainstream theories of economics, with a few exceptions that include Amartya Sen. By individualism I mean the possibility to freely choose the best means – curricula, ideology, profession – to pursue some given aims – once again, mostly material welfare. But neither populism nor neoliberalism care a lot about individuality, as the possibility for a human being to challenge the mainstream view about the most desirable aims and what makes a good life.

Beyond “economicism” and individualism, both populists and neoliberals tend to marginalize dissent: the former condemn any criticism as a form of complicity with the establishment, whereas the latter have been defining as dangerous and unorthodox any doubt on the virtues of free, open and often unregulated markets. However, the lack of diverging views is not healthy for democracy. Indeed, Hannah Arendt observed that the heterogeneous uniformity of mass society is one of the primary conditions for totalitarianism.

Against this backdrop, I find that any project aimed at overcoming populism should not only be tactical and political. It should be a strategic, long- term, cultural project aimed at redefining capitalism. This should imply defeating “economicism”, individualism and social homologation.

In order to achieve this, we should give a stronger, formal role to moral, organizational and cultural values. Indeed, values are non-monetary, non-economic resources that can inspire many human activities. Values are also relevant elements of individuality. And they can be the basis for a public, rational debate on social issues, which prevents mere homologation.

Therefore, also with a view to fostering individuality and reconciling economic utility with autonomy, I have formulated two proposals, that consist in establishing exchanges of values and communities of individuals who share the same values.

As for the first proposal, individuals, legal persons and communities might exchange documents describing relevant experiences – certified by third parties  (e.g. private operators) on the basis of commonly agreed indicators- that attest to the positive role of some values. This could refer to moral values (such as social justice), organizational values (such as propensity to innovation) and cultural values (such as multiculturalism). These documents would also describe the actions that have been concretely inspired by those values. The relevant experiences referred to each value would be priced on a market, on the basis of supply and demand.

For instance, a given U.S. State (let’s suppose Montana) might purchase a document referred to social justice, that describes social measures adopted by another State (for instance, California) to foster equity and inclusion, and the benefits of these measures in terms of reduced crime and greater cohesion. After undertaking its own initiatives, and reducing inequality (for instance, the Gini index by a certain percentage), Montana might add its own experience to the document, and transfer the latter on the market.

Each document might be exchanged with documents referred to other values, so that, for instance, the State that has fostered social justice might receive the description of experiences referred to environmentalism. And if values could be used also as a means of exchange complementary to money (i.e. if values could be used to buy goods and services), this would create an economic incentive for communities to adopt certain policies, and for individuals to undertake certain activities, in order to enlarge the set of experiences that they own.  Considering values and inner motivations for what they are – a form of capital, able to inspire professional and personal activities – would be a way to reconcile the existential dimension of individuals and the cultural dimension of organizations with their social role. And the human being would no longer be simply what Hannah Arendt called an animal laborans, which means an alienated individual deprived of that freedom from himself and his immediate needs, that denotes an authentic active life.

Such transactions would also allow individuals to endorse values that are not necessarily instrumental to their profession and direct needs, and that are also different from the dominant views. This would mean fostering functional autonomy. Functional autonomy, I define in my book, Exchanging Autonomy: Inner Motivations as Resources for Tackling the Crises of Our Times, as the condition whereby the judgment on one’s socioeconomic reality influences one’s social role, rather than being influenced by such role. As values would be a means of exchange complementary to money, adding new relevant experiences would make it possible to reconcile authentic individuality – not mere individualism – and economic utility.

This would also be important to reach that veil of ignorance that, according to John Rawls, should characterize our choices on justice, in the sense that they should not take into account what role we have in society. And it would also contribute to the existence of authentic communities, of which the functional autonomy of individuals is a necessary condition. Indeed, a community is formed by people who grant it with an intrinsic value, and not simply the task to ensure a safe coexistence, like it happens with Hobbes’ absolute State, or any social contract. And a community – something very different from a mass society – cannot exist where individuals are not autonomous, because their choices are only based on their role of consumers and workers.

A second proposal that I have formulated deals with the fact that many individuals, who hold values such as social justice and environmentalism, have social roles that are inconsistent with these values. What we believe in is a medium that can connect us with other individuals, like money and power. But people who give us money (our employers or customers) or who receive money from us (our employees or suppliers), often pursue social aims that are totally opposite to ours. And the same happens with people who have power on us (politicians) or who share the decisions taken for us (other citizens). Against this backdrop,  individuals who share some given principles might interact in order to reach a critical mass, able to influence money and power. This would take place through forming local, autonomous communities and, subsequently, national and global networks.

In particular, the Internet should play an essential role in allowing employers, employees and volunteers to identify counterparts who share their vision of the world, and who might therefore pursue the same social aims (e.g. a given reduction in CO2 emissions in their region). For instance, the manager of a green company, who does not have the opportunity to contribute directly to human rights in his area, might hire engineers, who are active in helping refugees, and who have not found decent jobs, because they don’t want to work in a polluting plant. Through these forms of cooperation, similar to the spirit of peer-to-peer communities, individuals who share some values would fulfill their aims, without just delegating them to the economy and politics.

After the establishment of cooperative groups and the achievement of common objectives (a phase of emancipation), these communities would go through a phase of expansion, aimed at including more individuals and businesses in their network. This would take place through providing incentives to the economic system to cooperate with the communities. These incentives might include: higher labor productivity ensured by lack of alienation; the economies of scale linked with the presence of workers and suppliers who share the same values; trade opportunities among, for instance, communities of different countries. And also the political system might become aware of the social benefits of the initiatives undertaken by value-based communities.

These two proposals are quite different from each other. The first one has the ambition to give an economic role to moral, organizational and cultural values, to the point of considering them as a means of exchange complementary to money, as well as a form of capital beyond the three forms of money-capital, commodity-capital and productive capital, identified by Karl Marx. The exchanges of values could connect individuals and organizations with very different backgrounds.

The second proposal highlights the role of groups of individuals and organizations that share the same values, and that are therefore able to influence the rest of society.

In both cases, however, economic rationality is not seen as an end in itself, but as a means to foster individual autonomy, create a sense of community and spread values different from mere economic utility.

In our age, we need a new approach to social issues. An approach based on interdisciplinarity, and on the integration of human values with the formal institutions that regulate our daily interactions. This is needed to avoid populist, egoic identifications with negative feelings that take the place of individual autonomy. But this is also needed to counteract the commodification, standardization and dehumanization of our lives.

Marco Senatore is a civil servant. After graduating in Political Sciences at the University of Rome, he has worked at the Ministry of Economy and Finance of Italy and at the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund.

Marco is the author of the interdisciplinary book “Exchanging Autonomy. Inner Motivations As Resources for Tackling the Crises of Our Times”. His articles have been published, among others, by the London Progressive Journal, the think tank Compass, the journals Philosophy for Business and Notizie di Politeia. Marco’s Twitter account is @MarcoSenatore75.

Image: The Bosses of the Senate, a cartoon by Joseph Keppler. First published in Puck 1889.