Never had I heard of “well-being economics” in the past. Now I have in this essay.
Dirk Philipsen is an economic historian and wellbeing economics advocate who teaches public policy and history at Duke University in North Carolina. He is also a senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics.
Here he is in person:
Suspicious me, I don’t think you’ll read this essay yourself, so I’ll cherry pick. This is useful in part because it is a survey of writing that supports and guides what is “well-being”, quite in contrast to golden toilets and bezillion dollar debt paid for with one’s soul. Each section is from this essay at different points.
In preindustrial societies, cooperation represented naked necessity for survival.
We likely fear, with good reason, that, in all the self-promotion, we can no longer rely on others to be there for us, to provide us with consistent work, a stable community, a bit of love and kindness.
Most definitions of mainstream economics are based on some version of Lionel Robbin’s 1932 definition as the ‘efficient allocation of scarce resources’. —Not surprisingly, the guiding star for success, of both policymakers and economists around the world, is a crude, if convenient metric – GDP – that does nothing but indiscriminately count final output (more stuff), independent of whether it’s good or bad, whether it creates wellbeing or harm, and notwithstanding that its ongoing growth is unsustainable.
In reality, we collaborate, organise together, show love and solidarity – as the Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom documented in her book Governing the Commons (1990) – in the process invariably creating common rules and values that organise communal life.
The particular version of the ‘private as property’ likely has its origins in the Roman empire. It comes with the notion of absolute dominion – denoting one’s right to have full control over one’s property. Initially, such dominion was exercised by the male head of household, over both things and people.
In order for the law not to put its boot on your neck, your theft has to come at white-collar scale and the sanction of power.
No bodies were ever more violated than those brutalised as slaves or serfs, all in the name of profit and – as authors such as Kidada Williams have documented in painstaking detail – sanctified by a vicious regime of private property. Racism, as thinkers from C L R James to Angela Davis to Barbara and Karen Fields remind us, is an essential building block to the system of private capital.
Over generations, open theft of common heritage became disguised as private property, hiding behind legal contracts and the cold fiction of money as wealth.
Legally ‘set free’ to sell their labour power, the landless were instead reduced to a state of abject poverty where they became the unwilling ‘masses’ populating the satanic mills of early industrialisation – freedom as a choice between misery or death.
Grounded in extraction and exploitation, capitalist progress carries mounting violence and destruction in its wake. The flipside of civilisation, in Walter Benjamin’s words, appears to be ‘a document of barbarism’.
‘We do not have to escape from the Earth,’ as the environmental activist Vandana Shiva exhorts us in Oneness vs the 1% (2019), ‘we have to escape from the illusions that enslave our minds
And yet, our dominant economic systems continue to follow colonial extraction and brutal exclusion, in the process creating two organically related, existential problems: the perpetuation (and in some cases intensification) of poverty, and the violation of the biophysical limits of our planet.
I wonder if the real tragedy of the private lies in separating what can function only when together, in the process excluding, individualising, destroying, alienating and, in consequence, undermining the innate creativity and resilience of a necessarily complex system of interaction – between human and human, and between human and nature.
There is one diagram in economic theory, writes Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics (2018), that ‘is so dangerous that it is never actually drawn: the long-term path of GDP growth’.
In The Value of Everything (2019), the economist Mariana Mazzucato points to an underlying flaw in thinking: ‘until now, we have confused price with value’. Economists and policymakers have created a system disconnected from the real world that privileges market transactions over our personal and planetary wellbeing.
We have an economic system, reflects Lorenzo Fioramonti in Wellbeing Economy (2017), ‘that sees no value in any human or natural resource unless it is exploited.’ The result is what the medical historian Julie Livingstone calls ‘self-devouring growth’. The triple challenges of climate change, pandemic and systemic racism highlight the deeper systemic defects.
Why not imagine a grown and healthy adult who is no longer prisoner to the regimen of ‘ever more calories’ – a mind liberated from ‘the love of money’ that the sustainability economist Tim Jackson envisioned in Prosperity Without Growth (2009).
It could be a life as imagined by theorists such as adrienne maree brown in Emergent Strategy (2017) and the young activists of the International Indigenous Youth Council, the Movement for Black Lives, Fridays for Future, the Sunrise Movement or the Wellbeing Economy Alliance. People in such groups are imagining life within stable and healthy communities, respectful of difference.
German millennials have called out their elders with the missive Ihr habt keinen Plan (2019), or ‘You Don’t Have a Plan’, and then set out to construct a vision that holds promise for future generations. The public intellectual Rutger Bregman asks us to finally stop defending the indefensible. His book Utopia for Realists (2017) is grounded in a profound realisation: many utopias are more realistic than current reality.
Each of these paragraphs is excerpted from a narrative essay in Aeon, whose goal has been to lift up the thriving and vital set of ideas that have been growing all along in contrast to the demonic ideas that came out of the rubble of the Soviet Union and the satanic practices of the worldwide mafia. Reading the books listed here will take a lot of time and effort, but will reveal that MAGA is a perverse scam that finds you more valuable dead than alive, as long as they have their golden toilets.