A Theology of Enjoyment for a Post Capitalist Life
by John B. Cobb, Jr.
John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is email@example.com.. A lecture given at St. Andrews Church in Vancouver BC on July 17, 2007. Permission has been given for this use by the author. This material was prepared for Religion-Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
The topic of this lecture was proposed by Cathy Bone. I had originally suggested “How God Works in Evolution: A Process View.” In the U. S. this has been a hot topic for some time because of the objection of conservative Christians to the Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. I share the objection to Neo-Darwinism, but I object just as strongly to the alternatives that these Christians have thus far proposed. So I am proposing an alternative based on the perspective of process philosophy.
But I was reminded that north of the 49th parallel you have not been hung up on this issue, and I commend you for that. Whereas south of that parallel it is hard to get an audience that will listen to a discussion of economic theory, in Canada this is recognized as important. Bone suggested “A Process Theologian’s Critique of Capitalism.” Since I have been engaged in this critique, especially of the global form or capitalism, for several decades, I gladly agreed. But then she came back with the title “A Theology of Enjoyment for a Post-Capitalist Life.”
I’m glad she did so. With that title I can’t just rehash what I have been doing for years. The title pushes me to take a more optimistic attitude toward the future. And in addition it leads me to expound an element in process thought that I too often omit, that is “enjoyment.”
I will begin with that. For my mentor in process thought, Alfred North Whitehead, the aim of God in the world is the increase of intrinsic value. It is my belief, as Whitehead’s, that intrinsic value occurs only in experience and characterizes all experience. We are called to contribute what we can to the fulfillment of this aim.
Of course, this idea is the beginning of reflection about how we are to live, not the end. There are the questions of value in the immediate present and value in the future, the value of my experiences and the value of others. Then there is the question: in what does intrinsic value consist?
Modern value theory has emphasized such terms as pleasure and satisfaction. The Greeks spoke of happiness. Whitehead said very little about either pleasure or happiness, and instead developed an elaborate theory emphasizing, beauty, truth, goodness, peace, and adventure. There is no ready way to sum it up. But, especially in has magnum opus, Process and Reality, he wrote frequently of “enjoyment.” Clearly, this enjoyment goes far deeper than the idea expressed in the recommendation that we eat, drink, and be merry. A theology of enjoyment makes good sense for a follower of Whitehead.
Although Whitehead never identifies intrinsic value and enjoyment, it will not mislead much to say that the end of life is to increase God’s enjoyment by increasing enjoyment in the world. Accordingly, we may make the theological statement that God wants us to enjoy ourselves, to enjoy one another, to increase the enjoyment of other people – all other people – and of the other creatures with whom we share this planet as well. To enjoy our own lives more and to contribute to the enjoyment of others is to contribute to God’s enjoyment. Charles Hartshorne calls the ethics of process thought “contributionism.” There can be no higher goal than to contribute to God’s enjoyment. But there can be no tension between contributing to God’s enjoyment and contributing to the enjoyment of God’s creatures.
This is not the place to develop this theology or this ethic theoretically. In discussions of the goal that the economy should serve, the discussion has recently focused on “happiness.” For our purposes here, enjoyment and happiness are sufficiently similar that we will grant them equivalence. The first point to make, one that at some level everyone already knows, is that the capitalist economy is a very inefficient way of increasing either happiness or enjoyment in the world.
Despite the fact that everyone, at some level, knows this, the point needs to be argued because we are all also partly brainwashed by a theory that suggests that global capitalism strongly supports the overall well being of humanity. I will spare you the details, but remind you in broad outline of the argument.
Adam Smith was rightly impressed by the functioning of the village market. Two women would not enter into an exchange unless each desired what she received more than what she gave up. Hence it seems that the exchange makes both parties better off or happier. Economists have reasoned that the more such exchanges occur the better.
