What Is the Purpose of Society?

FEB. 11, 2015
Mark Bittman
The world of food and agriculture symbolizes most of what’s gone wrong in the United States. But because food is plentiful for most people, and the damage that conventional agriculture does isn’t readily evident to everyone, it’s important that we look deeper, beyond food, to the structure that underlies most decisions: the political economy.
Progressives are not thinking broadly or creatively enough. By failing to pressure Democrats to take strong stands on everything from environmental protection to gun control to income inequality, progressives allow the party to use populist rhetoric while making America safer for business than it is for Americans. No one seriously believes that Hillary Clinton will ever put the interests of  Main Street before those of her donors from Wall Street, do they? At least not unless she’s pushed, and hard.
It’s clear to most everyone, regardless of politics, that the big issues — labor, race, food,
immigration, education and so on — must be “fixed,” and that fixing any one of these will help with the others. But this kind of change must begin with an agreement about principles, specifically principles of human rights and well-being rather than principles of making a favorable business climate.
Shouldn’t adequate shelter, clothing, food and health care be universal? Isn’t everyone owed a society that works toward guaranteeing the well-being of its citizens? Shouldn’t we prioritize avoiding self-destruction?
Plenty of Democrats, even those who think of themselves as progressive, would not answer yes to those questions. Some would answer, “Don’t be naïve, that’s impossible,” and others would say, “All we need to provide is equal opportunity for all and let the market sort it out.” (To which I’d reply, “Talk about naïve!”) I’m fine
with disagreement, but I’m not fine with standard public questions like “How do we
create a better climate for business so it can provide more jobs?” Consider what this
implies about the purpose of people, to say nothing about the meaning of life. The
business of America should not be business, but well-being.
Think about it this way: There are two kinds of operating systems, hard and soft.
A clock is a hard system. We know what it’s for, we know when it isn’t working, and
we know that 10 clock experts would agree on how to fix it — and could do so.
Soft systems, like agriculture and economics, are more complex. We don’t all
agree on goals, and we don’t agree on whether things are working or in need of
repair. For example, is contemporary American agriculture a system for nourishing
people and providing a livelihood for farmers? Or is it one for denuding the nation’s
topsoil while poisoning land, water, workers and consumers and enriching
corporations? Our collective actions would indicate that our principles favor the
latter; that has to change.
Defining goals that matter to people is critical, because the most powerful way
to change a complex, soft system is to change its purpose. For example, if we had a
national agreement that food is not just a commodity, a way to make money, but
instead a way to nourish people and the planet and a means to safeguard our future,
we could begin to reconfigure the system for that purpose. More generally, if we
agreed that human well-being was a priority, creating more jobs would not ring so
Sadly, even if we did agree, complex systems are not subject to clever fixes.
Rather, changes often have unexpected results (that shouldn’t happen with a clock),
so change necessarily remains incremental. But without an agreement on goals,
without statements of purpose, we are going to continue to see changes that are not
in the interest of the majority. Increasingly, it’s corporations and not governments
that are determining how the world works. As unrepresentative as government
might seem right now, there is at least a chance of improving it, whereas
corporations will always act in their own interests.
It’s been adequately demonstrated that more than minor tweaks are needed to
improve life for most people. Let’s try to make sense of where the world is now
instead of relying on outdated doctrines like “capitalism” and “socialism” created by
people who had no idea what the 21st century would look like. Let’s ambitiously and publicly philosophize — as the conservatives do — and think about what shape a
sensible political economy might take.
The big ideas and strategies for how we should manage society and thrive with
the planet are not a set of rules handed down from on high. To develop them for now
and the future is a major challenge, and we — progressives and our allies — have to
work harder at it. No one is going to figure it out for us.

About MZR

I am a middle aged man trying to be the best person I can become, make a positive difference in our world, while trying to make sense of my life's journey.
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