How can we realise a holistic concept of prosperity for the many, not the few?

How can we realise a holistic concept of prosperity for all today? What will be private and what will be public goods, services, institutions but also responsibilities? How can we lead the profound transformations ahead of us – on climate, technology and on living together – and get those transformations right? Who will forge new alliances of responsibility? Audacity of initiative is what we now need.

This is the transcript of a lecture by Felwine Sarr which he gave on 27 November 2019 in Vienna. It is the fourth one in a series of Tipping Point Talks in 2019, ERSTE Foundation’s contribution to the 200th anniversary of the savings bank idea in Austria.


Good evening everyone. I am really very happy to be here and I would like to thank Boris and Verena for this wonderful invitation and for the very warm welcome they have extended to me. But I would also like to thank all those who have contributed to my being here, Ivan, Evelyne, etc.

The subject I am being asked to address is important to me as an economist. When I embraced this discipline many, many years ago at university, it was a choice guided by reason. I told myself that economics, or the area of economic science, was where a great deal of work was to be done, and at the time, and still today, the African continent was portrayed as a continent that was fundamentally in need of economic development, and economic issues were the focal point of attention. My ambition was, by learning this discipline, to make a small contribution toward improved well-being. Today, several years later, the question before us is: How can we achieve improved well-being and prosperity for as many people as possible? I would like to remind you just before I begin my remarks that it was the question of moral philosophy that the first economists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries originally posed, at a time when economics was not yet a separate discipline and was taught in the context of moral philosophy studies. People like John Stuart Mill and others have asked themselves how the economy, as a knowledge-based order, can contribute to the well-being of the greatest number of people.

Prosperity. A filmic essay
15′, NGF Geyrhalterfilm

Boris Marte, Deputy Chairman of the Board of ERSTE Foundation

Felwine Sarr: How can we realise a holistic concept of prosperity for the many, not the few?

Conversation on stage
Christoph Badelt, Austrian Institute for Economic Research (WIFO)
Nikolaus Griller, Young generation of the Federation of Austrian Industries
Sergiu Manea, Banca Comercială Română (BCR)
Shalini Randeria, Institute for Human Sciences (IWM)
Felwine Sarr, Gaston Berger University
Sigrid Stagl, Institute for Ecological Economics at WU Vienna
Ivan Vejvoda (Chair), Institute for Human Sciences (IWM)

I would like to start by pointing out that a crisis is in progress. First of all, what is this crisis we have identified? In other words the neo-liberal economy we are living in is in crisis, and the symptoms of these crises are inequalities, but above all the inability of most of the world to meet its basic needs within this system. The crisis is not so much related to episodes of financial crises (the 2008 crisis or the recurring crises we experience), but for me it is related to the fact that the economy as an order is not fulfilling its fundamental mission. The mission it had laid out for itself from the start was to contribute to increasing or ensuring the well-being of the greatest number of people.

We live in a world which is experiencing globalization and the globalization of trade, it is true, but when we look much closer at this globalization of trade, we realize that in fact one of its most important outcomes is the privatization of the yields from trade (with a minority reaping the benefits of trade) while the risks and costs have been mutualized. So when there is a cost, when there are risks, they are distributed across the greatest number of people. One of the manifestations of this system is, as we know, a very large ecological footprint, climate disruption, an ecological emergency, an era that has now become known as the Anthropocene – as the human impact on the biotope has become so great that it is affecting the biotope, and there are fears that this is irreversible.

This crisis is fundamentally a crisis of meaning, in other words it is an order that is no longer fundamentally meaningful, a crisis of purpose and a crisis that is reflected in the fact that technical orders, orders of expertise, have taken over orders of meaning and ethics. It is a crisis that is rooted in mechanistic cosmology and in a utilitarian vision dating back to the nineteenth century, which stems from an epistemology that had order, progress and rationality as its main focus. Here, I mean epistemology as Foucault meant it: the set of beliefs of an era. Each era has its beliefs and has a way of organizing its reality around those values and beliefs.


