Towards an Economy of the World-Ingrained Self

We do economy as if we were not part of the world. And in a terrifying sense, we are not. But accepting this means to abandon all hope that capitalism might be reformed or some other kind of economy might step in instead.

Many try to envision means to supplant or expand capitalism in order to reduce its harmful effects. Besides discussions on growth, monetary systems, taxation, there is one on “Basic Income” or “General Living Income”. Trying to revamp capitalism with a guaranteed “income” that without claim or justification provides the essential needs for everybody struggles with conceptual problems of how even to describe the allocation and its systemic position. One problem is that the concepts used stem from full-fledged capitalism itself and enshrine their negative connotations. An other is that within the given economic system those means cannot but cushion the worst consequences. They do not seem to have the potential to “transform” the system as a whole.

We need an economic system that not only provides but equally rests on mutual welfare. The reasons for this are manifold, and it seems fit to start with some observations, to “beat the neighbouring bushes”, as Wilfried Sellars once famously said. [1]


1. The Apartness

Suppose it were correct to say that Man is a part of Nature. In that case, everything that Man does onto Nature is something that Nature does onto herself. Are there, then, any ecological problems? Can it still be true, then, that Man is somehow estranged from Nature, and that this shows in how he harms Nature? Are then ecological catastrophes not likewise a sign or expression of closeness or unity of Man and Nature?

Seen that way it seems as if environmentally concerned people are more or less in the same conceptual boat as those accused of being devastators of Nature and her resources. And it is easy to see how both attitudes, besides bearing different morales, share the same view on how the connection of Nature and Man is to be conceived. Even environmentally concerned people, even those eager to secure and restore natural habitats, will say that Man destroys Nature or Man harms the environment. And this is only minimally different from saying that Nature provides Man with her resources for economic usability. In both cases we have a differentiation between Man on the one side and Nature, the environment, the biosphere, the World on the other.

We may sharpen the picture by saying that Man is here and the Nature, the World, or the environment, is there. It means to state a separation between Man, who is here, and Nature / World that is there. It also means that because Man is here and Nature is there, Nature is without Man and Man is without Nature. We reach the image of a distance, of an additional space between Man and Nature. This separation of Man and Nature with the additional space betwixt I call “apartness”.

We should bear in mind that this apartness figures in almost every thinking of the ecological avantgarde of the last 30 years as well. Whenever we even conceptually distinguish between Man (here) and World or Nature (there), we are in a situation in which Man is without World and the World is without Man. It shows e.g. in the talk of the “Planetary Other” of Terence McKenna or “Gaia” of James Lovelock. It appears as “Wilderness” of H.D. Thoreau or as “web of interconnectedness” of some Deep Ecology.

The Apartness seems to be a rather pervasive trait in western thought. Take e.g. theories of time. Their first gambits is always to distinguish between a sphere of experience here, inside Man, and a sphere of Time (proper) “out” there. But obviously such a gambit is not necessary if we take other concepts of time-ness into account that do not distinguish in that way. We may think of the Dreamtime of Australian Aborigines or Sacred times in other indigenous peoples that happen to go along without that differentiation.

In cosmologies that do not differentiate like western cosmologies between Man (here) and World (there), not only do we not find differences between time-experience vs. “objective” concepts of time, we find the interwoven-ness of Man and Nature in other aspects. It suffices to take two locally different examples. In the concept of the Songlines, we are told, the first ancestors walked the land and stopped from time to time in order to sing things into existence. With every step they took they said the name of thing, a being, a circumstance, and by calling their name they called them into existence. When today an Australian Aborigine walks such lines he calls those names at the correct places. With this he not only finds orientation in the landscape, but by repeating the name he re-calls the thing, the being, the circumstance. In doing so he takes care that these things, beings, circumstances stay in their being, remain existent. So if noone would go on Walk About, things would fall apart and the World would perish. Interestingly, something very similar seems to occur in the cosmology of the Diné (Navaho) : The ancestors walked across the land, stopped at peculiar places and called the things into being. Those places became holy sites where prayers and offerings are still given. Things are offered to keep things in being. [2]

So what we have as a distinguishing feature, in contrast to western conceptions, is that Man is in some way important to the World, that it is his obligation to fullfill certain tasks that keep the World / Nature in existence. Whether or not we believe in this, the contrast to western cosmologies is that Man is important to the well-being of the World. If humans stopped taking care of the land, if they stopped performing certain rituals, if they stopped being “stewards” of the world, Nature / World would vanish.

