By Howard Richards
At least since the Bucolics and Georgics of Virgil (around 30 B.C.), if not since the Works and Days of Hesiod (700 B.C. or earlier), creative writers broadly categorized as romantic have portrayed rural life as the consummate beau ideal of what human life should be, close to nature, faithful to beautiful traditions. Historians, being aptly regarded as having sworn an oath to Thucydides as medical doctors swear an oath to Hippocrates, are professionally committed to recount the facts wie sie eigentlich gewesen waren (as they really happened). Historians are more likely to depict life in the countryside as never-ending grinding poverty coupled with, in Marx´s words, “rural idiocy.”
Now, in 2022, in the following pages I will develop the thought that devoting time, treasure and talent to nurturing rural happiness would be a key contribution to changing the catastrophic direction in which history is now moving.
But what does this mean? As a first approximation, admittedly a mainly negative approximation, rural happiness as I employ the phrase, means improving the quality of life in rural areas; (1) without being too romantic1; and (2) without continuing untransformed any of the social structures or economic models that have mass-produced, or failed to terminate, rural poverty in the past or present. In one word, it is unbounded. Or, to choose one word that is less precise but more familiar, rural happiness is innovative.
First, I will make a remark about language.
Second, I will briefly sketch some general features of my unbounded moral realist perspective on today’s world.
Third, I will make some relatively specific proposals for South Africa.
Fourth, I will come back to the word “happiness,”
explaining why I chose it and not some other word I might have chosen.
I do not claim that my way of talking and writing about these issues is the only way, or even the best way. Given that the objects of scientific study are independent of the vocabularies and theories of the scientists who study them, nobody´s way of talking about them can claim to be reality´s only authorized representative. This disclaimer applies to social institutions (regarded, following Durkheim, as social facts that for any given individual are as solid and as unchangeable as natural facts) as well as to nature.
2. About my general perspective.
As a quick way to frame my perspective on the contemporary world, I will introduce it as an answer to questions like: Why was general prosperity for all expected after the end of apartheid an immense disappointment when it did not materialize? Why did Nelson Mandela believe that social rights guaranteed by the new South African constitution 0f 1994, could be funded and could become realities? Why did Eleanor Roosevelt believe that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 could effectively guarantee social rights? Why did Gunnar Myrdal believe that the classic Swedish Model could be applied, albeit with modifications, in Africa and in Asia?
I regard these four questions, and others in the same vein, as four or more blind men touching different parts of the same elephant. And I regard them all as having the same answer: because it was believed that “Keynesian” economics (not to be identified with the views of the economist of a similar name who wrote the General Theory2) would work.
Keynesian economics does not work. Consequently, social democracy (“liberalism” in the USA) does not work, except in unusual circumstances such as those prevailing in North West Europe during the trente années glorieuses 1945-1975.3
We have to forget the idea that dignified livelihoods for all can be achieved by paying workers out of funds created by the sale of the products they contribute to making. Keynes never thought he had found a solution to modernity´s problems. He never believed that countercyclical government spending would be a sufficient and sustainable solution to the problem he and his contemporaries defined as unemployment. We define that problem as including the excluded, as dignified livelihoods for all, or more broadly as meeting human needs in harmony with nature.
Keynes glimpsed but did not grasp that both the chronic deficiency of demand and the chronic deficiency of the inducement to invest were consequences of the basic social structure. That basic structure has many names, as do other social facts existing independently of the scholars who study them: Tauschprinzip for Adorno and Horkheimer, échangiste for Marcel Mauss, economic relations dominating social relations for Karl Polanyi, patriarchy morphed into capitalism for Nancy Hartsock,4 the moral code of a free society for Friedrich von Hayek…and so on.
Including the excluded in South Africa, or in any other country, absent exceptional circumstances, requires funding that does not come from selling the products they would make, or the services they would render, if they could succeed in becoming employed. The importance of this point cannot be overestimated. Attempts to end poverty, and thus greatly to facilitate solving ecological problems like global warming and social problems like racism, have regularly failed because they have sought solutions where no solutions are to be found. They seek solutions changing characteristics of the poor, as if the bottleneck problem were that characteristics of the poor prevent them from holding well-paying good jobs. It is tacitly assumed, more than it is consciously believed, that if the poor had more skills and better attitudes, and if there were sufficient incentives to invest and to grow the economy, then if job training and growth went on long enough, poverty and all of its painful consequences could come to an end.