Felwine Sarr is Senegalese social scientist, writer and musician. He has been Professor of Economics at the Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis (Senegal) since 2009. His best-known work is Afrotopia, where he proposes an epistemic reinvention of Africa and a radical detachment from the continent‘s post-colonial past. In 2018 Sarr, together with the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, wrote a scientific report on the restitution of colonial art commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Photo: © Antoine Tempé

Anthropology shows us that human societies, all human societies, are based on a narrative, a founding narrative, and that they are based on a myth. In a way, this myth shapes people’s conception of the world and how it is organized. This myth establishes specific values and places them within a hierarchy. And often this narrative is conceptualized within a social and linguistic code that is internalized by all members of a group of people or a community. When any human community is formed, a code of symbols evolves that allows its members to think, to say, to experience reality in a relatively univocal manner. Modern societies, especially industrial societies in the West, are no exception to this rule. These societies have the need to legitimize their evolution. They need to legitimize their appropriation of the future through a narrative, through a mythology that reflects its cosmologies and societal ideologies.

We can consider the dominant economic discourse from this perspective; we can consider how it functions in industrial societies as an “ecomyth” that guarantees that the industrial social order will be upheld. This ecomyth underpins representations of the universe and society; this ecomyth legitimates institutions, it bolsters beliefs, it shapes ways of living and thinking that will allow for the organizing and arrangement of reality in accordance with the message initially provided by the narrative. So, if the narrative determines that the goal is well-being, growth, progress or equality, and these are its key concepts, then the goal of the myth – or the narrative, or the ecomyth – is to organize reality according to those beliefs.

Economic discourse has become this language, which ensures the establishment of this code of symbols, through which the group communicates, thinks and experiences reality. We are also witnessing a hegemony of economic order on the one hand, and a hegemony of economic discourse about our reality on the other. And this hegemony of economic discourse is so powerful that it actually manages to shroud reality; it manages to overlay over top of reality a discourse that is different from actual reality.

The myth is well-being, growth, progress, equality, which are the key concepts in this cosmology. When we look at the state of the world, we realize that these concepts are not what we see. And that this global economy, this system we live under, produces deep inequalities. This global economy is structured by capturing value-added and trade, and by redistributing the value added or the value that is produced throughout the world. But this global economy is based on an exchange that is structurally unequal, thereby producing an unequal distribution of value, an unequal distribution of knowledge and technological innovations. It is a system that facilitates unfair competition between markets and producers in different parts of the world; some subsidize their producers, their farmers, and at the same time erect trade and non-trade barriers, all while gaining easy access to the markets of others. It is a system that produces monopolies, rent-seeking, asymmetries and domination over entire segments of the global economy.

If we want a much fairer and more prosperous world, and prosperity for all, it is probably time to work towards much fairer rules for sharing global value-added. The WTO is the place to set forth those rules and to negotiate; it’s also the place to work to ensure that the rules of international trade… We learn in economics that trade is mutually beneficial and that nations have comparative advantages that they can bring to the table and that in exchange mutual gains can be achieved. That’s the theory. When we look at reality, we realize that these exchanges do not produce mutual gains, and that sometimes we are stuck in what resembles a zero-sum game where some win, some lose, and where the internal structures that govern these exchanges produce fundamental inequalities. So, this is a first area to focus on: working to ensure much fairer rules for sharing global value-added.

When we saw the film, which was very dreamlike and poetic, going beyond large-scale diversity, what I noticed was also the diversity of living standards. It was arresting and striking. And for me, it was an allegory of the world. It was very clear that this is a reality of our world. A second option is also to work towards a better distribution of wealth, towards greater global economic justice. In the same way, we could contribute, through various mechanisms, to financing sustainable, healthy, eco-responsible economic development in the most vulnerable areas, in what is known as the “Global South.” And we could do so resolutely and deliberately, understanding that we benefit from an asymmetrical system and that perhaps, if we want to shape the world, it is time to fundamentally redistribute wealth. And that ethics and global justice demand it. Perhaps it is not even solidarity that is required, but rather global justice, in other words, a demand for equity. […] We go to the Amazonian rainforest, where we find an ecosystem containing individuals who have control over their territory, who have nurtured an economic relationship that works. Are we to bring in an extractive industry, to disrupt the relationship between these individuals and their environment? And try to ensure that our economic approach is the only one in existence throughout the world. So, we must make space for a multiplicity of what I call “economic approaches”, relationships to the economic idea.