They also note that those who take part in the market prefer to get more for what they give rather than less. It is only a short step from this to say that the more one is able to produce for purposes of exchange, the better, and the cheaper the goods acquired, the better. Both increased production and cheaper prices result from labor becoming more productive, and productivity is increased chiefly by industrialization. Hence industrialization seems to be the main contributor to the increased satisfaction of human wants. And industry is most efficient, that is, labor is most productive, when markets are enlarged. The globalization of the market is the ultimate ideal. Also capitalism is the most efficient system for advancing industrialization. Therefore, global capitalism is normative.
I wish that the desirability of enlarged markets and increased industrialization were taken as an hypothesis to be tested. If that had been the case, these theories and policies would long ago have been abandoned or, at least, drastically revised. The fact is that people in countries whose wealth has greatly increased have not become happier as their nations have grown richer. Indeed, people in rich nations are not happier than people in poor nations.
If this two-century experiment in satisfying people’s wants or making them happier has dramatically failed, why is there so little reflection about its abandonment or revision? One reason, no doubt, is that we are creatures of habit and that we can only think and act in accustomed ruts. But by itself this does not explain the almost unanimous commitment of the world’s nations to continuing the failed experiment. To succeed, the capitalist program had to uproot traditions and habits that had prevailed for millennia. Clearly drastic changes have occurred in the past, and new changes are possible.
A second reason for lack of interest in an alternative may be that although most people in industrialized nations have not become happier, they have become attached to possessions that have come into being through the capitalist system. Whereas these people have not been made happier by their new lifestyle, they are sure they would be made unhappier by losing it. They have no vision of how changes could occur that would make them both “poorer” and happier.
A third reason may be that although most people have not become happier, a few have, and these are the ones who control business, government, the educational system, and the media. The global capitalist system has concentrated greater and greater wealth and power in a few hands. Whereas studies show that absolute wealth does not correlate with happiness, comparative wealth contributes to status in one’s community, and people enjoy high status. The one person in a thousand who now plays a significant role in deciding human destiny is likely to enjoy her, or, more often, his status, power, and wealth and the exercise of the skills that have led to this exalted position.
Let us turn now to the question of what is wrong with the reasoning that misled so many into supposing that industrialization and globalization would increase happiness.
First, studies indicate that happiness is primarily a function of relations with family, neighbors, and the immediate community within which one lives. Relative standing in that community affects happiness. If trading well in the local market improves one’s standing, one will be happier. No doubt absolute wealth also sometimes contributes to happiness, at least as it affects one’s health and that of one’s family. But beyond a quite modest level, it matters little.
Transactions in the local market can play a number of positive roles in building relationships, increasing mutual respect, and meeting real needs. But increased market activity as such makes no such contribution. Instead, the methods used to achieve this remove the market from the village and damage relationships within the village. Often the village disappears, to be replaced by inferior communities in urban slums. It can sometimes be argued that the slum dwellers consume more than the villagers, thus supporting this process of development. But life in the slums is rarely, humanly speaking, an improvement over life in the village. Slum dwellers are not likely to be as happy as the villagers.
I am largely persuaded by those who say that the whole development project was a mistake. Although we should not romanticize hunting, gathering, and gardening societies, it is probable that most people in those societies were happier than most people are today. Civilization has brought more drudgery, ugliness, and suffering to the planet than real enjoyment. This is even more true of industrialization. A recent global study of happiness came up with truly shocking results. It found that the happiest people in the world are the Nigerians!
Nevertheless, this does not mean that the solution is to go back to earlier forms of society. There are many reasons that this is not possible. One is that the ecologically impoverished planet could not support the population of hunters, gatherers, and gardeners that it once did, and even that population at its height was a small fraction of ours. Industry of various sorts is essential to support our current population. We have already noted that even people who are not very happy with the present situation dread the thought of giving up the benefits of industrial civilization. I include myself in the number of those who would not like to give up basic modern conveniences.
