Growing people not economies

In this article I argue that theories are often used as justification to push people around and to bully them – particularly economic theories. If the future is one where we “grow people” rather than “growing economies” we need very different kinds of arrangements and skills – and we should start in our own movement.

I recently started reading Economics Unmasked by Philip B Smith and Manfred Max-Neef (published by Green Books). Its message appeals to me and chimes with my background in mental health. A key idea is that we should replace the growth of economies with the growth of people – satisfying needs which, apart from subsistence provision like food, shelter and warmth, are largely not to be met in a material way. Examples are needs for affection, understanding, participation, idleness, creation, identity and freedom. Many of these imply, it seems to me, not just institutional and community arrangements but, often enough, what might be called “emotional intelligence”.

Let me put that again – if our lives are to improve we don’t need to have more ‘stuff’ beyond a certain point – we need new types of relationships. Now, do we find that idea explored in any of the economic text books? Hardly. There are some places that you can partly find it – e.g. in some of the therapy literature, and in community mental health theory, but not in economics.

Perhaps it’s time to change. By that I mean not only change in the wider world and economic relationships, but change in our own closer relationships too, including relationships with colleagues.

I write this because I’ve noticed that, in the green movement, we can sometimes be just as unskilled in arrangements for meeting our needs for affection, participation, identity and freedom as everyone else. Sometimes we appear to lack the interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence.

I had this thought recently when discussing what is becoming a popular economic theory with a colleague. As the conversation proceeded I wanted less and less to support the theory as I was being urged to do – but recognised that the reason had nothing to do with the truth or falsity or any details of the theory itself. It was because the way that it was being communicated to me.

As the dialogue proceeded I came I feel that there was a “conversion” attempt going on. There was a strong implication that I would and should see the theory in question as the “true light”. I could fight the truth but this truth was so powerful, and so self evident, that it would get me in the end. It was all rather like resisting a religious conversion and therefore denying the Holy Spirit, there being no doubt in the mind of the missionary that it would get me in the end. Indeed I was mocked for doubting – and told that being wound up as part of the argument technique was justified because it would make me concentrate more and remember the arguments. I was even told that it was fun to annoy me. (Kerrymen are like that apparently).

Indeed, when prophets are prosletysing a higher truth it seems that they are entitled to taking liberties interpersonal liberties – the evangelical pastor can shout at his congregation, humiliate them as sinners, in order, afterward, to offer them salvation. In this wonderful game there’s fun in winding up your critics. Needless to say, however, this did not make me friendly to the theory in question. Indeed it made it extraordinarily hard for me to think about it at all because the process was so unpleasant.

It all reminded me of when I was a young man. As I had a somewhat isolated childhood I entered adult life with virtually no social skills and zero self understanding or emotional intelligence. I was also very timid and a swat at school working very hard to come top of the form. Then, towards the end of my school years, I took economics with a teacher who was teaching that subject for the first time. I discovered just enough critical economic texts at this time to make life difficult for this teacher. I had found a game that I could play to get my own back at the power structure and authorities at school. I played them at their own game.

Later at university I discovered Marxist economic theory and enough different thinking to enjoy trying to trip up the lecturers. It was great fun – of course I believed that it was idealism that was driving me, the noble and higher ideal of struggling against oppression and injustice. And to a degree there was that motivation – but, looking back, I can recognise that as a timid person who would not otherwise say boo to a goose, I enjoyed it when I got the chance to push people around with ideas, to bully and beat them up with arguments. (But then be extremely petulant if my Narcissus was seen to lose an argument).

In fact, the Leninist sect that I was in at that time effectively encouraged that way of using ideas and theories. Just as my colleague’s favourite theory is now presented as THE correct view that every economically literate person understands, so, at that time, my variant of Marxist theory was the self evident truth of my universe. That was why, in the Leninist party we had a “higher level of consciousness” than everyone else. And it was our job to persuade “the class” that they needed our ideas – the (working) class needed us to be teacher – if only they would recognise it. Thus our attitude to people, and our relationship to them, was one of missionaries for a set of ideas (“the line”) – a truth that was not to be denied – just like this economic theory is to my colleague.

Needless to say many people who experienced the receiving end of the truth message instinctively pulled back from it – the process of “conversion”, if carried all the way through, implied being pulled into the sect and being set up to be another missionary for the cause. It was a world where because we never made much progress we were always looking for the reasons why – and there was inevitably a degree of frustration. This frustration would then be channelled against those who began to doubt “the truth” – it was their wavering, their lack of solidity, their betrayal, which was the reason why things didn’t go well. After all they were betraying the rosy future of humanity and that meant everything would be very bad. No wonder splitters, and revisionists and liquidationists were regarded with such hatred and contempt.

As a group on the fringe I suppose one must get used to being ignored – and it’s very frustrating. That will always be true – whether one’s theories are weird and esoteric or essentially correct and yet ‘before their time’, to be outside the mainstream is always frustrating. That is true for us on the green fringe too – so there is a root to such feelings. But when and if we channel them against each other, well – it doesn’t really help.

So let us ask the question: how do people end up like this? I have already explained how my “rebellion” arose out the the emotional conditions of schooling. That does not mean that the ideas that I put forward were right or wrong but it does set my advocacy of those ideas in an important context. It is common in therapy to relate the calibration and formation of our personalities with parenting and relationships with siblings at an early age. But of course the other very formative place is school – and that is rarely mentioned. I suppose this is partly because there’s an assumption that school must be good for us.