Photo: © ERSTE Foundation / APA-Fotoservice / Jacqueline Godany

Photo: © ERSTE Foundation / APA-Fotoservice / Jacqueline Godany

It is important to differentiate the discipline of economics or even economic science, which has become an order of knowledge, from economic practices that are ancient and that date back to origins of humanity and which are antecedents preceding the theoretical formalization of what has since become this order of knowledge. So economy, as we know, as a discipline, is an order of efficiency that strives for the optimal use of resources. There is a debate about formal and substantive definitions in the epistemology of economics. I won’t go into these debates, but it should just be noted that economics as an academic discipline is recent and is predated by economic activity in all human societies. And economic approaches, in other words economic activity, is an anthropological constant in all human societies. Human societies have not waited for an order of knowledge called economics to come about in order to cultivate relationships of an economic nature. Anthropology teaches us that all groups of humans within a geographic area – any group of humans that is in a specific geographic area with needs and resource constraints – develop an economy that is determined by this primary environment and its characteristics. Economics, and therefore economic practice, is therefore a situated response. It does not occur naturally: it is a social construct, in other words it is a socio-historical structure developed within a given context.

Gift economies have evolved, as we know, as well as reciprocal gift economies, economies of exchange that run the gamut from abundance to subsistence. In various contexts human history has produced several kinds of relationships to economic matters. And these represent an inexhaustible treasure trove of lessons to be learned if we want to rethink our economic model. I would add that there an economy cannot exist in a vacuum. All economic processes are embedded in a socio-cultural environment, and that economic activity is closely linked to individual and collective decision-making. The idea that I defend in Afrotopia is that the efficiency of an economic system is closely tied to how appropriate it is within its cultural context. And you can see where I’m going with this. We have a global economy that promotes the economic angle and at the same time wants to ignore the various cultural contexts. Cultural factors, as we know, influence economic performance. But also, economics itself, as a discipline, is a cultural process that sketches out a world view. The economy is not neutral; it does not have a neutral effect on our vision of the world. It also produces a spectrum of values that is specific and particular.

But if I come back to economics as a theory of human activity, the question that is often asked in the realm of economic science is: What determines human activity? How do individuals choose from various options? They have resource constraints and they have to choose. How do we choose collectively? We know that individual decision-making processes are strongly influenced by the individual’s cultural environment, which in turn more or less conditions their preferences and regulates their behavior. When we look at meeting basic needs like food, shelter, clothing, this leads to choices that are not only dictated by the available options, i.e. the quantity of goods and services on offer. The cultural matrix of individuals – which is made up of social conventions, religious beliefs (e.g. food prohibitions, dress codes), a culinary tradition, aesthetic conceptions, ethical prescriptions – acts to shape the desires, needs, of individuals, as well as the circumstances, including the time and place, of how these are met.

Economic anthropology tells us that savings behavior, all investment behavior and capital accumulation, as well as the logic and rationalities that govern consumption modes, are culturally determined. Examples abound. Herskovits, who has studied traditional African societies (the Yoruba or Tallensi in Ghana), has shown that these peoples consumed their food reserves liberally and in grand style between the end of the dry season and the beginning of the winter season. Rational thinking would have required them to keep those reserves for the lean season. Upon closer examination it was found that in fact, these behaviors were not due to an inability to anticipate the future on their part, but that they were dictated by cultural considerations that valued spending on rituals, ostentatious or prestige spending, and that imbued the act of consumption with a meaning that goes beyond the biological need to eat and a required caloric intake.

To sum up, regardless of geography, the various conceptions of individual and household economic management are not the result of happenstance. These conceptions are the result of different social evaluations of time, different social evaluations of work, leisure, cultural, social and religious obligations, and these are articulated in accordance with the amount of available resources, and they define the productivity and standard of living of individuals and communities. This reflection describes traditional societies in Africa, Asia, India and the Americas, but can also be applied to market economies. Despite the fact that these economic systems have changed, choice practices continue to be informed by the cultural matrix of social groups.

If we take our own economy, the world economy, the modern economy, as an example, we know that it came into being at the end of the eighteenth century in Western Europe. This subsystem has been theorized on and illuminated. There are four individuals at the heart of this process: Smith, Ricardo (a Scotsman, an Englishman), Marx, a German, and Jean-Baptiste Say, a Frenchman, to name but a few. Initially, their concerns focused on moral philosophy, with a subsequent shift from moral philosophy to political economics. The canonical works that established this discipline, in which the authors identified and described behavioral relationships between economic variables – such as one variable influencing another – were based on observations drawn from their geographic area, in other words from the geographical area of Europe.