We in the West have difficulties to understand such descriptions literally. We at best understand them metaphorically and attach certain sentimental values to them. But as most indigenous people will insist, those phrases are meant literally, or at least dead serious. So how can we come to understand them properly? It seems to me that it is the pervasiveness of “our” Apartness that makes a literal understanding impossible. And the reasons are somewhat like the following.

The suggestion taken up by the examples of both the Australian Aborigines and the North-American Diné is that Man is important to the World, to Nature. Without him, Nature ceases to exist. And this contrasts sharply with the belief of even the most ardent environmentally concerned Westerner that Man is not important to the well-being of Nature / the World. Without Man Nature / World would not cease to exist. Quite the contrary. Nature / World would keep being what they are, even without Man. True, it would be a World without Man, but at least it would still be one. But in this we can come to recognize just the reverse of the aforementioned Apartness : In so far as Nature is not important to Man, in so far Man is not important to Nature / the World. As the relation between Man and Nature is essentially severed, there is no harm to Nature when Man is gone. Likewise, as the relation is at most arbitrary, Man is in the position to chose his relation to Nature – be it as an object of aesthetics, of sorrow, of eschatological panic, or as a reservoir of freebie resources for economic exploitation When Nature / World has become a screen onto which to project the desires of Man, it is only of minor importance what film it is that is projected. In both cases Nature is available to Man, inasmuch as Man is of less (or no) importance to Nature.

In the Apartness Nature / World is distinct from Man. They are, of course, also related to one another, and the nature and history of this relation is a long and difficult story to tell. But it seems important that the feeling of Apartness was never one of a thorough separation, but one that we always tried to partially revoke.

The history of this Apartness goes way back in time, but it is not necessary to trace its roots here. (Part of it are in Decartes with his distinction between res extensa and res cogitans (or, misleadingly, between matter and thought); in St. Augustine with his distinction between a space inside Man (the soul) in contrast to an outer world [3]; in the scholastic theory of angels and how they manage to interact with the empirical world; in the history of Protestantism and its concept of twofold predestination; in the mind-body problems in their western form.) More important is how the separation of Man and Nature has been spelled out. If Man is distinct and separated from Nature, then the qualities that characterize Man – e.g., intelligence, soul, dreams, sense, desire, responsibility, character, respect, honour, love, pain, etc. – cannot be qualities that apply or pertain to Nature as well. In consequence it means that in so far as Man posses such qualities, Nature or World lacks them. In so far as Man has a soul, meaning, beauty, Nature will lack these as well. It means that Nature / World is soulless in so far and because Man does have one. It also means that Nature has to be soulless and without its own “purpose” or “destiny” in order for Man to have these.

But when Man has all the qualities Nature lacks and Nature all those that Man lacks, the explanation of their seeming interrelation becomes difficult. It typically comes in two similar broad but at the same time insufficient versions. The first attempt is to describe Nature and her qualities by means of those that characterize Man : Nature has been seen as an additional person, with her own sense, soul, destiny. In this all her material aspects seem to vanish. In the second version Man is described in terms of Nature, i.e. he is described in terms of matter, causality, structures, patterns. In this Man’s decidedly human(e) aspects vanish. Whereas in the first version we arrive at a semi-religious conception wherein material peculiarities are no longer present, in the second Man ceases to exist in order for material aspects to prevail throughout. In the first version we lose Nature as we know it, in the second Man. (The typical version of the mind-body problem is a formulation of this conundrum.)

