Do We Need a New Vocabulary for Politics

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Marvin Brown:

"Do we need a new vocabulary?

Here are some of the terms of the old vocabulary: public goods and private goods, for-profit and non-profit organizations, public agencies and NGOs, capital and social markets, government, markets, and civil society, the commons and the private.

The problem is that by itself this vocabulary does not help us understand how we should provide people with the goods they have reason to value, such as housing, food, clothing, security, health care, education, and so on. Furthermore, if we take any one of these general provisions and examine the system that provides it, we find all of the institutions and structures named in the old vocabulary working together (or not) to give everyone access to the provision (or not).

Take the system of providing food. There are government food stamps and government agriculture subsidies; local farmer markets and agriculture research at state run Universities; banks that provide credit and foreclose on farms; soup kitchens and citizen’s groups against fast food and cruelty to animals. Add to this advertising in the food industry, restaurants that contribute (or not) to a city’s ambiance, and the list goes on.

If the purpose of economics is to ensure that everyone has access to the basic provisions for a good life, then I think we need to think about creating a vocabulary that matches the actors, agencies, and institutions that actually play a role in the production, distribution, and restoration of the systems of provision, such as the food system.

In Civilizing the Economy, I argue that the first step is to create a civic foundation; instead of a property-based foundation, for conversations about re-designing the food system so it is more just and sustainable. That means that we enter the conversation as members of the civic rather than as owners of property.

Property ownership is a civic (legal) creation for the good management of our resources. It is something like a concession.

There are many questions about how to conceptualize and to design a food system that could move us from where we are to where we must go for a sustainable global economy. Perhaps the first, or close to it, is who controls our money. What should be the role of money (and banks) in the provision of food? Should we have private or public banks? Coop banks? Now, in the context of a conversation about the provision of food, the “old” vocabulary seems relevant. So maybe we don’t need a new vocabulary, but a stronger notion of the context (economic systems of provision) in which we use them." (email, September 2013)