At one point in economics, the question arose of the universality of behavioral relationships between the postulated variables and the axiomatic nature of choice. Could we extrapolate from the observations made in one geographical area that all the relationships between economic variables were the same everywhere? It’s like if you write a book on geology, and you observe the ground in Africa and you have records of the geological features of Africa, does that entitle you to say it’s a book on the geology of the entire world if you haven’t observed China, Europe, and Asia? It is a question that brings the theoretical and axiomatic contribution of economics back to its archaeology and historicity, to say that the relationships for which universality has been postulated have been observed within a given context, at a given time. And here, I am discussing the relationship between economics, geography and culture, to come back to the issue at hand.

Photo: © ERSTE Foundation / APA-Fotoservice / Jacqueline Godany

Photo: © ERSTE Foundation / APA-Fotoservice / Jacqueline Godany

Cultural presuppositions too, which economists inherit, because economists do not exist in a vacuum, are grounded in a culture, in a world view, influence their ability to explain the economic reality they observe, especially when it is embedded within an environment that is different from their own. And the cultural context of an economy is as much a matter of social organization as it is a matter of a system of thought. I will just take one hypothesis that is central to the discipline of economics, the so-called instrumental rationality hypothesis: the fact that agents are rational, and that agents optimize their choices according to their constraints. If you are a consumer, you will optimize your utility, your pleasure. If you are a producer or entrepreneur, you will optimize your profits according to your cost constraints. Homo œconomicus is the idea of saying that individuals first and foremost make rational choices among different options according to their constraints. But when we take a much closer look at economic choices, we realize that individuals obviously display optimistic behaviors, but also that fundamentally there are several rationalities at work when individuals make choices. There is not only optimistic rationality; there are other types of rationality as well. And the choices individuals make are not necessarily made freely. They can be choices subject to social constraints: Individuals can make choices that are not exclusively tied to satisfying their selfish and individual desires. There is a logic to giving, to reciprocity; there is a logic to emotion. There is the social psychology of the group that impacts the choices of individuals. Around 1975 Herbert Simon showed that even this rationality was limited by the amount of information available to us. The optimal choice could not be made since we did not have the full range of information available for each sequence of choices to enable us to make the best choice. Reducing the consumer or producer to a homo œconomicus means reducing the multiplicity of rationalities at work in the economic act and in economic activity.

I’ll quickly move on from the issue of culture and get back to the matter at hand. My first argument was to say that we can think about rules for sharing value-added that are much fairer. A redistribution of wealth and value-added can be envisaged on the basis of the principle of global economic justice. We can also tell ourselves that we are not obliged to work towards a “one-size-fits-all” world, but that we can leave space for several kinds of economic approaches that exist side-by-side in different territories. The rationalities at work are not necessarily the same, but they can allow individuals to meet their basic needs, and that history has produced this plurality of approaches.

For me the African continent provides a very interesting example, since Africa was not deeply involved in the industrial adventure of the twentieth century. It is the least “developed” continent economically. For me it represents an opportunity to reinvent new economic approaches that learn from the adventures and avoid the mistakes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and to return to the primary function of economics: to contribute to the well-being of the greatest number of people. In observing the African continent, what interests me is seeing the various economic approaches in practice, which are innovative, that can constitute avenues for rethinking the economy in a global way. These are economies that are mainly based on circularity and relational economics. I will come back to this notion of relational economy, which is not unique to Africa. In many parts of the world we find relational economics providing a framework for material economics. But I will come back to these notions of relational economics and material economics. But more importantly, the challenges that Africa faces at present and in the century to come, given its demographics, are currently pushing and will be pushing it to rethink central categories of the economy. Africa will have to rethink the category of work, the category of market exchanges, the category of production and will also push it to rethink the purpose of the economy.

So staying with Africa as a territory of exploration for me: When we look at contemporary or traditional African societies, we realize that the economic order is embedded in the respective socio-culture, that the economic is not a separate characteristic. It is not an order that is separate; it is an order that is part of a much larger social system and has characteristics of circularity and reciprocity. It is an order that fulfills or tries to fulfill its classical functions (subsistence, resource allocation, redistribution, production, value creation), but it is an order that is eminently subordinated to social ends, cultural ends, civilizational ends. The aim of the economy is not the economy; it is not mass production, it is not profit, it is ultimately to meet societal goals. Those who observe Africa have noticed that a so-called relational economy is at work there. And relational economics can be defined as an economy that is primarily based on the production of a relationship that is authentic, and the production of the relationship is itself a value.