Does this mean that we have no choice but to acquiesce in the present system? That is not my view. There are major alternatives that are quite within our collective ability to actualize if we are guided by the goal of enjoyment or happiness rather than by the goal of increasing market activity. No one has contributed more to this discussion than your neighbor in Alberta, Mark Anielski, in his recent book on the economics of happiness.
Twenty years ago I became convinced that one major source of the commitment to policies that often do more harm than good is the way economic progress is measured.
The focus of standard measures is on market activity. This is measured by gross product; at the national level, by gross national or domestic product. When we divide this by the population we come out with a figure, the increase of which is supposed to correlate with the extent to which human wants are satisfied. This is supposed to indicate the general level of satisfaction, or wellbeing, or happiness of the people in the country in question. Hence almost every nation in the world aims to increase per capita GNP or GDP, and the success of the global economy, and of the institutions and policies that promote it, is measured in this way.
Mainstream economists acknowledge that this is not a direct measure of economic welfare. They usually, however, regard it as a sufficiently accurate indicator of economic well being, that they use the GNP or GDP per capita as if its increase were self evidently desirable, as, indeed, the most important goal of public policy.
There is, however, little basis for this judgment and its practical outcome. There are many respects in which these measures omit positive contributions to economic welfare and ignore what is harmful. On the one hand, there are contributions to economic production that it does not measure, such as housework. On the other hand, there is no subtraction for what is used up or destroyed. If a country cuts down its forests or exhausts its supplies of petroleum, this adds to GNP, but nothing is subtracted. In wartime the GNP soars; nothing is subtracted for the destruction of cities and infrastructure, much less for the loss of human life. If after an earthquake everything is rebuilt just as it was before, the whole cost of rebuilding is added to GNP, even though what results may be no better than the pre-earthquake condition.
Furthermore, and of special interest, there are “defensive” expenditures. These are expenditures required because of the results of the activities that make for economic “growth.” For example, industrialization necessitates urbanization. Cities require enormous infrastructure costs. They have much more crime than rural areas. Costs for infrastructure, police, courts, lawyers, and prisons grow. But all these costs of industrialization are added to the GNP. Again, economic growth obviously increases waste products, and the enlarged market obviously adds to expenditures on transportation costs. But the cost of dealing with waste and transporting goods and people is added to the GNP.
In a rational system, if the extra costs involved in producing something were equal to the value of producing it, production would cease. But ours is not a rational system. The profits of producing go to the producer; most of the costs are paid by others. And the way the whole transaction is counted treats both as gains. GNP per capita is increased both by the production of desired goods and the expenditures required for the expanded market that makes this production possible. Hence even if the latter exceed the former, most policy makers would celebrate the results.
I worked with others to develop an index of sustainable economic welfare (ISEW). It is very imperfect. Nevertheless, even though it stays close to accepted economic ideas, it gives a much better picture of where we stand than do the measures now in use. In the United States from 1956 to 1990, while the GNP nearly doubled, the ISEW grew by less than 10 percent. If we had factored in the value of leisure, as economists in general would regard as appropriate, the ISEW would have shown a decline. Indeed, when Redefining Progress took over this project, it developed the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and found a way of including leisure. The GPI has declined over time.
No doubt economists could develop far better measures of what constitutes economic well being. Anielski has already done important work in this direction. The results are similar. Realistic measures of human well being show that our vaunted economic progress is not increasing anything worth increasing, even in strictly economic terms.
One reason that human happiness is not increased by growing GDP is, thus, that this measure omits much that contributes to economic well being and includes much that does not. But this is by no means a full explanation. Strictly economic measures, that is, those that limit themselves to the topics discussed by economists, suggest that economic well being has been more or less static for some time. But during the same period, there has been a decline in happiness.
What, then, is the condition for happiness that has been damaged? I have already stated that the evidence indicates that the chief contribution to happiness is the quality of relationships with those with whom one has most to do, parents, siblings, other relatives, neighbors, playmates, teacher, employers, and others. This pattern of relationships also extends beyond the human sphere to animals and plants and the landscape in general. These relationships largely determine one’s view of oneself as an acceptable and beloved individual or as one under pressure to prove her or his worth. All of this has to do with the quality of community.
