Creating Dignified Livelihoods – OpEd


My title is taken from the last speech of Martin Luther King Jr.  It was given in Memphis, Tennessee, less than 24 hours before his assassination.  He was in Memphis to support a strike of the sanitation workers of Memphis, and to bring the strikers, and everyone else, back to the path of nonviolence.

At that point in his career –he was only 39 years old— King was world-famous for nonviolent resistance to racism, but his thinking and his activism had moved on.  Experience and logic had taught him that racism was not going to end while blacks and whites were competing for the same scarce good jobs.  He was organizing nonviolent resistance by both poor whites and poor blacks against poverty.

King was not the first to conclude that in a list of evils to combat, or in a list of worthy causes to support, there are good reasons for identifying poverty as a cause contributing to most of the other evils on the list, and for regarding ending it as a worthy cause that deserves priority because if that problem could be solved it would make it much easier to solve most, if not all, of the other problems.   The death of the biosphere, or all out nuclear war, would, no doubt, be worse than a human population separated by wealth and income levels into haves and have-nots.  But when you try to find ways to save the biosphere, or to end militarism and war, you realize, sooner or later, that the old devil money, the love of which is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10) stands in the way.

Does anyone deny that the great majority of the world´s people needs to work for a living?  Does anyone deny that among that great majority only a minority enjoys dignified work at decent pay, or, failing that, enjoys making a good living as a self-employed micro-entrepreneur?

Anyone who is unaware of these basic facts, if there is such a person, should consult the statistics available on the website of the UN´s International Labour Organization.

Does anybody seriously disagree with King´s considered opinion that racism will never become past history, and cease being present reality, while people with different racial and ethnic identities compete with each other for the same scarce good jobs?

Does anybody believe that sexism and patriarchy will go away while women and men compete for the same scarce good jobs?

Does anybody believe that drug dealing, organized crime, and other illegal ways to make a living will recede while legal ways to make a good living are as scarce as they are today?

Can we save the biosphere while so many jobs depend on destroying it?

Indeed, those who give full employment, and raising the incomes and benefits of the employed, a high ranking or top ranking among their priorities, have been competing for centuries with those who consider it necessary –or consider in their self-interest– to keep wages low, and some percentage of the work force unemployed, in order to encourage the capital accumulation without which there can be no increases in productivity of the kinds that historically have raised standards of living.

The former –the partisans of labour unions and welfare states—actually made (temporarily, as it turned out) gains that led many to believe that humanity´s social problems could be solved, and that the Scandinavians had solved them.  It was thought to be only a matter of time until the Soviet bloc saw the light (indeed this was precisely the light that Mikhail Gorbachev thought he saw) and democratized its socialism.   Back in those days, which were the first years after World War II, the USA was already on its way to socialising its democracy –led by enlightened patricians like the daring duo Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.   The third world would develop—and what development meant was synthesizing indigenous values with the universal human rights promoted by the Scandinavians who held the key posts in the United Nations.

For the past half century, we have been witnessing, aghast, the refutation, by facts, of the expectations of yesterday´s social change activists.  In our book The Dilemmas of Social Democracies (2006) my co-author Joanna Swanger and I explain why the expectations sketched above were not just disappointed.  They had to be disappointed –they were destined to fail—because of the deep structure of the system installed earlier, in the 17th through 19th centuries.  Thomas Piketty in Capitalism in the Twenty First Century (2014) demonstrated with massive impeccable evidence that what we had shown had to happen because of the structure of the system, had in fact happened.

In this article I am proposing a different approach –a different approach that is not actually anything new because I build on many existing facts on the ground, and on many contemporary theoretical trends in feminism (gift economy, care ethic), ecology (degrowth), and revivals of indigenous voices that had been silenced first by colonialism and then later by the globally dominant culture (Ubuntubuen vivir, dharma…).   The approach I suggest can be called “creating dignified livelihoods.”

I believe that creating more dignified livelihoods is urgent and necessary.   I believe that creating more dignified livelihoods nips big trouble in the bud before it gets worse.  I also believe that moving to achieve dignified livelihoods for all is inevitably to move to change the fundamental basis of today´s global economy.  It gets to the heart of the matter, and makes changes in the depths of hearts.  It changes the basic structure of a civilization in crisis, namely the structure of buying and selling. To say that our civilization is in crisis is to say that changes need to change the basic structure of our civilization, and that is what devoting surplus to creating dignified livelihoods does.

There have already been many government-funded public employment programmes providing employment because people need employment.   Sometimes they describe their purpose as social integration.  I have analysed at length elsewhere (in Economic Theory and Community Development, 2022) India´s Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee, Sweden´s government as employer of last resort of 1938-70, and South Africa´s Community Work Programme.  One of my and my co-researchers key conclusions is that government funding alone cannot possibly get the job done.  Joseph Schumpeter was right when he argued in 1918 (Die Krise des Steuerstaats) that a nation state financed by taxes cannot be a sustainable welfare state.  Another key conclusion is that economic growth will not and cannot do the job either.