Before producing a commercial exchange, a monetary exchange or a material exchange, the idea is to produce relationships between individuals – any kind of relationship. These relationships, positive or negative, that individuals can build among themselves and that they can perpetuate over time without any consideration of material interest, constitute the real underpinning of the material economy that comes subsequently. The relational fabric that is formed in this way acquires such quality and strength that it constitutes a value in and of itself. This relational fabric is capable of functioning outside the classical economic system.

When you carry out surveys across the continent and ask people’s incomes, you will find that many people have no income, have never worked, and have never had a paid contract. But as soon as they can be placed within the fabric of relationships, as soon as they are someone’s uncle, someone’s son, someone’s aunt, someone’s nephew, they are inside a network of resource and wealth redistribution. You may not have a pay slip, you may have activities, but you may have income and have savings, because you are a part of a relational fabric, and that relational fabric takes precedence over the material economy. To take a personal example, my own mother is a housewife, and as such, she has taken care of her children. She has never formally worked in her life; she has taken care of her family. She has never lacked for anything because she was part of a web of relationships that provided her with a certain type of income and has a saving capacity that even some of her children do not have. And when you do a survey and come and ask her about her income based on her pay slips, well, you’re going to classify her as being below the poverty line because she can’t provide you with a pay slip for more than $1.50 a day over a monthly period. But her reality is totally different because you are applying the wrong category.

This relational economy is the basis, in many of our societies, of a collective intelligence within a group. It can be a company, or a cooperative. It creates value-added and interacts with the material economy. The entire so-called informal economy is based on the interplay of relationships. In reality, it is not an informal economy; it is an economy that has been formalized, but formalized by codes other than the ones that characterize the traditional economy. In this so-called informal economy, we find unsecured lending transactions, since the relationship of trust has been established over the long term. These lending operations are based on a person giving their word, the value of their word. There are resource allocation functions, there are redistribution functions, which are linked to economic and social goals. The economic act is embedded in these societal goals; it is not separate.

There is one community that is very well known in Senegal, the Mouride brotherhood, which can illustrate the links between a relational economy and a material economy. In this Mouride community, which is a spiritual or religious brotherhood, there is a culture of work, of effort, but also a culture of commitment, of giving of oneself, of obedience to the prescriptions of the spiritual guide. The guide is capable of mobilizing a large workforce for various community works, such as developing a forty-five thousand hectare forest for agricultural production. Much of the economic interaction is based on the ties that bind community members together. We have here the example of a flourishing material economy, but also one whose main determinants are a relational economy. It is characterized by the existence of intra-brotherhood solidarity which makes it possible to perform economic operations while minimizing transaction costs.

This type of economy, found in many places in the world, found in many communities, minimizes transaction costs by producing a fabric of relationships, by producing social capital, by producing trust. And this trust, this social capital, is the value on which the material economy is based. In these economies, there are systems of compensatory remittances. You are a Mouride trader, and you go to the United States. You don’t need a bank loan. When you arrive, the community provides you with merchandise and financial resources. You start your business and when you start to flourish, you pay it back. We lend to you without any collateral since we know that you will be in the loop of giving and reciprocal giving and that you will pay it back. What makes you pay it back is based on a fabric of relationships that has been developed and built overtop other foundations. I’ll quickly move on from this idea of relational economics.

Beyond working towards greater equity in the economic system, beyond relying on a plurality of economic approaches or allowing them to coexist […], the last strand of thought I would like to discuss with you seems to me to be much more urgent to think about. This involves the possibility of reinventing the dominant global economy that we live in, operate in, are active, move in, and which tilts towards being, and most definitely is, absolutely hegemonic. One of the challenges of reinventing the global economy is to avoid what I call confusion of orders. It must be about being capable of, or working toward, assigning the economy its proper place, a place that allows it to fulfill its primary functions, or its original functions, which are to contribute to ensuring the well-being of the greatest number of people. Assigning the economy its proper role means preserving the spaces of the non-commercial economy; it means considering that in fact social exchange has a commercial dimension but that there are spaces that must remain free from commercial exchange. We need common spaces, spaces of non-commercial economy, non-private spaces, to ensure the well-being of the greatest number of people. Working to remove the economy from its central position and reassigning it to a more fitting place is one of these strands of thought.