I now add that I judge that second to this is the satisfaction one takes in one’s daily activities. To a large extent this is an extension of the first point; one enjoys one’s work if it gains the approval, appreciation, and respect of others, and seems to contribute to their well being. But there is also the matter of intrinsic enjoyment. Much of the work of artisans was intrinsically rewarding. Today people engage in that kind of activity as hobbies or recreation. Work on an assembly line is intrinsically boring and often stressful as well.
I venture a third judgment. There is satisfaction in making one’s own decisions about what one does and does not do. Where others are involved in the decision, there is satisfaction in feeling that one can participate in making it. This adds to one’s sense of self-worth. It has a lot to do with the widely held desire for “freedom.”
If we consider the fruits of industrialization in relation to these matters, we see that they are predominantly negative. Rural and small town communities can be oppressive and restrictive, but in general they provide more emotional support for children and youth than do city slums or even affluent suburban living. The frequent movement from place to place that characterizes life in industrialized countries weakens the wider range of human relationships. It makes healthy communities more difficult to maintain. The extreme specialization associated with industrialization degrades the intrinsic quality of work. The capitalist system concentrates decision-making in a few hands. The great majority must adjust to the system these deciders create.
Obviously, there are many people in affluent, industrial societies who have interesting work and live in satisfying communities. Much of this work and many of these communities would not be possible in pre-industrial societies. I do not want to question that many of us have gained a great deal. But we have not found in standard economic theory and practice a recipe for making people in general happier. Quite the contrary.
If local community is important for happiness, then a profound reversal of the dominant form of industrialization is needed. Industry should be tailored to the support of such community, and the people of the community should have a determinative say with respect to the economy. Even work in factories should be made as interesting and participatory as possible.
The chief argument against decentralizing production and attending to the well being of workers is that it would lead to less productivity of labor, less efficiency, higher costs, and inferior goods. These negatives may be exaggerated, but no doubt there is some truth to this. We will not make this kind of move until we really decide that happiness is more important than the quantity or quality of the goods consumed, and that the latter is not, beyond a certain point, a significant contributor to happiness.
“Beyond a certain point” is important here. A healthy local community cannot allow any of its members to be homeless, undernourished, or without education and medical care. The first requirement on its economy is to meet needs of this sort. All will be happier when they know that the basic needs of all are met. To what extent these needs are met by the community as a whole or primarily by family, friends, and neighbors is a matter to be worked out in a participatory way by the community.
With respect to these basic needs, the local community should be largely self-sufficient. It should be able to feed and clothe and house itself, and to provide education and health care for all. This enables it to make its own decisions. This means that the industry that provides not only clothing, but furniture, kitchenware, and electrical fixtures, as well as basic tools and implements should be local. The community should produce its own electricity as well. Years ago, Kirkpatrick Sale estimated that something of this sort would be possible in a community or as few as ten thousand people. Obviously, many communities would be larger.
Such communities, and even very large ones, could be constructed as architectural ecologies or arcologies whose energy requirements are met by the sun, along the lines proposed by Paolo Soleri. This would put an end to motor transportation within towns or cities. But in the construction of the larger arcologies there would be need for moving side walks, escalators, and elevators. Clearly not everything needed would be produced within the community. There would be communities of communities with some of the local communities producing some of these more expensive goods, and other communities, others.
The goal would be that the footprint of each community (in the terms of Rees and Wackernagel) would be no greater than the area it occupies. This goal is necessary if the well being of communities in some areas is not, in the long run at least, to be at the expense of the well being of others. If the community is organized to meet many of the desires now met only by private possessions, and if others do not have such possessions either, there is little loss of happiness in the lack of many of these. If no one has a car, the lack of a car need not detract from the enjoyment of life.
