Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

An Invitation to Civic Conversations

Posted Mar 12, 2016 by Marvin Brown in The Civic, No Comments

I have been thinking for some time about the notion of an invitation, and I began to wonder if anyone had invited me to say what I have to say. Most white people, like myself, probably assume that others want to hear what we have to say. That’s why we talk and write so much. I came to realize its not so simple, especially if you want to engage in a conversation with others. I tried to imagine how such a conversation might begin. Here it is:


I would like to share my ideas about how we should live together.

You want to talk to me about how we should live together?


Did I invite you?

Well, no. I do assume we have to live together. Right?

No, not really, and I am not sure if you know what you are asking.

What do you mean?

Do you know enough about me to know whether or not you want to live with me?

Probably not, but I could learn about you if we engage in a conversation about how we want to live together.

Do you really want to learn about me?

Of course, at least as much as you want to know about me?

I already know enough about you.

How can you say that? We have not started sharing.

I know that you think you can engage in a conversation with me whenever you want to.

I guess so. What is wrong with that?

It indicates that you don’t really understand our social differences. Did you notice that I am a different gender and skin color? We really do live in different social worlds.   I would never approach you as you have approached me.

Why not?

Because you remain unaware of things that are different for us, so I cannot really trust you.

My goodness, I didn’t know that. I assumed that I could express my ideas and then you would respond with your ideas, and we could then continue an interesting exchange of ideas.

Sorry, I know I will lose if we engage in such an exchange of ideas. You are really good at dealing with ideas.

You make that sound like a liability.

It’s only a liability when it diverts us from paying attention to what is preventing us from developing a relationship.

I thought we are relating.

Well, we are talking, but so far we have been sending messages to each other, not really engaging in the creation of a conversation that unites us—a conversation that allows us to really see and feel each other’s presence.

What needs to happen for us to move into that kind of conversation?

I need to invite you.


People need an invitation to their common humanity. Without the invitation, we remain trapped in our social differences.

And what is preventing you from inviting me?

As I said, it is a matter of trust.

Listen. We really are in this together. We are both persons who at this moment are engaged in this conversation.

We are not in this together. I live in a legacy of violations of our common humanity through racism sexism, and imperialism, and you do not. In fact, your family has benefited from these inequalities.

OK, I can admit that. Still, I didn’t choose my parents any more than you did. I am not responsible for how things happen.

I am not blaming you. Your privileges make my realities invisible to you. I am expressing the need to repair the violation of our common humanity. Without repair, we will never really be able to invite each other into a truly civic conversation.

I find this really humiliating.  


I’m not guilty for what happened years ago. I wasn’t even born, and my parents may be white, but they worked hard for what they got.

Let me ask you something. What makes you feel humiliated?

I feel so presumptuous.

What does that mean?

I assumed I could help improve things. I do have resources. But I didn’t have any idea you would give me so much flack. It’s just uncomfortable.

And why do you feel that way now?

It’s the way you look at me.

You mean the way you see yourself in my eyes?

I don’t know, I just feel vulnerable.

I will not harm you.

Will you protect me?

We have had to protect ourselves from the likes of you for a long time.

I am sorry.

We both live in a violent world, a world that harms some much more than others. These violations of our common humanity need to be repaired.

So, what should we do?

Can I ask you a question?


When you were growing up, did you Mother tell you that you were special?

Of course!

Well, you are not special. You’re one of us. Just another person

(long pause) That’s a weird idea. I was just accepting the idea that we are different.

We are different, and we are the same. To engage in a meaningful conversation, we must be open to learning what this means. Can you do this?

I can try?

So what do you say?


Are Citizens national, natural, or civic?

Posted Sep 13, 2013 by Marvin Brown in The Civic, No Comments

How interesting that one becomes a national citizen through naturalization, rather than through nationalization as one would expect.   This deserves some reflection:

Disagreement, Dialogue and Creativity

Posted Jul 18, 2013 by Marvin Brown in The Civic, Uncategorized, No Comments

Has there ever been a greater need for creative ideas than today?  If you have been paying attention, you know that the current global economic system is already an unsustainable burden on the earth.  One indication among many:  The biosphere can handle 350 parts of carbon per million, in 2011 we were at 392, and in 2013, at 400.  The gradual destruction of the planet, of course, is not the whole story.  We are also flooded with a multitude of ideas and experiments in developing sustainable communities.  Still, when we look at global economic trends, too often we see those in power using these good ideas to improve things, but not to change them.  Maybe it is naïve to expect much more from people in positions of privilege.  Still, using creative ideas to improve current systems is like adding gasoline to a fire.  We have had about as much “creative destruction” as we can take.  We need some creative transformation. Perhaps we can better grasp the necessary conditions for such transformation by thinking about the relationship between creativity and disagreement.

Civic Reasons for Gun Safety

Posted Apr 21, 2013 by Marvin Brown in civic vs. commercial, The Civic, No Comments

Most people do what they think is right, considering the world they think they live in.  This seems true in many cases, and the defeat of the expansion of gun registration in the US Senate seems to be one of them. So if we want to understand these senators, we need to understand the world they think they live in, and if we think they make a mistake, then we need to understand what’s wrong with their world-view. 