Photo: © ERSTE Foundation / APA-Fotoservice / Jacqueline Godany

Photo: © ERSTE Foundation / APA-Fotoservice / Jacqueline Godany

A second strand which is extremely difficult but which many economists are currently working on is thinking about post-capitalism. Even though the great power of the economic system we live in is to have convinced us that there is no alternative, or if there is an alternative, that these alternatives are at the margins. And we don’t really see how these experiences at the margins could be brought into the center. This is one of the great strengths of the system, to establish it in a time that is a perpetual present and to establish it within the idea that the system we live in depicts the evolution of a primary economic approach that has been refined over time, that has been optimized. And it is like we are at a kind of pinnacle, in a kind of stasis, that we have supposedly reached a level of knowledge, a competence that is the ultimate stage in a long evolution of economic knowledge. Having reached this stage of evolution, we are not going to regress. And as soon as ancient history, or ancient cultures inspire an alternative approach, it appears as an archaic form, as a desire for regression.

What we forget is that this system was came into being at around the fifteenth century, and like any social construct, it has a date of birth, it has an adulthood, it has an old age, and it will disappear. It will done in by its own internal contradictions, and human groups will find other economic approaches, other ways of meeting their needs. Economists are already thinking about how to produce value when we no longer have a financial system, when we no longer have banks, when we have exhausted the planet’s resources. How are we going to do that? It is a prospective economy, but it is very serious, because it is obvious that the economy we are experiencing is not natural. It is a social fact, it is a construct. It is the outcome of a socio-historical dynamic. And if we look at it over the long term, well, human groups have been trying to meet their needs for a very long time and in various ways, and they will continue to do so.

So start thinking post-capitalist economics. All the more so because, as we know, the current system is unsustainable; it has a large ecological footprint. I will come back to this issue of ecology, which is absolutely central, and, moreover, it does not meet the needs of the greatest number of people. It provides for the needs of a minority and the costs of producing this system are sky high for everyone. Of course, there are ideas, as we know: Green economies, blue economies, purple economies. There is enough experience out there to tell us that there are alternative ways of producing, meeting needs and respecting the planet, and moving towards an ecological transition. The issue is not only intellectual and scientific, but also political. But it is also a societal issue, since it is linked to our imaginations and our relationship with the economy. It would take a great effort in the realm of our imaginations to be absolutely convinced that we have the means to produce a different system, a system that is efficient and has a just social purpose.

I will not go back over the IPCC reports, over everything we already know and everything that has been said and reiterated. For me, the conundrum is: Despite the knowledge we have of this situation, why does it seem that there are no dynamics of profound change at work? What is it that there seems to be a kind of dichotomy between the knowledge we have and the quality of political and social action based on that knowledge? Just take a look at this year: The Global Footprint Network, which focuses on these ecological footprint issues, says that since July 29, 2019 – it’s now November, so since the end of July – humanity has been living on credit. We have exhausted all the resources the Earth can produce in a year. As of July, we exhausted all the resources for our economic system, for our way of life. In order to continue to provide us with enough food, heat and mobility from July 2019 to the end of the year, we are overexploit ecosystems and their capacity to regenerate. This day, known as Earth Overshoot Day, has been reached earlier and earlier in the year in recent decades.

In 1961, not long ago, a quarter of the world’s resources had not been consumed by the end of the year. At the end of the year, we had consumed only a quarter of the resources we needed to live, to get around, to feed ourselves in 1961. Starting in 1970, we started to run a deficit and live on credit with the planet’s resources. Today, our consumption exceeds available resources by 70% and we need 1.7 planets to meet our current needs. Since the industrial revolution, as we know, we have been in an era known as the Anthropocene, where human activity has a significant impact on the ecosystem and has become, according to numerous scientists, the dominant, or major, ecological constraint. The negative impact of our action requires us to rethink our industrialization models, our consumption habits, our relationship with the environment. I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know. When we also reflect much more granularly on this question, we realize that our difficulties are linked to an ontology, to the way in which we have defined our existence in relation to the rest of the living world.

We are living in a modern age of great dichotomies: the dichotomy of body and mind, the division between nature and culture. We have an instrumental relationship to nature, which we have turned into a resource. Since we decided to be the masters and owners of nature, we have objectified the living world. Man, occupying a central position, has forgotten that his own ontology was a relational ontology, that he was not a being separate from the rest. He constructed this concept, this fiction, of separation, and like a third party excluded himself from the living world. The living has become an object instrumentalized for man’s own purposes. This conception of a non-relational ontology is the one that has led us to a relationship of exploitation of all living things and from which we find it difficult to escape today.

