What's possible? Two crucial aspirations for social theory

The 2018 Bread and Puppet Tour is coming through Hudson, NY, with The Basic Bye-bye Show. Peter Schumann has based it “on the fact that our culture is saying its basic bye-bye to Mother Earth by continuing the devastating effects of the global economy on our planet—which is why our show proclaims the Possibilitarian’s basic bye-bye to capitalism in order to welcome the 1000 alternatives to this rotten system.” How true and absurd at the same time, this cocktail of profundity and whimsicality we have come to expect from Bread and Puppet!

True? Only the most blatant deniers of reality still claim that the economically-induced ecological crisis is a hoax.

Absurd? Well yes, the notion that there are 1000 alternatives to capitalism will strike many as absurd, whimsical. A widely held opinion, certainly among economists and also among the populations they preach to, has declared that unchangeable (one might even say “natural”) laws rule the economy, laws we must simply accommodate: though we may wish to create a more humane society, this wish is immature and futile in light of what we “know” about human nature and economic laws.

Enter Schumann and the “Possibilitarian” movement of cardboard puppets and puppeteers. Why attend the show? Are we merely indulging a whimsical desire to support the doll-wiggling fiddle player in his defiance of the austere, organized, and well-groomed political economists? Are we seeking escape from a dire reality, a release that might renew us for a moment, inspiring small acts of kindness and creativity immediately following the experience, yet making minimal impact on the iron laws of economy?

Maybe—but the deep irony is that our fatalistic attitude is under-examined, and thus underdeveloped. What if we really can co-create our society through what we think? The economist and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz described the dominant fatalism in “America's graduate schools, despite evidence to the contrary” as “testimony to a triumph of ideology over science.” (And he further lamented the fact that “students of these graduate programs now act as policymakers in many countries, and are trying to implement programs based on the ideas that have come to be called market fundamentalism.”) But Stiglitz points out that the paradigmatic economic theories founded on the “law” of the selfish human being did not prove wrong across the board: in an intriguing twist of plot, “it appears (at least in experimental situations) that experimental subjects are not as selfish as economists have hypothesized, except for one group—the economists themselves.”

One simple conclusion to draw from these experiments is that what we think… actually matters! And when it comes to how we conduct our economic, political, and social affairs we play a part in how, and what, we think. Economists, who develop and articulate and “think” theories of market fundamentalism year in and year out, have contributed to realizing it in actual fact. They are the subject group that has come furthest in realizing homo-economicus. In thinking and re-thinking rational choice theories, their very actions have become aligned with them; thus reality becomes, in actuality, what we “think” it is.

Recent political theory may grow increasingly excited to discover that thinking and speaking play an important part in unleashing otherwise dormant potentials as political action! I doubt many people will be surprised by this miraculous “discovery.” From this perspective it is clear, anyone who insists others must limit their vocabulary to dominant economic paradigms in the name of modern “science,” overlooks this fundamental truth about thinking.

Dwelling on the fact that thinking co-shapes the life of society, the importance of transcending the current discourse in search of new thoughts and ideas (as the “Possibilitarians” attempt to do) becomes apparent and not so absurd after all; for current discourse helps shape our actions and institutions, so part of reforming them will surely involve fresh ideas and orientations.

If we experience our thoughts as “real” in their impact on actions and institutions, this does not mean we can arbitrarily create new social ideas - as indicated above, certain thoughts will produce certain results, and we may produce them only to see how horrible they turn out in action.

We immediately find that some thoughts have a powerful and vital resonance where others do not. Some open out in a variety of ways, helping us intuit richer relations and existence, while others barely capture our attention or blunt our sensitivity to the great variety of life and experience. Some command our respect and orient us in life as moral sources. Some return to us again and again. Sometimes they are popular and sometimes they require sacrifice. “The secret of their strength is their capacity to confer meaning and substance on people’s lives. Just what gives them this is a matter of further inquiry” (Charles Taylor).

To indicate the quality of thought as crucial is highly suspect today. Theodore Roszak once pointed out that introducing poetry into social science discussions is often met by academics with a reaction one might expect from a monk who notices a whore has been brought onto monastery grounds. This fuels a trend whereby liberty, fraternity and equality, legitimacy and solidarity become increasingly elusive and suspect.

Of course, fear of vital and powerful theory is justified. Thoughts that inspire also inspire terror. But, instead of sacrificing the poetry of thought to quantity and function, a practice of conscience should become central to thought.

This brings us to a second constraint. Thoughts that appear as vitally resonant initially can lead through action to despicable results. Thus the search for new ideas that imbue life with meaning, order, and substance has to be paired with conscience and tempered with long-term discernment. (Of course, market fundamentalism is ripe for this judgment, but we also have a historical example in the Marxist legacy: a vein of thought that inspired many to attempt the creation of a society where liberty, creativity, and equality could flourish, whose implementation has led rather to societies where individuality is systematically suppressed.)

And so, if we are indeed contemplating a night of theatrical entertainment with the “Possibilitarians,” we might think of it not as an escape from the vicissitudes of unrelenting fate, but rather as an ever-so-slight awakening to the possibility that the rigid and austere thoughts of market fundamentalism are philosophically underdeveloped and crude. For it is crude to overlook two crucial aspirations that belong to social and political theory: that one tries to think and articulate social ideas in such a way that they radiate an enlivening and inspiring force capable of granting meaning and substance to life; and that one is consistently determined to usher the actions these ideas inform before the tribunal of one’s conscience.

In my heart of hearts I hope that Peter Schumann's 1000 alternatives to our current form of capitalism fulfill these two requirements and that he will publish the manifestos in short order! However that might be, may the Mohicanituk Project be a humble contribution toward at least one alternative that does.