Redefining Prosperity

Edit Article

Redefinir la prosperite-visuel.jpg

Redefining prosperity: milestones for a public debate

(Largely based on translated quotes from Isabelle Cassiers. et alii (2011), Redéfinir la prospérité. Jalons pour un débat public, Ed. de l’Aube, 281p.[1])

What does prosperity express? In common parlance, the word prosperity is ambivalent, which in itself renders the concept interesting to investigate. Current definitions vary between two types of understanding referring either to being or to having. On the one hand, prosperity signifies a happy state and refers therefore to notions of well-being, happiness, felicity and even beatitude. Such a definition evokes a state of being, an accomplishment rooted in the present. On the other hand, prosperity means an increase in wealth, the path towards abundance, opulence or success, and refers then to economic activity, its expansion, its progress. This second interpretation relates to the frenzy associated with material possession and its growth.

The coexistence of these two understandings raises questions. Prosperity comes from the Latin prosperus: in line with or in favor of our hopes and expectations. Our continuous aspirations towards the accumulation of wealth might have concealed the expectations and aspirations rooted in the “being” aspect of prosperity. The progressive erosion of the first definition by the second may be the origin of the major problems faced by our civilizations today. The assimilation between “happy state” and “wealth increase” could be a useful key to understanding the multidimensional crisis we are facing.

These are the questionings that gave rise to the book Redéfinir la Prospérité. Jalons pour un débat public (Redefining Prosperity. Milestones for a public debate). About twenty scholars from various disciplines — philosophy, economics, economic history, sociology, political sciences, law, environmental sciences, agronomy, biology, medicine — mostly but not exclusively academics, have taken time to share and confront their knowledge and doubts, and allowed themselves radical questionings.

Gathering various disciplines appeared essential to understand the philosophical and historical origins of the definition of prosperity that was implicitly ours during three centuries and which has imposed itself to a broader extent during the last sixty years. Essential as well to identify the complex processes from which the current problems result; for clarifying the interactions between the various dimensions of a crisis which is ecological, social, nutritional, economic, political and cultural all at once; for understanding why sixty years of economic growth has neither increased life satisfaction in the West nor swept away world’s misery. Eventually, gathering various perspectives was essential to suggest solutions and paths to explore in order to ensure that our development meets the fundamental values expressed by populations; to propose revisions of our ways of life, of our behaviours, of our society’s organization and of the collective action that could respond, on an equitable basis to our deepest aspirations.

“(…) The debate which this book hopes to feed could spark major social transformation”. Here are “few key themes which emerge as milestones for a public debate on our choices for thought and action.The most widespread concept of prosperity today, embedded in our economic model for centuries, assimilates prosperity to the growth of material wealth. This reduction of a potentially broader concept to its sole material dimension was made possible (…) by an upheaval in the moral order, beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries, which legitimized the individual will to self-enrichment. (…)The “state of happiness”, fruition of prosperity, was wedded to the infinite pursuit of the accumulation of material goods. All the contributions to this book highlight the paucity of the framework inherited from this historical turning point and the wealth of perspectives opened by a reworking of the definition of prosperity. The points of convergence among the various contributions of the book lead to important questions on which the reader is invited to take a position. First (1), from a historical perspective, they strengthen the belief that we have arrived at a new turning point, signaling a shift as profound as the one which marked our societies three or four centuries ago. Next (2), from a substantive perspective, the contributions converge to force us to abandon an overly narrow and outmoded concept of prosperity and profoundly reconceptualize this vehicle of our collective goals, adapting it to current constraints and aspirations. Finally (3), from a procedural and political point of view, the contributions together lead us to face the redefinition of prosperity as a practical problem; the question of actions to undertake, decisions to be made, and barriers to overcome in carrying it out.

The historical question: taking stock of a turning point and daring to engage

The goal of economic growth, linked to the use of the Gross domestic product (GDP) as lead indicator, is historically situated. ” (…) Nostalgia for the exceptional growth between 1945 and 1975 is fruitless; the context has changed. The crisis of the 1970s and subsequent reconfigurations of the socio-economic system shifted the terrain. They swept away the negotiated division of the fruit of growth, strengthened the role of financial actors, weakened broad sectors of the population incapable of making their voices heard, and paralysed nation-states in the face of the real power of globalized capital.

