Contributions To Methods For Structural Transformation – OpEd


There may be people who believe that for now and for  the future the problem of mass unemployment has become a non-problem, having been recently solved by the Biden Administration in the USA.  I doubt that any of them read TMS.

I also trust that detailed explanations of phrases like “structural transformation” are as unnecessary as they are impossible here.  Everyone knows about structural violence.  And the reader will tolerate having to rely on context when she or he is not familiar with unusual kinds of structure-talk that I find indispensable.  Let me say in advance, however, that I follow Doug Porpora in defining social structure as material positions constituted by cultural rules; and Tony Lawson in regarding the positions (e.g. employer and employee) as defined by the rights and duties of the persons who are at the moment holding them. Hence, structure-talk is ethics-talk.  Structural transformation is ethical transformation.

With these assumptions I offer short accounts of two practical innovations in the social construction of dignified livelihoods for every member of the human family, and two refutations of common illusions that lead many to underestimate the depth of the transformations needed.

1. Toward Dignity for All –First Practical Innovation

In Alexandria (affectionately called ‘Alex’), a poor district of Johannesburg, South Africa, as is unfortunately the case at too many locations on this planet, the majority of the young people are unemployed and unhappy. Many sink into drugs; into indiscriminate sex leading to AIDS and gender-based violence; into hustling suckers and mugging those who resist; and if they are female, roaming the streets looking for a man who will give them money for favours. But if you visit a certain old church building on the main avenue of Alex on a weekday afternoon, you will find twelve young people who are employed. They look happy.

They are practicing song-and-dance routines to music like ‘Black Motion’ by Imali and ‘Babes Wodumo’ by Wololo, as well as to oldies like ‘Cat Daddy’ and ‘Bird Walk’. They had to audition to get into the troupe. Once they were in, they needed discipline and self-discipline to learn the steps and lines and do them right, as well as the self-discipline to show up for work, be on time, arrive sober, and stay clean in more senses than one. Agreeing with those moral realists like Andrew Sayer who find merit in Aristotelian virtue ethics as updated by Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum, I believe that discipline leads them to virtue and virtue leads them to happiness.

This scene, unfortunately, is from the past and not from the present — since this activity, although not the program of which it was a part, has been discontinued.

I venture to call it an example of an unbounded approach to transforming the basic social structures of capitalism and patriarchy, and to surviving today´s civilizational and ecological crises.  Expressing general ( qualified) agreement with Abraham Maslow, who wrote in 1943 that ‘the “good” or healthy society would then be defined as one that permitted man’s highest purposes to emerge by satisfying all his prepotent basic needs’ (I assume Maslow would have used inclusive language if he had written more recently, and that this point is independent of the “hierarchy” of needs commonly attributed to him). I suggest that, whatever else may be going on in their lives, the young dancers’ performances in public spaces, mostly schools, satisfy their need for recognition, which in turn tends to satisfy their need for self-esteem. Their pay checks give them the dignity denied to the millions who are structurally humiliated because they are rejected by labour markets where supply perpetually exceeds demand. A little money in the pocket gives them food, drink, and clothing they do not have to beg, borrow, or steal for.     One female program participant said in a focus group:

‘It has changed my life in big way. I mean there are STI, HIV and all those diseases; you know sometimes you risk your life and sleep with someone that you don’t love just so that he can give you money. Since I started getting a job, knowing that I get something at the end of the month, that stopped. So this job has changed my life. I can go to the bank and withdraw some money’.

The services the dancers provide for the school children who are their main audiences are more than entertainment. They provide role models of drug- free youth who are having fun. They keep alive the hope that employment might be a real possibility after all for those children when they grow older. But the main reason we call the song-and-dance troupe practicing in the old church in Alex an example of structural transformation is that it is an example of nonmarket livelihoods made possible by solidarity.  Dignified employment is paid for by sharing social surplus.   A basic feature of the deep structure of legal entitlement in modern society, displayed by Amartya Sen, for example,  in his explanatory critiques of famines, has been transformed: it is no longer necessary, cet. par., to sell something to live. In the terminology of Karl Polanyi economic relations are being reembedded in social relations.  Although not everybody will be hired to put on song and dance shows for school children, the social integration of the billions whom no employer finds it profitable to hire is the goal.  The dance troupe practicing on Main Street in Alex, like the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) programs in Chicago where Barack and Michelle Obama interned, is a significant practical step toward the goal.

