Civilizing the Economy

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* Book: Civilizing the Economy. A new economics of provision. Marvin T. Brown. Cambridge University Press, 2010




1. If we want to create a just and sustainable economy, we must free ourselves from the legacy of the Enlightenment’s economics of property-as illustrated by Adam Smith's silence about the role of slavery in wealth creation.

2. We can create a new economics that is grounded in the three essential aspects of all human communities: making provisions for one another, protecting one another and creating social meaning.

3. If we treat labor, land and money as providers rather than commodities, we can use what they provide and protect them from abuse.

4. As global citizens we can organize civic systems of provision (food, housing, transportation and so on) that are based on civic norms, such as reciprocity, and are responsive to supply and demand.

5. The future of our global economy depends on civic conversations in which all people are represented in deliberations on how to turn systems of provision toward justice and sustainability.

6. We can create the conditions for such civic conversations right now at school, at work, in our neighborhoods, in our associations and in government agencies."

Marvin Brown:

"If you have been paying attention, you know that global economic trends all but ensure that we will leave to our grandchildren unstable communities of inequality and a despoiled planet, and yet we continue to push for policies that maintain these unjust and unsustainable trends. Civilizing the Economy addresses this economic disconnect by telling two stories.

The first story revolves around the Anglo-American belief that the value of things is their property value. Adam Smith’s writing The Wealth of Nations is a perfect illustration. Even though Smith knew that the slave-based tobacco trade was a major source of wealth creation, he does not write about it because for him slaves were property. This tradition of treating living beings—labor and land—as property perpetuates the disjointed thinking we witness today.

The second story describes the emergence of the civic sphere, and how it could became the platform for civic conversations about how to provide, to protect, and to find purpose for global communities. In such an economy, relationships would be based on civic membership rather than on property ownership. Instead of economic sectors for investment, we would have economic systems of provision that would provide for all. This second story provides an alternative to our current corporate economy: a citizen’s economy."


1 Introduction: Creating A Just And Sustainable Economy

Part 1: Creating a New Economic Framework

2 Adam Smith's Silence and an Economics of Property

3 Reclaiming the Notions of Provision and Family

4 Making Provisions in a Dangerous World

Part 2: The Civic Option

5 From Property Relations to Civic Relations

6 Society, Civil Society and the Market

7 Restoring Reciprocity

8 Civic Norms and Market Competition

Part 3: A Civic View of Labor,Land, and Money

9 Labor: Employment as Engagement

10 Land: Ownership as a Concession

11 Money: Commodity or Credit

Part 4: Civilizing Economic Systems

12 A World of Systems

13 Imagining a Stakeholder Economy

14 The Ethics of Economic Systems

15 Changing Systems of Provision

Part 5: A Civic Agenda

16 The Civic Obligations of Corporations

17 Creating Circumstances for Civic Conversations


The Civic Option as a Third Way

Excerpted from Chapter One, by Marvin Brown:

"The current economic story has its origin in the eighteenth-century during the Scottish Enlightenment, at the beginning of the first global Atlantic trade between Europe, Africa, and the American colonies. During this period new theories of property and property relations were developed to explain and to justify the Atlantic economy, which involved the enslavement of more than eleven million Africans to supply the labor for the growing economies of the Americas. Slaves, at the time, were treated as property. They received no more sympathy and consideration than cattle or horses. This is a hard truth, but it is the dark stain that continues to influence how many of us think about economics today. The refusal to integrate this history into our views of Anglo-American economic development prevents us from telling the truth about the current destruction of the environment or to acknowledge—really acknowledge—the misery of workers today who provide us our goods. But facing this history is the only way out of the economics of property and into an economics of provision that could save the future for our children and grandchildren.

Many people see only two organizing options: capitalism or socialism. This book offers a third option: a civic option. As citizens, guided by such civic norms as reciprocity, we can engage in civic conversations to turn economic systems toward sustainability and justice. If we are smart citizens, we will not discard things that can work, such as markets and property rights, but we will also not allow them to control our fate.