As the whole resolved into parts, some of which with soul, others without, and as it is Man who has determined which part has what qualities, the parts being Nature or belonging to Nature no longer have their own intrinsic values. They start to become visible and valuable only insofar as they become relevant to Man, i.e., relevant to his endeavours, actions, economic agendas. If they don’t have such relevancy they stay invisible.


2. The Illusion Of Sovereignty

Given this sketch of how all there is resolves into animated and inanimated parts, and how it is Man who ascribes such qualities to these parts, the question becomes pressing how such Apartness can be overcome. Or put differently, how the relation between Nature and Man is to be understood, when the theoretical separateness is confronted with the seeming empirical connectedness.

If the surrounding is something without any intrinsic value, but is something that can carry value when given by Man, economic activity may be understood as one famous way how the Self of Man acts upon and sees itself in the stuff it creates. The Self not only creates things that transport the meaning it imposes on them, the Self very much becomes the autonomous being it seemingly is by treating its surrounding as manipulable commodity or stuff. The consequence is not only that the objects in our vicinity cease to be neighbours and become mere things. The consequence is also that the Self will treat everything other than itself, even other human beings, as mere things. Other people become carriers of mentality and soul only in abstraction. They are, like the rest around the Self (here), part of the World / Nature (there), i.e. soulless stuff. It is no coincidence that we have the concepts of morality that forbid us explicitly to treat others like stuff or means; it’s no coincidence that our concept of evil is very much aligned to treating other humans as soulless things. These are conceptual reactions to a situation in which it is possible to treat people that way. But as the history of conquest and slavery, of minorities and of women teaches us, it was a gradual process from declaring a being inferior to Man to being something on a par and equal with him. Women became (more or less) equal to men, then it were some mammals. Most animals still do not are.

What we arrive at is a situation in which we not only have separated conceptually Man and Nature. We also attempt to reconcile both and bridge the hiatus, but in a way that leaves the conceptual distinctions in place while coming up with some uniting bond. First we separate both, then we try to re-connect without having the terms losing the meaning they acquired during the separation.

It is in this context that the models of craftsmanship, trade, and commerce have to be seen not only as a consequence of the Apartness of Man and Nature, as something that enables the reification and commodification of Nature. Far more it is one of the important means available to keep and explain Man and Nature both theoretically distinct while empirically connected.

At least since the French and the Scottish Enlightenment do we adhere to a concept of personality that makes the individual capacity to act the cornerstone of our morals and legal systems. (The influences of Protestantism should not be ignored, but can here be left aside.) We are individual agents, defined by our capacity to act individually as by our obligation to accept responsibility for the consequences. Interaction between people, be it in commerce, craft, politics, is based on the conception that two (or more) individuals, divided into such separate entities, interact, negotiate their agendas, coordinate and synchronize their desires and ambitions. We do not have a concept of a We other than an agglomeration of individual entities; we only came up with a concept of a company as juridical person thereby mimicking what has been thought a natural person is obliged and entitled to. But for every other form of We such as those constituted without boundaries, we simply lack a concept.

In that way the reification of the world is a precondition to keep a certain form or concept of ego and self alive. As the World has to be soulless in order for Man to have a soul, reifying and commodifying the World is a necessary vehicle to provide for our feeling humane as we do. As Nature lacks its own sense, as its resources lack their own voices and are out there only to carry all the possible sense and purpose we may find fit to impose on them, the reifying and commodifying of the sphere beyond our inner space does not stop with stuff and things but pertains to other people as well. We even need to treat others like stuff in order for us to feel alive as we do. In this terrible sense our economic systems cannot but treat people, resources, animals, cultures, habitats, the Commons etc. other than as soulless stuff. Exploitation in this sense is nothing less than a way to keep ourselves animated by the way of denying the same to others.

This reification and commodification has two consequences. The first is that a moral and legal system based on the concept of individuality and the mutual negotiation of agendas is just a temporary solution. It cannot treat people on a par and it does not want to. The second is that treating the outer world as a sphere without its own intrinsic value and purpose not only is a necessary condition for reifying and commodifying it, it is also a necessary condition for the expansion inside of our own self, to treat ourselves as stuff that can and should be optimized because it lacks its own purpose, value, destiny. Most of humanistic psychology, of esoteric, spirituality, healing and the quest for enlightenment should be seen that way.

