Arnold de Graaf: The Gods in whom they trusted - The disintegrative effects of capitalism: A foundation to transitioning to a new social world

Heatwood Press, 2016

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Climate change and sustainable development have recently become subjects of increasing interest and discussion. The Paris climate agreement and the UN adoption of the agenda on sustainable development goals on the one side, as well as the interest which accompanied the Pope’s encyclical Laudato si, were significant milestones in this development. Recently a number of books and studies appeared on the market underlying the need to respond to the rapidly worsening situation regarding the ecological devastation, increasing impacts of climate change and the need to substantially change most parameters of our daily lives. The focus is on what needs to be done, if our future is to be within the parameters we know at present to be sustainable. This development is increasingly marked by an acknowledgment that necessary change needs to be much deeper than it is possible to achieve by an increasing effort in technology development and transfer, or at the level of policy change. All this is desired, however, it needs to be accompanied by a deeper systemic change. Climate change and sustainable development include questions related to life style in the western world. Necessary change and the wish to live in a sustainable world are ethical issues and the subject of a moral choice.   

The book by Arnold de Graaf The Gods in Whom They Trusted contributes to this discussion. Two subtitles: The Disintegrative Effects of Capitalism and A Foundation for Transition to a New Social Order indicate that the ambition of the book is more than to offer a text responding to ecological calamities. The link between ecological and social damages we have to face in the current world, their inter-dependence and mutual causality are the core questions addressed by the publication. The focal point of the book is the question: what effect does providing for our physical and social needs have on the total ecological system and ecological balance?  Summarizing available facts lead the book to the core argument, which marks as a red thread the whole text:  the critique of an economic system which allows, and as a matter fact is, the direct or indirect cause of our ever increasing ecological and social calamities and unsustainable patters of life. 

For many potential readers just the size of the volume and 910 pages of text may seem daunting and perhaps even an unsurmountable obstacle. An immediate question confronting everyone who overcomes a reluctance caused by the thickness of the book is, what new insights compared to those discussed already many times before may this particular volume offer?  First simple answer is that summarizing the arguments and presenting them in a coherent way helps in realising the complexity of the matter. There is a growing awareness that the issue of sustainable development is not easy to manage by a simple trick. The key is to realise what are the critical questions that go to the core of the problem, what are the causes of the problem and what might be the solutions and in all of this to avoid unhelpful simplifications. Any serious exercise of this kind takes its costs in terms of necessary space for presenting the issue. The book tries to approach all these tasks earnestly and seriously. An asset of the publication is the long list of reference material behind each chapter, offering thus a possibility and guidance to go into more detail for everyone who would wish to do so. 

The argumentation of the book is based on two premises: the present economy cannot operate in a socially and economically sustainable way and therefore, we face with a growing urgency the need to take this fact into consideration and to act. The fundamental reason, as argues the book, why the economy as we know it is the key cause of ecological and social difficulties characterising modernity, and leading to the effect that the system is not in the long-term sustainable, is the fact that the current economic system treats ecological and social factors not as its inherent parameters, but as necessary and in principle unwelcomed additives - externalities. Ecological and social parameters are simply not intrinsic to the system, but those which are more or less hampering to achieve the key objective: profit at the lowest costs. This has then two principal consequences:

  • Ecological and social degradation; ecological and social costs are taken only as marginal excesses and collateral damage on the way to achieving the main objective, which is material profit.
  • The economic system as it operates now is not able to guarantee a sustainable way and the long-term perspective ecological and social justice.

Elaborating on this finding, an effective critique of the current way of production must be oriented directly to its centre and aiming to achieve nothing less than to produce a call for a systemic change. The system, however, continues in its inertia and resists. In emphasizing this line the book argues that:  ‘the current neoliberal economic policies and actions function like a dominant religion that has circled the globe’ (p.11). The term religion is used in this respect in its negative connotation, as a closed self-referential system refusing any possibility for a meaningful reflection and possibility of adjustment of change from inside. The book thus elaborates complex arguments opposing a neoliberal way of life and ideology linked with the system labelled as ‘destructive belief system (that) rivals that of any fanatical and violent religious group’ (p.495).