2. First Refutations of Illusions

Speaking more generally, John Maynard Keynes observes that historically, full, or even approximately full employment has been rare and short-lived. (General Theory, pp. 249-50).   That Keynes cites not only an historical fact but also a logical necessity was brought home to me by a law client of mine whose business I was trying to rescue in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.  One day he remarked, “Howard, I know I´m upside-down, but if you can get me out of this mess, I promise I will never be upside-down again,”

What he meant was that his payables exceeded his receivables.  I thought a moment.

“But if everybody promised to always have receivables exceeding payables, the promise could not be kept.  Summed over an economy, receivables must equal payables.  If there are winners, there must be losers.”

(David Graeber has shown that for thousands of years, market societies, whether or not capitalist, have been compelled to forgive debts periodically, or achieve a similar result some other way, such as inflation or genocide.  Pure markets repeatedly and necessarily generate inequality, illusion, and exclusion.  Julius Nyerere points out, on the other hand, that African societies, having cultural structures organized by kinship more than by markets, had no unemployment until the Europeans colonized them.  Swahili had no word for it.) 

Realization of the mathematical  impossibility of everybody selling more than they buy, and hence everybody ending up in the black and not in the red, should dispel the illusions that the suffering of the world´s poor will come to an end when every nation is developed,  when everybody is educated, when governments are no longer incompetent and corrupt, when every nation is competitive in the global marketplace, when every nation is an attractive low risk destination for investment,  when a fourth industrial revolution brings prosperity even to those left out of shared prosperity by the first, second, and third etc.

3. Second Refutation of Illusions

A second general step toward seeing the need for structural transformation is to see that today governments operating within the dominant structures can do little to correct market failure.  Globalization, tax-competition, debt, conditions tied to loans, violence and what Jeffrey Winters calls the locational revolution (the capacity of wealth to choose which laws it will obey by choosing where to locate) regularly frustrate people in the public sector with good intentions.

What, then, could bring social justice and the governability without which the human species cannot cope with the challenges of the physical environment, complementing the limited benefits markets and government corrections of market failures are already delivering malgré tout?  The practical example I have given of young musicians practicing in Alex supported by public and private resource flows might be generalized as giving to support inherently worthwhile activities.

As far as I can tell, such an idea never occurred to Keynes.  He wrote: “If it is impracticable materially to increase investment, obviously there is no means of securing a higher level of employment except by increasing consumption.” (General Theory, p.325) He explicitly analyses only to the modern world. He does not pretend to consider earlier cultures which organized themselves differently to meet their basic needs, or contemporary parts of the world still not modernized.  He sees his conclusion as a feature of modernity.

It does not follow, however, that because we are modern, we are condemned to mass consumption of ever more commodities, because the funds derived from selling them are the only possible sources of wages.    Nonetheless, today, 85 years later, economists and governments are still devoted to “stimulating” the economy by promoting more sales, ostensibly so that there can be more jobs.

4. Toward Dignity for All –Second Practical Innovation

On an unbounded approach, the number of possible solutions to any given social problem is in principle unlimited.  Let´s start with two:  A Universal Basic Income consisting simply of a check from the government is one way to provide people with money without going through the intermediate step of making it profitable for an employer to hire them.  A second is public employment.  The following few words are about a unique variation on the second way.  We travel to a sector south of Johannesburg.  We listen to the voices of some of the 433 participants (312 women and 121 men) at that site as they are recorded in an ethnographic study by Malose Langa, a professor of psychology at Wits University.

