Book of the Week: The Economics of Abundance

Wolfgang Hoeschele. The Economics of Abundance: A Political Economy of Freedom, Equity, and Sustainability. Gower Publishing, 2010

This book is probably to expensive for averagely-earning individuals, but please urge your public library to obtain it, as it is a first thorough treatment of ‘abundance economics’. A central part of the P2P proposals is indeed to replace scarcity-engineering by abundance-engineering, in such a way as not to harm the biosphere and current and future human beings. This book covers these issues in detail.
(the book can be ordered here)

As Neal Gorenflo already explained in Shareable:

“The “economics of abundance” is based on a critique of our present economic system, which finds value only in scarce commodities – i.e., things which can be sold at a high price because demand exceeds supply. Because this economy depends on demand always outstripping supplies, it also depends on “scarcity-generating institutions” – institutions that either manipulate supply or demand in order to keep us in a constant state of need. An economy of abundance seeks to dismantle or reform these scarcity-generating institutions in such a way as to affirm our freedom to live life as art (self-expression to others), social equity (so that everyone can live life as art), and sustainability (so that all life can thrive into the future). Among other things, this implies a much greater role for various forms of shared property, individual and community-level self-reliance, and participatory decision-making.”

Author Wolfgang Hoeschele explains to us which parts should be of particular interest to P2P Foundation readers:

“The beginning of chapter 2 gives a brief discussion of what I mean with “scarcity-generating institutions.” The next several chapters are an in-depth treatment of this.

“The section “Wholeness and the art of living” in chapter 7 explains what I mean with art of living and why this offers a way forward; we’d obviously have to use only a part of this.

Chapters 8 and 9 provide my discussion of solutions. I call “contributory” are the ones which increase the more they are used, especially knowledge). Chapter 8 as a whole discusses what kinds of property rights are appropriate for what kinds of resources and resources uses, delineating all the different types of resource uses where common property is either the only alternative to open access, or where it is more appropriate than private or state property (a flow chart on p. 149 condenses a lot of this argument into one page). Since there are so many areas where common property needs to be further developed, I go into some of the management issues for common property in “Managing the Commons,” for example, by discussing water distribution systems.

In Chapter 9, I first define the “self” in self-reliance as somebody living in relationships to a larger community that supports life as art, I then discuss things such as land refom, community gardens, water harvesting, transport policies in favor of non-motorized mobility, creation of health-promoting environments, and local generation of renewable energy as self-reliant/cooperative production, and alternative currencies and the like as forms of equitable exchange. The chapter ends with a discussion of strategies for change, focusing on coalition building and a suggestion to establish “Abundance Arts Centers” that could help bring people together and create synergy among them.”

Wolfgang shares his motivation for writing the book:

“I’ve long been concerned about issues of sustainability, social equity, and freedom, and by the fact that our economy so consistently and irrationally discourages activities that promote any of those goals. What is more, orthodox economics reinforces rather than opposing those tendencies, and is so unresponsive to the findings of other disciplines (in the social and natural sciences, in the humanities and philosophy) that it has been labeled as “autistic.” But how can one pierce into a self-referential system that never seems to pay attention when people in other walks of life find it destructive of all they hold dear?

One sleepless night, I came across one key by thinking of “scarcity-generating institutions.” While many others have pointed out that the creation of needs is necessary for continued capitalist growth, I haven’t come across anybody writing about this in terms of institutions which have, as one of their main functions, the task of creating scarcity as a means for profit. If one can convincingly argue that the modern capitalist economy is largely about creating scarcity rather than creating abundance or some kind of satisfaction, then one can shake mainstream economics at its very core, at its claim to be the science of the allocation of scarce resources. Instead, one can expose it as being the science of the profitable allocation of scarcity. That opens the door to inquiring how we can create greater abundance instead.

Only after I had been exploring the idea of scarcity-generating institutions for some months did I come across the second key in the form of life as art. This key addresses the apparently common-sense response by economists to many critiques – “but don’t we all want more?” All the conventional critiques of capitalist economics, whether they come from a religious or a socialist or an environmentalist angle, demand of us that we give up at least some of our freedoms. As a result, all of these criticisms can be very restrictive and even deadening. Any critique, in order to be viable, must show how it can liberate us – “us” meaning not “just” the poor and oppressed, but all of us – from imposed constraints. While scarcity-generating institutions can be shown to impact all of us in negative ways, there’s a need for a positive vision that shows how we can live better, how we can thrive and enjoy life, in a way that is not a race to always get more. And this is where life as art comes in: life as self-expression to others, based in relationships that connect every unique self with everyone else in the world, an endeavor that does not require ever-increasing consumption of resources in order to sustain itself.

Once we recognize the empowerment of all people to live life as art as our ultimate social goal, we can inquire how each and every social institution, ranging from the family to the United Nations, can better enable all the people it affects to live life as art. We can then define “abundance” as the condition when all people, now and in the future, are enabled to live life as art, and when other life forms can likewise thrive. We then have a goal to work for, giving us decision-making criteria we need in order to invent, select and improve the means toward reaching that goal.

My book is an elaboration of these core ideas – seeking to find ways out of scarcity and toward abundance.”