The only way out, it may seem, is to find a concept that allows for that which is not us (our inner and our outer) to have its own sense, its own soul, its own value, purpose, destiny. But that means to give up the concept of a centred core, a centre of one’s self. It means to stop asking what value and purpose we might impose upon the things and on us, and to open up to the understanding of being incomplete without the other. It means to negate the concept of sovereignty and agency.


3. Problems in the Concept Of a “Basic Income”

There have been attempts to tame capitalism, to add to it some features and concepts in order to make it more humane and less antagonistic. Besides suggestions concerning taxes and interests, another one was that of a “Basic Income” or “Guaranteed Living Income”. These are discussed as means to alleviate pressure and strain on resources and on unemployed or underemployed workers, to acknowledge the work that is done (typically by women) without recognition and payment (like caregiving, childraising). The suggestion is that every person should be allocated a certain amount of money on a regular basis that provides for the “basic” or essential needs. It should be allocated and received without claim and without justification.

But terms like “Basic Income” seem to carry a rather negative connotation. [4] “Basic” seems to sound derogatory, and “welfare” too seems to be used to put people down, as it is seen as an “income” only the poorest get. But calling it an “income” is a dubious move as well. Some would deny the poorest on “welfare” to receive an “income” at all and rather call it a “handout” (allocated by the social security institutions of a state or community). The bitterness with which those who have work complain about having to fund those who seemingly live an easy life in the hammock or as welfare-queens are good evidence that “income” is still reserved for “earned” money, something one has to “work hard” for. The poor, on the other hand, receive a handout, something grudgingly given and ungratefully taken.

In fact, most living on social funding do work hard, do take responsibility, do comply to obligations. But their occupation is usually not what is called “work” proper. They don’t produce stuff that enters the value-money-retail-cycle at one point in time to end up on the fills at the other end. Think of caregiving in families; think of housekeeping, of all support work mostly done by women to keep a family going. Most of them don’t earn a wage for this work, and often, as other work is unattainable, they accept welfare knowing that they are despised for doing so.

In this situation discussions on “Basic Income” or “General Living Income” are in a conceptual trap. Both terms aim to express the regular allocation of a certain amount of money to every person regardless of whether the person does work in one or both of the above senses or even does not work at all. As “income” seems to invite conceptual problems that are no proper part of what the terms aim to achieve, the search for different terms that avoid mentioning “income” continues, and seems stubbornly resisting conceptualization.

One idea is to talk about a “share” or, in a broader sense, a “liveable share”. The term suggests that we all have a share or a stake in what surrounds us, the commons, the wealth of the society, etc. But “share” in the sense of “shareholder” slurs over our indebtedness to our surroundings, to our communities, to nature, even to the Commons. Of course, understood correctly, we may say that we “share” in a community in the sense that we have a certain right to its wealth, as well as we have a certain obligation, e.g. for stewardship, for returning the help we receive, etc. A “liveable share” in this sense would amount to two things : First, the indisputable and indisputed right of any person to have its essential needs taken care of and being supplied with the means without having to ask or justify it. Second, the moral obligation to give something in return, to participate in the stewardship of the Commons, in the strengthening of the social fabric, etc.

Still, I find the notion of a “share” or “livable share” rather narrow. It does not seem to be very different from any “support and challenge”-ideology we find at the bottom of every Victorian workhouse (that aims to punish the poor for their situation) and that has been a constant undercurrent in every social agenda and policy from the left to the right. In fact, it enshrines and conserves the very idolatry of work that is one of the main engines in this economic system that plunders the earth, people, species, cultures, alike.

Along such lines we don’t seem to make conceptual progress. Every pondering of notions that still happens to conserve the idolatry of work will not achieve a conception of “liveable share” that is considerate of the planet, the environment, the species, the Commons. It will always stay inside the frame of mitigating hand-outs.