In a sense, moving from an economics of property to an economics of provision continues the ongoing shift from ownership as the basis for citizenship to citizenship being the basis for ownership. In the eighteenth century, ownership was really the basis of full citizenship and the right to vote was contingent on property rights. In some states, citizens without property did not get the right to vote until 1850. Women did not achieve full citizenship until the 20th century. The economy, however, has continued to remain under the control of property owners. It is time—in fact, is it past time—to replace property rights with civic rights as the basis for our life together.

The new framework does not eliminate property rights. Instead, it places them in the context of making provisions. An economics of provision does not eliminate the market, but it sees civic relations rather than market relations as a basis for a global community. Non-market norms and institutions—things such as stability, trust, and the rule of law—already provide a foundation for market transactions. Labor unions, government legislation to protect workers and the environment, and financial regulations have also constrained the reach of an economics of property. Non-profits and voluntary organizations are doing amazing things to help people’s lives. In his recent book Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken presents the work of many of these groups, which he called “the largest movement in the world.” This movement, he believes, now includes between one and two million organizations. These non-governmental organizations are growing all over the world as people of all ages try to protect themselves and the planet from the current trends of an economics of property. In an economics of provision, all these non-market programs and protections will be strengthened so that all persons will be treated as citizens existing in relationships of basic moral equality and reciprocity.

Three Strategies for Change: Incentives, Regulation and Persuasion

Excerpted from Chapter 13:

"Just as there are three basic activities of human communities (providing, protecting, and creating a worthwhile purpose), so there are three basic strategies (incentives, regulation, and persuasion) for changing systems of provision—each one appropriate to one the those activities. We can change how a system exchanges goods and services through incentives, how it protects providers through regulations, and how it understands its purpose and beliefs through persuasion.


Given the clear evidence that all of the systems of provision in which we live today are unsustainable, we need to make changes in the rewards that support them, the regulations that constrain them, and the beliefs that legitimize them. Incentives in the market can promote technological innovations to create more sustainable products and processes. New government regulations can improve the protection of the key providers of wealth—the natural environment and human providers. And education by school systems, advocacy groups, and the media can change public opinion. All three strategies belong to any competent plan for change, and the correct balance among them will depend on the particular system of provision."


Excerpted from Shareable:

“Michel Bauwens: The key topic of your book, as I see it, is the difference between a property approach to economics and a civic approach to economics, based on the provisioning of needs. Can you explain the basic difference?

Marvin Brown: There are two basic differences here. One is about relationships. In an economics of property, the foundation for relationships of exchange is ownership. This means that whatever cannot be owned does not count. It also means that those who do not own things must allow someone else to own them in exchange for things they need to survive. In a civic economy, on the other hand, the exchanges are based on civic norms, such as moral equality and reciprocity. Exchanges will still be guided by supply and demand, but a person’s contribution will not be determined solely by price, but also by what one needs to make a living—by reciprocity.

The second difference is about the economy’s purpose. In an economics of property, the systemic aspect of distribution is ignored, or mystified by some sort of “invisible hand,” and the focus is on an individual’s accumulation of things. A civic economics of provision, on the other hand, takes responsibility for the management of different systems of provision, such as the food or the housing system, and ensures that they provide for all citizens.

Bauwens: In your book’s first chapter, you are rereading Adam Smith and uncovering his silence on slavery, showing he considered slaves unproblematically as commodities to be traded, and also his deep involvement in the milieu of Scottish tobacco and slave traders. Is this a new insight, and why is it important?

Brown: I don’t know anyone else who has connected the dots between Smith’s knowledge about wealth creation in the Atlantic triangle of Africa, the Americas, and Europe and his description of the process of wealth creation in The Wealth of Nations. The relationship between slavery and capitalism has been well documented, but ignored by most Anglo-American economists. And that is the point. The legacy of Smith’s omission of the role of slavery in wealth creation has produced what I call an economics of dissociation that ignores the misery of the real providers of wealth and then is optimistic about a “free” market. This ideology remains with us today, and is a major impediment to moving toward a sustainable and just economy.

