Enriching the Commons: Marvin Brown's Economics of Provision

In his book Civilizing the Economy: A New Economics of Provision, Marvin Brown traces contemporary socioeconomic inequities back to Adam Smith’s silence on the role that slavery played in the creation of wealth. A teacher of business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco, Brown advocates for an economics of provision that encourages vigorous economic activity rather than the accumulation of property. In doing so, Brown presents a model for an ethical form of capitalism based upon sustainability and equity. In the following interview, Brown responded to questions from Shareable’s editorial staff and advisory board.

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.

Photo by Chris Metcalf on Flickr

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.

Paul M. Davis: On your blog you speak to American exceptionalism and state "we need a new story"--what are the economic roots for Americans self-defining as being superior to everyone else, and what sort of new narrative do we need?

Brown: There are multiple roots for American exceptionalism, of course, but the economic roots, I believe, can be found in the Enlightenment theory of human evolution from hunter society to commercial society. Commercial society was based on property ownership, where, except for slaves, one could trade the products of land or labor. For the Europeans, the land of the Americas was like a dream come true. What had been treated, for the most part, as a commons they turned into their private property. Today, the “American Dream” continues this possibility of ownership—to own your own home.

This story is based on the assumption, I believe, that ownership provides security. We all can have our own kingdom. One can see it as a return to feudalism with a commercial foundation. The problem is that this story excludes the damage caused by treating labor and land as commodities, and it runs up against the dangers of environmental destruction and the power of people’s demand for justice.

We need a new story that begins with the recognition that all human communities must do at least three things: provide for one another, protect one another, and maintain a meaningful social life in which all can participate. It is a story that begins with what we have in common, and then raises that to universal membership in a global civil society based on the civic norms of moral equality and reciprocity.