4. The Self On Its Way Into the World

The situation may look slightly different once we take into account what we said about sovereignty in section 2. For various reasons the self or the person is construed as an entity that can act economically and juridically on its own. The self is an economic and juridical agent. All our civil laws, penal laws, commercial laws, and the penalties that come with them, rest on the concept that it is an individual person that takes action and has to take responsibility for it. Conversely, we do not have in our legal traditions many conceptions of how a We may take responsibility for its actions. At most, we either come to construe a We from basic individual selves whose interactions have to be legally arranged and balanced; or we come to treat agglomerations like companies as a kind of artificial, i.e. juridical person. A company may be liable to penalties up to the dissolution of the company, but usually it is specific people inside the organization who are paid to accept responsibility and liability we usually assume pertaining to the company itself. A We, in this sense, is an agglomeration of individual selves, or, at best, an artificial person. In both ways the We is modelled after the individual, after its capacity to act and the culpability that pertains to it. (Instead, the concept of the Self or the individual person should rather be “construed” by taking that of the We as base. [5])

As we saw in section 1, one of the premisses in this conception of personhood is that we are what separates us from Nature and (along the line of that) from others. As child psychology still seems to accept, the reason for the conflicts e.g. in the terrible twos is that the individuality of the child is said to be formed by differentiation and demarcation from others, mostly the parents. But of course, if this really were so, no child would even dare to enter the terrible twos. Donald Davidson once pointedly explained how there can be disagreements only on the basis of a huge majority of conjointly shared beliefs. Otherwise it would not be disagreement (or misconception) but incomprehension. [6] Likewise, a child can enter the terrible twos and the differentiation and demarcation that is said to come with it only when it feels that it is in a secure loving environment. Otherwise every “disagreement” would risk the loss of the parental devotion. So whatever the reasons for the terrible twos may be, the individualization of a person, its “coming to be herself” does not rest or rely on differentiation from others but on the acknowledgement and understanding what we (individually) have in common with others. We establish personhood not by differentiation but by accepting what we have in common, what we share. (A second-order understanding, so to speak.)

This may still leave room for the classical individual capacity to act, but it is no longer confined to what my interests are instead of yours, and how I can push through my agenda against yours. This still is possible. But likewise do we find that my ability to act, my willingness to act is not something that is primarily my private interest but an interest in which we cannot easily identify whether it is an individual and egoistic interest or an interest of a community that has taken form in the interest one individual person pursues. In this sense we can act as advocates for other beings’ interests without even having to know that we do so, simply because we may fail to identify with whom we identified in the first place that made the interest or the activity seemingly ours.

Still we don’t know how to act as a We – not as an agglomeration of individuals, but as a flock of birds, or like leaves rustling in the wind. We still have no way to conceptualize the We that is not a traditional economic partnership with mutual borders of interest, but the We we find in the case when we open up through love, when the borders dissolve. But we may have conceptual half-steps that may lead us to such a theory. One is to think of how to reach a concept of ecology that evades the Apartness of section 1, that allows for personhood “outside” a human self that at the same time is neither the projection of that human self nor a rendering of the outside as a second person.

So we would have to expand the context and the concepts. [7] We need a system of mutual welfare that is not confined to humans, but includes all other sentient beings, the earth, the environments, the cultures, the past and future, the generation long gone and still to come, that includes all these in a framework of welfare. I can not live well when my neighbours do not. And I cannot live well when the other sentient beings, when the earth, when the worlds in the past and the future do not live well. [8] And we need a system of mutual welfare that takes seriously and makes sense of the word “mutual”.

An image may be of some help. Imagine a very socially active person who permanently takes care for other people, who looks for their well-being, who takes responsibility for others. One day, facing burn-out, this person consults a therapist. And the therapist might ask: “And who is taking care of you? Who is responsible for you?” suggesting that the person herself should be it and do so at the expense of the care for others. But if we step away from the ideology of ego, we need to resist this suggestion. So the person might answer: “I hope someone else will take care of me, will have an eye on me, will take responsibility for me, as I am doing right now for all those other than myself.” The necessary step is to give ourselves over to others in order to be capable of being responsible for others at all. We mutually interchange our care, not only on the level of mutual activity but on the level of mutual incorporation and intermingleing of soul as well. We would not confine it to human beings in our neighbourhood, nor to our pets with which we live in a household. We would embrace the weather, the river, the trees, the woods, the land and the hills, the history and the stories, the remembrance and the joy … we would be advocates for all these in so far as we understand how they had always been caring for us, sustaining us, holding and cherishing us. To take care would be a way of understanding our connectedness and interwovenness.