Neal Gorenflo: You believe that the way Adam Smith obscured the role of slavery in the 18th century economy influenced how we think about property today. How do you think slavery influenced how we think about labor today?

Brown: Slavery continues to influence our thinking about labor today in several ways. Just as the work of African slaves has been, for the most part, excluded from modern economic history, mainstream economics has also excluded the history of the struggle of workers to gain recognition as persons with human dignity and civic rights.

Furthermore, the slave-master and the employer-employee relationship are both based on property relations. Workers are different from slaves because they “own” their property, but their relationship with the employer remains much the same. In neither case are workers treated as members of work-communities that have the rights of representation and reciprocity. Finally, if you ask what masters and slaves had in common, the answer is probably one word: fear. The slaves feared the arbitrary decisions of the master, and the master feared the slaves’ humanity. And what do we have in common today? As long as our relationships are based on what we own or do not own, it will probably be fear. Or, we could move to a new commons based on membership in a global civil society.

Bauwens: If we see society as a triarchy between state, private corporations, and citizens constituting civil society, you stress the importance of the latter to determine the economic system, i.e. you broaden democracy to the economic sphere, and you see the civic sphere as central. However, I feel you do not pay a lot of attention to more recent trends, such as for example open source and commons-based peer production. How would taking this into account change your insights?

Brown: I think you are right. I am learning a lot right now about peer-to-peer productions, the commons, collaboration, and social networking. All this seems to fit with and to expand an economics of provision. Right now, I am exploring the use of multiple locations for people to participate in a global civil society. For example, I am quite interested in exploring the city as a location for progressive activities. A city is a place, of course, and contains social, economic, political, and cultural worlds. Perhaps the great cities of the world will provide a location for not only connecting with each other, but also for providing each other with the provisions we have reason to value.

Bauwens: I have enormously appreciated your book as a new and fresh way to look at a more humane economics, no longer based on the freedom of property but on everyone’s right to participate as citizens. Nevertheless, what I miss is a transition strategy. As compelling as a vision of the future may be, we also need to know how to get there. But surely, the current propertied elite will not let go of the old system unproblematically, just as they staunchly defended slavery before. So, how do we get from here to there?

Brown: In an earlier book, Working Ethics, I used Kenneth Galbraith’s idea of three forms of power: position power, exchange power, and organization power. (Galbraith, The Anatomy of Power,1983). During feudalism, power resided in one’s position. During industrial capitalism, it resided in one’s property, and now it resides in the capacity to organize. One can change power relations, in other words, by changing how things are organized—by changing systems. Changing systems, as I argue in Civilizing the Economy, occurs through changes in education, incentives, and regulation. Millions of people and thousands of organizations are involved to bringing about these changes. I hope the narrative of a civic economics of provision will be something they can use to support their work.

I think the failure to change the United States slave-based economy by peaceful means was largely due to the enormous financial investment of the confederate states in slaves. They were fighting to keep their property: their form of free enterprise. Still, this war was not called a property war, but a civil war. At the deepest level, both sides fought for a civic life, and we continue be to engaged in this conflict. There will be those who will resist moving toward a just and sustainable economy. I don’t know who will “win the future”, to use President Obama’s phrase. I have chosen to believe in democracy, so it is an honor to participate with you and others who are changing systems and telling new stories that seem to move us in the right direction.” (


Towards a Citizen's Economy

Marvin Brown:

"The first premise of a citizen’s economy is that it belongs to citizens—not to some citizens or citizens with property, but to all citizens. And who is a citizen? We can return to the original meaning of citizen: a member of a city, so all who belong to the city are citizens. Citizenship, in other words, is based on membership, not on ownership. So what is a city? A city is the place where people must cooperate in order to live together. This cooperation does not stifle diversity, conflict, or even competition. In fact, it does the opposite. It facilitates it and allows it to flourish.