3. About South Africa.
From the unbounded point of view I am advocating, in principle South Africa has not run out of viable options. Unbounded organization is a philosophy that postulates that where there is good-will –the most precious of all commodities and the character trait it should be the first and primary goal of education to cultivate—the number of viable solutions to any given problem is never finite.
My sketch of a generic solution to more than one problem, expressed in hermetic brevity that hopefully is more tantalizing than frustrating, calls for paying more people to be what Adam Smith called “servants.” And to do this especially in the countryside. And to do it especially calling on the servants to perform the most useful kinds of service anybody could possibly perform at this point in history: contributing to saving humanity from destroying itself by destroying its habitat.
The specific practices this general suggestion cashes out as, mesh with new thinking. New mental models. Other paradigms. One of Martin Luther King Jr.´s favourite Bible verses provides a slogan.: “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.”5
Let me explain. I will start by explaining what Smith meant by “servants.”6
For Smith, by definition a servant is someone who creates no product for his or her employer to sell. Smith distinguishes between servants and workers. A worker produces a vendible product. His master can sell it at a profit. A servant does not. A servant, by definition, is not productive. From Smith´s day until now measures of productivity measure only the production of what the science of economics defines as products, and products, by definition, can be sold.
More servants are needed because:
Much indispensable work still needs to be done that…
…workers are not going to do because there are no profits to be made hiring workers to do it…
…and because there is a deficit of dignified livelihoods (good jobs) leading to intolerable structural humiliation, depression, crime, violence and misery,…
…and that intolerable deficit must be made up funding servants because it cannot sustainably be made up generating profits by hiring workers.
(This analysis is complicated but in the last analysis not refuted considering that many people e.g. homemakers, professional thieves, self-employed people, rentiers…are neither workers nor servants.)
South Africa already has considerable public sector experience in paying servants to do useful work in order to create employment that the labour market does not create. For example: in creating dignified livelihoods for people employed to bathe old ladies who live alone and have no one to help them, for example people employed to counsel prisoners in jail on how to adjust to life after release, for example in gardening not to sell the vegetables but to give them free to impecunious people who would otherwise be reduced to living on mealy meal… and so on. 7
Trying out this different paradigm, more ancient than new, South Africa already has made many mistakes to learn from. It also has accrued a small but real number of successes to learn from. The brick wall that stops promising starts is the public deficit. Joseph Schumpeter´s thesis that a Steuerstaat (a state that relies on taxes for all or most of its income) cannot be a sustainable welfare state, is once again confirmed by historical experience.
One success, rare but real, is the use of public employment to catalyse community development. There are good examples to build on, carefully documented by Malose Langa and colleagues at the Centre for the Study of Reconciliation and Violence. In principle, social inclusion by strengthening community bonds, facilitating the empowerment of the excluded, and mobilizing the assets poor people already have, has already happened in pilots. But tying public spending on useful work to community development has not gone to scale.8
In the big business private sector, the Spirit of Davos, stakeholder capitalism, the doctrine of shared value taught at Harvard Business School, a merger of Ubuntu with today s global revival of amended Aristotelian ethics leading to Kosheek Sewchurran´s and Reuel Khoza´s concepts of moral leadership, and many other initiatives make South Africa part of today´s global ethical sea-change. Nevertheless, while ethical consciousness is growing. ecological and social disasters are becoming more severe, not less severe. And according to a 2012 report by the Organization of African States and the UN Economic Commission for Africa, while the Spirit of Davos was proclaiming the dawn of the age of the moral corporation, multinational business firms were dwarfing organized criminals and drug dealers in the sheer size of sums illicitly taken out of Africa, mainly by transfer pricing.9 Whether business ethics have improved in this respect between 2012 and 2022 I do not know. In any case my hypothesis is still that the private business sector is ready willing and able to contribute to rural happiness in South Africa. The business sector nationally and worldwide already donates large sums to non-profits dedicated to the common good, in addition to generating employment, goods and services in their own operations. Unfortunately, for the most part it appears to be trapped in mental models that assume that if economic growth goes on long enough, and if enough people are educated and trained to qualify for employment, then eventually it will be possible to solve humanity´s principal problems. It is not so.
