Wendell Berry and the Great Economy

Place. Limits. Liberty.

[…] Berry is right to use soil as the example, since peak soil rather than peak oil may turn out to be our greatest problem. We can learn to do without oil, but not without soil. Topsoil is disappearing at an alarming rate, and not being replaced; the law of return is being violated. Further, the soil that remains is being poisoned with toxic chemicals, which then leach into the groundwater. Indeed, some forms of industrial farming use soil only as something to hold the roots and not as a real source of life or nutrients; they would replace it with styrofoam or some other dead substance if they could. This violation of the law of return means that “[t]he industrial economy is based on invasion and pillage of the Great Economy.”

This pillage reduces the Great Economy to “raw materials” which have only a price, not a principle that needs to be conserved. The price is set by the cult of competition, whose main sentimental tenet is that greed is sufficient to produce the good, merely by producing the goods. Within this cult, every transaction involves a winner and loser. But competition, elevated to the status of a cult, does not result in the common good. Inevitably, the class of winners narrows and that of losers widens. The winners are not only so in the economic realm, but in the political realm, where they are able to obtain more and more privileges and subsidies for themselves. Such a cult can only lead to dominance by the strongest. Not indeed, the “strongest” in the moral sense, but purely in the economic sense.

Communities cannot survive the cult of competition:

The great fault of this approach to things is that it is so drastically reductive; it does not permit us to live and work as human beings, as the best of our inheritance defines us. Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the law of justice and mercy.

Global economy seeks only to make things where they are cheapest and sell them where they are dearest. But this divorces producers and consumers and means that there can be no responsibility. Only the community can care for its environment, and for its young. For the community that merely exports its natural resources to someone else will end up exporting its young. The first thing a community must do is protect its productive capacity. The economy must look first to local needs, and only then, and from its surplus, to export. It does not import what it can make for itself. But we have reached the state where we cannot actually make anything for ourselves, where we cannot supply our own necessities. If we needed shoes, for example, we no longer have the means to make them. “’Outsourcing’ the manufacture of frivolities is at least partly frivolous; outsourcing the manufacture of necessities is entirely foolish.” The local economy is built on neighborhood and subsistence, and neighborliness requires that we export only after we have met the needs of the community’s subsistence…

Two points are relevant here. The first is that in the 19th century, “political economy” tried to remake itself into the “physical” or “deductive” science of “economics.” But clearly, economics is neither a physical nor a deductive science; it is a practical, humane science, one that deals with the human relationships that are necessary for the material provisioning of society. As a humane science, it is subject to higher sciences of human relationships—psychology, sociology, politics, philosophy, and ultimately theology—and these sciences all culminate in a study of justice, which is the natural standard of human relationships, and in love, which is the supernatural standard. Economics cannot divorce itself from these terms and still remain a science.

And in fact it doesn’t. In fact, economics has become a totalizing system claiming the power to explain all things. It is as much a religious system—by another name—as is Berry’s Great Economy. It is a substitute religion with its own creed and its own myth. Its creed underlies all things and its myth, like all myths, explains all things. The central tenet of its creed is that all things are private property—even life forms—have price, and are for sale. Its myth is that given enough time, the market will correctly price all things and provide all with liberty (usually undefined or inadequately defined), and that justice will prevail. This is the sentimental capitalism that justifies all current difficulties in the name of ultimate justice, but a justice that is always deferred to the future. Here sentimental capitalism shares its myth with sentimental communism, which is always justifying the present horrors of the gulag in the name of the ultimate—but always deferred—victory of the proletariat…

Article here.