The bottom line or arguments collected in the book is the conviction that: ‘economic progress has become the ultimate driving force in our culture (p.510) …. Like a fanatical religion, is has left a trail of devastation in almost every country and region. (p.510) Taking note of some positive features and sectoral success, the overall conclusion is, nevertheless, clear: ‘the train is headed for disaster, even though coffee and dinner are still served, conversations are pleasant and movies and music provide entertainment and inspiration’ (p.511). As such, the book is a strong plea against the idolatry of the present capitalist economic system; against the gods in whom we trust (p.514).

Although strong in providing arguments against the current dominant economic system, the book wants to avoid a simple black and white solution. A way forward should not be capitalism, or socialism anymore, but a third alternative ‘that seeks to do justice to the integrality of life without privileging any one aspect’ (p.512). Even if offering this guideline, here we can see perhaps one of the weaker sides of the publication. Although being strong in proving arguments against the economy of capitalism, it is not very clear how to avoid in looking for ‘a third way’ an easy slip into the economic and political system which dominated certain parts of the world in the previous century and proved in all countries where was implemented its brutal and disastrous consequences.

Although short on theoretical arguments which would elaborate why a simple return to historically known forms of practical socialism cannot be a viable alternative to current problems, the book offers quite a comprehensive list of examples of good practices where some good ideas of an alternative economy to currently dominating economic model have been implemented in small scale projects. Guidance and value base for such practices are summarized as a mutual interplay between four principles:

  • To become responsible and sustainable, all involved actors should have to embrace a different vision of life
  • Economic activities embedded in the whole of life
  • Direct involvement of local people who share responsibilities and benefits
  • Cooperative venture.

When it comes to proposed solutions, the book admits that there is one substantial problem hidden with this approach: socially just and ecologically sustainable ways of production would cost more.  As a consequence, as is admitted, it is doubtful that there are any companies today that would follow these best practices. Market ideology does not allow it.

The book does stay at the level of a critique of the economic managerial system. The bottom line guiding force leading to the current problem is deeper than that. It is identified as a triad: overemphasis on exclusivity science-based solutions, on technological innovations and more efficient governance structures. All these are summarized in one term: an over emphasis of western civilisation on rationalism and Cartesian dualism, which leads to separation of culture against nature, humans against environment, mind against matter and subject against object, (p.549) as it has been developed in western societies since enlightenment. In contract scientific and technological rationalism is presented as an integral and holistic living, a contextual life in the community and interconnection between nature and culture.

While identifying the root cause of the problem at the value and moral level, an effective solution has to be found nowhere else than at the same level of the problem. Quick and superficial fixes will not help in long-term. The author avoids offering a simple solution in a way ‘one thing will make it all.’ Various options are outlined. The guiding line is a search for anything good, which may help. Taking an example of indigenous communities may serve as an illustration of intentions.

Humans are part of the community of beings enjoying natural and sacred personal relationship between humans and all other beings. Following that argument leads to regret that western reductionist scientific concepts do not begin to grasp and explain this multi-dimensional coherence and depth of life (p.536). Indigenous life outlined here does not suppose to present an alternative to scientific and theoretical knowledge and as underlined, the argument should not be taken as ‘a crusade against modern science.’ The important thing, however is, that there are indigenous and local communities that have ‘an integral view and way of life that we can learn from, that can remind us that an alternative praxis and vision is possible,’ (p.540) and in this way be in in opposition to ‘deification of science and technology’ (p.548). Against this background is then raised the bottom lined question: what role does cognitive play in discerning human life? To what extent can this discerning provide an existential and normative frame for human life? (p.543-4).