Whether one resists or promotes change, one usually uses one of three strategies: persuasion, incentives, or regulation.  In this case, the proposed change was regulation.  Good laws, however, seldom gain adherence by themselves.  People need to believe they will help or perhaps that they are simply the right thing to do.  With 90 percent of those polled supporting such regulation, it would appear that casting a yes vote would have been fairly simple.  After all, why would one shoot down gun safety?

It turns out persuasion was not strong enough to outweigh the third strategy for maintaining or changing systems: incentives.  In the world of many senators, they had nothing to gain by voting for gun safety and a lot to loose.  It seems reasonable for senators not to support the legislation if the negative rating by the National Rifle Association would have a more negative impact on their political future than the positive feeling of those who support gun safety.  If that was the case, then we can conclude that they operated in a political world of bargains and exchanges—a kind of commercial politics—rather than in a world of disagreement and deliberation—a civic politics.

In commercial politics, elected officials follow the preferences and interests of their constituency, and use them for determining the right position on different issues.  Sounds like democracy, if one sees democracy as bargaining.  What if democracy is not about the exchange of ideas, but about the generation of ideas; not about consumer preferences, but about citizen’s beliefs, not about agreeing, but rather about disagreeing, with the strongest?   

When politics is based on the civic, persuasion will have more force than incentives.  At the same time, as long as we stay in the world of what we have—property relations—instead of who we are—civic relations—it is doubtful if we will generate the kind of empathy and solidarity that makes persuasion persuasive in politics.


Civic and Commercial Arguments

Posted Mar 12, 2013 by Marvin Brown in civic vs. commercial, The Civic, No Comments

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 involves engaging 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 a commercial argument, we see people exchanging their ideas with each other.  Each person exists isolated from the other and they market their ideas to each other.  In civic dialogues, we see people working through their disagreements in a shared civic context.  Much like we are engaged in the English language 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 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.  To be a member is to acknowledge that we are all in this together, and that as members, we all have equal moral status.  This moral equality of all members carries with it a second implicit civic norm: the norm of justice or reciprocity.  The claim here is quite simple:  All members should receive good for doing good.  The relationships among the members should be reciprocal.  Actually, reciprocity also plays a role in justifying differences.  As Ernst Baker has pointed out, reciprocity fosters “balanced social relations” (Becker, 1986).  A balanced social relation does not mean that everyone has the same, but it does mean that the differences are among members, instead of among members and non-members.

When we think about our future, it is truer than ever before that we are all in the same boat.  Even though we today live within the conflicts generated by class, race, gender, and nationality, all our grandchildren will inherit the same earth.  Their inheritance depends on our willingness to work together to create a more just and sustainable world.  Civic membership does not resolve the disagreements about how to do this, but it does give us a platform upon which we can work together toward viable solutions.

Remember that one cannot be a citizen alone.  It is a relational and collective concept.  It is about belonging—belonging to the civic. Because equal membership is granted to all who participate, all have equal rights to be involved, or at least represented, in arguments that affect them.  These civic arguments can occur in many different places from local to international assemblies, in workplaces, voluntary associations, neighborhoods, and government agencies.  A civic argument is not defined by place, but rather by human relationships—relationships of moral equality, reciprocity, and participation.   If we apply these moral claims to arguments among citizens, civic arguments would exhibit the following characteristics.

  1. Each person’s participation is equally valued
  2. Participants feel safe enough to risk sharing their point of view
  3. They ask questions in an effort to understand each other,
  4. They develop reasons for their views that others can grasp.
  5. They value their differences,
  6. They work together for the best solution possible.

You can use the exercise below to assess your experiences of and knowledge about good civic arguments.  List 7 people with whom you have conversations and then rank them in terms of how often (1 meaning seldom and 5 meaning often) the conversations include the six features of civic arguments.

                                  Conversational Capacity


Conversational Partners 1 2 3 4 5 6

Feel safe

Ask questions

Develop good reasons

Give the benefit of the doubt

Value differences

Work together



Seldom   1   2   3   4   5   Often

Seldom   1   2   3   4   5   Often

Seldom   1   2   3   4   5   Often

Seldom   1   2   3   4   5   Often

Seldom   1   2   3   4   5   Often

Seldom   1   2   3   4   5   Often


After you finish the exercise, you can reflect on why some individuals received different numbers than others.  Also, you can imagine how they would have assessed their capacity for good conversations.  If you think they also would have had some high numbers with some people, then all of you have the individual capacity for good conversations.  The question is how to change our conditions so that all of us can participate at our highest potential.  I am not alone on working on this, but there is a lot still to be done.

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.

Adam Smith Atlantic trade banks biosphere citizen Citizens United city civic civic conversations civic economy civic membership civilizing the economy common citizen Commons corporate citizen corporation as property corporations democracy disagreement economics of dissociation economics of provision Egypt future health care reform invisible hand John Locke Kant libertarianism membership money moral equality ownership property property relations protection reciprocity Scotland slavery Smith and slavery Smithian economics sustainability taxes the civic tobacco trade Wall Street

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