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.