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Research paper topic: Democratic Ecohumanism, Market Civilization - 1376 words
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Democratic Eco-Humanism, Market Civilization In an effort to dramatize his neo-Polanyian critique of neo-liberal global capitalism, Stephen Gill questions the tenability of his own term market civilization, proposing it as oxymoronic in that a market civilization qua the neo-liberal order contradicts Gill's view of civilization qua democratic eco-humanism (i.e. representation, civility, social well-being and inclusion). In this formation, Gill's argument is essentially circular in its reliance on his own subjective standard of civilization, (democratic eco-humanism), to prove the uncivilized nature of the neo-liberal order. By adopting a more objective, (and necessarily more general), definition of civilization, we can disband with Gill's tautology, allowing us to embrace the term market civilization as a precise definition of neo-liberal global capitalism. In doing so, however, we merely adjust Gill's propensity for grandiose formulations; what remains is his well-reasoned explication of the inherent contradictions of neo-liberalism, an explication that underscores the ways in which Anglo-American neo-liberalism departs from a certain aesthetic of civilization as democratic eco-humanism.
Though he fails to prove the system uncivilized in the broad sense, Gill's arguments make a strong case for the rise of a Polanyian double movement that would address the critical excesses of the neo-liberal order. To understand Gill's claim about the oxymoronic nature of market civilization, one must understand the differences between the two relevant definitions of civilization. In Gill's words: civilization implies not only a pattern of society (def. 1) but also an active historical process that fosters a more humanized, literate and civil way of life, involving social well-being on a broad and inclusive basis (def. 2).
(Gill, 422) Gill's claim regards only the second definition, a version of which the American Heritage Dictionary pictures as: An advanced state of intellectual, cultural, and material development, progress in the arts and sciences, the extensive use of writing, and the appearance of complex political and social institutions.(American Heritage) Though Gill's version of civilization mirrors closely the story told by the dictionary, both claims about the parameters of civilization are so problematically subjective as to add little or nothing to Gill's analysis of neo-liberalism. The fallacy of both definitions of civilization is rooted in a subjective set of truth claims masked in an ethos of democratic eco-humanism that is as guilty of attempting to proclaim the end of history as neo-liberalism itself. The embedded nature of these claims makes them initially hard to penetrate; broader political participation, literacy, civility and wealth distribution all function in a sort of Hegelian determinism where humanity appears to be progressing towards ever-deeper understanding of civilization qua democratic eco-humanism. And yet this very determinism, though perhaps satisfying in that it situates Gill's rejection of neo-liberalism within a certain sociopolitical philosophical system, dissolves when outside Gill's limited context. In other words, what does Gill's definition allow us to make of past civilizations like the Romans, where a slave class existed, the Hebrews, where religious tolerance was subsumed under a telos of religiopolitical election, or the Mayans, where the state sanctioned human sacrifice? To claim that these civilizations were mere stepping-stones to our more enlightened version of civilization is to refuse to treat their participants as self-conscious agents and to lapse into cultural chauvinism.
Gill's subjective aesthetic of civilization is equally problematic if we turn our eyes in the other direction. What effect will artificial intelligence and the creation of cyborgs have on Gill's definition of democratic eco-humanism? Will these new beings be included in the franchise? Will the depletion of natural resources create a future civilization where it is more humane to denude the earth in order to save humans? Even with the neo-liberal straw man as a foil, Gill's idea of civilization rings hollow; after all, while one ideological pole would have us include plants as neo-sentient beings deserving representation in society, another would proclaim human dominion of the earth (a la Genesis 2) as the paradigm for rational human interaction with the planet. Where Thoreau might call a cabin in the wood civilized, Donald Trump sees a new apartment building. Though we can prefer one model to the other on a subjectively aesthetic basis, it seems artificial and indeed impossible to create a salient line of progress that could possibly reconcile drastically different worldviews and material realities. To replace Gill's self-congratulatory historical determinism, we must be far more careful about our definition of a civilization.
At the risk of being overly vague, I would posit the following: Civilization is characterized by the self-conscious actualization of a systematic ethos defining the relation between self and community. In other words, all that is truly required of civilization is a certain self-consciousness, (as a civilization), and a certain level of complexity characterized by the desire for progress towards a goal or set of goals other than survival. By distilling the most general aspect of the dictionary definition, namely social or political complexity, this new definition allows us to avoid the sort of subjective aesthetic of civilization that underlies Gill's democratic eco-humanism. Though the result may be less satisfying, the more cautious, general nature of this new approach allows us to avoid confusing the ought of civilization, (that which we think it should be), with a useful objective claim about the is of civilization, (a common standard on which to judge all civilizations). The fact that Gill's claim that market civilization is oxymoronic is essentially a stylistic excess renders the above inquiry academic; even without assuming his version of civilization as democratic eco-humanism, Gill's neo-Polanyian critique of neo-liberal capitalism exposes the inherent tensions and contradictions of the neo-liberal model.
To summarize Gill's analysis in his own words: The structure and language of social relations is now more conditioned by the long term commodity logic of capital. Capitalist norms and practices pervade the gestes repetes of everyday life. . . so that it may be apposite to speak of the emergence of what I call a 'market civilization'.(Gill 399) Gill's debt to Polanyi is quite evident.
Ultimately, that is why the control of the economic system by the market is of overwhelming consequence to the whole organization of society: it means no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market. (Polanyi, 57) But though he draws off of Polanyi's schematic, Gill contributes a subtle understanding of the current state of neo-liberal capitalism as could only be possible from an author publishing during the ascendancy of the neo-liberal order. To understand his analysis, we can work from Gill's perspective of democratic eco-humanism, not as a synonym for civilization as such, but as a benchmark that crystallizes the most problematic tensions of the neo-liberal system. Therefore, we now look to understand Gill's claim about the uncivilized nature of neo-liberalism within his own framework of democratic eco-humanism. Gill locates the essential basis for declaiming the neo-liberal order as uncivilized in the system's miserable record on the egalitarian distribution of resources, its history of environmental degradation and its general willingness to subjugate the needs of the many to the needs of the few.
For the 800 million or so affluent consumers in the OECD, there is a counterpart number starving in the Third World, with one billion more that have no clean drinking water or sufficient food. Or later: Any significant attempt to widen this pattern of motivation [of fear and greed]. . . .would tend to deplete or to destroy the eco-structures of the planet.
(Gill, 419) These neo-Polanyian observations are in fact so patently obvious to Gill that he spends little time exploring them in his paper, though they nevertheless form the backbone of his materialist critique. Looking to other authors helps fill in the rather bleak picture: from Vandana Shiva we learn of the impact of industrial agriculture As a result of these non-sustainable activities, an estimated 70 percent of the world's marine fish stocks are over fished or fully exploited (Shiva, 38), while Kim Moody gives us a more humanistic perspective, looking at the inevitable effects of the neo-liberal order on the workplace. [Conversations with workers from dozens of plants] reveal an identical tale of what happened when lean methods were introduced: substantial job elimination, faster and harder work pace and increased difficulty in handling grievances related to production or working conditions (Moody, p. 92) It behooves us in the end to return to Shiva to help us abandon the environme ...
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