In looking for answers to the question of a role of religion in modern society the book concludes that in spite of technological advancement and centuries of rationality existential anxiety to which religion of any kind want to provide a response, has not been removed from life, in spite of numerous claims of centuries of rationality. Existential fears are still around. In a new ere they just took on new forms. In period of globalisation, secularisation, emancipation, individualisation, post-modernism and advance of the neoliberal ideology, many people are at a loss when looking for some guidelines and directions (p.594). The book admits that the Christian religion along with most other religions have lost much of its relevance and public presence.

In pleading for a coherent worldview and the guideline for ultimate convictions the book takes an intentional decision to focus on the perspective as it is presented by the Hebrew Scriptures. The author admits that this is an arbitrary decision. To help the presented arguments, it could have been, as admitted, equally chosen to focus on other religious or worldview system as well. The point is to present arguments, which can inspire the reader ‘to believe rightly’(p.607). Believing rightly here means to find guidelines:  ‘that point to a way of living that brings justice and care’ (p.608). The book takes the position that in spite of the dark side of most religions they have a valuable contribution to make that we need to retrieve.

The book highlights the critical Hebrew insight presented in the Old Testament that creation has to be desacralized.  God is present in creation not directly, creation is an act of his will and people were free to make their own choices and carry responsibility.  The biblical view is that creation and history of humanity have to be understood as a story. The core element of the story is failure and redemption. When the ancient people of Israel failed, time and again, they had the choice to start again and find life and wellbeing. History understood in this way raises then a crucial question: is there hope for humanity? Will there ever be an end to human failure and suffering? The answer is: ‘yes, there is hope as long as the life-giving vision holds and calls us back to an integral way of life’ (p.617). The bottom line message underpinning such an approach is clear: ‘do not absolutize or deify any part of life; if you do, it will not go well, life will become distorted and there will be suffering’ (p.618).

In applying the message of biblical prophets to the situation of modernity, the author concludes: ‘injustice was understood by prophets as the result of idolatry of deifying one or more dimensions of reality. In our time we might say that injustice is the result of pursuing a one-dimensional view of life, of deifying the economic sphere of life’ (p.579). Against this background the book reminds that: ‘doing justice is not just a moral principle…; rather it is phenomenological guideline that calls for implementation’ (p.580).

It is without doubt that wide-spread ecological knowledge of the situation nowadays contains an ethical and belief component. However, although outlining insights based on the Hebrew Scripture misses fuller inclusion of additional and enriching New Testament perspectives, which are mentioned only in a passing way.

The ambition of the book is high. If we want to address the difficulties which we are facing in a serious way the book reminds that: ‘nothing short of a system change will do. We need a transition from one way of life to another, from the deification of the economic sphere to the honouring of the multi-dimensional unity of life’ (p.734). In continuing an outline of what this system change would include, the author  does not hesitate to point out to conclusions not very often discussed in relation to possible forms of a sustainable society and pushes the discussion to new territories : ‘when it comes to finding alternative direction …. words like democracy, the rule of law, freedom of the press, the right to protest, dictatorship, censorship etc. do not mean much.‘ The aim is ‘participatory democracy on all levels, that is truly egalitarian and inclusive, promotes communally developed regulations, supports of restorative justice, and so on’ (p.735). This may seem to be indeed one of deep seated challenges in efforts of looking for ‘a third way.’ Tragic experience of former socialist countries, which in the name of ‘social equality’ slipped to undemocratic dictatorship should be taken as a warning and not forgotten.

The book is a plea against reducing life to a simple ideal in which more production of material goods is equalized with a happy vision of wellbeing and a new utopia.  As such the book offers a helpful summary of arguments for all those who are ready to take efforts for a sustainable future as something more than a rhetoric exercise. Addressing such a wide scope, cannot simply avoid certain imbalances. The book convincing in some of presented arguments indicates as well areas which require more attention. In spite of that the book overall is a helpful reference which raises questions and concerns, offers analyses and outlines elements, which should not be missed in efforts for a sustainable future. 

 

Peter Pavlovic

European Christian Environmental Network

Event date: 
Sun, 03/19/2017