The Commons (be it the material or the less material ones) seem to be a wrong way of thinking about our interwovenness, because the Commons only rarely allow us to think how we are indebted to them. The sense of indebtedness, the sense of understanding of what we as individuals have in common with each other just to make room for some differences through which we sometimes may shine, this sense is not far away from gratitude. The gratitude that arises from the understanding of our mutual welfare is one of the most precious forms we may understand how life has blessed us in that it allowed us to have it blossom inside us.

As long as we enshrine the concept of “work” and not the concept of “gratitude”, endeavours to find a better concept for what now goes under “income” will go astray. This is so because the initiatives for “Basic Income” or “General Living Income” think too much inside a system that does not and cannot allow for prosperity and generosity for which life stands. Our economic system is bound to the concept of work, to a concept of personhood that separates persons from one other (conceptually and in reality), and that relies on shortage and scarcity to keep the system running. It delays the consequences and the costs – be it in space (waste that is shipped to foreign shores) or in time (resources plundered that will be a problem for future generations). It shrinks possibilities in order to blank out what might be real. It is life outside balance, a travesty of the kind of life that is a perpetuation of balance. And that needs human beings to stay balanced.

In this sense, “mutual welfare” is a concept that demands much more sincerity in thought and responsibility in action than most of what we have thought an economy might provide for. It is what may come to our attention in the moment we stop thinking about how work itself can be redeemed. In fact, it’s work, not income, that proves hardest to be reconciled and be substituted with a proper term in all the discussions even on “Basic Income”.


[1] Wilfried Sellars, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind”, in: Wilfrid Sellars, Science, Perception and Reality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), pp. 127 – 196.
[2] We find this insistence on mutual dependency in order to strengthen a “communal body” likewise in the ritual year of the Hopi and the constitution of the Hausdenossaaunee. In the first, it is said that the several Hopi clans do not have the same set of “stories” but only deviating variants. They are decidedly incomplete and need the deliberation with other clans to give the full picture, to determine the proper sense and to refine the meaning of the prophecies. Likewise in the annual ritual cycle every clan contributes “his” rituals in order to complete the cycle. In the case of the Gayanashagowa, “The Great Law of Peace”, the constitution of the Haudenosaunee (Iroqouis) confederacy, the model of deliberation likewise seems to rely on the deliberate “incompleteness” of all nation’s contributions; only the sum of all can deliver a reasonable result. (Until the late Middle Ages even Western Europe had a concept of sacred topography, in which pilgrimage as well the the ecclesiastical year structured time and world particularly with regard to the delay of the Second Coming.)
[3] For a brief sketch of this innovation of St. Augustine see my A World Created Anew that is heavily indebted to the invaluable investigation of Phillip Cary, Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self (Oxford [et al.]: Oxford University Press, 2000).
[4] On those connotations and problems see C.A. L’Hirondelle, “What’s in a Name: Livable or Basic Income or ?” (August 6, 2012)
[5] On this see in particular my A Flock of Birds, but also the other posts mentioned in footnote 7.
[6] Donald Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme”, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 47, (1973 – 1974), pp. 5-20. Reprinted in: Donald Davidson, Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford [et al.]: Clarendon Press, ²2001, p. 183 – 198. | How shared beliefs pertain to knowledge, personhood, the difference between I and You, see my A Flock of Birds
[7] See my A Flock of Birds, The Karma of Places, A World Created Anew
[8] One of the demands in the model of deliberation of the Gayanashagowa is that decisions have to be made with an eye to the next seven generations to come.


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