The ethics and politics of abundance


While there is no “politics of abundance,” no theory of the State, there does exist the possibility of living in accordance with an ethic of abundance, an ethic that contributes to emancipation from scarcity and uncertainty.

Until recently, the words “progress” and “progressive” reflected a relationship with concretely making abundance. “Progress” was that which advanced us on the path towards a society of abundance, and “progressive” that which drove that development. If “progress” was associated with a set of policies, “progressivism” was an ethic, a way of being that presaged a new culture and human experience. Progress was what opened factories or what led a country to leave the the regime feudal behind and modernize. Progressive was defending universal suffrage, women’s equality, or universal schooling. The whole Left and a part of the Right—classical liberals and industrialists—were considered progressive. The opposite of progressive was “reactionary,” the word that defined those who longed for the world before the French Revolution: Carlists [royalists], clerics. Soon, in practice, it became an insult.

picasso, aragon, etc con stalinBut if it was pretty clear in the 19th century what “progress” meant, shamefully, those who made the most use of the term in the twentieth century were doing so from a strategy that was concrete… and wrong. For them, there was a shortcut towards abundance: state capitalism. In practice, from the ’30s to the ’80s, because of the influence of the Communist Parties, everything that gives more powers to the State or puts more and more parts of social life under its control and guardianship is considered “progressive.” This equates progressive with statist, and nationalism and “struggles for national liberation” are legitimized independent of whether or not they serve development. Only in the ’70s, when the Left starts to incorporate feminist demands, does “progressive” start to gain nuances that are favorable to personal freedoms and sovereignty over one’s own body, which will be expanded in the ’80s to include early environmentalism. With the collapse of the totalitarian States in the Soviet orbit, and with them, the Communist Parties that were affiliated with them, “progress” and “progressive” were blurred definitively. It went to describe more of a “who,” a social group defined aesthetically, than a “what.” With the new century, the destruction of meanings reached the point of including in the term the partisans of degrowth, the radical opposite of abundance.

How progress got away from progressivism

An example of how “progressivism” distanced itself from progress at the turn of the century is the debate on intellectual property. Since the ’30s, an essential part of the positions of the pro-Soviet Communist Parties in Western Europe was representing themselves as a “front of the forces of work and culture.” In practice, the inclusion of intellectuals meant defending all manner of State rents for artistic creation: subsidized culture, but also a reinforced copyright system. The argument for this was purely conventional: State monopolies for creation and invention would favor innovation and therefore “progress,” since the consequent development of productivity would bring us closer, step by step, to abundance. But the emergence of distributed networks will demonstrate the opposite. This will be obvious even for academics, when, beginning in 2000, Boldrin and Levine’s theoretical models first and Heidi Williams’ empirical evidence about the effects of patents later make it clear that in the world we live in, intellectual property only serves to create shortages artificially.

edificio solarGenerally, everything about centralization or monopoly means rents. And by now, we know that abundance is fed by distributed networks and the dissipation of rents. The famous “progressive policies,” today, would be practically the opposite of the traditional ones from the “progressives” of Left and Right: rather than feeding rents, reinforcing monopolies and building larger business scales and reinforced national identities, which is to say, rather than create scarcity artificially, they would be about removing obstacles to abundance. Progressivism today would take devolucion seriously, work for a distributed electrical system, confront State rents and the regulations custom-made for big businesses… and of course, pursue freedom of movement for everyone throughout the world.

Because the truth is that, as in days gone by, possible “progressive measures” exist, but not a “politics of abundance,” a certain way of understanding the State and society’s relationship to it, that make it possible to turn it into an tool of development, thanks to a well-defined ideology. In reality, only concrete measures exist, derived relatively easily from economic analysis, that would seek to avoid having its regulatory power became a brake on social transformation.

Abundance as an ethic of knowledge and emancipation

Propaganda-style posterThat’s why, more than developing a political theory, accepting the logic and the objective of abundance asks us look deeper into its consequences from the ethical point of view.

The starting point should be establishing that if abundance can appear as an attainable objective in History, it is through the development and extension of knowledge. Every ethic of abundance, and by extension every emancipating ethic, must revolve around it.

