Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

Complexity Theory and Human Action

Posted Feb 3, 2014 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, 2 Comments

At the center of complexity theory is that idea that a whole system is larger than its parts, and that out of this wholeness emerges newness.  This seems like a good description of some events and processes.  It helps us understand them better.  In other cases, it leads to misunderstanding.  This is especially true when complexity theory is applied to economics and politics.  The reason for the misunderstanding is that complexity theory tends to erase the part that human decisions and actions play in human history.  One could say complexity theory may be good for understanding human behavior, but it does a lousy job in understanding human action.


Complexity theories tend to overlook the difference between natural and social systems.  Social systems include not only events, processes, and feedback loops, but also choices.  Humans make choices because there are alternative courses of action—things could have been otherwise and could be otherwise.  Human decisions and actions must be included in any complete (complex) history of economics or politics.


Where complexity theory runs into trouble is when one uses its doctrine of emergence to interpret human systems.  I remember a question and answer session with one of the leaders in the doctrine of emergence, Otto Scharmer.  In this meeting, he talked about his book, U Theory: Leading from the Future as It Emerges (2009).  The idea was that we need to slide down the one side of “U,” letting go of everything holding us back, until we reach the bottom, and then join the new that emerges on the other side.  Scharmer said he got this theory from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.  Well, Heidegger certainly did have a strong belief in emergence.  In the early 30s, he believed the rise of Nazism was an emergence of a new humanity.  I asked Scharmer if he had known about Heidegger’s use of the doctrine of emergence, and more to the point, how he could discern if what was emerging was good or evil.  To put it nicely, he didn’t have a clue.  Neither did Heidegger, because whatever emerged was beyond good and evil.  Wherever we erase human choices from social systems, as Heidgger and Scharmer do, we also ignore the distinction between good and bad choices—the moral dimension of human life.


The classic case of erasing human action from social systems can be found in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.  During his years in Glasgow meeting with the tobacco lords of Glasgow (they made him a honorary citizen), Smith wrote about the invisible hand as the dynamic for economic development.  How reassuring to these tobacco lords, whose enormous wealth depended on the tobacco plantations in Virginia and Maryland, that the hand that created their wealth was not the visible hand of the slave merchant or the slave owner, but the invisible hand of the market.


A fine example of writing human history that includes both trends and human choices is Orville Schell and John Delury’s Wealth and Power:  China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century (2013).  They integrate deep collective motives and themes with individual choices by leaders and intellectuals.  Sun Yet-Sen, for example, decided to align himself with the Russians rather than the West in 1923 and 1924.  He made this choice in a thick context of social currents, of course, but he could have done otherwise, just as the Americans could have created stronger connections with China instead of Japan after the Second World War.


There are many strong trends today, and we all find our choices embedded in social systems.  Still, if we cannot point out some of the choices that got us to our current situation and some of the choices that may move us toward a better future, then why bother?

Where did we get lost?

Posted Jan 8, 2013 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, 2 Comments

It’s hard to know.  It was so long ago.  We began as hunters/gathers.  At that time, we lived with nature.  Hunters followed the herds and killed what they needed for food.  We did not control the herds.  The movement of the herds controlled us.  In good years, we lived together.

And we gathered nuts, fruit, and grains from the earth’s bounty.  We adapted to what was available.   In good years, we lived together.  Just as we celebrated the cunning and wisdom of animals, we also celebrated the earth’s fertility.

Then some of us became shepherds.  Instead of a hunter’s life of living with the herds, we created our herds—domesticated animals—and made them live for us.  We began our domination of nature.

And some of us became farmers.  Instead of gathering what nature had provided, we took nature’s seeds and planted them to serve us.  We dominated nature.

And so it goes.  Adam Smith made it clear to everyone.  In his Wealth of Nations, he describes the four stages of “man.”  We were first hunters, then shepherds, after shepherds, came farmers, and we ended up as a commercial nation, as traders.  What he forgot to mention, of course, is that the prosperity of the traders depended on the domination of millions of Africans, of millions of Americans, and of the earth.  That’s where we are.

How do we find ourselves?  We cannot return to hunting and gathering, although we certainly need to listen to those who continue these traditions in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.  We do need to adapt our life to the planet’s life.  We must live with the planet, much like we used to, when, in the good years, we lived together.

Glasgow: A Merchant’s City, The Labor of Slaves

Posted Jun 21, 2011 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, 1 Comment

The last city on my recent trip to Ireland and Scotland was Glasgow; a city whose early wealth depended on the labor of African slaves in the British colonies. If there were one city in Europe that should be obligated to pay reparations for African slavery, it would be Glasgow.

Shareable Magazine Interview on Economics of Provision

Posted Mar 7, 2011 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

Shareable Magazine interview

We need a new story

Posted Feb 20, 2011 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

It may seem that the uprising of peoples in the Middle East and Northern Africa represents a desire of millions to have what we in the United States already have.  To assume so would be a giant mistake.  

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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