Rethinking our place in and our relationship with the living world is of course a philosophical and ontological challenge, but it is also a challenge to rethink the categories for assessing well-being. GDP has become a central category, but when we look at GDP, it does not take all the costs of production in account. It does not account for environmental costs, it does not account for social costs, it does not account for the work of individuals who stay at home, and so on. When companies post profits, these profits can be assessed, but we should also be able to assess the societal purpose of firms as well. In what way has the economic activity of a company, or economic activity in general, enhanced the capability of individuals, to borrow a concept from Amartya Sen? How has economic activity increased their freedom to do and be what they value? And how has economic activity contributed to well-being in a wider sense?

There is fundamental work to be done here, too, in order to move past the domination of economic categories regarding well-being in place since the eighteenth century. If we want to ensure the well-being of human communities, there is a plethora of intangible categories that are absolutely fundamental. When I come here, I am welcomed. There is conviviality, there is hospitality, and these contribute to my well-being; except that conviviality and hospitality are not included, are not assessed in GDP. None of the interpersonal qualities that contribute to my well-being are found in the GDP. The climate, the fact that it is nice, that there is a bright sunshine that contributes to my well-being, is not in the GDP. I can give you dozens of such examples. Suffice it to say that it is an absolutely statistical reduction and an abstraction of reality. In other words, what fundamentally contributes to the well-being of individuals goes beyond the economic sphere, with there being an predominance of economic criteria in this assessment.

So rethinking the categories of assessment, rethinking categories like work. If the demographers are to be believed, in 2100 there will be 4 billion Africans, 40% of the world’s population. The largest proportion of people aged 25-45 in the world will be in Africa. This means that the world’s youth will be African. Given this large number of people, it seems to me that salaried employment as we understand it today is more or less inconceivable, i.e. providing salaried employment in an office to all these individuals, to all these billions of individuals. So, that certainly means that we will have to rethink the category of labor, but we will also have to rethink the distribution of income between capital and labor, and we will even have to rethink remuneration. Because basically, when you look at it, it looks like we are being paid for our work, but it is actually that we are being paid for holding a job. If my company lays me off, I lose my income; if I receive unemployment benefits, I can make ends meet for a while, but the company is still paying for the job because someone else will come and take it.

And all the reflections on universal basic income and the philosophical foundations that consist in saying that people, that with all the wealth in the world, we are all co-heirs of a cognitive cultural heritage and that a person, by the simple fact of his or her humanity, should have access to resources to ensure his or her dignity. There are interesting experiments taking place in Denmark where you choose a neighborhood to distribute universal basic income. We realize that, yes, people take more time to find a job, but they find a job they like. It does not discourage them from looking for work. It does not make them lazy; that is not true. But it gives them much more freedom and choice in seeking a job that fulfills them. Therefore, these are ideas to pursue.

Rethinking the mechanisms of the economy: One of the dominant ideas is that competition leads to productivity. To some extent it does, since it forces various competitors to increase and optimize their capacities. But game theory has shown us in economics that in many cases cooperation produces equilibria that outperform the competitive equilibrium. And that in most competitive equilibria, we have Nash equilibria, equilibria that are less than ideal. And that in many cases, getting along, cooperating, achieves a much more optimal balance than competition. This form of economic social Darwinism, which does not hold water in the realm of biology, which is a poor translation of Darwin’s theory of evolution, well, we find it as a central category in the societal space, thinking that in fact we need competition to produce more and to produce better, which is not fundamentally true.

Photo: © ERSTE Foundation / APA-Fotoservice / Jacqueline Godany

Photo: © ERSTE Foundation / APA-Fotoservice / Jacqueline Godany

Enlarging the spaces of the non-commercial economy. All the work of Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel laureate, a few years ago on public goods, on commons, on the management of fishing wharves, on the management of co-ownership, shows that in between market mechanisms and the mechanisms of the regulatory state there are mechanisms of agreement, negotiation, cooperation, discussion, which achieve much more interesting results in most of the issues that interest us.