“[The Community Work Program, CWP] does create Ubuntu amongst the participants. We did not know each other at first. But right now, as we kept on meeting each other, I ended up knowing her and she ended up knowing the other one. So if I didn’t know this one, then I wouldn’t have been able to help this one. So because of the one I know, I am able to help the next person.”

“So I think [CWP] encourages Ubuntu. We help in the community. The other thing is that CWP taught us how to deal with people as leaders. They helped us a lot. We were taught leadership skills. I think we are compassionate.”

We are in the same society; we communicate about where we meet. And then if you need advice about something, I would just [ask] for an advice on what to do. We visit each other… so friendships develop as colleagues.”

We are like a family now because of what CWP taught us. We can work together with the community.

“Some of the funerals we attend to help them to fill the graves. Because of CWP we would go and attend, but before I didn’t know them. So now we attend because we are family.”

We find that there are children or older people [who are] suffering. We would go and help, and then the neighbours would see that these people are getting assistance, and then they would also come and offer assistance. [These neighbours] would then tell us: we are helping in bathing her. So the community starts understanding that there are people who are suffering and that, as the community as a whole, we have to support each other.

“We work with the department of agriculture, correctional services, safety and security, and SAPS [South African Police Service]. We also have a good relationship with the department of health, governance, sports, arts and culture. We have good relations with [the department] of environment. We work with all entities, for example, your Johannesburg Water regarding water leakage problems. We work with Pikitup [Johannesburg’s waste management provider].”

“We were here every day. With gardening you can never miss a day. With CWP we were working on alternating daysbut then we ended up working every day. And you must remember that we do not get paid for those days, but we are happy to work every day.”

[Here we see one of the secrets of the financing of dignity in a program like CWP or ABCD.  They multiply the impact of public and private donor contributions by mobilizing and motivating the resources the local community already has.]

We have passion for this thing [CWP]. We work Monday to Monday. Weekends do not matter. But then sometimes we do go to church to pray God to bless us.

At CWP we did agriculture out of passion, because everyone has a garden at home. . . . Even when we finished working at CWP at 14:00, we would go to places like Poortjie and help people. We were accompanying the Department of Agriculture. We are always there to assist. We did not expect to get paid. It is just our passion that we want to see our community transformed.”

So, with CWP we would work eight days in a month from 8:00 to 14:00. So we realized that it was useless that we’d knock off at 14:00 and you are just going to sit in the location [township] doing nothing. [So] we would work the whole day without eating anything. We had passion.


*Prof. Howard Richards is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is a philosopher of social science and Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, USA. He was educated at Redlands High School in California, Yale, Stanford, University of California at Santa Barbara, University of Toronto, Harvard and Oxford. He currently teaches in the University of Cape Town`s EMBA programme. His books include: The Evaluation of Cultural Action; Letters from Quebec; Understanding the Global Economy; The Dilemmas of Social Democracies; Gandhi and the Future of Economics; Rethinking Thinking; Unbounded Organizing in Community; and The Nurturing of Time Future. His new book, written with the assistance of Gavin Andersson, Economic Theory and Community Development: Why Putting Community First Is Essential for Survival, is scheduled to be published in July of 2021. [email protected]

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) 

Prof. Howard Richards

Prof. Howard Richards is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is a philosopher of social science and Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, USA. He was educated at Redlands High School in California, Yale, Stanford, University of California at Santa Barbara, University of Toronto, Harvard and Oxford. He currently teaches in the University of Cape Town`s EMBA programme. His books include: The Evaluation of Cultural Action, a study of an application of Paulo Freire´s pedagogical philosophy in rural Chile (London Macmillan 1985); Letters from Quebec; Understanding the Global Economy; The Dilemmas of Social Democracies; Gandhi and the Future of Economics; Rethinking Thinking; Unbounded Organizing in Community; and The Nurturing of Time Future. His new book, written with the assistance of Gavin Andersson, Economic Theory and Community Development: Why Putting Community First Is Essential for Survival, is now available from the publisher, Dignity Press, and from Amazon and other major booksellers, as a print book and as an eBook. [email protected]

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