Rural happiness, as a second approximation, consists of doing meaningful work, enjoying the prestige of being a valued member of a community, getting paid well enough to enjoy basic security, and doing this in the country instead of the city. While declining to call myself a romantic, I still imagine country spaces as spaces where for many thousands of years humans have lived close to nature, preserving community traditions, far from the madding crowds of great cities. So conceived, rural happiness can be an ethical contribution to coping with at least three of South Africa´s problems that are so severe that they can be called existential challenges:
The Existential Challenge of the morally indefensible (mostly black) poverty that generates violent anger.
A good start toward viable solutions would be to work for the happiness of two million black households who already own land in areas reserved for blacks under apartheid. Now they mainly experience never-ending grinding poverty practicing subsistence-oriented agriculture. South Africa –like almost every other country– has too few good jobs. Dignified rural livelihoods complementing what smallholders get from their land could have the effect of helping fill the good jobs deficit, both because the country dwellers could piece together decent livings and because urban job-seekers would face less competition from people who seek work in the city after giving up on trying to eke out a living in the country.
What exactly should members of the two million households do? For those of us who believe in local community leadership of asset-based local community development, the answer to this question must be “It is not for us to say.” It is for conscientious outsiders of one kind or another to provide discreet material and financial support, to audit to combat corruption, to harmonize local autonomy with the national and global necessity of working to save the planet, and to facilitate making the work done educational, not just a job. Concerning education, the members of poor black households not now getting much benefit from their land should be encouraged to pick up their formal and informal education at whatever point it formerly came to an end, learning among other things the science behind the work they are doing, like for example the science behind planting native trees. I suggest inviting Sidwell Mokgothu, the Methodist bishop of Limpopo, to participate in the process of developing this concept.
The existential challenges of food security, essential export earnings, and justice for the non-poor.
In South Africa no issue is more emotionally charged, or more dangerous as a potential detonator of violent conflict and as a threat to the stability of democratic institutions, than land reform.
It is too easy to reason that we, the blacks, were the owners of the land, it was taken from us by force, not just once in 1648 but also in 1913 and at other points of time. Now we are poor, deprived of the land that was for centuries our means of livelihood, while people whose skin is of a different colour have waxed rich exploiting their ill-gotten gains, and often also have exploited us, the true owners, as poorly paid labourers. In the face of the conclusions of this kind of easy reasoning, any justifications for delay in giving back the land are easily framed as self-serving procrastination
But achieving rural happiness for people who now are poor but could be happy working the land they already own if only their sector had sufficient community organization discreetly backed up by socially conscious outsiders, can be decoupled from issues around the large industrial farm sector. Seizing the lands of today´s high tech large scale agricultural entrepreneurs to atone for the sins of persons now deceased is not practical or ethical. The two sectors have complementary purposes. The main goals of the first are the happiness of the people, demonstrating methods capable of eradicating misery elsewhere, and the reversal of global warming and other threats to the biosphere. The second sector adds two more goals: producing enough food at low enough prices to assure the food security of South Africa´s city dwellers, and bringing to South Africa export earnings in foreign currencies necessary to pay for essential items South Africa does not produce and must import.
These considerations assume that some form of land reform, with willing sellers and willing buyers, as well as a general tendency for more of the large scale agricultural entrepreneurs to be black, will go forward at a reasonable pace. A government might even try pilot runs testing novel approaches like the EFF idea of the state acquiring land and leasing it.
These suggestions for supporting poor black landowners, if they work, will make further land reform easier, not harder. It will be easier because there will be working models of rural happiness that avoid the fate of so many land reforms in so many countries where new landowners came into the possession of a piece of land, but found that there was nothing much they could do with it.
And these specific suggestions do not exempt anyone from general ethics. Everyone and every organization of any size should do their part to achieve humanity´s green transition. Everyone should, as best they can, contribute to making life sustainable, safer, more meaningful, and more enjoyable for everyone else. Ubuntu is on the agenda, as are dharma, zakat and stewardship.
The existential challenge of saving the biosphere.