So perhaps its worth mentioning that when, later in my life, I was struggling to understand myself better I found it a revelation to come across the writings of Ivan Ilyich and his Deschooling Society. I as also influenced by John Holt’s book Why Children Fail and other books that were appearing on what was called “children’s liberation”. These helped me see how damaging school had been in inculcating an intense intellectual competitiveness. They also helped me understand the use of ideas as justification to push people around.

Of course I have no evidence at all for why my colleague would have found it fun to annoy me and to assume that, by winding me up, she was employing what she claimed to be an appropriate pedagogic device because it would help me remember her arguments. However, if I was to make a guess why it would be something to do with schooling. It seems to me that this is just the kind of attitude that a bullying teacher would have – and we have just seen how the Irish people are waking up now, after a long nightmare, to the way that very many of their catholic teachers abused and humiliated them under the guise of “teaching”.

This is pure speculation but I reckon it is plausible.

As far as the revolutionary group was concerned I did get out eventually. I started to become depressed and started having mental health problems – so I was no use to “the party” anyway. Lucky me – because I started on the very long road to more self understanding and a little more understanding of how my emotions worked and relationships.

What helped in this path was coming across other kinds of communication – for example working alongside trade unionists and people in community groups in informal joint research and adult education – where I did not assume that I had “a higher truth” but worked with people where they were to try to understand what was happening to them. It made for better and more equal relationships.

And later, in therapy I discovering yet another kind of communication – where the therapist asked probing and intelligent questions and left me to work out the answers.

Later too I became a project development worker and discovered that the chief problem in developing any project is the general lack of knowledge, the ‘cloud of unknowing’ and the lack of time to find out. It helped me become more tolerant of not knowing and to see how in the lives of individuals and projects there are periods of confusion where there is no right answer, when one almost inevitably becomes disorientated because one is operating in a zone of uncertainty without prior experience or precedent.

So, where does this leave us now in regard to getting clarity about what is going on by the use of economic theories? As humanity faces a set of multiple of simultaneous problems of really huge dimensions the last thing we need are groups of people claiming to have “the” answer, or “the transformative idea” that will entitle them to throw their weight around as the experts on what has to be done. We already have quite a lot of this and mainstream institutions are leaning increasingly towards trying to “maintain order” by resort to top down hierarchy, punishment and “sado-monetarist” austerity. They are reaching to traditional power and authority – with them as our betters and the rest of us in loco parentis, under their (self serving) guardianship.

To counter this we need not only different economic theories but new ways of managing our relationships in the community eco-social economy AND matching relationships that display emotional intelligence. It will not be easy, because times of crisis and contraction generate huge passions, anger and conflict. We must try to be aware so that we do not import the worst kinds of relationships in our own ranks. Otherwise we will not be “growing people” we will be growing psychiatric pathologies.

Sure, we need to discuss theories to collectively clarify as best we can what is happening in our economic circumstances. We need too to resolve conflicts where possible – to see if we can get some synergy in our joint arrangements, to try to project a mutually coherent course in changing times brought together with common values. But we must beware like the plague the idea that there are some leaders with the right ideas, who know what need to be done, who everyone else should follow and who are entitled to impose social discipline because they have the “right ideas” and that entitles them to push us around with their “correct ideas”.

Using theories to bash people with does not help us co-operate, or take care of each other, it does not help us develop our critical capacity but makes us less likely to look at issues dispassionately, it makes analysis and investigation of ideas an unpleasant experience, it does not make us receptive to each other, it makes the expression of opinions a stressful process, it damages our self esteem if we take insults lying down and undermines open mindedness and tolerance. These are just some of the satisfiers of our needs mentioned by Max-Neef that are not met, but damaged by this way of relating.

Which I happen to think might be just as important, perhaps more so, than whether the vogue theory is right or not, perhaps even more so.

Read Graham Barnes’ review of Economics Unmasked

Featured image: Friends. Author: Ramzi Hashisho. Source:


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2 Replies to “Growing people not economies”

  1. Your article is timely. We all sense, I hope, that we are enter a period of great change. Instinctively we fear the unknown and cling to the old paradigms but change always comes in the end.

    I’ve always been baffled as to why we place so much importance on economics as though the economy is more important than the people in it. I suspect it has historical roots related to who has the power but as you say at the start of the article and to reword it with project management terminology, let’s look again at the requirements for managing a nation and it’s success criteria. Let’s agree that people’s quality of life, now and into the distant future is what we really need and start a conversation about how to develop people instead of taking money as the measure of success.

    Things are no better in the virtual world it seems. I have been playing social games lately (business research, no really!). The clear message is that the more money you have the more successful you can be. In Farmville you can have a tiny little farm and earn a few coins growing crops but to expand you farm and build anything significant you have to buy Farmville notes with real dollars. There is no equivalent of the Irish farmer with the arse hanging out of his trousers with an ancient tractor and a huge pile of cash in the bank or under the mattress. Then I tried Bejewelled Blitz (hooked within minutes by the way) which is about seeing patterns of coloured shapes and seeing how fast you can line them up. A game of skill and luck. You can see your high score against your friend and get very competitive. To skew your luck you can buy, with real dollars, bonus gems. So with a bit of skill and lots of money up to the top of the leader board you go. There is little value awarded to human development in the virtual world either.

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