Sunday, June 27, 2010

A New Analogy

Karl Marx used architecture and engineering as an analogy for society. In his analogy a building’s base establishes both the shape of the building as well as the various functions of the building’s superstructure. In turn, Marx wrote, the superstructure functions to provide support and protection to the base. Marx compared human productive relations (i.e. economic system) as being like the building’s base in that they shape society’s legal, social, artistic, religious, political and other cultural features and institutions. In return, according to Marx, these various social features and institutions function to protect and support that same economic system that created them. G.A. Cohen, in his book Karl Marx’s Theory of History, gives an excellent analysis of Marx’s work.

One can understand why Marx might use such an analogy being that he lived during the heart of the industrial age. But maybe it’s time for a new analogy that we can better relate to here in the 21st century. Rather than looking to engineering and architecture it might be best that we look to the cutting edge science and technology of our age: genetics.

As we all know DNA is the blueprint that governs not only the development but the functioning of any living being. It even governs how an organism responds to the operant conditioning of the environment. DNA tells a dog to bark and a cat to meow. But unlike Marx’s architectural analogy, the reciprocal relationship between the organism and its DNA is well established. Not only does DNA shape and govern the organism but an organism strives to protect and pass along its own DNA. Biologists tell us that reproduction is the ultimate goal of any living organism.

Genetics as an analogy has another benefit that Marx’s building analogy didn’t. It provides a mechanism for change. Natural selection guides the evolution of life by putting pressure on organisms. Those that are most fit for their environment are able to have more offspring and therefore they pass along their genes more often than the less fit. While species tend to be stable and adaptable, something shown by Stephen Jay Gould, resulting in the outstanding diversity we see in nature, with the right conditions new species will arise.

We can take genetics and use it as an analogy of human society. An economic system might be compared to the DNA of an organism. The economic DNA of society shapes and governs the functions of the various social institutions and culture. Also, like the organism striving to survive and pass along its own DNA through reproduction, these social and cultural institutions in turn function to protect and reproduce their own economic systems.

But I find evolution to be the most exciting aspect of this analogy, especially Gould’s Theory of Punctuated Equilibrium. Using his theory as an analogy we can see how capitalism can appear to be beaten down and against the ropes yet by adapting come back strong while still keeping its nature of being capitalism. Just like most species, capitalism as a mode of production is both stable and adaptable.

That being said, speciation, the evolutionary process by which new species arise, is a fact proven by the fossil record. Like the fossil record, human history also shows that over time the various modes of production become extinct to be replaced by new ones. The Slave System was succeeded by the Feudal System, which was succeeded by Capitalist System. Just as species evolve so do modes of production.

While I don’t know when capitalism’s successor will arise this analogy gives me hope that it can happen. Hopefully Providence will allow me to see it occur in my lifetime.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Toyohiko Kagawa

What follows is another installment in occasional biographies of influential people in cooperativism.

Toyohiko Kagawa (b. 7/10/1883, d. 4/23/1960) was one of five children. At the time of his birth his father was the secretary of the Privy Council to the Emperor of Japan. Kagawa’s mother was one of his father's two wives and was a professional dancing girl. His father was later made the governor of two provinces and vice-president of a third. Tragedy struck early in his life for when Kagawa was just four years old his father died. Kagawa was then adopted by his father's other wife. Though the family was wealthy and Kagawa lived in splendor his home was empty of love and according to Kagawa a living hell.

At the age of nine Kagawa was sent to a Christian convent for his education. When he entered high school he learned English from an American missionary, using the Sermon on the Mount. According to Kagawa it was Luke 12:27, "Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; but I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these”, that changed his life. It was due to this verse that he began to notice the beauty of the world and began to pray. He then realized that it was possible, in spite of the pressure of his peers, to live what he considered to be an ethical life.

After high school he entered a Christian college and later begun his ministry in Tokyo. Shortly after arriving he became seriously ill and rented for one yen a month a fisherman's cottage in the slums. The minister stayed with Kagawa for four days. It was then that Kagawa decided that to become healed he needed to begin ministering to the impoverished lower class of Tokyo.

Over time more men joined them to stay at the house. One was a convicted murderer, while another suffering from syphilis. Together the four men attempted to survive on just eleven yen. This tight budget meant eating only two meals a day. They would fill themselves up on water and thin their rice with water. Kagawa wrote, “If you have plenty of food you can never understand the meaning of the Lord's Prayer.”

Eventually Kagawa traveled to America and attended Princeton University. Once he graduated Kagawa went back to Japan. Rather than simply preach to the downtrodden he became a labor organizer. At one point he was arrested for participating in a general strike, which would be just one of many times he would be arrested for throughout his life. After his arrest Kagawa started organizing cooperatives throughout Japan, as well as organizing farmers into associations.

Eventually he moved on to organizing student cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, and credit unions. As World War II loomed on the horizon Kagawa shuttled back and forth between the US and Japan in a futile attempt to head off war. At one point the fascist government of Japan arrested Kagawa but later released him. Following the end of the war Kagawa traveled across the world to spread his message of cooperative economics. After his death in 1960 the Emperor of Japan awarded him their nation's highest honor, the Order of the Sacred Treasure.

In 1936 Kagawa wrote his landmark book Brotherhood Economics in which he presented his philosophy of change, theological framework for change, the history of the cooperative movement, and the direction of change that he advocated. In Kagawa’s model he proposed networks of cooperatives that would be organized into federations. The cooperatives within the federations would provide for health care, production, marketing and transport, credit, education, utilities, and distribution.

The cooperative federations would also send representatives to a Social Congress and an Industrial Congress. These congressional bodies would in turn send legislative proposals up to the legislative body. The Social Congress would send legislation on social issues while the Industrial Congress would send legislation on economic issues. Funds for their creation would be provided by the cooperative credit unions.

In Kagawa's model of Cooperative Commonwealth, he also kept small family enterprises and other private enterprises. Kagawa advocated setting caps on the private enterprises to prevent them from growing large and become a threat to the cooperative economy.

Certainly there are some differences between the model of economic democracy advocated here and Kagawa’s. Most importantly though, the core of his economic model, with its emphasis on cooperatives as economic enterprises along with the continuation of family enterprises, without a doubt places Kagawa well within the school of the economic democracy.