My conclusion is that orienting all our efforts to increasing GNP is totally foolish. Not only does it not contribute to happiness. It is radically unsustainable. Increase of market activity, which is what is now called economic growth, is closely correlated with speeding pollution and hastening the exhaustion of resources. Of course, it is possible by technological improvements to protract this process, and the resistance of the powers that be even to such moderate changes is truly pathetic and shocking. But endless increase in market activity cannot be sustainable. Even if everyone continues to support it, the system will collapse, perhaps sooner than we expect.
There will be a world after global capitalism. The danger is that global capitalism will not collapse until much of the biosphere is irreparably damaged, many national governments have lost the power to prevent chaos in their borders, and the struggle for the remaining resources is everywhere violent. It is too late to prevent huge losses, some of which have already occurred, but let us hope that it is not too late for the world after capitalism to be a humane and livable one.
If the need to abandon a global system concocted for the purpose of increasing global wealth is clear, how can the process begin? It must begin by reversing the concentration of power in the hands of a fewwhose interests are in pressing the capitalist globalization project still further. This requires either a reversal of commitments in Washington or a forced end to its imperialist project.
The American vision has been a purely top-down one. The global economy is run by a handful of international institutions, national governments, and corporations. Politically, the world is to be controlled from Washington. For the most part this control will be exercised for the sake of global capitalism. As long as this goal governs national and global policies, those who are convinced that another world is possible can work to realize that world only in local and small-scale ways always vulnerable to being crushed from above.
In no way do I minimize the thousands of local efforts to bring some enjoyment to the world even now, in spite of the overwhelming dominance of global capitalism. Without these efforts there would be very little hope indeed. With them there is a chance of developing a post-capitalist world in which the economy contributes to the true well being of people.
Although there is a chance, there are many obstacles and dangers that follow from continuing pursuit of the top-down American vision. I intend this lecture to be a hopeful one, but hope is foolishness if it ignores the threats to its realization. Accordingly, before I sketch a hopeful scenario in more detail, I will simply mention some of the disasters that threaten us.
One imminent danger, as seen by one who believes that 9/11was engineered by members of the Bush administration, is that there will be another false flag operation. This time the attack upon the American people would be blamed on Iran and result in greatly expand war. Bush has already published a paper that declares that in a major national emergency, the president will take full control of the government. He might then cancel elections, initiate a draft, and plunge the world into war. I will not speculate about the renewed danger of a nuclear war.
Another disturbing possibility is that the corporate world, with help from the dominant nations, may increase its strangle hold on the global economy, destroying all resistance, and exploiting all the world’s resources. This program may continue long enough that when it collapses, the Earth will be unable to support more that a fraction of its present population.
Still another possibility is that the catastrophic consequences of global warming will come on us soon. For example, the shortage of petroleum could lead to the increased use of coal, which could vastly increase pollution and hasten global warming. As large areas of the earth’s surface become increasingly inhospitable, people everywhere will lash out in terror and violence and vast movements of population seeking food and water will destroy the possibility of orderly life anywhere.
Alternately, in anticipation of the shortage of petroleum and to avoid excessive contributions to global warming, nations may turn increasingly to atomic power. Accidents for worse than anything seen this far could occur or terrorists could cause massive malfunctions. Also, those now without nuclear weapons may acquire them. Either American imperial ambition or defense against it could lead to nuclear war. So could the desperate need of a nation affected by global warming for scarce resources.
Or, in the absence of any alternative vision, fearful people will look to authoritarian leaders to maintain order and security at whatever price in individual freedom.
A hopeful future requires, as a first step, the overthrow of the top-down American vision of the world. This vision can be changed only by a profound conversion occurring among the leaders of the United States, or by actual changes in the global power structure. I do not deny the possibility of conversion. Miracles of this sort do happen in human history. But I think that changes in American strategies are more likely to follow from changes in the global situation than from personal conversions antecedent to such changes. Hence, in my hopeful account of moving toward another world in which the goal will be enjoyment rather than exploitative wealth, I turn to possible scenarios of global changes that are beginning to occur now.