Such an ethic cannot be predatory or individualist, because is not Nature or others we are trying to free ourselves from, because we’re part of a common metabolism, but from scarcity. It is scarcity that introduces uncertainty in our life and forces us to know, and to know, as Dewey said, “effectively.” That’s why knowledge is both the result and the main tool of the human experience and that’s why an ethic of knowledge is also a life ethic, a way of being that express the desire and the enjoyment of living.

But knowledge—and especially social knowledge—is a community act, a distillation that exists in the framework of an experience and contexts that are not, in themselves, universal. An ethic of abundance is a community ethic, oriented to shaping the real community and understanding it not as a constriction of the individual, but as the essential condition of their own development. Because, as the cyberpunks said, “life is a package deal,” a unique thing, a necessarily transformative activity.

And that means two things: the most obvious is that there is no such thing as “living time” differentiated from and opposed to “working time.” Work, transformative activity, is knowledge in action and the action of creating knowledge—theory and practice that are aware of each other. An ethic of abundance is a work ethic motivated by knowledge. The view of work as subjugation, as slavery, is the result of alienation, a separation of ourselves into arbitrary parts, which should not be tolerated, but overcome by providing meaning through making and changing the conditions we live in.

Secondly, it implies that, given that both work and knowledge are community deeds, the essential freedom of the individual is not a impossible “individuality” affirmed at the cost of, or to the exclusion of others, but the freedom to leave any community that does not satisfy us, to create new ones, or to participate in as many as may want to accept us; and also, the freedom to access and use knowledge without obstacles or tolls. Beyond any political or economic arguments, restrictions on the access to and use of knowledge are detestable because they deny the very heart of individual freedom. Said with even more clarity: intellectual property is immoral in itself.

villa locomunaAnd while from this, not only can ethical legitimacy be derived, but the desirability of the greatest community diversity—as long as communities are not coercive and permit members to leave with the greatest ease—it also leads to an understanding of why an ethic of abundance does not look to the State as the main subject of the collective. If knowledge is a community act, and it is, it does not make sense to ask any external entity to do the things we want or provide us with what we need, because we would be depriving ourselves of the experience of making them, which, from the point of view of knowledge, is often as important as the things themselves. Freedom is the possibility of making them ourselves and if it makes sense to demand anything, it would be the withdrawal of obstacles of any kind that prevent us from communally building the tools of change.

Work, which is what we call effective knowledge in action, is the only transcendent possibility for the human race and for the individual. In the human race, it is the thread that unites History and Nature, making abundance possible. As individuals, the only way that we have of transcend our main limitation, death, is to develop that which unites us with Nature through the rest of the species: knowledge. Knowledge that is created or transmitted is, therefore, the true “soul of the human race,” and the only legacy that we can leave as individuals.

ComplicidadThat is why the centrality of possession, “having” things individually and exclusively, can only be seen and felt as another form of alienation, of separation from what’s truly important in life.

Consumption, in such an ethic, is not in itself “bad,” “immoral,” or “unfair,” but simply necessary, if it is significant, if contributes genuine enjoyment to each. Or, it may be unnecessary, incomprehensible, and alienated, if it is not carried out for enjoyment, but as part of social climbing, or as status symbols or markers of belonging. So, yes, by the same logic, it would be immoral to limit the consumption of others, ignoring their tastes and preferences, in the name of certain values. An ethic of abundance sees consumerist behavior as an erroneous substitution, a mistaken response to the loss of meaning in work or one’s community development. It does not, however, see it as something morally bad in itself and rather would respond with classic minimalist “why do you want to have more needs?” A life oriented to the construction of abundance, an interesting life, cannot be based on deprivation or the desire to deprive others. That is a life in poverty, and a life in poverty ends up being a poor life.

And in the same way, a good environment is not an opulent life, but the communal “good life” that, as Juan Urrutia says, “has more to do with the self-realization of the members that make it up that with their material wealth.”


Such an ethic is not a chimera or a luxury reserved for a few. While a “politics of abundance,” a theory of the state, doesn’t exist, there does exist the possibility of living in accordance with an ethic of abundance. The ethics of abundance is an ethic of emancipation, because it seeks serve us by emancipating us from scarcity and uncertainty. It is therefore an ethic of knowledge which values the communal, an ethic which reduces transcendence to contribution, and which is expressed in a “good life” that blurs the difference between time for enjoyment and working time into a significant total time, which is creative and pleasant.

Translation by Steve Herrick from the original (in Spanish)

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