Today, of course, systems of cooperation include urban and rural areas. Few places still exist beyond these systems, especially when we think of issues like global warming or sustainability. We are all citizens today (belong to systems of cooperation) because we live in relationships with one another, even if some refuse to acknowledge this.

A citizen’s economy would begin with this basic premise and then citizens would design an economy based on such civic norms as reciprocity, moral equality, and representation. This would require a change in our current thinking as big as the change we need if we are going to move our economy toward justice and sustainability." (

Dissociate Economics of Property as Foundation of Libertarianism

Marvin Brown:

"If you want to understand the foundation of libertarianism, there is no better place to look than Adam Smith’s view of property relations.Laced throughout Smith’s book, The Wealth of Nations, one finds the Enlightenment doctrine of the four stages of history: the evolution from a hunter society through herding and agriculture to a commercial society. These stages were also about the development of property and the development of government. At the commercial stage, ownership of property had become the basis of free enterprise and government’s role was to protect property.

I think that libertarianism fits squarely on this legacy of property relations. Freedom is the right to do what I want with what I have, with my property. What is especially irritating to libertarians is for the government to take from the “haves” and give it to the “have-nots.” What is equally irritating to non-libertarians is the practice of treating the people and the planet as property, and of ignoring how everyone is interrelated and interconnected in social and economic systems. In contrast to the Anglo-American property-based tradition, the philosophers of continental Europe based human freedom on the moral will and human dignity. This has given them a framework for seeing people related to one another as a moral community. The Anglo-American tradition of property relations does not have the same resources. In fact, if we want to create a political economy that would move us toward justice and sustainability, we will need to move beyond Smithian economics and libertarianism. We will need to create a global civil society that includes all as members, instead of a property-based society that separates us into the haves and the have-nots." (

Civisism as Foundation of Politics and Economics

Marvin Brown:

"Civicism believes that all citizens have certain obligations to each other based on such civic norms as solidarity, moral equality, and reciprocity.

Solidarity may seem rather irritating for libertarians, because they tend to ignore the very essence of citizenship: civic membership. A bit of reflection, however, should make clear that without membership in a political community, no one could enjoy property rights. It is a “we” that makes it possible for any “I” to enjoy the benefits of ownership. At the same time, membership does not negate ownership; it simply places it in the context of civic relationships. Health care also belongs to these civic relations.

Civic moral equality may be an even greater challenge for libertarians than solidarity, because libertarians tend to divide the world into the haves and the have-nots. If the government tells them what to do with what they have, they see it as a form of tyranny. For them, morality is a kind of property management—the management of their personal and private property. Some would say that socialism is also about property management. They just want the government to manage it.

The civic view of moral equality, however, begins with the notion of persons as moral actors. Moral equality means that most of the time, most of us do what we think is right considering the world we think we live in. Most conflicts, in other words, are conflicts between right vs. right rather than conflicts between right vs. wrong. This understanding of moral equality serves as the foundation for civic deliberations about controversial policy issues. All citizens have the right to participate in public conversations about our life together. This means that everyone’s voice deserves equal representation and equal attention in the conversations about health care.

Reciprocity refers to the foundation for making exchanges, for giving and taking, and for mutual insurance against the risks we all face. One finds it in almost all cultures. And yet, in our society, it has been mostly replaced by the notion of market price. Today, many calculate whether to participate in health care insurance programs in terms of whether the costs outweigh the benefits. “Is health insurance a good investment for me? If not, why bother?”

After 250 years of living in an economic legacy that pictures exchanges as based on self-interest, this seems quite normal. In fact, in terms of human history, it is an aberration. Human communities, for the most part, have assumed that what one gives will someday be returned. It is not so much a calculation as an expectation towards oneself and toward others. Obviously, it rubs against the individualism of the libertarian. Still, even they can see (if they want to) that we all live today in complex systems and get most of what we have through these systems. Even a drink of water comes from an elaborate water system. That is also true of health care. The fact is that we do depend on one another. Reciprocity transforms that dependence into one of moral value. It honors our capacity to provide for and to protect one another.