The most promising move away from the global hegemony of the United States has been in South America. There, step by step, the masses of people have recognized that the global economy as shaped by the United States has been profoundly costly to them. In Argentina it led to financial collapse, and the Argentineans are no longer willing to be governed by the United States through the International Monetary Fund. In Brazil an opponent of economic bondage to the global institutions and the United States has become president, and with great care and moderation is charting an independent course.
Meanwhile the common people of Venezuela and Bolivia have finally found leaders who have succeeded in using the democratic processes to take control of their governments and to develop economic policies for the benefit of the people rather than transnational corporations. Thus far the efforts of the United States to overthrow these leaders, as it has overthrown so many populist leaders in the past, have failed. In short Latin America is no longer part of the American empire as it has been for centuries.
In general, U. S. control of Latin America over the centuries has been a combination of economic and military policies. Military intervention has sometimes been through local military forces and sometimes directly by U.S. marines. This intervention has been supplemented by subversion and assassination. The road to independence has, therefore, been particularly difficult. If South American nations can overcome these obstacles, this should be possible in parts of the world where domination has thus far been chiefly economic, with much less threat of overt military intervention.
There is some promise of improvement here. The subject of unpayable debts as obstacles to economic development is now widely discussed. However, the “forgiveness” of debts of the poorest countries, now being touted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, is based on conditions that enslave the nation further. There is no promise in that. But in a context in which the problems of indebtedness are acknowledged, subject nations might engage in fresh analysis and act upon it.
The bondage of nations to the global system through structural adjustment was originally justified by their difficulty in making payments on their debts. Instead of solving this problem, it has led to increased indebtedness and thereby increased control of the economies of these nations by international agencies and transnational corporations. It is time to re-think the whole system.
We know from such sources as Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man that this relation of indebtedness and enslavement was not accidental or incidental. Perkins’ job beginning soon after World War II was to persuade nations that hoped to “develop” to borrow large sums of money. Much of the persuasion consisted in arousing false expectations as to the profits to be made from investing the proffered loans. His task, and of course the task of others like him, was to create a situation of permanent and growing indebtedness, and in this they were quite successful.
One of the first steps toward the liberation of nations would be a careful analysis of their part of the debts that are “odious.” A nation is not required to repay “odious” debts. These include debts that were illegally acquired. The term should be extended to those where lenders practiced systematic deceit, or at least to an appropriate percentage of those debts. In many cases, once such percentages are calculated, it is clear that the debts were long since paid, and the further debts required in order to continue to make payments are also odious. The repudiation of odious debts would be an act of independence by the debtor nations that could greatly decrease the power of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to shape their economies for the sake of greater profits and power for transnational corporations.
Debtor nations are fearful of repudiating debts because of the consequences that the masters of the global economy could inflict upon them. However, if as many as a dozen nations worked in concert, the ability of these masters to punish would be greatly reduced. Every declaration of independence such as those of Venezuela and Bolivia can increase the likelihood that economically enslaved nations will begin to act in their own interest.
If we consider the enjoyment of life by human beings as more important than the increase of market activity as such, we will do what we can to end the push for breaking down what are called “barriers to trade and investment.” Nations that break free from external economic control will be able to determine how much and what kind of investment they want from outside, what to trade, and on what terms. If a nation wants to have its own industries, even if these are not as efficient as industries in another country, the nation will be free to act in that way. There is at least as much value in national self-sufficiency as in increasing global gross product. If a nation wants to protect its forests or its fisheries from exploitation by transnational companies, it will be free to do so. If it wishes to provide basic healthcare and education to all its citizens it will be free to do that. If it wants to control its own supplies of water, it will be free to do that.