Nature needs servants to help her to repair the damage that humans have done to her, but she has no money to pay them. She would be grateful for anything we, who might have some money or have some influence with somebody who has money, could do to multiply leafy villages and towns all around the countryside. They would be rural spaces where many plants would be at work photosynthesizing carbon dioxide and releasing the oxygen thus liberated into the atmosphere. Some of the humans there would earn their livings, or parts of their livings, helping Nature to recover.
4. About Happiness
Nominating candidates for ways to help South Africans to cope with their existential challenges is not the main theme of these pages. The main theme is a flexible unbounded cosmovision, designed to orient the reinvention of humanity and its institutions. Because of the causal powers driving the catastrophic direction in which history is now moving; without reinventing ourselves, homo sapiens cannot survive. For all of prehistory and most of history humans have been too few and too poor to destabilize the delicate balances that make life possible. Now because we are too many and half of us are consuming too much, we are unsustainable. We are bringing many other species down with us. Since the main ideas in our minds, and the main norms that organize our institutions, were formed before we became a toxic species, in 2022 it is mind-blowing and revolutionary to adapt our mental models, our technologies and our economies to reality.
Living leafy models of escape from rural poverty, should also be frugal models. They should inspire frugality among the non-poor. They should display low tech paths to sustainability, like bicycles; complementing high tech paths to the same end, like phasing out generating electricity from fossil fuels while phasing in state-of-the-art renewables. As a third approximation, rural happiness is an educational ideal. It teaches lessons that can quickly go global on the Internet. It creates prototypes and best practices that can be replicated. It motivates both the poor and the non-poor to shrink their ecological footprints, because it is so easy to do after you learn how to do it, so much fun, and so deeply satisfying.
The word “happiness” (eudaimonia in ancient Greek) as a name for the purpose (telos) of actions implies caring about people. It implies attention to the details of people´s lives, for any number of different good or bad outcomes can affect whether people are happy are not.
It puts moral development on the agenda, for the relationship of happiness (eudaimonia) to virtue (arête) has been a central theme of necessary conversations in the West for many centuries. This agenda item, far from museumizing the ceremonies and beliefs and child rearing practices of other cultures present at any time and place, features them on the agenda too. It puts faith-based activities and projects on the agenda.
More recently psychologists have had much to say about happiness, for example Melanie Klein´s essays on the relationship between happiness in later life and experience at birth and in early childhood,10 and Martin Seligman´s work growing out of his studies of depression –one of the opposites of happiness.11
Perhaps most importantly, a focus on happiness marks a clean break with excessive reliance on narrowly economic thinking and on narrowly economic criteria for making decisions. It is a reminder that the whole purpose of an economy is to enable people to live well, happily, in harmony with nature. Economic issues today are at the core of our problems. Economics has to be reinvented, but it cannot be successfully reinvented by designing new approaches and transforming old approaches using only criteria internal to economics itself. The presence of the venerable word “happiness” denoting long histories of ethical and religious conversations in many cultures is an invitation to work on reinventing humanity and its institutions in more open conversations. It admits more criteria as relevant to distinguishing successes from failures.12
P.D. This is the end of this short paper. The same ideas will be found explained at greater length in other writings. If there is interest in practical applications, I would like to follow this paper with a sequel devoted to organizational and financial aspects of next steps.
1 And without being romantic at all as the term is understood by Pierre Bourdieu and likeminded left-leaning scholars. See Pierre Bourdieu, The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996.
2 See Hyman Minsky. John Maynard Keynes. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.
3 For an explanation of why this is the case, see Howard Richards and Joanna Swanger, The Dilemmas of Social Democracies. Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006.
4 Nancy Hartsock, Money, Sex and Power. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1983.
5 Romans chapter 12 verse 2.
6 Adam Smith. The Wealth of Nations, Book 2, Chapter 3
7 Howard Richards with the assistance of Gavin Andersson and Malose Langa, Economic Theory and Community Development. Lake Oswego OR: Dignity Press, 2022. Chapter 9.
8 On failure to go to scale, see the unpublished doctoral dissertation of Rejoice Shumba at University of Johannesburg.
9 To read this report google Report of the High Level Panel on illicit financial flows from Africa
10 Melanie Klein, Envy and Gratitude. London: Hogarth Press, 1924.
11 Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press. 2011.
12 Amartya Sen laments the narrowness of economics, and calls for incorporating more insights from more sources into decision-making processes in his book The Idea of Justice. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.