The current break-down of solidarity (…) is a reminder that no market mechanism, no automatism naturally distributes the dividends of growth to the entire society. (…) The questioning of the Fordist conception of work, which had institutionalized a compromise between collective solidarity and productive capacities, led to a deep malaise, revealing the immense gap between managerial promises of “Self-realisation” on one hand, and the all too frequent experience of alienation of being through an often pathogenic organization of labour, on the other. (…) The evolution of Capitalism over the course of the past thirty years has done nothing but exacerbate its inherent tendencies (…).” The fact that consumerism is more and more criticized “questions the desirability of the form of life produced by development on such a principle”.

“The absurdity of the process of financialisation speaks most eloquently today to the need for radical change. Financial innovation was supposed to overcome poverty – within the American model – by providing the least well-off with easy loans to purchase housing. The results speak for themselves: the west plunged into a major economic and social crisis combining long-term Unemployment for the most vulnerable with a new wave of impoverishment, tensions and conflicts at the international level, and disturbing political instability.

This instability brings us to the political crisis (…)” . Its source is identified “in the twin trends of a growing subjugation of the State to the imperatives of financial globalization and a generalization of liberal individualism that makes it difficult to assert collective values. Yet there is no lack of collective challenges. ‘The fact that Natural resources are finite certainly constitutes one example of a constraint that is collective. (…)”. Though, “numerous doubts assail the very possibility of overcoming the environmental constraint through technological progress alone. A question, which remains open in this volume, arises, progressively and implicitly: is the capitalist system capable of rising to these challenges or should we, without further delay, begin nurturing an “after-capitalism”’?(…) The authors of this work entertain no doubts about the reality and scope of the historical shift now in motion. The decisive question is rather whether it will be navigated, how and by whom. This brings us to the substantive and political questions of the redefinition of prosperity, addressed below.

The substantive question: towards a definition closer to being than having

This work is a plea. Our era faces the urgent task of loosening the grip that currently constrains our collective conception of prosperity.(…) Defining prosperity inevitably involves designating a desirable state of society. (…) Recognizing that discussion of society cannot be “objective” – the authors propose that we abandon a definition constrained for far too long by the quantifiable aspects of life, a definition centered on having. This is a matter of coming to consider prosperity as the quality of existence; that is, of being. Discarding the (analytically unfounded) view of autonomous individuals supposedly (inter)acting freely on the markets, this work is concerned with social actors; people shaped by the social interactions which make them. It is important to clarify that a concept of prosperity centred on the emancipation of being (rather than the accumulation of having) in no way denies the absolute necessity of attaining dimensions of having to attain the unfolding of being.(…) But the question that must be addressed, beyond those of sustainable creation and allocation of resources, is of the ends pursued in using them.”

Amartya Sen’s concept of “capacity” allows certain inadequacies of the utilitarian and liberal traditions to be overcome, producing a veritable Copernican revolution in the study of societal development. ‘While health and education were previously viewed as the prospective results of a strategy of growth, access to these goods now becomes a primary condition of development. From this perspective, a society can be considered prosperous if it strengthens the capacity of each of its members to achieve his or her aspirations. However, this definition does not entirely set us free from the seal of individualism. Questions about the concept of “common good” and the means of restoring collective action endure – Sen’s treatment of agency remains too unsatisfactory.(…) Three dimensions [are] necessary for an individually and collectively prosperous life, in the sense of emancipation of being’: the biological, environmental, and material dimension (a healthy life); the cultural dimension (a good life); and the political dimension (a just life). A state of prosperity sign’ifies the ‘capacity to lead a fulfilling life on each of these levels, conceived as intrinsically complementary. This same complementarity of multiple dimensions appears in the analysis of new indicators of wealth (…). While the GDP remains prisoner to a mono-dimensional, productivist and consumerist logic, the quest for a “Beyond GDP” can be understood as an attempt to evaluate, in a global and quantified way, the results in heterogeneous fields (state of the environment, allocation of resources, objectifiable quality of life, subjective perception of well-being), viewed precisely as components of a broader vision of development.(…)”

“The implications of a concept of prosperity oriented around emancipation of being rather than accumulation of having are immediate. Far from claiming to be exhaustive, this book explores a few specific fields – work, innovation, the environment – through a radical questioning. What meaning does uncertain prosperity possess in a society where life is wasted on earning a living? This is the cry echoing from the new work-related pathologies (stress, burn-out, harassment, workplace suicides).(…)”

The conditions for “living work” are explored, “for an experience of self-engagement which achieves an existential coherence of the person, across multiple relations to the self, to others and to the material world’. Further, “the shackles placed on agricultural innovation by an intensification of the sole criteria of financial profitability” are questioned. Potentially applicable to other fields, this questioning leads to think of the creation, dissemination and implementation of knowledge, and encourages the liberation of concepts of science and innovation from their current yokes.” ‘Besides, the challenge of the finitude of natural resources is treated along two main lines of inquiry: the diverse range of approaches to the relations between growth and the environment, on one hand; and the status and possibilities for environmental “governance” on the other”.