In the United States, we do have a tradition of civil rights and civic virtue. It is based on the recognition of the dignity of the individual as a member of the civic community: as a citizen." (


Ernesto Aguilar:

"In Marvin Brown’s Civilizing the Economy: A New Economics of Provision (Cambridge University Press, 2010) the pillars of capitalism are thoroughly examined and the role white supremacy has played is put forward forcefully in one of 2010′s more fascinating books. Brown’s unflinching analysis of all that capitalism holds dear, from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations to industry’s advocacy of employment forms benefiting it, will enrich all who read it.

Virtually all the examples within Civilizing the Economy‘s premise — that the U.S. current economic order is unsustainable as it currently functions — can be traced back to a single flashpoint in North American history: the Atlantic slave trade and the use of chattel slavery to buffer early capitalism from the pressures it faces today. While the roots of the economic structure go back further, to the era of Scottish Enlightenment, the constant tension of what Brown refers to as property versus provision — ownership juxtaposed against civic needs and responsibilities — defined the United States virtually from day one. Ideas such as at-will employment, Brown writes, can be tracked back to master-slave relationships, which have stripped away people’s moral obligations to each other in work environments. While largely steering clear of slavery’s racial context in North America and focusing on it as a brutal tool in modern capitalism’s birth, Brown nevertheless gives an important understanding of how slavery profoundly shapes society to this day. He is not the first person to write it, but Civilizing the Economy gives an intelligent, concise overview of the economic, legal and cultural framework created in the shadow of human bondage.

Ideals such as civic deliberation (the idea that workers should discuss effective work relations), appropriate land use and civic obligations of business, he says, have been replaced by a mercenary system that is wrecking people’s lives, the planet and our ability to see others humanely and corporations as entities that owe the greater society more than jobs or token donations. Brown’s historical citations on these issues are provocative. He is certain to get you thinking about the things you take for granted in the workplace, job interview and unemployment line. Brown is further likely to make you think about what corporate responsibility really entails in a modern society.

To be clear, Civilizing the Economy is not an anti-capitalist book. Far from it, in fact. In Brown’s eye, an “economics of provision” would mean workers would provide and protect one another primarily as a method for operating ethically. A radical restructuring of the capitalist economy would shear away the influence of lobbyists and power brokers and turn the focus more to civic conversations involving communities as a whole. Those who may have seen the impressive documentary Venezuela: Revolution From the Inside Out (PM Press, 2008) may have caught a glimpse of how such neighborhood meetings and civil society building endeavors could work. However, in Venezuela, with a rich rebellious history, ideas of direct democracy took hold via a sustained, well-organized block-by-block organizing drive in a country whose crushing poverty pushed the masses to get active. In the United States, where deprivation is relative, Brown’s ideas could be a harder sell. Yet Civilizing the Economy‘s absorbing questions of history, community and the future still make it worthy of debate." (

2. by Heidi Garrett-Peltier:

Opening Paragraph:

"The economic crisis of 2008 and the great recession in which we still find ourselves have made it abundantly clear that mainstream economic thought needs an overhaul. The profit motive of a capitalist economy, combined with a nearly unregulated financial sector, caused financial firms to pursue actions that were in their own short-term interests, but which added no real value to the economy and, in fact, undermined the very system of which they are a part. In his newest book, Civilizing the Economy, Marvin Brown challenges the framework of a free-market economy and offers an alternative vision for the place and purpose of economic interactions. The economy, Brown argues, should be based on providing for the needs and wants of humans, and we should recognize the role of the providers themselves. Reframing the way we speak of and view the economy would engender changes in the way we organize firms and markets and would re-position the economy within the social and civic sphere." (

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