The time has come for an unbounded approach –for a care ethic driving efforts across all sectors, reviving old norms and inventing new norms of caring and sharing, giving and reciprocating.   An unbounded approach, bringing all sectors on board, is needed to shore up the faltering efforts of the public sector.

The now dominant system, viewed metaphorically, is like a huge airplane with nearly 8 billion passengers, no pilot, and a terrifying destination.  The passengers give no thought at all to where the plane is going.  Most are preoccupied with trying to make ends meet.  If their minds have any energy left after worrying about how to make ends meet, the mass media offer them many consolations to help them, per Billy Joel, “… forget about life for a while.”  Nevertheless, however distant the big picture may be from any given mind, the buying and selling we do every day is the deep and fundamental cause of the flight to end all flights: destination social and environmental collapse.

Each passenger is a legal person authorized to own property and to be a party to contracts called purchases.  Each purchase, regarded from the seller´s point of view, is a sale.  Each passenger is trying to sell more than she or he buys, aiming for income exceeding expenses, aiming to win the game by having more receivables than payables, more assets than debts.  Since total sales must equal total purchases, if somebody sells more than they buy, someone else must go farther into debt or maybe drop out of the market game by sitting in one of the seats reserved for those who in real life are drunks sleeping on the sidewalk.  It is not a question whether there will be losers.  The question is who the losers will be.

The losers will be those who fail to sell; those who are not hired (failing to sell their labour power) because there can never (sustainably) be enough buyers of goods to make it profitable for employers to hire everyone who needs a job; and those who sink hopelessly into debt.

Inevitably, the simple buying and selling that define our civilization –what Theodor Adorno named the Tauschprinzip and André Orléan calls séparation marchande— lead to today´s military/financial baroque as exemplified by weaponizing banking and by Apple Corporation´s sci fi creative accounting.   But we must not let the exotic extremes divert us from considering the consequences of our everyday loneliness. Simple buying and selling already defines markets separating winners from losers.

An instructive example:  Back in the 1920s, anthropologists could still find in the Trobriand Islands, customary practices where the inland people met the fisher folk on the beach for ceremonial exchanges of the fruits of the land for the fruits of the sea.  Such customs could go on forever, with nobody noticing if some years the fish were worth more than the crops and other years the crops were worth more than the fish.  No losers.

Market games are games with losers.  They are unstable.

Dignified livelihoods for all is a cause that deserves priority because if it were successful it would banish institutional malfunctions in fundamental ways. By welcoming the losers back into the human family, it would open paths to correcting other malfunctions. It is a cause that turns other worthy causes that are now lost causes, for example reversing global warming, into causes where there are real possibilities of success.

David Graeber exhaustively documents in his book, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years (2011)that markets where the aim of the customary game is making money, lead inevitably to human vs. human conflict as winners accumulate winnings and losers sink into debt. Mother Nature falls victim too.

My proposal is to pay with surplus funds those who cannot be paid from wage funds created by the sales of products, or by taxation.  Typically, surplus is income from property ownership.  But anybody might have a surplus, including a worker whose wages exceed what she or needs.

Perhaps a bit like Don Quixote and a bit like the Roman emperor Nero, tilting at windmills while the world goes up in flames, we are trying to show in practice that another world is possible here on two acres of an experimental country located at the end of the earth, where if you went any farther south from the southern tip of it, you would be crossing the sea on your way to Antarctica. We (my partner Caroline, our daughter Shelley and I) have been creating a few dignified livelihoods, partly indirectly by donating regularly to non-profits, joining other donors in funding somebody´s non-profit pay check.

Directly, we support planting and caring for trees (in some cases native species –the government gives us the seedlings free).  And keeping bees, protecting birds, organic gardening (including teaching it to little kids in elementary schools) using worms and compost to improve soil, using flowers that attract beneficial insects and companion planting instead of pesticides, convening necessary conversations, and running a website (  Along with one other donor and six or so organizers, we support food security, and basic security in general, in our immediate neighbourhood.

This is not a business.  We are just spending part of our pensions.  Our surplus.  Some people spend their pensions on brandy and white summer gloves. For others, our idea of fun is blending creating dignified livelihoods with the occasional shot of brandy and the occasional special garment.

These few selected facts about our little experiment make it seem more wonderful than it really is.  They conceal unmentioned failures and unconfessed embarrassments. Unabashed, I take these few selected facts to be down-to-earth details that illustrate three ethical principles that are generally applicable worldwide.  As formulated by Bill Mollison, the founder of the permaculture movement, they are:

  1. Love the land.
  2. Love the people.
  3. Share the surplus.

Mollison´s first and second principles are indispensable, but I only have space to comment on the third.   It is the one that holds the key to funding dignified livelihoods for all.