We conclude today’s presentation of the book with an excerpt from the introduction, on ‘oppressive scarcities’:

Wolfgang Hoeschele, Is There an Alternative? (pp. 14-16)

“In light of considerations such as these, there is a widespread belief that “there is no alternative” to the capitalist system; there is even an acronym for this phrase (TINA). In other words, people believe that there is no freedom of choice about how we are to organize our economy and society. At the same time, growing numbers of people around the world recognize that this same system may spell our doom because it destroys the resources needed to sustain a population of billions of human beings. “Realism” indicates that only minor tinkering with the system is feasible; at the same time, a different kind of realism tells us that this tinkering is ridiculously inadequate. For example, the Kyoto Protocol is claimed to be at one and the same time the best agreement that world leaders could possibly achieve to attempt to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and a far cry from what would be necessary in order to actually stop further global warming. We face the predicament that “realistic” action is insufficient to ward off real dangers, and is implicitly based on the wishful thinking that the problem (including the potential for massive population collapse and ecological destruction) will just go away if we ignore it long enough. Actions sufficient to prevent the real dangers, meanwhile, are considered utopian, because people would not accept the reimposition of scarcities that they believe we have long overcome.

In this book, I argue that it is possible to overcome this yawning chasm between realisms, that it is possible to work toward individual freedom, social justice, and ecological sustainability all at the same time, if we fundamentally reconceive our notions of scarcity and abundance, thereby creating a new approach to studying human needs and wants and their fulfillment, and applying the insights of that study to our actions. In this project, I build on a wide range of literature in the social sciences—after all, people have been criticizing capitalism ever since it emerged, and various among them have pointed out how scarcity is consciously created by at least some capitalist institutions (examples include Illich 1974, 1975; Harvey 1974; Lappé and Collins 1977; Gorz 1989, 1999; Xenos 1989; Yapa 1993, 2002; Korten 1995, 1999; Lietaer 1999; Loy 2002, 2006; and May and Sell 2006). There are also numerous books seeking to establish economic principles for a sustainable and socially just society (examples include Gibson-Graham 1996, 2006; Korten 1999; Daly and Farley 2004; and Porritt 2005). Yet more people have been working at integrating economics with other social sciences more effectively (see, for example, Söderbaum 2008; Nelson 1996). Organizations such as the Institute of Green Economics and the US Solidarity Economy Network are working to connect people who can convert these ideas into reality, and are fostering research to help build alternatives from the ground up. Without the work of these and many other people, I would not have been able to write this book.

However, to my knowledge, no book has been published that uses a systematic critique of the economic concept of scarcity as a window on the entire political economy of today, and as a basis for constructing alternatives that point the way beyond our current social and ecological impasse.10 I attempt to do this first by analyzing how scarcity-generating institutions work (Part I: “The Production of Scarcity”) and then exploring ways in which we can work toward greater abundance (Part II: “Paths Toward Abundance”). Part I moves from modes of scarcity generation that depend on the outright denial of choice and social advancement (Chapter 2: “Oppressive Scarcities”), to modes that constrain choice and thereby help to expropriate people of the products of their labor (Chapter 3: “Exploitative Scarcities”), to modes that create scarcity by manipulating people’s choices so as to increase demand (Chapter 4: “The Creation of Needs”). This is followed by discussions of how multiple scarcitygenerating institutions work together (Chapter 5: “A Global Geography of Scarcity”) and of institutions that ensure that most people play by the rules that favor only an elite few (Chapter 6: “Systems of Control”). Part II opens with a philosophy of living that can serve as the basis for an economics of abundance (Chapter 7: “The Art of Living”) followed by discussions of property rights (Chapter 8: “Resource Use Rights”) and of strategies to promote individual and community-level self-reliance and cooperation (Chapter 9: Reclaiming Self- Reliance and Cooperation”) in support of that philosophy.

Oppressive Scarcities (pp. 19-20)

“The discussion in Chapter 1 claims that needs and wants can be consciously generated in order to create profitable scarcities. However, it is important to go beyond such general claims and systematically examine the various methods of scarcity generation. Scarcity, we must remember, is the condition when available goods do not meet current demands. There are basically three ways in which scarcity can be generated. First, the total amount of a good or service can be reduced. For example, the expansion of market activities may reduce the amount of goods provided by nature (such as clean air) or by nonmarket mechanisms (for example, self-provisioning of food, free exchange of knowledge), or those that result from the absence of commercial activities (such as silence and open space). Second, barriers can be placed between people and a good. Of potentially many ways to obtain that good, only one or a few may be left available, leading to the creation of a bottleneck. People can be made to pay in various ways for taking goods through the bottleneck. An example of this mechanism is the elimination of diverse forms of movement to the point that “mobility” is reduced to the use of a privately owned car. Monopolies also fit into this category of scarcity generation—a particular good is available, but must be purchased from a single seller. Third, new wants or needs can be created, or existing ones modified, so that demand for a commodity exceeds supply—for example, by means of advertising, ideological indoctrination, or legal standards. All three basic mechanisms not only increase scarcity, but also curtail freedom by forcing increased expenditures on people and reducing available options of how to satisfy their needs.

Throughout history, we can conceive of social power as having been based in part on the construction of scarcity, but the methods of producing scarcity have continuously changed as a result of changing social circumstances, new technologies, and differing natural environments. Every historical period is characterized not only by varying combinations of methods to create scarcity, but also by specific ways of institutionalizing these methods—that is, its own scarcity-generating institutions. In this chapter, I begin the discussion with several such institutions which are normally considered neither economic nor modern, but which continue to persist and interact with modern economic institutions. Any attempt to avoid the scarcities invented in modern times should also avoid the scarcities created by these older institutions—romanticizing the past will not lead us forward. What these institutions have in common is that they explicitly prohibit people from engaging in certain types of behavior or expressing deviant thoughts, often based on the “station in life” into which they were born. In a word, they oppress.”

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