 The political question: towards greater collective autonomy and democratic participation

The substantive question outlined above inevitably leads to the question of power. Who has the power to influence societal goals which orient our public policies? This question appears to be central to the redefinition of proserity today (…).

The West likes to believe that it lives in a democratic regime. ‘However, it appears that an essential element(…) curbs any real redefinition of prosperity and, in practice, limits the exercise of democratic power: the power of money, increased over the past decades by financial Globalisation.

Our states are currently locked into relations of submission with globalised capitalism, making it difficult – if not impossible – for them to free themselves from its constraints. The way in which financial institutions and markets currently impose their guidelines on state management of the Economic crisis is emblematic of this weakening of the political power of governments. In this situation, there are concerns about the real capacity of national and regional governments to adopt policies which would tend to promote alternative concepts of prosperity. (…) Placed in a situation where they could not take decisions on issues such as food quality regulations, cultural protection or equality, even with the population pushing in that direction, governments would find themselves in a difficult position.(…)”

Any discussion over the conceptualisation of proserity is empty if it does not confront the ultimate question of the capacities of societies to decide for themselves. ‘The democratic ideal is inconceivable without the ideal of collective autonomy – that is, the members of a community participating in determining the conditions of their shared life.While hoping to further reflection in this direction, this book questions the capacity of western societies to exercise the autonomy necessary to put their choices into practice.”

“The diversity and strength of the obstacles which hinder the flourishing of an alternate model of development, founded on a broad concept of prosperity, can scarcely be exaggerated.In the first place, the multi-dimensional character of such a strategy, which aims to encourage the autonomy of individuals within dense social relations while protecting the long-term viability of the ecosystems, makes it difficult to define a synthetic indicator capable of replacing the GDP — emblematic of the paradigm to be overtaken — let alone induce governments to adopt it. Moreover, should governments be encouraged to do so or should distrust for certain potential tendencies of “governance by indicator” prevail?(…) Is [the notion of governance], as some would assert and the principle of soft law professes, an opportunity for flexible coordintion among independant actors while respecting their diversity? On the contrary, doesnt it potentially conceal the origin of the rules imposed on the actors, carving out an anti-democratic abyss bet citizens and their political representatives?(…)”

The task of mobilising and bringing together actors for change presents another impediment to the project of redefining prosperity. The collective actors behind the former productivist model, although destabilised by the economic crisis and the consequences of financialisation, will not spontaneously usher in a new model;  they are, naturally, tempted to defend their jobs and the social benefits laboriously acquired though more than a century of social struggle. (…) [The book calls for] “socio-diversity” in our societies, seen as “egalitarian laboratories of experimentation”, and stresses the importance of developing a “transition” plan today; an itinerary for moving from a present defined by this narrow concept of prosperity to a future organised according to a multi-dimensional concept of a democratically redefined prosperity.

From this perspective, the role of the state appears once more inevitable [for the task of] facilitating of collective autonomy. (…) While the impossibility of establishing a single definition of prosperity must be recognised, everyone should be able to exercise his or her capacity to participate in the definition of prosperity operating in society.”

“(…) At a point in history in which consciousness of the gravity of the economic, environmental and democratic crises which confront us is slowly awakening, the collective contribution of this book is to suggest that our conception of prosperity is at the confluence of these three crises. In this context, civil society organisations, mobilised around one of these specific issues, will prove to be crucial actors. Grassroots groups, unions, cultural, political and spiritual movements – all the organizations of civil society – are called upon to engage in this project of re-defining prosperity, so necessary and so fundamental; together to nourish the capacity for collective autonomy in our societies.

See also


  1. Foreword by Dominique Méda ; contributions of Christian Arnsperger, Philippe Baret, Tom Bauler, Robert Boyer, Isabelle Cassiers, Julien Charles, Larent de Briey, Jean De Munck, Isabelle Ferreras, Stéphane Leyens, Dominque Méda, Thomas Périlleux, Géraldine Thiry, Gaeëtan Vanloqueren et Edwin Zaccaï. Most of the quotes are from the conclusion written by Robert Boyer, Isabelle Cassiers and Isabelle Ferreras.


External links