In the thirteenth century Saint Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) anticipated and elaborated Bill Mollison´s third principle:

The temporal goods that God gives us [everything we have in the worldview of Saint Thomas] are ours as to their ownership, but as to the use of them, they belong not to us alone, but also to such others as we are able to help out of what we have over and above our needs. (Summa Theologica, II II, Question 32, Article 5, Reply to objection 2)

Especially since the classic contributions of David Ricardo (1772-1823), economists have carefully analysed a phenomenon nearly coterminous with “surplus.”  Namely: “rent.” Economic rent is an amount of money earned that exceeds what is economically or socially necessary.  For Ricardo it was emblematically what landlords charge farmers for the use of their land.  Ricardo advised the government to tax the landlords.  Similarly, in our times, Thomas Piketty and colleagues have demonstrated that the enormous salaries of Wall Street and City of London bank executives are mainly rents, proceeds of power, not proceeds of performance.

There are rents from natural resources.  There are rents from privileged locations.  Some of them are privileged because of where the government itself chose to put a highway or an airport. The inheritors of wealth, the trust fund kids, have surpluses.  They are often a source of donations funding dignified livelihoods.

So “rents” and similar windfalls define part of the answer to the question, “Where might the funds needed to provide dignified livelihoods for everybody come from?”  By definition, if they came from rents, the work of the world would go on as before, undisturbed. Rents are not costs of production.  Production does not depend on them, and it does not stop when they are used to create dignified livelihoods.

Another part of the story seeks to answer the questions raised by the management guru Peter Drucker, when he wrote that “…how the profits are distributed and to whom is of great political importance.” (Business Objectives and Survival Needs. The Journal of Business, Vol. 31 (1958), pp. 81-90, p.87)

Another key question is, “How can the enormous increases in productivity made possible by the advance of science and technology –an advance expected to accelerate in the future—be shared with all human beings?”  Here it is science that is the source of the surplus.

And there is a whole other dimension.  It is Asset Based Community Development, or, in its African version, Unbounded Organizing in Community.  In Latin America, Spain and much of Europe it is economía solidaria.  The poor do not have nothing. Often they have surplus time or unused talents.   Cooperating to use better what the have-nots already have, is a game-changer.  It shrinks the requirement to move surplus in regularly from elsewhere in order to achieve happiness in the villas miserias.  

So what did King mean when he said shortly before his death that he had seen the promised land?   From his writings we can deduce some conclusions.  He defined the ultimate goal of the movement he led as “the beloved community.”  This implies the conversion of souls, does it not?  Not or not only conversion in the sense of believing one thing instead of another in one´s mind.  (Matthew 6:27) But conversion to what the liberation theologians would later call ortho-practice.  It means more community and less homo economicus. It means people governing markets instead of being governed by markets (I can hear King intoning in another speech: Feed the hungry!)   It means the power of love exceeding the love of power.  Many therapists today would define the power of love exceeding the love of power as mental health as opposed to the reigning insanity.  As King argued in his doctoral dissertation, it means that justice is not an ethic in its own right, but rather a means to the end of implementing an ethic of love. If this is not the path to surviving the existential crisis of our global civilization, what is?

I have tried to persuade several academics, and several graduate students looking for a dissertation topic, to make a proper quantitative study of the sums involved in multiplying dignified livelihoods. I have had no luck so far, but I have not given up. Based on my own experience and the limited quantitative data I am aware of (See Chapter Nine of Economic Theory and Community Development), the surplus required is far less than the surplus owned by people who own surplus.

The amounts required might seem beyond reach when you think of funding coming from governments that are already sinking in unpayable debt and already facing demands to lower taxes.

The amounts required might also seem unobtainable when you think of creating employment for the excluded the old fashioned roundabout way –finding a market for some good or service that is not already supplied by somebody else who got there first, raising funds with venture capitalists, putting engineers to work designing production and marketers to work designing marketing, and finally hiring workers you hope will produce value exceeding their wages sufficient to enable you to pay off your loans and deliver profits to your investors.

But when you think in terms of an ethical imperative to use existing surplus to pay people to do necessary work like saving the biosphere, the job seems doable.

Prof. Howard Richards is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment. He is Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College and he also currently teaches in the University of Cape Town`s EMBA programme. He was educated at Redlands High School in California, Yale, Stanford, UC Santa Barbara, University of Toronto, Harvard and Oxford. 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 our Survival, is available from the publisher, Dignity Press, and from Amazon and other major booksellers, as a print book and as an eBook. Email: [email protected] and[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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