There is, of course, no guarantee that nations that can organize their economies for the benefit of their people will do so. The point is that they can, whereas under the heel of outsiders they are forced to order their economies to the profit of these outsiders. The possibility is an important gain.
There are other promising changes in the global system. The intransigence of the United States has in recent years, for the first time since World War II, led to international treaties being ratified without the participation of the United States. Our nation has lost its moral leadership. Military power is far less potent, when moral leadership is gone.
We may be grateful to the administration of George W. Bush for having carried this loss of moral leadership still further. It has fully unmasked the imperial ambitions of the United States. This has led to movements around the world, and especially in Asia, to organize counterweights to American power. China and Russia are uniting and drawing other countries into their orbit. American policy is driving Iran into their arms. As the United States’ control of its Latin American empire fades and it confronts a powerful counterforce in Asia, the days of its global hegemony are numbered. In the long run it is possible that Europe will seek a more neutral position between the United States and this new Asian power.
The Democratic recovery of dominance in the U.S. Congress may have been made possible by popular weariness with the Iraq War, but it is clear that the real power lies in the hands, not of the populist anti-war movement, but of those who are angry with Bush for setting back the American imperialist program. Under either a Republican or a Democratic administration, I assume that the “realists” will regain control of foreign policy. Their goal will be to undo the damage inflicted by the Bush administration on the imperialist project they share with the neo-conservatives. The realists will, no doubt, reduce U.S. involvement in the Iraqi civil war, so as to moderate popular opposition to American involvement there. But they will not reduce efforts to control Iraqi oil and to maintain military bases in Iraq. I trust that neither Latin Americans nor Asians will be deceived by better-mannered and better-spoken diplomats.
There is an advantage in control by “realists” instead of ideologues. If their efforts to get the American imperialist project back on track fail, as I have indicated they may, these realists may reassess the situation and its possibilities. Perhaps in the end true realists will recognize that the goal of global hegemony is unrealistic and guide the United States toward a more modest role in international affairs.
Let us suppose that liberation from the global capitalist system and resistance to American imperialism leads to a world of large regional blocks within which nations have recovered a good deal of the power of self-government. Perhaps Latin America, or at least South America, will be one such block and much of Asia, led by China, another. Of course, Europe is already such a block, and it may establish itself in a position more fully independent of the United States. There is a chance that these blocks would aim more at economic self-sufficiency than at victory in global competition. The coming oil crisis will tend to push them in this direction. Perhaps if African nations regain more control over their economies, the Organization of African States can become an effective force in the world. Perhaps the Arab world of the Near East can do so as well.
The energy crisis will press further in the direction of decentralization. Even within the blocks, it will make transportation more expensive, and this will tend to give respectability to ideals of greater local self-sufficiency. Regions deficient in petroleum may lead the way in the use of solar power, a source of energy that lends itself best to local collection and use. Models of local communities that now seem only amusing and fanciful may suddenly be recognize as pragmatic necessities. If they can also be recognized as opportunities for the increase of enjoyment, this process may be speeded.
Probably the actual course of events will be far more varied, confused, and unpredictable than any of these negative or positive scenarios. And, even if the most positive were realized, we should not suppose that drastic decentralization of the economy automatically leads to utopia. Local communities can fall into the hands of local bosses or gangs. Popular local governments can be destructive of minorities and hostile toward neighbors. Even reasonably good communities can be oppressive and restrictive. It is quite possible to spell out ideals for such communities, but in the real world, even under the best circumstances, they would rarely be fully realized. Unfortunately, the circumstances under which a post-global capitalist society may emerge are very unlikely to be favorable.
Nevertheless, it is important for people of good will to have a confident sense of direction, to know what developments to oppose, what to support. We need to know that sustainable local communities are possible in principle, that in them enjoyable life is possible, and that some current trends have the potential of actualizing possibilities of these kinds.. We are called to support these trends even when they do not seem to be in our current interest. To those who are in despair about the future of the planet, we can offer some realistic hope. That is something – a good deal more than is commonly available.