I come back to this story of how we can think about a post-capitalist horizon, and the difficulty of doing so, since the great difficulty is the fact that we are totally embedded this system and that we have a hard time looking at it from the outside or looking at it from a different point of view and achieving a reflective distance. That is always the case. We are not objects and subjects, which are separate from our objects. We are in the very space we are trying to shed light on at the very same time we are attempting to do so. But we could do it, we could do this work by building on what is already there, by relying on experiments already in existence, on utopias that are real and concrete in the here and now. It seems to me that one of the errors, when we think about the post-capitalist horizon, is to want to replace the capitalist system with an alternative, with a system that is just as all-encompassing and just as total. And since we don’t see this system as all-encompassing and as total, we feel that in fact the task is impossible, when in fact one could envisage eroding capitalism by building emancipatory alternatives in the spaces that fissures have opened up – because there are many. The markets have cracks, the system has flaws, and we could work in the gaps between those flaws.

This reflection on the post-capitalist horizon must obviously be connected to an analysis of the balance of power and the conditions of possibility in this new world. Today, the balance of power is unfavorable to those who want this new world to emerge. In an overall sense, it is. But we can evoke a notion which for me is very important and which is very fertile. It is the notion of real and concrete utopia. Utopia is a philosophical concept that is linked to the notion of a “different place.” It’s not a fantastical dream that will never come true. It’s an atopos, a place that’s not there. This utopia makes it possible for us to detect the spaces of the possible in reality, the spaces of potentiality. It enables us to say that this reality we are experiencing today, two months ago, was in the space of reality. It was an idea that Boris and Verena and the whole team came up with. A few months ago, it wasn’t a part of reality. But they found this space and they nurtured it with actions that made it happen today, at this time of shared presence, in our reality. It was a utopia a few months ago and today it has become reality. It was a space of reality that was waiting, that was there, and that awaited our dedication, our will, our actions to nurture it and make it happen in historical time.

This is what is absolutely fundamental: considering History as a space of potentialities. In fact, the history we are living in is an occurrence, not a necessity, and History is full of a plurality of potentialities. All uchronic fictions, all counterfactual History serves this purpose: They enable us to see the real in the shape of what it produces as reality, but also to see it in terms of potentialities. Miguel Abensour, who studied the question of utopia – he is a French philosopher who died last year – states that the search for a just and good political order is never-ending. This is the idea of saying: the reality that I’m experiencing does not suit me. It is unsatisfactory, but within the space of reality I have the potential to undertake a continuous search for an order that is much more just, an order that is much more equitable. Uchronic History helps us to embrace the tension between utopia and reality. When I evoke utopia, the idea is not to revive the globalizing totalitarian utopias of the twentieth century that led to tragedies. Rather the contribution of utopia is to reveal to us the malleability of our world – the world is malleable – and to envisage History as a space of potentialities, as a space of fertility.

We are here in a theater and I would like to conclude by stressing the importance of the imaginary in the process of creating the real. Cornelius Castoriadis wrote a magnificent work in which he shows that societies are first created in the imagination. So if we are unable to imagine a prosperous world, a world where the economy would provide for the well-being of the greatest number of people, we will have difficulty making it happen in the real world. And this imagination, this utopia, plays a fundamental role in the configuration of possible futures. The great difficulty of the future is that it is subject to minimal configuration. It often evolves in ways that we have not yet considered. But this does not prevent us from imbuing it with intentionality.

I would like to conclude with the following. These worlds, or these universes, or this reality, where the economic order that we have would contribute to a much greater fulfillment of people and would ensure that it would be reset in accordance with its initial, or even original, vision of contributing to the well-being of the greatest number of people, is an order that is possible, is an order that is conceivable. And I will add, at least for my part: I feel that this is an order that has already gotten underway, since a great many people in many places in the world have a heightened awareness of the need to make it happen, so that we can shape the world and ensure that the world is a place all of us can inhabit. Thank you for your kind attention.

This text is the transcript of a lecture which was held on the occasion of The ERSTE Foundation Tipping Point Talks 2019 in Vienna on 27 November 2019. Translation into English by Jill Kreuer.

This text is protected by copyright: © Felwine Sarr. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team. Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Felwine Sarr at The ERSTE Foundation Tipping Point Talks 2019. Photo: © ERSTE Foundation / APA-Fotoservice / Jacqueline Godany

The fourth Tipping Point Talk is realised in cooperation with überMorgen – Der Gesellschaftspolitische Diskurs, a project initiated by the Federation of Austrian Industries, the Red Cross and the support of ERSTE Foundation.

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