Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

Changing the World: One World at a Time

Posted Apr 21, 2012 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

So which world do you want to change: the world of sports, or shopping, or business, or the world of work?  There are lots of worlds, and many need repair.  (See my son’s attempt to repair the world of higher education: Whose University.) What world would you begin with?

When I was writing Civilizing the Economy, I thought it was the world of commerce, especially its Anglo-American version, with its entrenched pathology of denial and myopia (denial of slavery and myopia about markets).  Now, I think that this world is so intertwined with the world of politics, that repairing the political world is a necessary condition for pushing the economy toward justice and sustainability.  Money, of course, is a problem.  But even more frustrating is the dominance of commercial discourse in the world of politics.

To understand this more fully, we can make a distinction between a civic and a commercial argument. They both have their place, but not each other’s.  In a commercial argument, we haggle over the value of something, and try to convince the other that our product or idea is the best one.  This occurs in what is commonly called “the marketplace of ideas.”  Such arguments appeal to our interests, and we seek to find a coincidence of interests—a win/win situation—where we can agree.  In commercial arguments, we treat our ideas as properties or commodities that we try to sell to others.  So how does this differ from a civic model of communication?

In the civic model, speakers participate in the civic.  Much like we are engaged in the English language right now, as I write and you read this text, citizens become engaged in a civic conversation through participation in it.  In these conversations, instead of trying to sell their ideas as though they were commodities, participants spend time together developing new ideas that will move the conversation forward,

This difference between a commercial exchange and civic engagement is really central to understanding civic arguments.  It is like the distinction between ownership and membership.  If we think we own our ideas, then we protect them as we protect property, or we sell them for the right price (a promotion or at least some recognition).  If we see our ideas as belonging to a language and a culture, then we can enjoy their development as we become more familiar with the vocabulary and attitudes that constitute civic arguments.

As members of the civic, we can acknowledge each other as global citizens. This membership does not replace city or national citizenship, but rather expands it to include those with whom we share the planet, share this time, and share a similar planetary future.  It is grounded in what we share rather than in what we own.

Here is the paradox.  Although commercial arguments ultimately rely on the civic; in our current conditions, they suppress the civic both in the worlds of commerce and in politics.  Politics has become almost nothing but marketing. There are other possibilities.  The civic could serve as the basis for a political world based on democracy where speech is used to develop ideas—such as we see with many of the conversations stimulated by the Occupy movement. There is a place for commercial arguments, but not in the world of politics.

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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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